Interview with David Smail*

Paul Moloney

SUMMARY: In this interview with Paul Moloney, David Smail talks about his views on people and their environments, together with reflections on psychotherapy, counselling and psychology.

AUTHOR DETAILS: Paul Moloney is a Counselling Psychologist with North Birmingham Mental Health NHS Trust, UK.

For psychologists, psychotherapists and counsellors, claims of professional expertise have led to an excessive focus on the workings of the client’s putative internal psychology. In doing so we have failed to recognise the fundamental importance of the sufferer’s world in the origins of their problems. Only by swapping our focus on ‘insight’ for one on ‘outsight’ can we begin to develop an understanding of personal distress and of our own professional role that takes full account of the workings of power and that faces up to the limitations of talking treatments

Paul: You have had a long and productive career in psychology. When you look back, what do you feel were the main influences that led to your interest in psychology as a discipline?

David: I don’t know what the answer to this is. I got interested in psychology I suppose when I was 18—my brother had a friend who was interested in Jungian psychology and somehow at school I wasn’t interested in anything much, and I read a bit of Jung and Adler and when it came to the time to go to University, rather than do modern languages (which was the only other option), I thought I’d do psychology. After my first degree I did market research for a while, which was quite amusing but boring. I didn’t really know what to do after that and clinical psychology seemed the most interesting of the various possibilities. So I did a Ph.D. as an external student at UCL and clinical training at the same time, as a probationer psychologist, alongside a Senior Psychologist in a Victorian mental hospital.

Paul: It wasn’t any kind of overwhelming conscious decision to become a clinical psychologist?

David: No…. (laughter)..

Paul: A question about your writing in general, could you identify the point or points in your career when you began to develop a critical perspective and who or what may have been the main influences on this perspective?

David: That’s difficult to say… I don’t think that there was a single point or points. When I started as a probationer at Horton hospital in Epsom, which was a typical institution of that era, it became impossible to buy the standard psychiatric line. It was quite clear that the patients were not ill in the way that they were supposed to be, and that nobody was taking notice of what their problems really were so I cast around for approaches that would take account of that and being the early sixties that wasn’t hard to find. RD Laing’s books certainly were very important, and I very quickly got interested in phenomenology and existentialism via Laing… and there was all the anti-schizophrenia type writing around at that time… I very quickly got on to that because the patients that I saw didn’t seem to me to be ill and I think that most of the psychiatrists didn’t really think that either, although they toed the line most of the time, in a pretty standard sort of way. And then while I was at Horton I went to Belmont and the Henderson Hospitals in Surrey. The Henderson was one of the original therapeutic communities. I spent a fortnight fully immersed in their way of doing things and I really took to that approach, and got involved through my Ph.D. supervisor who knew Tom Caine at Claybury Hospital. Claybury was a very well developed and very interesting therapeutic community run by a man called Dennis Martin, and I went to work there, where Tom Caine became a very big influence. At that time I was pretty apolitical…. I wasn’t all that interested in politics…. And Tom was a Labour sort of chap…. The combination of his influence and the therapeutic community really got me going. And since that time I’ve sort of followed my own nose really…

Paul: The therapeutic community has an obvious environmentalist theme…

David: Yes absolutely. It made sense that what was important was people’s relationships with each other and with the wider society and actually talking about what was happening to people was what the therapeutic community was all about. There wasn’t a lot of emphasis on illness and diagnosis on the whole. There was a lot of emphasis on social influences and so that fitted in very well….

Paul: There is a clear progression in your written work. Chronologically speaking, this moves toward an increasingly environmentalist stance and at the same time toward a greater rejection of the ideas that underpin most conventional psychotherapy. What kinds of professional influence do you think may have helped that development in your work?

David: I think just the experience of doing the job of a clinical psychologist… finding that people didn’t change in the way that they were supposed to change if you were carrying out the standard cognitive and behavioural procedures, and also the experience of life … personal experience. The older I get the more impressed I am with how much people don’t change. People are really very stable. They don’t generally change just because they want to, or they think that they should, or because it would be desirable.

