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Sarbin's Way: Overcoming mentalism and mechanism in psychology

Theory & Psychology

2016, Vol. 26(4) 516–


© The Author(s) 2016

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DOI: 10.1177/0959354316648019

Sarbin’s way: Overcoming

mentalism and mechanism

in psychology

Karl E. Scheibe

Wesleyan University, USA

Frank J. Barrett

Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey


This article traces the contributions to psychological theory and practice of Theodore R. Sarbin

over a career that began in the 1930s and ended with his death in 2005. His early research on

clinical vs. actuarial prediction and on hypnosis reflected a disposition to be critical of received

ways of thinking in psychology. He came to think of many of the terms in the psychological

vocabulary as ossified metaphors turned into myths. His promotion of role theory within

social psychology gave priority to social structure as the key to understanding conduct, and

he saw the self and social identity as products of the interaction of the individual with society.

He rejected both mentalism and mechanism as adequate approaches to psychology. He turned

to contextualism as the preferred world view for psychology, and to narrative as a way of

understanding the flow of human life.


language of description, scientific progress, social positioning, social psychology

When Theodore Sarbin began his study of psychology in the 1930s, behaviorism was the

dominant way of thinking for psychologists. The mentalism of 19th-century psychology

was giving way to the mechanistic world view of behaviorists. But soon after his schooling

in behaviorism, Sarbin began to challenge many of the taken-for-granted constructs

Corresponding author:

Karl E. Scheibe, Wasch Center for Retired Faculty, Wesleyan University, 51 Lawn Avenue, Middletown, CT

06457, USA.


648019TAP0010.1177/0959354316648019Theory & PsychologyScheibe and Barrett



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Scheibe and Barrett 517

he inherited. Sarbin challenged the assumptive pillars of research and practice, articulated

the linguistic formulations and processes by which such assumptions are constructed,

and explored the moral implications that limit and degrade human beings under the guise

of science.

More specifically, Sarbin sought to replace the mechanistic stimulus–response (S–R)

approach with a contextualist position. With his chapter in the Handbook of Social

Psychology, he was the first to introduce the concepts of role theory into a central place

in social psychology (Sarbin, 1954). Later, he was a pioneer in utilizing narrative as a

way of conducting psychological inquiry and analysis. Sarbin insisted on viewing the

human person as an active, striving doer rather than a passive recipient of forces or a

victim of mental disease. In the spirit of contextualism and historical narrative that Sarbin

came to profess, we draw upon events in Sarbin’s life, including his reflections on his

own life as well as our personal familiarity with him over several decades, to provide

selective biographical details and scholarly influences. In order to appreciate the contributions

of a scholar who is proposing novel ways of thinking, it is necessary to appreciate

the social background, the relational dynamics with colleagues and co-authors,

influential relationships, accidental encounters, and influences on Sarbin’s scholarly

choices. One theme that was prominent throughout his life course is this: Sarbin’s reformulations

of constructs have moral implications for how we construe the person. Central

to his agenda were the goals of relieving human suffering and enhancing quality of life.

Mentorship: The influence of J. R. Kantor

Reflecting back on his early immersion in the behaviorism of J. B. Watson, Sarbin would

later speculate that, “My identity as a behaviorist served as a comforting protection

against the angst of living in a world full of ambiguities and uncertainties” (Sarbin, 2005,

p. 16). When Sarbin came of age in psychology, behaviorism was embraced with what

seems now to be blind zeal by a discipline consumed by the need to lose its equivocal

past in philosophy and mentalistic speculation and to become a true science (see Koch,

1959). A major appeal of behaviorism in the period after the Great War was the provision

of comfort from the pervasive uncertainty brought about by ambiguity and uncertainty—

in a world of prohibition, gangsters, jazz, and economic booms and busts. Psychology in

those years was most eager to follow the promise of 19th-century positivism to reject

vain philosophical speculation, superstition, and religious ideas in the relentless and

inexorable pursuit of truth. Ted Sarbin was caught up in this movement, but would soon

modify his initial commitment to stark behaviorism.

It so happened that in 1936, near the end of Sarbin’s undergraduate career, he came

into contact with J. R. Kantor, a psychologist from the University of Indiana who spent

a term as a visiting professor at Ohio State. The brief encounter at Ohio State proved to

have a lasting influence on Sarbin: “Of all my teachers, he comes closest to having been

my mentor” (Sarbin, 2005, p. 17). Kantor was a champion of theory in psychology—

asserting that the mere gathering of data can never lead to adequate understandings.1

Kantor recognized the inadequacy of the simplistic S–R formulation of early behaviorism—

for behavior occurs not as a result of a single stimulus but is a consequence of the

interaction of a large set of forces—inside and outside the person that constitute an everchanging

psychological field. Kantor taught Sarbin to think carefully about the logic of

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518 Theory & Psychology 26(4)

psychological inquiry and explanation.2 Referring to unseen mental states or hypothetical

mental entities as a way of accounting for psychological events was inadequate and

it was important to explore silent presuppositions.

Later in his life, Sarbin was to be strongly influenced by the philosopher Stephen

Pepper’s (1942) book, World Hypotheses, in which he argued that six major world

hypotheses, each with a characteristic root metaphor, have dominated attempts to understand

the world. These he named animism, mysticism, formism, mechanism, organicism,

and contextualism. In mechanism, for example, the root metaphor is the machine—and

events are seen as being strictly determined by the operations of the parts of the machine.

The root metaphor for contextualism, on the other hand, is the historical event. Events

derive their meaning and significance from the storied context within which they occur.

