When is therapeutic language also political?
Summerson Carr knows that words matter. An assistant professor at SSA, Carr studies the political and cultural implications of contemporary American social work, with a particular eye toward the use of language by social workers and clients. She's working on a book that delves deeply into how patients in drug treatment programs are affected by the language of therapy—and how they use therapeutic language to achieve disparate ends.
"Talk is the primary technology of therapy," Carr says, "and so much of the treatment literature sees language as a psychological tool that can help people express inner thoughts, dilemmas, and desires—but that's a very small portion of what language does or can do. I'm interested in how social workers and clients use therapeutic language in very social and political ways."
Carr, whose doctoral work was in cultural and linguistic anthropology, began research in language and therapy when she was a master's student. In her field placement at an intensive outpatient drug treatment program for homeless women, she became intrigued by the way ideas and stories were exchanged in and out of therapy sessions. More specifically, she noticed that the language therapists encouraged clients to use in the therapy room was also put to surprising uses outside the room.
For example, a client who had been elected as a representative to the program's Advisory Board introduced herself by saying, "Hi, my name is Ester, and I am a recovering crack addict." Carr points out that there are many implications from those dozen simple words, including what impact they had on Ester's success as a representative, how the board responded to her selfrepresentation, and the complex reasons a client might use such a therapeutic idiom in an administrative context.
Carr's close ethnographic study of drug treatment discerns the skillful and sometimes surprising ways that people— with very different sets of interests and stakes—leverage material and symbolic resources with their words. "Clients get things—therapists' positive evaluations to respite child care, exonerating calls to parole officers, housing vouchers—with their words," she says. "My hope is that my book will be useful for people in the field by providing an anthropological perspective on the cultural and linguistic dynamics of social work."