Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Lacanian psychoanalysis

core definition

Lacanian psychoanalysis is a Post-Freudian approach to psychoanalysis based upon the work of Jaques Lacan.

explanatory context

In the Lacanian psychoanalytic model the human subject is formed in its relations with the outside world. These relations are developed in the process of language aquisition.


The foundation of Lacanian psychoanalysis is that the unconscious is structured like a language and is produced in the same process that the subject is produced. The 'unconscious' is thus a by-product of these language-aquisition processes.


The subject is not constituted once and for all once language has been aquired but is a dynamic changing construct that is constantly being formed through every speech act. The human subject is thus constituted in and through speech acts.


The subject, therefore, is not a unitary cohesive whole, but partial and always in process. Indeed ideology, in this model, is defined as the process whereby the human subjectivity takes on the appearance of wholeness. The corrolory is that Lacan's post-structuralist theory rejected the belief that reality can be captured in language.


According to Lacan, the developmental process of human subjectivity is influenced by various formative stages in the course of which a series of repressions are produced that become the content of the unconscious. Crucial moments in the process of subject formation are those that relate to looking, such as the mirror phase in which an infant's reflection in the mirror establishes the contours of her/his own body as separate from the outside world, and is thus the moment at which the infant graps its bodily unity. This recognition of autonomy is a prior condition of entry into language which is premised on the distinction between subject and object.

analytical review

Sharpe (2005) wrote:

It would be fair to say that there are few twentieth century thinkers who have had such a far-reaching influence on subsequent intellectual life in the humanities as Jacques Lacan. Lacan’s “return to the meaning of Freud” profoundly changed the institutional face of the psychoanalytic movement internationally.....

Both inside and outside of France, Lacan’s work has also been profoundly important in the fields of aesthetics, literary criticism and film theory. Through the work of Louis Pierre Althusser (and more lately Ernesto Laclau, Jannis Stavrokakis and Slavoj Zizek), Lacanian theory has also left its mark on political theory, and particularly the analysis of ideology and institutional reproduction....

Lacan’s avowed theoretical intention, from at least 1953, was the attempt to reformalize what he termed “the Freudian field.” His substantial corpus of writings, speeches and seminars can be read as an attempt to unify and reground what are the four interlinking aspirations of Freud’s theoretical writings:

a theory of psychoanalytic practice as a curative procedure;
the generation of a systematic metapsychology capable of providing the basis for
the formalization of a diagnostic heuristic of mental illness; and
the construction of an account of the development of the “civilized” human psyche.
Lacan brought to this project, however, a keen knowledge of the latest developments in the human sciences, drawing especially on structuralist linguistics, the structural anthropology of Claude Levi-Strauss, topology, and game theory. Moreover, as Jacques Derrida has remarked, Lacan’s work is characterized by an engagement with modern philosophy (notably Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger and Sartre) unmatched by other psychoanalytic theorists, especially informed by his attendance at Andre Kojeve’s hugely influential Paris lectures on Hegel from 1933-1939.

associated issues

Jacques Marie Émile Lacan (1901–1981) was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who made significant and controversial contributions to psychoanalysis. In 1931 Lacan became a licensed forensic psychiatrist and inthe 1950s began his 'influential' series of seminars. Webster (2002) provides an account of the emergence of Lacan from obscurity.

Until 1966, when, at the age of 65, he published his Ecrits, very few people outside a small group of Parisian intellectuals were aware of his existence. Even within the psychoanalytic movement he was very much a minor figure, an eccentric psychiatrist with a taste for surrealism who had made no significant contribution to psychoanalytic theory and who was known, if he was known at all, for his stubborn refusal to conform to the therapeutic guidelines laid down by Freud.
During the 1960s, however, Lacan emerged from obscurity and began to be lionised by a number of French literary intellectuals. Although he remained virtually unrecognised by analysts outside France, his theories became immensely fashionable in university literature departments. By the 1980s Lacanian theory had become all but synonymous with psychoanalysis in countless humanities departments throughout Europe and America. In such academic departments Freud was studied, if he was studied at all, not so much because he was the originator of psychoanalysis but because he was the precursor of Lacan. Lacanian theory was regarded as the only modern and ideologically correct form of psychoanalysis and Freud was treated either as the inventor of a crude prototype or as a God who was to be revered in principle but ignored in practice. So massive was the prestige which Lacan had achieved outside the psychoanalytic movement by the time of his death in 1981 that psychoanalysts, who for a long time had continued to treat him as a marginal figure, were all but compelled to recognise his importance. For many literary intellectuals Lacan remains one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century. By some others the rise of Lacan is regarded as a shameful indictment of the intellectual standards which prevail in American and European universities and an affront both to science and reason.

related areas

See also



Sharpe, M., 2005, 'Jacques Lacan (1901–1981)', Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, originally published: 7 November 2002, updated 27 June 2005, available at, accessd 11 March 2013, still available 9 June 2019.

Webster, R., 2002, 'The cult of Lacan: Freud, Lacan and the mirror stage', available at, accessed 11 March 2013, still available 9 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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