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|Toward a Social Astrology: Recognising
the Social Character of Life
by André Donnell
Contemporary, client-based astrological practice appears, by its very nature, to be an art  of the individual. Almost invariably the natal chart is a unique fingerprint of our client: whatever people may appear to share in common, the chart sets any one person apart from all others. The person may share their vote with millions of others; their vocation may be undistinguished; they may inhabit a house and drive a car quite like hundreds of others. Yet, their date, time and place of birth - or rather their natal chart as a whole - is theirs and theirs alone.
This primarily individualistic focus appears to be reinforced by the conditions of typical, daily astrological practice. The typical astrological consultation involves a single individual as the client. A single chart is the focus of the session. From time to time, the client will inquire about relationship problems pertaining to partner, friends, family, or work relationship; or romantic prospects may be in question. When available, charts of these significant others may be brought into play. But otherwise less specific comments about the client's relationship style, and/or forthcoming transits and other indicators may be used, always based exclusively on the client's individual chart.
Standing in sharp contrast to the individualistic focus of the natal chart, other contemporary perspectives of the person within the social sciences increasingly emphasize the social and contextual nature of personal being (e.g., Doise, Mugny & Perez, 1998; Guerin, 1994; Rogers, Stenner, Gleason & Rogers, 1995). Numerous behaviours and experiences arise not from individuals, but as joint constructions of multiple persons acting in concert. At the extreme, in this view, persons are not 'individual' in any real sense. Rather we might be said to be unique or individual composites of socially constructed ways of acting. Psychology has increasingly accommodated non-individualistic, collectivist views of the person. In effect, much behaviour that we attribute to ourselves, especially because of the ways in which we talk, is in fact a joint product or 'construction' of two or more people.
Among numerous problems to be debated within astrology are those of individual prediction, and the vexed question of orb. In this paper it is my intention to indicate that a social conceptualization of astrology presents new and interesting approaches to these two problems; suggests a fundamentally greater importance for the technique of synastry than has hitherto been appreciated; and suggests new (social) ways of looking at the nature of the individual person.
Synastry And Context
The method of synastry forms an accepted part of most astrological practices, yet my general impression is that the astrologer's mindset is of separate individuals 'influencing' or 'effecting' each other. One person behaves in particular ways (shown by their chart); and other people respond to that behaviour in one or more ways (shown by their chart). Yet there remains a sense of separateness, of there still being a distinct "you" and a distinct "me".
The invention of the composite chart appeared for the first time to enable a third entity to be recognised: the "us" or "we". This was acknowledgment that something emerges from relationships which does not originate in any one party: rather, it is a joint or mutual product. It makes it possible to see (although this is not language that is astrologically meaningful or appropriate) that two or more 'good' people might nevertheless, and through no fault of any of the parties, interact in a 'bad' way, and vice-versa. At times however, the conceptual breakthrough that the composite chart represents has been lost, as when astrologers compare the charts of the individual parties to the composite chart. The mindset of individual and separate persons retains a strong grip in astrological practice, as it also does in many areas of psychology.
Traditional synastry often involves compiling a simple aspectarian or list of cross-aspects between multiple charts (usually two), or drawing a bi-wheel or tri-wheel. Actually, this approach is just as capable as the composite chart of representing relationship. One of the key ways this can be realised is through planetary configurations, although it needs at least the concept of the bi-wheel to show it clearly. For example, two individual charts may both lack a TSquare or GrandTrine configuration by themselves, but when brought together these and other configurations often appear. When they do, it is obvious that the relationship between the two parties produces new behaviours (shown by these new or 'emergent' configurations) which each party lacks by themselves. Exactly as with the composite, the conclusion is that people act in new ways when interacting with each other, and that these new behaviours are not contained in any one individual's chart.
So far, so good; but there are important further conclusions here (essentially restatements of the point just presented) which have never been drawn as far as I am aware. If people act in ways when they are in relationship which they do not and cannot act in by themselves, then the individual natal chart is inadequate when relationships are at issue. However, from the moment we are born to the moment we die, we are almost always acting within relationships. Therefore, the individual natal chart is almost always inadequate as a description of how any person thinks, feels, and acts , because relationships are almost always 'at issue', whether we are aware of their presence and influence or not (Guerin, 1999).