In my professional experience, I would see that former patients coming back to the clinic were no different really. When they went back out in the world it got them in exactly the same way that it did before, unless there had been some big change in their circumstances… that became fairly evident. And then as I often say, Margaret Thatcher was a big influence as well. In one sense, she was just about the best psychologist that I’ve ever come across, because she knew better than anybody, (or the influences she stood for knew better than anybody) what changes people, and how to bring people into line and that’s by affecting their interests and threatening them, inducing them through paying them lots of money and so on. It became very evident after 1979 that the people who came to see me didn’t have much room for manoeuvre, no matter how much will power they applied to the circumstances that they found themselves in, and usually because of some nasty, punitive measure that the Tory government had taken. These people blamed themselves, and they struggled to think ‘ what is it about me…. my personal strategies and so on that are not working …why am I so inadequate in these circumstances…?’ and it was perfectly obvious to me that they were not inadequate; it was the circumstances that were the problem. So it was that realisation as much as anything that that kind of pushed me over the edge of tolerating so to speak soft therapeutic ideas.

Paul: Why do you think it is that so few writers in psychotherapy and counselling seem to have made use of this commonplace observation?

David: Well I think it must be to with [therapist’s] interests mustn’t it? If you set up as a member of a profession, which treats people, then it must be that, in theory, you are able to appeal to individual personal characteristics, which imply that people have some capacity, or will to change their circumstances or to change themselves. If you don’t subscribe to something like that, then you come to question more and more what therapy can be about, and you would tend to do something else if you wanted to do something that contributed to the possibility of people living different sorts of lives. Which is not to say that I think that it’s not possible for people to do therapy…but if they do … then in my view it needs to become a very straightforward un-mysterious personal activity, where people use their personal resources to help as far as they can the people they come across. It certainly doesn’t allow of any kind of professional structure, or accredited training, or pointing to bodies of evidence about how to do things and all of that

Paul: So…it’s because of the threat to professional interests that there’s been a huge blind spot about these kinds of issues?

David: Yes I think so. I think that the whole concept of interest is something that psychologists have totally neglected. We’ve got a whole set of unexamined ideas about motivation and we’ve really overlooked interest as actually the principal motivation that works upon people psychologically. And if we did that then the thing would change a lot…

Paul: …[so] that’s because interest raises uncomfortable issues for therapeutic psychology….

David: I think that it raises uncomfortable issues for everybody really …. Somehow, to talk about your interests is to reveal something unhealthy or immoral …[but] practically all actions are interested and we need to take that not as something that is deeply regrettable about human nature, but as something that is absolutely central to human social conduct.

Paul: Despite the environmentalist thrust of your writing, you acknowledge that genetic structures have some role in the origins of people’s problems. When I first came across this observation in your discussion of embodiment and the link between the person and the environment, I was quite intrigued, particularly of course, as the view that individual genetic differences may contribute to psychological problems is politically contentious—particularly for critical psychologists.

David: The question of embodiment is a crucial one, though of course, I’m no sociobiologist. In so far as physical structures make a big contribution to our experience and conduct, then genetics are important, clearly. I think that human activity arises out of an interaction between embodiment and environment. Obviously both make their contribution, and as psychologists, we are almost bound to get more focused on environmental influences, since those are the ones, I suppose, that have the greatest variability about them. It is more sensible, if you are trying to understand somebody’s behaviour, to look at environmental influences than it is to look at purely questions of embodiment. That wouldn’t be true if you were a neuroscientist or a kind of body-based biologist, or someone looking at human conduct from that angle. We’d do well as psychologists to pay more attention to what neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio are talking about these days. There are limitations placed on what people can do by their physical structures. Our way of understanding and dealing with the world is determined within quite narrow limits by physical structures and so on, whereas many psychotherapists talk as if physical structures, embodiment, can be totally ignored.

Paul: So you think there could be differences perhaps between people at the outset?

David: I’m sure there would be. Yes. How your nervous system works, how your endocrine system works and so on must be important to understanding what kind of a take you get on the world.

Paul: Of course, one of the implications of neuropsychological research—arguably at any rate—is that a lot of our conscious thought processes are in fact epiphenomena or rationalisations of the underlying (and often external) influences that really govern our behaviour….

