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What is safety and how can we think about safe space? A psychosocial exploration.

Venue: Online

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What is safety and how can we think about safe space? A psychosocial exploration. 

This CREHR event will consist of a presentation by Marcela Lopez Levy, with Nicola Dahrendorf as discussant. They are both Honorary Research Fellows at CREHR.

How is safety created? In psychotherapeutic practice, providing a safe-enough space to meet, where the therapist and the person seeking therapy come together is a widely-held yet rarely examined pre-condition undergirding the relational nature of creating trust; the relationship brings to mind a dyad, and assumptions regarding the limits to trust and safety. Yet group analysis has created a therapeutic modality where a group of up to 9 people come together and share in profound psychological exchange in ways that connect their personal lived experience with the social context that formed them. I examine the ways in which the group analytic conception of ‘dynamic administration’, that is, the active creation of group boundaries, attention to communication and unconscious dynamics help us to think about safety and safe space in groups. I propose that the group analytic experience of acknowledging distress in a social (yet made safer) context, creating a collective experience of co-regulation and verbalising unconscious emotions can contribute to the creation of safe space in non-therapeutic groups and potentially lead to reparation being felt by individuals. 

This has practical implications for working with acknowledging trauma in the context of human rights work and with creating reparative spaces. There may be different dynamics and processes to be discerned between acute distress arising from traumatic events and chronic or ongoing states of traumatic responses to structural violence such as racism and pervasive anxiety caused by precarity.  

Thinking psychosocially about safe space matters because safety has been an invisible counterpart to the large literature on risk and uncertainty in sociology and research into the regulation of risk has not addressed how we might create the opposite of risk: safety from harm. The obverse of risk has been conceptualised as ‘security’ that rarely deals with lived experience. Where the term appears, ‘safety’ has become concretised and made operational in work psychology and ‘health and safety’ directives – it has been emptied of meaning and bureaucratised. As Covid19 has made us more aware that we are only as safe as each other, we need new ways to think about what safety means collectively.

Marcela López Levy has a first degree in psychology (Sheffield), a Masters in Social Anthropology (Goldsmiths) and a doctorate in Political Sociology (University of London). In every discipline her focus has been on the inter-disciplinary psychosocial thinking that explores subjectivity, power and culture. She has written about the psychosocial thinking in Latin America that goes back many decades and is central to the human rights and social justice organisations that she has worked with in the past two decades. Her research interests include theorising safe space, power and subjectivities, and the psychological effects of inequality and power relations. She practises clinically as a group analyst. Publications include Argentina under the Kirchners: the legacy of left populism (Practical Action Publishing, 2017) and We Are Millions: neo-liberalism and new forms of political action in Argentina (Latin America Bureau, 2004). Marcela is the Reviews Editor of the Journal of Latin American Studies.

Nicola Dahrendorf is a practitioner with several decades experience in conflict and post-conflict settings with INGOs, the United Nations, the UK government and in an academic capacity. Her overall professional focus has been on peace building and conflict resolution, protection of civilians and child protection, sexual and gender-based violence and on security sector and justice reform in fragile environments. Her past UN work involved six peacekeeping operations in senior management positions. She has worked at UNICEF HQ as Chief of Humanitarian Policy and Advocacy and with UNHCR for seven years on refugee law and protection issues in a number of conflict and post-conflict situations.

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