Working With Issues of Social Class in Psychotherapy
For individuals in the U.S. & U.S. territories
Dr. William Ming Liu presents his worldview model of psychotherapy, which focuses on the client's personal history and the messages they have received about social class.
Dr. Liu interviews the client, a young female from an immigrant family, at length about her earlier experiences with class and how they influenced her social perspective throughout her life. As the discussion unfolds, therapist and client work together to establish understanding of the roles that the client has played to fit in socially.
Dr. Liu uses questioning to allow the client the opportunity to articulate her experience through a new language of her perception of social class, helping her to feel understood. As she starts to reveal herself through her experiences, the client lets go of older coping styles that obscure her emotions and identity as a member of an immigrant family.
One fundamental assumption about social class and classism in applied psychology, or any psychological practice, is the use of sociological paradigms to understand individual perspectives and experiences with social class and classism. Instead of using income, education, and occupation to stratify people into social class groups such as "middle class," Dr. Liu's interest is understanding the subject and phenomenological experiences and understanding of the individual around social class and classism.
Just as important is the inclusion of classism as a principle variable in how individuals have felt marginalized or even alienated from others with respect to social class. Shifting from a group-categorization based approach to social class and classism, Dr. Liu developed the social class worldview model as a theory-based exploration of what he has conceptualized to be the person's social class worldview.
Using questions and probes of the individual's social class context, social class messages and socialization, and the individual's social class expectations, Dr. Liu attempts to help the individual understand his or her social class world. Below, Dr. Liu outlines the steps used to explore the person's social class worldview; these steps are consonant with Dr. Liu's social class worldview model.
Social Class Interventions Using the Social Class Worldview Model
The social class interventions are targeted toward the client's experiences of classism. Upward, downward, lateral, and internalized classisms are the focus of the therapist. Through collaboration, the client is helped to gain
- Insight about their experiences of classism, their worldview, and the pressures they experience as a part of an economic culture.
- Empathy by the therapist toward the client's classism experiences is important.
- The therapist challenges the client's irrational cognitions about their social status and what they need to do to maintain or achieve a social status.
- The therapist helps the client integrate their history with their current situation.
- The client is encouraged to develop self-efficacy in coping and managing their situation.
- The client is helped to identify situations in which certain feelings are tied to classism experiences.
Step 1 — Help the client identify and understand his or her economic culture
Sample query: Tell me what kind of pressure you feel/experience as you try to keep up with your friends.
Identify answers that touch on cultural, social, and human capital pressures/expectations.
Step 2 — Help the client identify the social class messages he or she receive(d)
- What would your parent(s)/peers say about your current situation?
- How would your parent(s)/peers help you resolve your current situation?
- List the ways you are acting to live out messages given to you by your parent(s)/peers.
- Tell me about your peer group, your support network.
Identify answers that focus on strong/salient cultural socialization messages still running in the client's mind, which drive the client's behavior and attitudes.
Step 2a — Help the client identify social class behaviors, lifestyles, and material possessions that are salient to the client in his or her current situation
- Tell me how you imagine your life.
- How would you ideally be spending your time?
- What do others have that you want?
- What do you notice about how other people act/behave that you like?
Identify answers that pinpoint the client's materialism values; how he has changed his lifestyle to fit into a new group, and how he has changed his behavior to belong in a new group.
Step 3 — Identify the client's experiences with classism and move toward developing an adaptive, realistic, and healthy expectation about him- or herself
- Do people look down on you?
- Do you look down on others who are not like you?
- What do your peers expect from you to maintain your status with them?
- What does it feel like for you when you can't keep up with your peers? What do you do?
Identify answers that express high social class expectations and the negative consequences related to not meeting specific demands. Additionally, in what ways is the client participating in classism to maintain her social class standing?
Step 4 — Help the client integrate his or her experiences of classism
Sample query: Now that we've started talking about all these aspects of your social class experience, tell me what it means to you?
What are you aware of about yourself that you didn't know before we started?
Identify an ability to understand and integrate the social class discussions into other aspects of the client's life.
Step 4a — Help the client take action and make changes in his or her life
Sample query: What is the one thing you could do to change your awareness, situation, or perception?
Identify an ability to make personal changes in the client's life.
William Ming Liu, PhD, is Professor and Program Coordinator of Counseling Psychology at the University of Iowa. He received his doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the University of Maryland in 2000. His research interests are in social class and classism, men and masculinity, and multicultural competencies.
He has published in journals such as the Journal of Counseling Psychology, Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology, and Psychology of Men & Masculinity. In recent reviews, he has been identified as one of the most frequent producers of research in Psychology of Men and Masculinity and in multicultural competency research.
Dr. Liu received the Emerging Leader Award from the Committee on Socioeconomic Status (APA), the Emerging Young Professional Award (APA Division 45), and the Researcher of the Year Award (APA Division 51).
He is the associate editor for Psychology of Men & Masculinity and has served on the editorial boards of The Counseling Psychologist, Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology, the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, Journal of Counseling Psychology, and the Clinician's Research Digest. He is an editor of the Handbook of Multicultural Competencies in Counseling and Psychology (2003), an editor of Culturally Responsive Counseling With Asian American Men (2010), the author of Social Class and Classism in the Helping Professions: Research, Theory, and Practice (2011), and the editor of the forthcoming Handbook of Social Class in Counseling.
Dr. Liu is the past program chair for the National Multicultural Summit and Conference (2007). He is a licensed psychologist in Iowa, and his present clinical work is with the clients at a transitional shelter where he coordinates counseling practicum and the life-skills and self-development curriculum for shelter residents and clients.
- Liu, W. M. (2010). Social class and classism in the helping professions: Research, theory, and practice. Thousand Oaks: Sage Press.
- Liu, W. M., Greefeld, J. M., & Turesky, D. G. (Producers). (2008). Social class, economic privilege, and counseling [Training video]. Available from Microtraining Associates, 141 Walnut Street, Hanover, MA 02339.
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