David: That’s right, that’s what I was thinking about, people like Damasio. There’s such an emphasis these days on language, speech and discourse. I think the counterbalance is that discourse is often kind of epiphenomenal—what we tell ourselves and what we tell others is really not terribly interesting if you are trying to understand why we do things.

Paul: That’s the kind of behavioural element of your work isn’t it?

David: Yes, it has a lot in common with fundamental hard-nosed behaviourism.

Paul: In your work, you emphasise that personal distress may be determined by essentially material, and often unalterable, characteristics of the client and of their world. This perspective contrasts quite markedly with the turn to language that dominates current critical perspectives within psychology and psychotherapy. I was wondering if you might like to say something then, about the philosophical basis of your ideas, and about how, in the context of psychotherapy, they might differ from current post-modernist perspectives.

David: I’ve been influenced by various people. When I started off certainly with the existentialists and the phenomenologists, who are seeking to kind of ground knowledge in experience, I suppose, as opposed to some kind of positivist philosophy, and I certainly was influenced by that. I suppose I still think quite highly of that. I think you get to some of the Frankfurt school ideas, people like Jurgen Habermas, for example, who is certainly not a post-modernist. The whole post-modernism thing I find profoundly sort of irritating, really. It seems to me to be a kind of hotch-potch of half-baked and ill-thought out notions, so I’ve never been tempted to go down that line. It seems to me to have come about because of a quite proper dislike for, and reaction against, mindless behaviourism and positivism. . [but]..the idea that reality can be emptied out into discourse just seems to me psychotic, you know, it doesn’t make any sense at all really.

Paul: Do you think that that idea is harmful then?

David: Yes, I think it is. I think you see now there is a conviction that words, that images and spin are at least as important as reality. It’s very useful to the current kind of corporate, militaristic, US kind of assault on the world in general really. If you look at New Labour, it’s very much a kind of post-modernist organisation in many ways, where if you can get people to believe something, that’s really just as good as truth. Though I think that that is coming apart now in the way that people can see that Tony Blair now flailing around….sort of leaping from one kind of fundamental proposition to another, and then ending up saying ‘ Oh, look how sincere I am, that’s what really counts you know’. What really counts is whether people live or die, and the circumstances under which they do so. So I think this whole kind of post-modernist ‘turn to discourse’ idea that you can tell yourself another story if you don’t like the one that you’ve had so far, is dangerous. It’s just not only nonsense, it’s dangerous nonsense, and I do think it’s sort of mad.

Paul: Yet, I detect a strong respect for the client’s subjective experience in your work.

David: Yes, well that’s a different thing. That’s how people feel, that’s where people live their lives and experience distress. Understanding that is fundamental to our role. Subjectivity is the way we experience the world, but that doesn’t mean that if you operate on subjectivity you can change the experience of the world. As psychologists, we are profoundly, directly and essentially concerned with subjectivity. I think that because we are so immersed in the client’s subjectivity we can fall into the trap of taking it as all there is, as an enclosed system which we can get inside. Of course, it is not. It is entirely, inextricably related with the actual nature of the person’s environment.

Paul: And psychotherapy [then] becomes based entirely around the supposed reconstruction of verbal reality?

David: Well, it just ignores what causes people problems. It leaves itself open to all kinds of social abuses of course, unscrupulous political and economic influences etc, which is what’s happened, I think, in psychotherapy anyway.

Paul: So it has become part of that kind of post-modern spin culture in a sense?

David: Yes, well, it suits a lot of interests, and it’s pacifying, it’s a sort of opium of the people and so on. And it does absolutely nothing to improve the circumstances of people’s lives in ways that would lead to their being less disturbed.

Paul: What do you think are the helpful elements of psychotherapy are then?

David: It depends on what powers and resources people have available to them. There are three things I think that potentially can be helpful about what we call psychotherapy and those are clarification, comfort and encouragement. Clarifying the nature of people’s predicament…that can be helpful, just to know where they are. Doesn’t mean there’s anything they can do about it, it’s not therefore something to get excited about, but it’s as well to be clear about why one is feeling like one is. Comfort comes, I think, from talking to or being with a sympathetic other person. That’s not just a question of psychotherapy, in fact psychotherapy is very limited in that way, in the degree to which you provide comfort, or solidarity I would also call it, being on the side of another person.