Narrative becomes essential for understanding what things mean. While Kantor did not

consider himself to be a contexualist, his expanded vision of “interbehaviorism” could

easily be extended to a contextualist world view.3

The quest for enlightenment: The case of hypnosis

In the course of his professional career, Sarbin engaged in empirical and theoretical studies

on a large number of topics—emotions, hallucinations, clinical prediction, mental

illness, imagination, role-taking, superstitions, self and identity, and, significantly, hypnosis.

An examination of his listed publications reveals that work on hypnosis pervaded

his entire professional career—from its beginnings until his last publications in 2005.

Sarbin’s language reflected his identity as a son of the Enlightenment—the movement

in 18th-century Europe, particularly in France, that led to the development of Diderot’s

Encyclopedia, to Voltaire’s skeptical rejection of mysticism and superstition, and to the

beginnings of modern science. Sarbin often spoke of bringing light to dark places—of trying,

for example, to illuminate in explicit ways what is going on in what is called hypnosis,

rather than simply and blindly accepting “the hypnotic trance” as having explanatory value.

The story of the beginnings of Sarbin’s work on hypnosis provides yet another example

of how accidental and arbitrary occurrences can become essential features of one’s

life. A fellow graduate student at Ohio State, Joe Friedlander, was interested in developing

a scale of hypnotic susceptibility. As part of this project, he developed a standard

script for inducing hypnosis, but he needed another hypnotist in order to determine the

reliability of the scale he developed. Ted volunteered for this role—memorized the script,

and learned to apply the scale of observed responses to a series of suggestions. He joined

Friedlander in the analysis and writing up of the research, which was published in the

Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology (Friedlander & Sarbin, 1938).

Later, when he was on a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Chicago, the

director of the psychiatric unit there, knowing of his background in hypnosis, asked him

to help out in the treatment of a young woman who was suffering from what is known as

a “dissociative fugue state.” She had disappeared from her home in Chicago and had

shown up in a neighboring town, using a different name. She claimed to have forgotten

her real name and her previous history. After several hypnosis sessions with Sarbin, she

recovered her memory and her previous identity. Sarbin, as her therapist, became well

known for this success—and was paraded with his patient on grand grounds to admiring

psychiatrists and other doctors.

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Scheibe and Barrett 519

Between these two episodes, Sarbin had conducted additional research on hypnosis

which led him to develop a unique way of understanding the nature of the phenomena

produced by hypnotic induction. Julian Lewis, adjunct Professor at the University of

Chicago medical school, enlisted Sarbin to explore whether hypnotic suggestions could

produce the specific physical effects brought about by the ingestion of real food. For this

purpose, fasting participants were asked to swallow a balloon which was attached by

means of a fine tube to a recording device. After the balloon was inflated, gastric contractions

could be directly observed and recorded. After hypnosis, participants were told to

imagine eating a preferred food. It was noted that gastric contractions were reduced for

the most responsive participants, apparently demonstrating that hypnosis could influence

physical reactions to imagined food consumption. These results were published with that

simple interpretation (Lewis & Sarbin, 1943).

However, a post-publication analysis of the observational notes for these experiments

led Sarbin to a radically different conclusion—and a new understanding of hypnosis.

Sarbin discovered that the participants who had shown the greatest reductions in gastric

contractions in response to hypnotic suggestions were also engaging in a greater amount

of attenuated eating behaviors—chewing, swallowing, smacking lips, and so on.

These qualitative findings influenced me to change my theoretical posture. The observed

embodied imaginings that were performed by the subjects suggested that the inhibition of

gastric contractions followed from a doing rather than a happening attributed to an undefined

mental state. (Sarbin, 2005, p. 19)

This observation was critical not only for Sarbin’s understanding of what was going on

in this particular experiment but for his general interpretation of hypnosis as an exemplar

of role-taking—not a phenomenon that required explanation in terms of a special state,

such as an hypnotic trance.

I advanced some historical data to give warrant to my proposal that the role was a social

construction and that the criterial behavior of the subjects reflected not a special state of mind

but skill in imagining. (Sarbin, 2005, p. 19)

For Sarbin, the development of this theoretical position was of critical importance:

My later work in imagining and hallucination, constructionism, contextualism, narrative, emotional

life, believed-in imaginings, and dramaturgy stemmed in great measure from my earlier efforts to

apply role theoretical conceptions to the phenomena of hypnosis. (Sarbin, 2005, p. 19)

This research with stomach balloons led to one of the great epiphanies in Sarbin’s intellectual

life. It was a discovery with important antecedents—particularly the teachings of

Kantor about the importance of psychological fields, and the influence of George Herbert

Mead’s (1934) thinking about the centrality of social roles in our everyday lives. Even

so, Sarbin took the lead in developing a role-theoretical understanding of hypnosis.

Sarbin attempted to naturalize hypnosis and challenge the mystique of mentalism—to

make it unnecessary to posit the hypnotic trance as a special state that is somehow discontinuous

with ordinary psychological phenomena. He identified with what became known

as skeptical, as opposed to credulous, understandings of hypnosis.4 Similarly, his way of

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520 Theory & Psychology 26(4)

addressing other major topics in psychology—emotions, imagination, mental illness, hallucinations,

anxiety—was skeptical and not credulous. Sarbin took the position that nothing

can be demonstrated with hypnosis—increased strength, increased memory, radical

transformations of performance of roles, relaxation, breaking of habits such as smoking,

weight loss, etc.—that cannot be demonstrated as well without the use of hypnosis. While

there are certainly those who disagree with this skeptical position, it was later substantially

fortified by Orne’s (1959) demonstration that individuals simulating hypnosis could

not be reliably distinguished from real hypnotic subjects, even by experienced hypnotists.

