Big picture, small picture

Big picture, small picture

In perspectives on our societies, there is always big picture stuff and small picture stuff, and getting the balance right in any approach to therapy (small picture) as well as our approach to legislation (big picture) seems important. As I sit in conversation with a person I am aware of just how intrinsic it is to the welfare of an individual to perceive themselves as being in charge of their life, (see, amongst others, the research of Len Syme, oft-quoted on this website) and to actually be in charge of their life.

I am also aware of the significance of the social determinants of health (see as much research as you wish including that of the World Health Organisation).

So in the big picture to hold individuals responsible when social conditions are appalling, just seems unjust. Similarly in the small picture stuff to see individuals as powerless to choose and take charge of their lives, seems not only unjust, but foolish and unproductive.

I have just come back from a week in Perth training Corrective Services Personnel (those working both with adults and young people). In broad strokes the training was about understanding what drives human behaviour, including the sometimes pretty ugly side of what humans are capable of, and looking at ways in which change can be promoted. This perspective is about face-to-face work with people, looking for the best in them and helping it emerge; helping a person be in charge of themselves and simultaneously respectful of those around them. It’s the small picture stuff…then of course on the other hand there is the big picture stuff; the social determinants of behaviour.

Speaking on Radio National’s ‘Perspective’ (29th September 2008) David Brown Emeritus Professor School of Law University of New South Wales, has this to say:

‘The highest imprisoning country is the leader of the ‘free world’, the US, with a rate per 100,000 population of 738, some 4 times that of New Zealand, 6 times that of Australia, 8 times that of Germany, 11 times that of Norway and 12 times that of Japan.’

He goes on to say:

‘Focussing only on advanced western style democracies, those countries with the highest ‘imprisonment rates are “neo-liberal” countries with liberal market economies: USA, South Africa, NZ, England/Wales and Australia. The next bracket with lower rates Lacey tags “conservative corporatist” with “co-ordinated market economies” such as The Netherlands, Germany France, and Italy. With lower rates still come the “social democracies” with “co-ordinated market economies” such as Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark, followed by “Oriental corporatist with a “co-ordinated market economy” such as Japan.’


‘The relatively disorganised, individualistic liberal market economies are particularly vulnerable to penal populism, for ‘liberal market systems are oriented to flexibility and mobility and turn to punishment as a means of managing an excluded population’.

And in this final comment there might be some coming together of the big and small picture perspectives:

‘By comparison ‘co-ordinated systems which favour long term relationships -through investment in education and training, generous welfare benefits, long term employment relationships -have been able to resist the powerfully excluding and stigmatising aspects of punishment.’

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