Paul: Of course, this is something many people may lack…

David: Yes, absolutely. I wouldn’t say this is characteristic of therapy; it is characteristic of a helpful relationship. If therapies are going to be helpful, that is a fairly kind of essential part of how they can help. And that argues against all sorts of nonsense about time-limited therapies. In fact, the more you’re around, the more helpful you are, the more comfort you can dispense, so to speak. Not that comfort is some thing—that idea’s misleading really—it’s not dispensing something, it’s just that the fact that human beings associating with sympathetic others who will help them think about their problems, is a helpful experience, it’s a comforting experience. And there’s encouragement, which also again as an interested other person, if you can see ways that maybe somebody can improve their lot, you can encourage them to do so. You can say, look, you have got these powers and resources; you maybe could do this, that or the other. What you are doing is suggesting ways that somebody might engage more helpfully or appropriately or rewardingly with their social environment. There is also the fact that some people are personally helpful, wise, intelligent, knowledgeable, sympathetic kinds of people, and there is no way that you can train that, or set it up, as a professional set of characteristics. I think a lot of what comes about with so-called therapists is that you get people who are actually really quite decent, thoughtful people who others find it helpful to talk to. But I don’t think you can make a profession out of it.

Paul: [What] you are talking about runs completely contrary to virtually all current psychotherapy and counselling training that I’ve come across, which seems based on the idea that there are well known teachable skills that people can absorb and then apply in the way that they would if they were learning bricklaying or surgery.

David: Yes, that’s right.

Paul: Do you think that there will ever come a time when that view will be questioned?

: It seems unlikely really. I think that those kinds of things are non-controllable, non-specifiable, non-trainable human characteristics. But to understand psychotherapy as a profession, you have got to start looking at people’s interests and how those help to shape their conduct. The profession of psychotherapy couldn’t take seriously what I am saying…it sort of writes it out of the picture. It would have to be some other influential social institution that took up environmentalist ideas -and probably render psychotherapy in one way or another redundant.

Paul: One of the main themes in your writing is that in order to understand the causes of personal distress, the psychologist should focus on the sufferer’s world rather than on that of the internal psychology. Do you feel that therapeutic psychology has been very successful in accomplishing these goals so far?

David: I think they do quite a lot. [I think] clinical and counselling psychologists don’t actually take account of what they do do. They don’t articulate that theoretically. As a matter of fact, they spend a lot of time talking to people about their worlds and what they can do about it. But when you come down to the theories, and what they write about, it sounds like very simple-minded stuff based on conditioning, or in my view, half-baked cognitive or psychodynamic ideas about how people behave and think the way they do.

Paul: Do you feel that the current process of selection and training within clinical and counselling psychology are likely to equip practitioners for thinking about these tasks?

David: Well, they clearly don’t on the whole. There is a tendency for some courses now to teach a module, or a few days or an afternoon on social approaches but I don’t see much sign of them really catching on. In the training arena it’s seen as just as well to think about these kind of things, but they’re not really seen as what clinical psychology is essentially about.

Paul: I often think that the environment is only given credence in psychology to the extent that it is seen as a maintainer or contributor to a problem that basically remains inside the person rather than seeing the person’s context as perhaps central to their difficulties.

David: Yes, and I also think that clinical psychologists and undergraduates have a very limited education in terms of the thinking down the ages about these kinds of issues… There is such an emphasis on recent so-called research, and yet there is very little emphasis on historical backgrounds, after all these things have come up in one form or another ever since anybody can remember anything. It often seems that psychologists often don’t seem to realise that things that they take to have happened in the second half of the 20th century actually follow on from ideas at least as far back as the 17th century in fact, and so it is actually quite hard to think about things critically if you have no real background.

Paul: You obviously feel that that kind of a historical perspective has given you a more sceptical view about the claims of psychology as an academic and applied discipline.

David: I expect it probably does, yes. It is hard to know what is fuelling one’s own thought processes, but yes, I have a feeling of being connected to ideas that go back a long way. Also, clinical psychologists generally are pretty, on the whole, ignorant of related areas to their own discipline, like sociology, philosophy or neuroscience

Paul: How do you think the selection and training of therapeutic psychologists could be improved?