Today hypnotizability is something that can be reliably assessed. The Stanford Scale

authored by Weitzenhoffer and Hilgard (1959) and later the Harvard Group Scale (Shor &

Orne, 1962) owed much in their development to the earlier work by Friedlander and

Sarbin (1938). Finally, while there are still those who claim that hypnosis, particularly the

subjective features of the trance state, cannot be accounted for as a matter of role-playing,

it can still be said with confidence that hypnotic phenomena are much closer to the observations

of ordinary psychology than they were thought to be in the past (Kihlstrom, 1997).

Metaphors to myths—and the task of demythification in


In the mid-1960s Sarbin experienced a further turning from a mechanistic world view for

psychology. During this period, he spent two years at Oxford University and one year at

Wesleyan University. These ventures seem to have brought about a new interest in psychology

not as a stand-alone natural science, but as a discipline inextricably linked to

history, to the humanities, and to philosophy. After this period, his writings came to display

increasing references to poets, novelists, and philosophers.

Sarbin came to see contemporary psychology as limited by its conceptual structure.

Common terms in the psychologist’s vocabulary—anxiety, mental illness, emotion,

schizophrenia—he saw as reified metaphors—terms which came to be established in

psychology first as transparent metaphors, but later converted into myths, not recognized

as such. He came to be fond of this phrase: “Our language is a necropolis of dead metaphors”—

itself a metaphoric assertion of considerable power (Sarbin, 1990b).

The difficulties resulting from a lexicon full of dead metaphors are both conceptual

and practical. On the conceptual level, the problem is that explanations are often circular

and uninformative—as when the doctor in Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid accounts for

sleep by referring to “the dormitive principle” (1773/2009, p. 134). Similarly, Sarbin did

not consider that referring to someone as “schizophrenic” helped to account for their

disordered thinking or behavior. On the practical level, metaphors that have become

myths can lead to negative consequences, as when individuals are declared to be “mentally

ill” and are, as a consequence, treated as if they were sick and incompetent. He was

not guarded in his effort to reform the working vocabulary of psychologists and to correct

immature thinking. In his course of analyzing the metaphoric origins of anxiety, he

makes this recommendation: “The implication of my analysis is that we discontinue the

use of the anxiety construct for scientific purposes” (Sarbin, 1964, p. 635).

Several authors were important resources for Sarbin’s demythification ventures.

Foremost among them was the Australian philosopher, Colin Murray Turbayne, whose

book The Myth of Metaphor (1970) provided just the sort of argument Sarbin was

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Scheibe and Barrett 521

seeking to describe the formation of psychological myths such as anxiety. Turbayne

argues that metaphors are created in order to communicate about matters that are outside

the reach of direct observations. Thus, he argues that the Cartesian soul was at first used

metaphorically—it is as if we had within us some spirit that animates our thoughts, feelings,

and actions. As metaphors are passed on from generation to generation, their “as if”

character is lost—and entities like the soul are taken as literal truths, not ways of speaking

about the ineffable.

Turbayne speaks of the use of metaphors as a matter of cross-sorting—of saying

things in one idiom that by custom pertain to another. Such cross-sorting can create


It is a confusion to present the items of one sort in the idioms of another—without awareness.

For to do this is not just to cross two different sorts, it is to confuse them. It is to mistake, for

example, the theory for the fact, the procedure for the process, the myth for history, the model

for the thing, and the metaphor for the face of literal truth. Accordingly, to expose a categorical

confusion, to explode a myth, or to “undress” a hidden metaphor is not just to re-allocate the

items: it is to show that these sometimes valuable fusions are actually confusions. (Turbayne,

1970, p. 22)

Sarbin makes use of C. S. Lewis’s (1939) distinction between the “master’s metaphor”

and the “pupil’s metaphor.” Terms that are explicitly recognized as metaphorical by a

master, and therefore used with full recognition of their having been invented in a

moment of inspiration to facilitate communication, can be accepted by the pupil as given

and permanent. Turbayne speaks of the difference between using a metaphor and being

used by it. Sarbin has taken on the task of showing how psychologists, as good pupils,

have been used by the metaphors that were the innocent creations of past masters.

Sarbin’s participation in the anti-psychiatry movement

Just when Sarbin was developing his ideas about metaphor-to-myth transformations,

other voices in the social and behavioral sciences were beginning to challenge the

dominant way of thinking about mental illness. Ever since his experience with mental

hospitals in Chicago and in Lincoln, Illinois, he had been deeply distrustful of the psychiatric

establishment and of the dominant ways of treating mental patients. The Myth

of Mental Illness was published by Thomas Szasz (1961). Sarbin’s Berkeley colleague,

the sociologist Erving Goffman (1961), published Asylums. Szasz was himself a psychiatrist—

so his polemic about the tyranny of the psychiatric profession in nurturing

and maintaining the myth of mental illness was like a thunderbolt to the entire mental

health establishment. Goffman’s set of essays was based upon participant observation

and was equally powerful as an indictment of traditional mental hospitals as total institutions.

R. D. Laing, just a few years later, published The Politics of Experience (1967)

in which he suggested that madness is a sane response to an insane world. In Europe,

Michel Foucault (1982) entered the argument that the mental health establishment was

an instrument of human oppression. On the side of fiction, Ken Kesey (1962) published

One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest, later made into a movie. This imaginative

recreation of the power dynamics of the traditional mental hospital, where lobotomy

could be used without opposition or protest as a way of controlling unruly individuals,

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522 Theory & Psychology 26(4)

effectively sealed the arguments in favor of dismantling traditional mental hospitals. A

revolution in the public understanding and treatment of mental problems was set in

motion—and the people mentioned in this paragraph, including Ted Sarbin, were part

of the first wave of shock troops.

