The model of family semantic polarities was developed by Valeria Ugazio initially in the late Nineties and has been revised, extended and reformulated over the last two decades by both Valeria Ugazio and other clinicians and researchers.
It is an intersubjective model of personality and its psychopathological developments. and has important implications for the psychotherapeutic process. Although new in its central hypotheses, it of course has not come “out of the blue”. Family therapy is the background from which it is born. Its important references are the Positioning Theory by Harré and collaborators and the other cognitive authors who have placed meaning at the center of their elaboration (Kelly, Guidano, Procter, Neimeyer, etc.).
WHAT ARE THE GUIDING IDEAS OF THIS MODEL?
Many, we mention two here.
FAMILY IS A “CO-POSITIONING” OF INDIVIDUALS UNITED BY THEIR DIFFERENCES
According to Ugazio (1998,2013), meaning is organized in such a way as to make people interdependent.
Individuals, co-positioning themselves into the relevant semantic polarities of the social groups to which they belong, assume a specific position within the shared narrative plot: they can position themselves as “just,” “loyal,” “reserved,” but in order to occupy these positions others will have to position themselves as “unjust,” “untrustworthy,” “theatrical. (Ugazio, 2013, p.23)
Consequently, in the same family, different, or even opposing, individuals co-position themselves:
If, for example, the polarity “intelligent/dim-witted” is relevant in a family—in other words, if it constitutes a semantic dimension around which conversation is organized—the members of this family will position themselves with people who are intelligent or very intelligent but will also be surrounded by people of limited intelligence or who are actually dim-witted. They will marry people who are intelligent, bright, stupid or clueless. They will strive to become intellectually brilliant or will help those who are unfortunately less bright to become so. They will fight and compete to ensure that their intellectual abilities are recognized, they will end marriages and friendships or, alternatively, develop new relationships when intellectual problems arise. Some members of the family will be intellectually brilliant, or regarded as such, while others will prove to be intellectually lacking. One thing is certain: everyone in this family will have to “co-position themselves” into the polar dimension in question and each member, in order to maintain their own identity, will have need of those positioned at other points in this semantic dimension.(Ugazio, 2013,p.24)
SPECIFIC PSYCHOPATHOLOGIES ARE FED BY DIFFERENT SEMANTICS
One of the main hypotheses of the model of family semantic polarities is that people with phobic, obsessive, eating disorders and depression have grown up and taken part in conversational contexts (nuclear family, family of origin, etc) where specific meanings dominate. For example, in contexts where we find people with phobic disorders, the “semantics of freedom” prevails, which is fed by the fear-courage emotional polarity.
“By virtue of the relevance of these semantics, the conversation in these families is organized preferably around episodes where fear, courage, the need for protection and the desire for exploration and independence play a central role. As a result of these conversational processes, members of these families will feel, or be defined as, fearful or cautious or, alternatively, courageous, even reckless. They will find people who are prepared to protect them or will meet up with people who are unable to survive by themselves, who need their support. They will marry people who are fragile or dependent, but also individuals who are free and sometimes unwilling to make commitments. They will suffer for their dependence. They will try in every way to gain their independence. In other cases they will be proud of their independence and freedom, which they will defend more than everything else. Admiration, contempt, conflict, alliances, love, and hatred will be played out around issues of freedom/dependence.”(Ugazio, 2013, p.84)
In families where there are members with obsessive-compulsive, eating and mood disorders , other semantics dominate – called “goodness”, “power” and “belonging”, characterized by other emotions and ways of feeling.
AND OTHER GUIDING IDEAS? DOES THE MODEL OPEN NEW PROSPECTS FOR PSYCHOTHERAPY?
You will find answers to these questions by reading::
SEMANTIC POLARITIES IN THE FAMILY. Permitted and Forbidden Stories
New York: Routledge http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1467-6427.12023
WHAT KIND OF CLINICAL EXPERIENCES HAD A ROLE IN THE CONSTRUCTION
OF THIS MODEL?
Valeria Ugazio claims to have always been struck, during her clinical practice, by the differences, often radical, among the various family members. A child is, for example, sensitive and cerebral while the parents are sporty, concrete. A wife is active and dynamic while the husband is contemplative and melancholy. Not to mention siblings who are often opposites.
Differences, also among families belonging at the same culture, are equally large.
“Those things that one whole family fights, rejoices or despairs over are entirely irrelevant for another.”.(Ugazio, 2013,p.21).(Ugazio, 2013, p.21)
This awareness has been suggested by clinical work with families with different psychopathologies.
“ At the end of the 1980s, after having worked for more than a decade with families who had children with eating disorders, most of whom were devastated by power conflicts, I began to see couples and families with phobic clients. I was astonished: it was another world of meanings. What mattered here was who depended from others and who, on the contrary, was able to manage alone and was free. Later on, curious about the profound differences I have found between families with one member with a phobic disorder and families with an anorectic or a bulimic daughter, I encouraged referrals of obsessive-compulsive clients. Onece again I found stories that were completely new to me. In recent years, clients with mood disorders and their families had opened up a world of meanings that I have not previously encountered.(Ugazio, 2013, in Burck et al., p.152)
HAVE STUDIES BEEN CARRIED OUT VALIDATING THIS MODEL?