David: I think the training would have to be much broader, much more critical, in just the ways we have been talking about really. I’m not sure what might happen to clinical psychology as a result of that, whether really it is a viable profession standing on its own.

Paul: So would you see such training as involving a much broader stand of the humanities basically, perhaps social and cultural studies?

David: I think historical background really, much better insight into related fields, as we’ve said, plus of course, much more focus on evidence that does exist, about environmental approaches and so on.

Paul: What forms of evidence are you thinking of?

David: I suppose, of the kinds of things that community psychologists have always talked and written about, and the kinds of evidence they draw on to show the importance of the social and material environment to well being. I’m thinking of people like the sociologist Richard Wilkinson and his work on the link between social inequalities and ill health. Things like that would be so much more helpful than the aimless iteration of half-baked CBT outcome studies that seems to dominate the clinical literature.

Paul: A related theme in your work is the idea that psychologists, for ethical and scientific reasons should seek to make these kind of observations available, not only within the profession, but to a wider public. Do you think that psychologists are being very successful in that task so far?

David: No, not only have psychologists not been successful, they haven’t even really tried. This might not be so much a case of us going out there and telling so called ordinary people what to think, but simply of us doing what we should be doing, which is revealing the reasons for psychological distress. We should be doing that in the ways that we do anything else, by publishing… And that’s a perfectly legitimate role for the psychologist too—to help people to demystify the likely reasons for their problems… drawing attention to the kinds of social and political processes that lead to distress.

Paul: But do you think that that is a very easy thing to do, since it seems to me that there is a lot of institutional and social pressure working against psychologists trying to do that kind of thing on a big scale. How do you think psychologists could begin to do more of that and keep their jobs?

David: I think they are far too timid actually. You can publish things, you can say things, obviously you need a degree of diplomatic skill sometimes. You don’t charge at the people who you know have power over you and who could silence you – it would be a bit stupid to go bald-headed for it in those circumstances, but on the whole psychologists, people in these professions, have enough independence to be able reasonably to say what they think, what their experience tells them. I don’t think it’s as difficult as all that, but of course whether anybody listens or not is another question altogether….

Paul: Do you think that it is more difficult now to be openly critical as a psychologist than it was say, twenty years ago?

David: There’s much more centralisation [now], much more attempt to tie up what people can do. Managers have usurped the power to decide what people can do and almost what they can think. It’s tremendously centralised, bureaucratic directives coming through our departments ….it is much more difficult for people to pursue their interests than it used to be.

Paul: Do you think there is much scope for people to resist these pressures?

David: Well solidarity is the only way. Getting together, persuading other people, putting pressure on where pressure can be applied. A lot depends of course on the profession itself taking up these issues, and again, I’m not too sanguine about the prospects of that. I think that the DCP and the BPS ought to be very hot on that kind of thing, but I don’t really think that they are. I think their priorities are other, on the whole. It is certainly difficult for the individual who isn’t in a powerful, [or] who hasn’t worked themselves into a powerful position with some influence or freedom to follow an independent track as a researcher or a practitioner, and it didn’t used to be.

Paul: So it is a case then of thinking about how power works?

David: Well, if you haven’t got any power, but… there is a but to that…. a lot of people in clinical positions are not as powerless as they think. I’ve always thought that psychologists and people in the helping professions generally can be pretty chicken-hearted when it comes to political issues. I should rephrase that probably, it’s not because they are cowards, or they are anything reprehensible… it’s because people who come into this kind of job are on the whole menders and compromisers or believers in being nice to people…and I think when you get down to political activities with a small p those aren’t the most useful characteristics. You’ve certainly got to be able to be diplomatic, you’ve go to be able to see where the lines of influence run, but you’ve got to be prepared to stick your neck out when it matters. And you’ve got to be prepared to shut up also if you know you can’t win.

Paul: Do you feel that over the years your views have become gradually more acceptable within mainstream psychology?