Sarbin’s part in this revolution was quiet but extremely important. His attack on the

mental illness metaphor was head-on and was formulated and published in the Journal

of Consulting Psychology with this title: “On the futility of the proposition that some

people be labeled ‘mentally-ill’” (1967). This article was adjacent to an article by Albert

Ellis (1967) defending the claim that some people should be labeled mentally ill. Sarbin

pointed to the early use of the mental illness concept as clearly metaphorical—as when

Teresa of Avila described the odd behavior of a group of nuns, in which they danced

around in an unruly way, as “como enfermas”—as if they were sick. This was an advance

over describing them, as other authorities had, “as if they were demon-possessed.”

In practice, the labeling of individuals as mentally ill has had the effect of placing

people under the unchallengeable control of those professional therapists and institutions

to which they are assigned. It is well to remember that 50 years ago, when Sarbin and

Ellis were preparing their positions on the question of mental illness as a viable concept,

the number of people in the United States who were institutionalized as mental patients

was at least an order of magnitude greater than it was in 2015. Moreover, the consequences

of being classified as mentally ill were severe and long-lasting—entailing a loss

of civil rights, loss of personal autonomy, and severe personal degradation—resulting in

what often amounted to a lifelong pattern of institutional control. Tens of thousands of

human beings in the United States were effectively stored in warehouses, receiving only

minimal custodial care. Even those like Ellis who defended the practice of calling people

mentally ill were aware of massive negative consequences of what was then an inhumane

system resulting in the permanent degradation of masses of suffering people.

Ellis, even while recognizing the harmful consequences of being labeled mentally ill,

proposes a solution that seems disingenuous:

A good solution, then, to the problem of labelling an individual “mentally ill” is to change the

evaluative attitude which gives the term “mental illness” a pejorative tone and to educate all of

us, including professionals, to accept “emotionally sick” human beings without condemnation,

punishment, or needless restriction. (1967, p. 445)

This proposed solution carries with it an acknowledgment that the application of the

mental illness label results in “condemnation, punishment and needless restriction.”

Sarbin rejects Ellis’s position as both illogical and dysfunctional. It is illogical because

Ellis insists on the hard reality of mental illness as categorically legitimate, when the term

is more appropriately seen as a metaphoric descriptor illicitly turned into a myth. It is

dysfunctional because the treatment structures that were developed in consequence of the

disease metaphor have turned out to be ineffective in curing the condition for which they

were developed, and are arguably instrumental in enlarging and perpetuating the “illnesses”

they were created to cure. “Logical canons as well as humanistic value orientations

direct us to delete ‘mental illness’ from our vocabulary” (Sarbin, 1967, p. 447).

Sarbin certainly did not deny the reality of the sorts of norm violations that have

produced application of the mental illness label. But he argued that referring to a

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Scheibe and Barrett 523

problem of conduct as a symptom of a mental illness made it extremely difficult to

consider the impact of social, environmental, and conditions of context that might

account for problematic conduct:

How to contain, manage and reform persons judged to be actual or potential violators of social

norms has been and continues to be one of the fundamental problems of social organizations.

Creative solutions to such fundamental problems require a new set of metaphors and the

sustained effort of experts in jurisprudence, social engineering, law enforcement, and

community psychology. (1967, p. 447)

Sarbin maintained this position throughout his professional life. Another signal publication

on the topic was the book, Schizophrenia: Medical Diagnosis or Moral Verdict?,

co-authored with Joseph Mancuso (1979). This book is a devastating critique of the diagnostic

vocabulary, outlining the illegitimacy of metaphor-to-myth transformations in creating

conceptions of deviant behavior as evidence of disease. The book concludes “that

the psychological processes of those diagnosed as schizophrenic cannot be differentiated

from the processes of those who do not bear the diagnosis” (p. 208). This conclusion is

supported by an extensive analysis that shows that most studies that purport to demonstrate

the singular properties of schizophrenia are confounded by differences in hospitalization

history, medication history, or the complete lack of an appropriate control group.

The conclusion about the mythic nature of schizophrenia is also supported by an historical

review of the application of the diagnosis and its predecessor “dementia praecox.”

A large part of the problem in eliminating a term like schizophrenia from the working

vocabulary of psychologists and psychiatrists is that large institutional structures have

grown up around the term. Journals are dedicated to schizophrenia. The pharmacological

industry has a huge investment in medications for schizophrenia. Thousands of researchers

and psychotherapists make a living dealing with schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is

deeply and pervasively imbedded in our culture, in our language, in our daily affairs. It

is no wonder that Sarbin and Mancuso end up asserting that even though schizophrenia

is no more real than unicorns, people will in general not be dissuaded from their habits

of thought and language.

Believed-in imaginings

In the last two decades of Sarbin’s life, he began to think of hypnosis as a special case of a

much broader class of psychological phenomena to which he assigned the name

“Believed-in imaginings.” This class includes beliefs in such constructions as Heaven,

Hell, Angels, and Demons. It might also include beliefs in such ideas as “Manifest Destiny,”

“Human Rights,” or “Personal Calling.” A believed-in imagining need not be counterfactual—

such as a belief in UFOs or unicorns. The model of the double-helix as descriptive of

the structure of DNA is a useful approximation of the truth. But believed-in imaginings

often resist empirical test, as when one imagines having a previous life on earth as another

person in another century. William James said, “Each world is real whilst it is attended to;

only the reality lapses with the attention” (1890, p. 293). This is an apt description of what

seems to be happening in an effective session of hypnosis—but it is obviously inclusive of

a great deal of experience, both strange and ordinary, in everyday life.