Many. Those carried out by us use an instrument specifically developed to detect family semantics, The Family Semantic Grid, of which there are now four versions (see “semantic analysis” submenu). Others, conducted by completely independent researchers have used different instruments.
Here are the main studies:
Castiglioni M., Faccio E., Veronese G. e Bell C. R. (2013), The Semantics of Power among People with Eating Disorders, Journal of Constructivist Psychology, vol. 26, 1, 62-76,
Castiglioni M., Pepe A., Gandino G. e Veronese G. (2013), Self-Other Positioning in Obesity. A Pilot Study Using Repertory Grid Technique, The Open Psychology Journal, vol. 6, 61-68,
Castiglioni, M., Veronese G., Pepe A. e Villegas, M. (2014), The Semantics of Freedom in Agoraphobic Patients. An Empirical Study, Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 27, 2, 120-36,
Faccio E., Belloni, E. e Castelnuovo G. (2012), The Power of Semantics in Self and the Repertory Grid Representations. A Comparison between Obese and Normal-Weight Adult Women, Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 3,
Faccio,E., Belloni Cipolletta S., Iudici A., Castiglioni M. e Mannarini S. (2016), The Power of Weight and the Weight of Power in Adolescence. A Comparison between Young and Adult Women, Journal of Family Studies, 1-15, DOI: 10.1080/13229400.2016.1187660.
Ugazio, V. e Fellin, L. (2016), Family Semantic Polarities and Positionings. A Semantic Analysis, in P. Rober e M. Borcsa (a cura di), Research Perspectives in Couple Therapy. Discursive Qualitative Methods, Springer, Cham, 125-48,
Ugazio, V., Negri A. e Fellin L. (2011), Significato e psicopatologia. La semantica dei disturbi fobici, ossessivi, alimentari e depressivi [ Meaning and psychopathology. The semantics of phobic, obsessive, eating and mood disorders], Quaderni di psicologia clinica [Bergamo], 2, 69-100.
Ugazio, V, Negri, A., e Fellin, L. (2015), Freedom, Goodness, Power and Belonging. The Semantics of Phobic, Obsessive-Compulsive, Eating, and Mood Disorders, Journal of Constructivist Psychology, vol. 28, 4, 293-315,
Ugazio, V, Negri, A, Zanaboni, E. e Fellin, L. (2007), La conversazione con i soggetti fobici è dominata dalla semantica della libertà?[The conversation with phobic subjects is dominated by the semantic of freedom?], Quaderni del Dottorato in Psicologia Clinica [Bergamo], 1, 103-33.
Veronese G., Procaccia R., Romaioli D., Barola G. e Castiglioni M. (2013), Psychopathological Organizations and Attachment Styles in Patients with Fear of Flying. A Case Study, The Open Psychology Journal, vol. 6, 20-27,
The most surprising and unexpected result came from one of our study (Ugazio, Negri and Fellin 2011 and 2015) which showed that semantics are able to correctly identify the type of psychopathology in 59 cases out of 60.
HAS THIS MODEL ALSO BEEN APPLIED OUTSIDE THE CLINICAL FIELD?
Yes, in literary analysis by Tim Parks and other authors and within organizations by David Campbell.
The writer Tim Parks developed a literary perspective based on reciprocal novel-writer-reader interactions. It challenges the thesis of “biographical fallacy”, which banishes the author’s personality from the practice of literary criticism.
Parks T. (2008) Semantic Polarities in the Writings of Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence Merope, vol. 53-54, 5-46.
Parks T. (2014) Romanzi pieni di vita [Novels full of life], Laterza Roma-Bari 2014.
Parks T. (2015)
The Novel. A Survival Skill
Oxford University Press New York.
This perspective is inspiring other analyses of literary works and film:
Dell’Aversano, C. (2009). L’analisi posizionale del testo letterario.Lettura di W;t di Margaret Edson. Roma: Aracne Editrice.
Guarnieri S. (2011), Mrs. Dalloway tra esclusione e appartenenza [Dalloway between exclusion and belonging], Quaderni di Psicologia Clinica [Bergamo], vol. 2, 159-80.
Serri F., Lasio D., Lampis J. e
Melis A. (2018), L’appartenenza familiare tra significati, differenze e
contesto culturale. Il caso della famiglia Stark de «Il Trono di Spade»,
Psicobiettivo, vol. 39, 2, 166-74.
David Campbell, of the Tavistock Institute of London in collaboration with Marianne Groenbaeck (2006), developed a creative application of Ugazio’s semantic polarities model to develop a model of intervention within organizations.
Campbell D., & Groenbaeck M. (2006).
Taking Position in the Organization. London: Karnac.