David: No, I don’t think so. I have almost nothing to do with mainstream psychology really. I suppose there is a sort of cumulative sense in which more people have come across my writing or something than was once the case. I don’t think that indicates any greater acceptance. I don’t think…. no, I would say not.

Paul: And you still feel perhaps that you are outside of the pale?

David: I think you are bound to be, you see…I think if you’re criticising the orthodoxy, you can’t at the same time expect to be accepted as part of it. I think people agonise about that kind of thing far too much…that… ‘here I am putting forward these ideas. Why aren’t I taken up by the central powers, honoured in the profession?’ … You’re not going to be, are you? If you criticise the orthodoxy, don’t complain when the orthodoxy excludes you. If you want to be part of the orthodoxy, then you’ve got to be orthodox. And that’s the way it is.

Paul: Although presumably you must have hoped that your views would eventually become a part of the orthodoxy…or the new orthodoxy perhaps?

David: No, I wouldn’t really hope that, because I think orthodoxies are always inextricably tied up with power that inevitably becomes oppressive power. There isn’t an orthodoxy in any field throughout history that has not been corrupted by power eventually. The only good orthodoxy is one that dismantles itself. No, I would hope that my views would influence people, make it more difficult for some things to be the case, make it easier for other things to be the case. …. You should be very thankful that anybody listens to your ideas at all, that they have any kind of effect anywhere at all, that you spark off feelings of resonance in other people. I think that’s pretty well as good as you can expect…

Paul: So essentially, the critic of power will always be an outsider to some degree?

David: Yes. And people being as they are, power, it is true, will on the whole be corrupting. So yes….

Paul: I also wanted to ask you about the clients that you have seen over the years. Obviously a lot of your ideas fly in the face of conventional notions about psychotherapy and what it can accomplish. How have your clients generally reacted to your ideas on the limitations of talking treatments? Have they found them easier to get to grips with than do the professionals?

David: Yes. I have very rarely had any problem with clients. When people find you’re not going to blame them for their condition, you’re not going to belittle them, you’re not going to diagnose them, patronise them, mystify them… then on the whole, I have just found people to react principally with relief, and to very quickly understand what you say.

Paul: Do you think that that kind of position is going to become harder [for therapists] to maintain in the future…?

David: I don’t know about that. I don’t really see why it is going to be harder, unless they have been supervised by some sort of intrusive kind of presence that won’t permit them to take that kind of line. I think actually, that many psychologists, counsellors, psychotherapists, do take that kind of line as a matter of fact. Because it is almost impossible to take any other kind of line, really, unless you are a completely single-minded psychoanalyst or something and absolutely insistent on mystifying people. I think that therapists inevitably get pushed into talking about the person’s predicament and what they can do about it. But I don’t think it’s difficult to do or difficult for people to accept either. It depends how thoroughly policed people become, but at the moment, I think it is easy enough.

Paul: It seems that you are saying that there is quite a gap between the discourse about what people do in therapy and what they actually do….

David: Yes there’s a huge gap.

Paul: Why do you think that is that clients find this kind of perspective much easier to take on?

David: Well again that’s an interest analysis. You’re not threatening clients’ interests on the whole. You may be upsetting some cultural stereotypes, you may be surprising them for a while, and so on, but you are not actually fundamentally threatening their interests. There is no doubt about that. If I speak to a group of professionals, I get a completely different reaction, than if I speak to people in distress.

Paul: There is obviously a clear overlap between the themes you explore in your writings and the concerns of critical and community psychologists. What do you see as the kind of pitfalls and prospects for those fields, for critical and community psychology?

David: I think that trying to professionalise them too much is a pitfall. Another big pitfall is trying to appropriate the citizen’s political role, to try and say that it’s part of a psychologist’s job to be a social or political critic. I don’t think it is. I think it’s a psychologist’s job to explicate personal distress. Inevitably, that is going to lead out into a social criticism, but I don’t think we need to follow on from that. It is exactly what psychotherapy did. Psychotherapy had all sorts of useful things to say about how people’s distress came about. As soon as it said ‘and we know what to do about it’ , that’s when it fell into the pit. And it’s going to be exactly the same with any other version of psychology. As soon as they say, ‘these are the problems AND we know what to do about it,’ they are sort of committing intellectual suicide.