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Sarbin emphasized the storied nature of imagining. In the spirit of the metaphor-tomyth

transformation, Sarbin writes that the notion of belief and imagination has become

reified, as if the imagination is an internal organ that receives stimuli from some source.

He wants to emphasize that imaginings and believings are active doings rather than some

happening inside the mind. Imaginings are not representations; rather they are narratives,

poetic constructions that we help create with active, exploring, manipulating doings.

Human beings have an “as if” skill, a capacity to invent a world beyond the constraints

of the immediate environment. We engage in muted and storied role-taking; these are

skills that allow us to copy absent models. The notion of belief then can be redefined as

“highly valued imaginings” (de Rivera & Sarbin, 1998, p. 23), such as the way children

believe in Santa Claus. This raises again the question of “degrees of involvement,” the

notion that some believed-in-imaginings are highly valued and inspire role enactment

and vivid storied imaginings. Sarbin uses the example of the Pentecostal churchgoer who

testifies that he felt the Holy Spirit entering his body. In these moments of highly valued

and vivid believed-in-imaginings, we drop the “as if” copulative and our organismic

systems become highly engaged. Sarbin’s prototype for this was his fictional hero, Don

Quixote, whose reading of stories—chivalric romance—were triggers for highly valued

and vivid imaginings, acting “as if” he were a knight errant to such a high degree that he

drops the “as if.” He takes copying roles to such a degree that they become “believed-in

imaginings.” Sarbin called this the “Quixotic Principle.” The diagnostic problem for

believed-in imaginings is sometimes rather simple—as when a child asserts that she has

an imaginary friend in the form of a talking elephant. But in many cases the diagnostic

problem of veridicality is deeply problematic, even though one’s intuitions might lead to

a solid conclusion.

In the course of working on False Memory Syndrome as an instance of believed-in

imaginings, Sarbin formed a friendship and collegial bond with Joseph de Rivera, a psychologist

at Clark University. Sarbin and de Rivera ended up collaborating on a conference

on believed-in imaginings, and then edited a book with that title, published by the

American Psychological Association (de Rivera & Sarbin, 1998).

While the collaboration with de Rivera started with a concern about the False Memory

Syndrome, the book that was the product of contributions by 23 psychologists covered a

wide range of topics under the general heading of believed-in imaginings. Some numbers

will help to warrant the importance of vagrant imaginings. In a review of the book,

Averill (2001) provided these instances:

According to de Rivera, “some evidence suggests that there are at least 66,000 incidents of

FMS (False Memory Syndrome) in the United States” (p. 170). That is a large number, but it

pales in comparison to the nearly 4 million Americans who report having been abducted by

space aliens, or the approximately 55 million (22 percent of the population) who believe the

earth has been visited by space aliens. … Imagine what havoc is wreaked on families when a

parent or other close relative is accused of sexually abusing a child when the evidence is no

more than a memory “recovered” long after the presumed fact. (p. 240)

The veridicality problem remains, of course. Averill says, and rightly so, that Sarbin

would like to avoid this issue. He is skeptical of Sarbin’s claim that “The problem of

what is real turns out to be a pseudoproblem … that real is employed as a term to

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Scheibe and Barrett 525

convince one’s self or another that the credibility assigned to an imagining is warranted”

(de Rivera & Sarbin, 1998, p. 24). Sarbin must ultimately confess that there is no hard

and fast solution to the problem of what is real, for the plausibility of any assertion is not

a simple yes-or-no dichotomy, but rather a matter of degree. We may safely believe that

the world is not made of green cheese. But as Melville has said, “Nevertheless, the sea is

the sea and these drowning men do drown” (1852/2003, p. 413). In some fine and marginal

sense, “the sea” is also a fictive construction—but it will not do to think that it is

just a fiction or product of imagination, pace Sarbin.

Sarbin’s critical work on believed-in imaginings is of immense importance. An enormous

amount of harm is done in the world by people who falsely believe in some dogmatic

vision of absolute truth, or whose world is populated by demons, fairies, gnomes,

and elves. Even so, Sarbin was much given to the excitement of Quixotic quests and of

the romance of “dreaming the impossible dream.” Surely, we must regard these dreams

as positive. On the practical level, all new inventions produced by human beings—

whether machines, weapons, drugs, modes of transportation, works of poetry, music, or

literature, or architecture—began first as imaginative constructions. Human imagining is

essential for anything resembling progress in human affairs. But human imagining can

also be exercised in the direction of cruelty and massive harm-doing, as wars, pogroms,

and genocidal campaigns instruct us.

Contextualism and transvaluations of social identity

It might seem that Sarbin’s critical edge—alerting us to the possibility that some of our

constructions are properly regarded as believed-in imaginings, roundly rejecting the

notion of mental illness, debunking extravagant claims for hypnosis, asserting that psychology

is full of metaphors become myths and striving to demythologize the field—has

produced a rather negative and even draconian project of cutting things down and chopping

them up. While his critique of psychology is thorough and powerfully argued, his

intention was to make psychology more of a positive force for the improvement of the

human condition.

His advancement of the idea of “Tranvaluations in Social Identity” provides evidence

for this constructive intent. One of the major criticisms that Sarbin had of the idea of

mental illness is that this conception has the effect of locating the causes of a person’s

psychological problems as sicknesses of the person. An alternative is to consider a person’s

problems-in-living to be intelligible only in social context. Unfortunately, the process

of becoming a mental patient has typically been one of social degradation—of

stripping persons of roles, or making them illegitimate as citizens, of denying them basic

human rights. The construct of social identity makes it clear that a person develops and

sustains an identity by means of social exchanges. Without social context, as George

Herbert Mead (1934) asserted in Mind, Self, and Society, the person can scarcely be said

to exist. Sarbin would have us understand that all promotions and degradations of individuals

are completely dependent upon social contexts.

