The Significance of Adler’s Ideas Today

Leigh Johnson-Migalski, Psy.D.Leigh Johnson-Migalski, Psy.D. ’06, is an Associate Professor in the Clinical Psychology Department at the Adler School. A board member of the North American Society of Adlerian Psychology (NASAP), she is among the many Adler School alumni, faculty and students attending and presenting at NASAP’s 61st International Conference this week.

Alfred Adler proposed that humans strive for significance and belonging: We want to belong and connect in the community. As Jane Griffith and Robert Powers describe in their 2007 Lexicon of Adlerian Psychology, Gemeinschaftsgefühl is society’s ultimate goal, to have awareness that we all belong in the community, and know our responsibility in shaping the community.

This is the foundation of Adlerian theory. As good theory must, it explains human phenomena, predicts future outcomes, provides solutions to problems, and can be tested.

Adlerian theory explains human phenomena based on philosophical tenets of holism, phenomenology, and teleology. This means Adlerians understand people by:

  • Seeing them in their socio-cultural context as well as acknowledging the interconnectedness of the mind and body (holism);
  • Comprehending their subjective perspective (phenomenology);
  • Ascertaining their motivations, and their short-term, long-term, conscious and nonconscious goals (teleology).

Through his theory, Alfred Adler made many predictions. For example, in his 1932 article “The structure of neurosis,” he predicted that children who experienced an overburdening childhood situation such as an abusive or neglectful home would struggle. The questions to be asked in this situation include:

  • How do we understand a boy failing at home and at school?
  • How is he responding to the lack of emotional or material resources, such as lack of love and/or food?
  • How does this affect his brain development?
  • How are the caregivers functioning?
  • How is the family connected in their culture or in the community?
  • Do the caregivers have resources?
  • Is the family in a food desert?
  • Is the school overcrowded?
  • Are the teachers overwhelmed?
  • What is the school’s discipline policy?
  • Is the neighborhood safe?
  • What motivates this child?
  • What is his perspective?

With answers to such questions, we can understand, and then act. We can intervene by encouraging and empowering the child, the family, the school, and the community.

In  Vienna, Adler argued for reform in schools and parenting to combat the high rate of adolescent suicide. This is community engagement and socially responsible practice.

We can advocate for policy changes. According to Harold Mosak, Rudolf Dreikurs fought his fellow psychiatrists to establish licensure for clinical psychologists in Illinois, filling the void of treatment providers. This is social justice.

The interweaving of Adler’s theories into other theories testifies to its relevance and to the evidence it can be tested. Well-known theorists Horney, Maslow, Jung, and Rogers have endorsed Adler’s ideas along with contemporary theories, such as cognitive, constructivist, evolutionary, and solution focus, as well as positive psychologies. Applying Adlerian theory to explain human phenomena, predict future outcomes, provide solutions to problems, and ensure it is tested is important in our action and practice.

However: We need to do more. Aware of our role and our responsibility in shaping community, we need to continue to engage with the community and in scholarly research in ways that demonstrate the significance of Adler’s theory for the next 60 years and beyond.

This essay appears in the summer 2013 issue of Gemeinschaftsgefühl, the annual magazine for alumni and friends of the Adler School.