Paul: So once they make that claim to expertise, they start to become disabling professions?

David: Yes, and they disable themselves, interestingly, too.

Paul: What do you think could be done then, to avoid that happening, or to minimise the possibility of that occurring?

David: I suppose it’s not to turn it into too much of an enclosed kind of club, really. To see what they are doing as scientific enquiry in the best and broadest sense, I think. You see, as long as they describe orientations, rather than professions, it’s ok. Once they are professionalised, they stop being orientations, they become professions and I think that then they are in trouble.

Paul: Much of your work is essentially political and I was wondering whether you are politically active in other areas of your life.

David: I would say no, is the answer to that, in any sense that people take to be political. I joined the Labour party once. I tried to offer my services as a sort of a researcher to them, in the East Midlands region. But there was soon a problem about joining things again. I always found that the kind of central orthodoxy, or whatever it was, got in the way. I just couldn’t be dealing with it, because it was so hampering. I haven’t got whatever it takes to thrive in straightforward political party type of situations. I’m too impatient. So apart from sticking things in envelopes…which nobody would really take seriously as political activity…[laughter]!

Paul: Do you have any future plans for writing or other projects in hand that you would like to talk about?

David: I just go on responding to what comes up. I probably could write another book. I have thought about it, I have discussed it indeed. I still feel there are things to be said, but the question is how to say it. There is a danger of saying it all over again, as I haven’t really changed my mind. But I think there are things still to be said, and there are things I am going to think about, actually, writing, for a book. I need to hit on an area that simply doesn’t repeat again things I have already done.

Paul: Would you be able to say anything about what those new areas might be?

David: Well, there are things like interest. The more I think about it, the more fundamental I think that interest becomes to human affairs. I think that authority is another relatively neglected area. The authority for the statements one makes, as a social scientist. That’s another one, I have talked about that, but it needs taking up some more. Somehow I want to divest myself of the sort of guff that goes with it. I want to sort of get more direct and more punch, in other words, do without the authority of a kind of academic or professional role, but to speak more as a human being, with a certain kind of experience.

Paul: What advice would you give to a psychologist now, trying to survive [and provide a decent clinical or counselling psychology service in the modern NHS]?

David: I’m in no position to proffer advice; I have been retired fully for five years now. I’m not up to speed with everything that’s going on in the Health Service. What I see, I don’t like, but I don’t know enough to give people advice now… people [have] to find their own way.

Paul: Are any rules of thumb that you would suggest? Or any kind of broad advice that you’d give from your own career.

David: There is a big personal element in it probably and you can’t derive rules of thumb from personal elements. I also think, to be consistent, there is a big environmental element. I was at a certain time at a certain place with a certain history. I can’t really devise rules of thumb from that because the times and the places have changed.

Paul: So you think it has a lot to do with the historical circumstances as well as the personal?

David: Yes, it’s to do with the environment at the time. God alone knows how I would have got on if I had started out now. I couldn’t, I wouldn’t be the same person. I was head of a department for a hell of a long time, and I was relatively free of the kind of constraints that are present for many people. I think people in general and professionals in particular should have this kind of freedom. I could do what I liked, because what I liked was not in any way reprehensible, what I liked was what was good for the bloody job! I started to get uncomfortable when the managers came on the scene and started to encroach upon my freedom. If I was parachuted now into some place where nobody knew who the hell I was, and if I was put in charge of a department, I am sure things would be very different…fairly uncomfortable.

Paul: Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed.

With Thanks to Gabriella Byrne for all of her hard work in transcribing this interview.

Smail, D. (2004) Freedom, Power and Responsibility: an Internet Publication.
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Smail, D. (2001b) Commentary. De-psychologizing community psychology. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 11, 159-165

Smail, D. (1999) How to Survive without Psychotherapy. London: Constable
Smail, D. (1993) The Origins of Unhappiness: A new understanding of personal distress. London: Harper Collins
Smail, D. (1991) Towards a radical environmentalist psychology of help. The Psychologist, 4 (2): 61–72

*This interview appears in the Journal of Critical Psychology, Counselling and Psychotherapy, 2004,4, 19-34

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