As mentioned earlier, Sarbin considered Contextualism to be the one of Pepper’s World

Hypotheses that he preferred as offering an adequate understanding of psychological life.

Sarbin accepted with enthusiasm Goffman’s statement of priorities: “Not then, men and

their moments. Rather, moments and their men” (Goffman, 1967, p. 3). Lives are shaped

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by their moments in particular settings. Moments are themselves not permanent, but constantly

change and evolve—now quickly, now slowly. So settings are changed by lives as

well. But by the time a life comes to be, some setting is already there to receive it.

Sarbin began his first full treatment of “The transvaluation of social identity” by

lamenting the tardiness of this undertaking: “A social psychological theory of identity is

a belated development considering that nineteenth century writers were already studying

such problems as the effects of industrialization and urbanization on personal adjustment”

(Sarbin & Scheibe, 1980, p. 219). Sarbin’s major reservations about the psychology

of selfhood are that these treatments have largely ignored the enormous effect of

social context and have attempted to develop theories of self in a way that is effectively

decontextualized and universalistic. Such an approach cannot address effectively a set of

richly significant issues—such as how people become victims of degradation or beneficiaries

of social promotion:

Reference observations for the process of social transvaluation are many. Degradation is

illustrated in the treatment meted out to convicts, patients in mental hospitals, prisoners of war,

political rivals, members of minority groups, traitors, and the disreputable poor. Advancement

is illustrated in the ceremonies of job and school promotion, election to office, wedding

celebrations, prison pardons, and the honoring of heroes. (Sarbin & Scheibe, 1980, p. 221)

Sarbin’s basic conception of social identity remained consistent in its fundamental

features, from his early work on role theory in the 1950s, throughout his life. This

conception was always true to Mead’s view that society is antecedent to the development

of the person. Sarbin early on emphasized the importance of the distinction

between ascribed roles and achieved roles—a distinction originating with the anthropologist

Ralph Linton (1936). Ascribed roles are those given to a person without prior

performance requirements. Thus, nationality, gender, racial, and family roles are

acquired by the person early in life with minimal demands for validating performances.

Achieved roles require performances in order to be validated socially. Thus, professional,

political, artistic, and athletic titles are earned only as a result of performance

and are validated by society later in life.

Beginning in the 1960s, Sarbin began to develop nuance and detail for this basic

conception. Sarbin recognized that the distinction between ascribed and achieved roles

is not an absolute dichotomy, but rather is a continuum. Gender identity is normally

given immediately at birth and is ordinarily not modified throughout the lifespan.

However, in some cases gender classification is not so automatic, and in even more

cases might be subject to some remarkable modification throughout the lifespan. Also,

in some cases, roles are partly a matter of ascription, partly a matter of achievement.

The role of mother is partly ascribed, partly achieved. And the level and quality of

achievement required for some roles is much more demanding and arduous than it is for

other more ordinary roles. For example, the role of PFC in the U.S. Army is less of an

achievement than the role of Major General.

Another major dimension of this emerging model of social identity has to do with

involvement. Sarbin recognized that involvement with a social role is sometimes variable—

as is the case for a chess master or a professional athlete—and for highly achieved

roles generally. But for more ascribed roles there is little opportunity for variation in

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Scheibe and Barrett 527

involvement. For the most fundamental ascribed role—that of human being—involvement

is constant, not variable. Similarly, for family, racial, gender, and nationality roles,

there is not much opportunity for variations in involvement.

The third dimension of this model of social identity—valuation—is the most significant.

Social valuation depends upon the placement of a role on both the ascribed–

achieved dimension and the involvement dimension. The most positive possible

valuations are declared for individuals who are intensely involved in highly achieved

roles—as would be the case for a leader of a major corporation or a prize-winning

author or an Olympic athlete. The most negative valuations would be declared for

someone who is seen as violating the role-requirements of the most ascribed roles—by

acting in a way that is regarded as bestial, inhumane, or indecent. Fulfillment of the

requirements of ascribed roles earns basic respect for the occupant, whereas fulfilling

the requirements of highly achieved roles can earn one great amounts of esteem, and

tokens of esteem—not just respect.

This model of social identity—where each individual is seen as defined by a complex

set of social roles—differing in their degree of ascription or achievement, and differing

in level of involvement, provides a coherent way to think about transvaluations—about

the process of social degradation suffered by mental patients and prisoners, but also the

process of social promotion—the careers of the rich and powerful, celebrities, leaders,

athletes, and heroes. It provides a way of thinking about Faustian bargains, where

ascribed components of one’s birthright are traded away for achievements. Hollow identity

can be seen as a perilous condition, where fundamental ascribed components of

identity such as race, family, gender, and nationality are effectively hidden by a façade of

fame and achievement. Suicide is one of the great paradoxes of human experience—but

it is not so paradoxical from the perspective of this model of social identity.

The model of social identity involves three dimensions: status (ascription vs. achievement),

involvement (high to low), and valuation (positive to negative), with each dimension

showing a distinct and clear relationship to each of the other two dimensions.

A sketch of that model is presented in Figure 1.

Sarbin and Scheibe (1980) further elaborated the model, including such terms as

“role linkages” and a clear distinction between loss of esteem and loss of respect as

forms of degradation. The model was particularly applicable to classic literary examples

of degradation, such as Goethe’s “Faust” or “Young Werther,” or cases of “hollow identity”

such as might be observed in Marilyn Monroe or Andy Warhol.

Sarbin’s contribution to “don’t ask don’t tell”

In the late 1980s Sarbin authored several papers on the suitability of homosexual people

for military service (Sarbin, 1996; Sarbin & Karols, 1988).5 We will describe the inception

of this work, the backstage efforts to bury the papers and silence Sarbin, and the influence

of the articles after publication. The background story is worth exploring in some detail as

it highlights the degree to which Sarbin was challenging not only the academic establishment,

but also society at large.

The U.S. military had for several decades banned homosexual personnel, arguing that

gay and lesbian people are not competent to perform duties and would harm unit cohesion.

In the early to mid-1980s the U.S. faced three embarrassing security incidents in

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528 Theory & Psychology 26(4)

which people with high level security clearance (none of them allegedly homosexual)

were found guilty of passing on classified information for financial gain.6 A few years

later the military was named in a lawsuit when a few openly homosexual high-tech engineers

in Silicon Valley sued the Department of Defense for performing an intensive and

extensive security check on them, finally refusing to grant them clearance. The Pentagon

explicitly stated the rationale for the more rigorous scrutiny: they feared that homosexual

people were emotionally unstable and candidates for blackmail. Against this background

of security breaches and lawsuits, the Pentagon created an agency in Monterey, California,

the Defense Personnel Research and Education Center (PERSEREC) to examine criteria

for security clearances. One of the earliest research projects the Pentagon directed

PERSEREC to pursue was the question regarding homosexuality as a risk to security.

Carson Eoyang, the director of the new agency, assigned Sarbin and Ken Karols, a military

psychiatrist, to write a report, which they published in 1988.

Even though by the 1980s U.S. courts were ruling that the homosexual exclusion

practices in various social institutions were founded on prejudices and stereotypes, the

military continued to push exclusionary policies. Rather than simply answer the question

as to whether gay and lesbian people are security threats, Sarbin addresses a larger question:

How is the category of “homosexuality” constructed and where did this construct

come from? His report displays what we might now call the “Sarbin method”—an historical

review of shifting meaning of a given category or theory to show that it is socially

constructed. Sarbin demonstrates in this report that the dichotomous categories of

heterosexual vs. homosexual persist because of three inherited constructions.

First, Sarbin illustrates the religious morality construction that plots sexual behavior

in fundamental moral terms of good vs. evil. For years homosexual activity was framed

as a “sin against nature” most likely because of the practice of non-procreative sex. The

connotation of sin is associated with isolated Biblical passages and reinforced by

entrenched religious doctrine that has persisted in many circles and had dire consequences

for those targeted as sinners:

Figure 1. The three-dimensional model of social identity: status, value, and involvement.

Redrawn from Sarbin & Scheibe (1983).

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Scheibe and Barrett 529

Fundamentalist preachers who take the scriptures as the literal, revealed word of God are

contemporary advocates of the belief that nonconforming sexual behavior is sinful. The

attribution of sinfulness carries multiple meanings: Among some groups, sin is explained as a

voluntary acceptance of Satanic influence; among others sin is believed to produce a flawed or

spoiled identity. Societal reactions to sin include ostracism, corporal punishment, imprisonment

and in more draconian times, torture, stoning, hanging, burning at the stake, and even genocide.

(Sarbin & Karols, 1988, p. 13)

A second framework—homosexuality as a “crime against nature”—is the secularization

of the morality construction. The notion that homosexuality is a “crime against nature”

is a legal construction that seeks to control unwanted and non-conforming sexual conduct.

Sarbin points out that the criminalizing of sexual deviance began as far back as

16th-century British laws that forbade “buggery” and “sodomy” (a legal construct stemming

from Biblical reference). In fact, laws constructed to control sexual deviance can

be seen in the Uniform Code of Military Justice which frequently referred to homosexual

actions as “crimes against nature.” Crimes must have victims. Sarbin points out the folly

of deeming an act a crime when there is no intrinsic victim—how is nature harmed?

Sarbin and Karols conclude that this legal construction does not hold up to empirical

observation: “At the present time, the legal concept ‘crimes against nature’ is defensible

only as a rhetorical device to control non-procreative sex. It has no scientific status”

(Sarbin & Karols, 1988, p. 15).

Finally, with the growth of the medical field as a professional practice, a third construction

emerges—homosexuality as sickness, that was rigorously reinforced by the

medical professionals—another example of the medicalization of deviance. With the

increasing influence of the medical professions, it becomes easier to apply medical labels

to deviant conduct that used to be codified and categorized by legal categories. In fact,

the paper reports that the medical profession invented the term “homosexual” in the late

19th century. Homosexuality becomes a diagnosable and codified disease, included in

texts of psychiatry and medical psychology. In 1952 the very first diagnostic manual that

was the predecessor to modern DSMs, listed homosexuality as illness (APA, 1952).

People with homosexual interests were referred to psychiatrists for diagnosis and the

goal of therapy was the elimination of homosexual tendency. Here is another example of

a metaphor-to-myth transformation: assigning medical causes to conduct that had earlier

been construed as sin or crime. The paper concludes that there is no evidence that sexual

orientation hurts morale, cohesiveness, or discipline, no scientific evidence that homosexual

people would disrupt military life and pose no greater security risk than a heterosexual

orientation. The report further concludes that the dichotomous categories of

heterosexual vs. homosexual have no scientific basis and the research demonstrates that

a more accurate depiction would be a continuum, proposing the label “homosexual orientation”

to avoid the implications of an essentialized dichotomous identity.

To suggest that the Pentagon did not welcome the study would be an understatement.

Craig Alderman, Undersecretary of Defense, wrote a chastising memo to the PERESERC

Director, Carson Eoyang, for failing to address the question of whether homosexual people

are security risks and should not have addressed the question of mere suitability for service.

In a 1989 memo, Alderman wrote: “You exceeded your authority by extending the research

effort beyond the personnel security arena, and into another area entirely, namely

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530 Theory & Psychology 26(4)

suitability for military service.” The memo went on to call the report “technically flawed,”

stating that it “has no place in a Department of Defense publication” and that it “suggests a

bias which does justice neither to PERSEREC nor the Department” (Dyer, 1990, p. 101).

Alderman appointed an overseer to review all PERSEREC ongoing research efforts and

warned that the future of the agency was in jeopardy (see Dyer, 1990).

The Office of the Secretary of Defense tried to bury the report by labeling it “draft for

internal review only” and blocked it from public release. PERSEREC was ordered to

re-do the report omitting the section on suitability (Korb, 1996). However, Congresswoman

Patricia Schroder and Congressman Gary Studds obtained the report and released it to

the media. After this, the report received extensive media coverage.

Sarbin was contacted by several news outlets, including an interview request from

ABC’s “Nightline.” However, he refused television interviews when there were rumors

that the Navy leaders were considering shutting down PERSEREC and threatened the job

security of his colleagues. Despite the Pentagon’s effort to contain the damage, the report

was widely cited when President Clinton campaigned to end the ban, eventually culminating

in the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” Policy. Aaron Belkin, founder and director of the Palm

Center, said about Sarbin’s work: “That research has provided the overarching framework

for the 17-year public education campaign to help explain to the public and opinion leaders

that inclusion does not harm the military” (personal communication, FB, January 19, 2015).

This work is another example of Sarbin’s concern that metaphor has become myth

promulgated by moral or professional authorities, lending unchallenged credibility to a

social construction: priests and religious leaders could frame homosexuality “as if” it

were a sin; jurists could reproduce homosexuality “as if” it were a crime; medical professionals

could label homosexuality “as if” it were a disease. With this report Sarbin went

even further: he challenged policy makers who limit the human rights of nonconforming

individuals. Sarbin was concerned with any tendency to degrade the social status of a

behavior or a group by labeling people as ill or incompetent in quasi-scientific language.

World hypotheses, contextualism, and the narrative turn

Now in retirement from his full-time academic position as a professor of psychology and

criminology, it is as if Ted Sarbin gained full release from the vestiges of positivism and

mechanism that had previously provided a shadow of ambiguity to his fundamental positioning

in psychology. Pepper’s exposition on “World Hypotheses” made it clear that

presuppositions silently imbibed in the early stages of one’s intellectual life do act as

powerful constraints on the exercise of thought and imagination throughout the span of

life. Pepper articulated clear and powerful descriptions of six major world hypotheses,

among which was Contextualism. A tacit supposition underlying Pepper’s exposition is

that one is free to choose a world hypothesis on functional, aesthetic, or other grounds.

One is not obliged by the inherited customs and folkways of any particular disciplinary

tribe to buy into a particular and historically accidental worldview. Given the choices, it

is clear that Sarbin chose Contextualism.

The model of social identity that was described above is only intelligible from a

contextualist point of view. Identity is not accidentally but essentially contextual.

Identity claims are made and ratified or denied in social context. Identity is essentially

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Scheibe and Barrett 531

fluid and subject to transformation and transvaluation throughout the lifespan. The psychologist

in describing the person needs to escape the confining habits of “Formism” or

“Mechanism”—of describing the human person in terms of some fixed pattern of traits

or characteristics. It is not that such descriptions are wrong—it is just that they imply a

fixedness of the human being that is a-contextual.

It is a short step from the contextualist position to the choice of story, of narrative, as

a means of advancing descriptive psychology. While the preference for experimental and

empirically driven research enjoyed and continues to enjoy a dominant position in psychology,

plenty of precedents for the importance of history and story existed at the time

of Sarbin’s embracing of what he called the “narratory principle”—precedents that he

acknowledged as influencing his conceptualization of narrative. Freud’s psychoanalysis

and psychotherapy in general are quite reliant upon talk. As the therapist and the patient

engage in and extend this talk, a review and revision of the story of the patient’s life

emerges. Before the behaviorist revolution that took place in American psychology just

before the Great War, it would have been unthinkable to most psychologists to discard

the importance of personal stories as an avenue to psychological understandings.

Certainly William James, in all of his works, recognized not only that psychology is

embedded in history but that the primary data of human psychology are the verbal productions

by human beings of reflections about their conscious experience and their

reflections about the world in which they live. Moreover, by the early 1970s it was

becoming increasingly clear that the strictly experimental approach to social psychology

was a dead end—an unproductive line of inquiry.

Narrative Psychology was the title of a collection of 14 essays that Sarbin edited and

published in 1986. The preface to that volume begins by calling attention to the aforementioned


The epistemological crisis in social psychology has created a readiness to set aside positivist

assumptions and to replace them with other ways of conceptualizing the human condition. The

essays collected in this book exemplify the use of the narrative as a root metaphor. Long before

there was a science of psychology, men and women created and told stories about the efforts of

human beings to make sense of their problematic worlds. Novelists, dramatists, poets, essayists

and film makers—storytellers all—have continued to provide insights about human motives

and actions, even during the hundred years that human conduct has been examined by scientific

psychology. (Sarbin, 1986, p. vii)

Sarbin’s book was soon joined by Jerome Bruner’s (1990) Acts of Meaning, a full-throated

proclamation of the legitimacy of narrative psychology as an approach to psychological

understandings and insights.7 With these beginnings narrative psychology can now be