I have mentioned that the social and contextual nature of the person is a well-established focus of the social sciences. These points are also increasingly being made, so far it seems at primarily theoretical or philosophical levels, within astrology too (e.g., Donnell, 1999; Sheeran, 2000; Webber 2000). What I have attempted to show here is that the necessarily social and contextual nature of the person has always been available from within the astrological paradigm, and that synastry is the means by which (with limitations) to contextualise the person in everyday practice. This includes understanding that the interpretation of the client's chart is a social and contextual production of the client and the astrologer and their respective cultures (Webber, 2000); and indeed that the meaning of what has been conveyed is both cradled within the client's and astrologer's pre-existing relationships (synastries), and subsequently modified within the client's subsequent return to those relationships (synastries).
Finally, I hope to have made clear that whereas normal practice is to interpret the individual natal chart, and to include (very few) charts of the client's significant others only as questions about those relationships are raised, this practice is simply wrong. Unless the idea that one chart influences another is rejected, and this means rejecting synastry, we must accept that most of our behaviour is in fact social behaviour, stemming from our immersion within multiple layers of synastries that begin with our very closest family relationships, extend to our friendships, then to our workmates and other associates, then to strangers and passers-by, and so on out into our society and time.
The Problem of Prediction
When I first joined the online astrological community in August 1996, I found myself in the midst of a raging debate concerning the validity of astrological prediction. Not surprisingly, this included its ethical aspects (C. Hillenbrand, August, 1996; Levine, 2000). However, I was intrigued to find that even more of the discussion concerned the many occasions on which astrological prediction fails to work. Some astrologers contended that a prediction should not be made (or in other words, 'will not work') unless there are at least three simultaneous indicators of the same 'event'. Others were less sure, pointing to many occasions when the same indicator or indicators clearly worked with one client but not with another; or worked with the same client on one occasion but not another.
Within the sciences, a situation such as this is accepted as clear evidence showing that the phenomenon concerned is unreliable. For example, if one set of experiments provide clear evidence, but a roughly equal set of experiments fail to find evidence, it is taken that the successes may be chance effects, or that in some way the phenomenon is improperly understood and hence is being defined and measured incorrectly. Indeed, the reliability problem with prediction is now well documented (e.g., Huckeby, 1999; Levine, 1999; Sheeran, 2000); and in particular Huckeby (1999) and Sheeran (2000) have both presented exciting approaches that promise to widen our understanding of how these techniques should be redefined.
My intention here is to show that the unreliable nature of prediction follows directly from synastric considerations; and that there are certain new implications of this view. The chief implication is that even if we perfectly understand how transits influence the individual, reliable predictions cannot be made because those predictions can always be mollified or even over-turned by the synastric effects of the client's other relationships. Prediction of the usual sort  never takes the client's synastries into account, yet must be incomplete without them. However, the astrologer usually cannot take these synastries into account as, in most contemporary societies, the client continually interacts with new persons whom neither the client nor the astrologer can know about in advance.
A simple example of this is to consider a middle-aged person with a 22 year old daughter. As I write this article, Pluto is in the 12th degree of Saggitarius; and that means that this daughter - and also numerous other people close to her age - are currently experiencing a Sextile (or 6H) transit. Suppose further that the middle-aged parent has the Moon at 12 Gemini, being exactly Opposed by the Pluto transit; and suppose further that there is no natal MoonPluto connection. The effect of the relationship to the daughter is that, far from the transit being a "new experience", there has in fact been a relationship between Moon and Pluto for both parent and daughter for the previous 22 years, stemming from their synastry. Similarly, the daughter's experience of the Pluto Transit contains qualities of her PlutoMoon relationship to her parent.
This scenario is highly simplistic. In fact, the central person in this example almost certainly has numerous synastric relationships involving natal Moon and other planets, and this means that the 'weight' or 'force' of any given transit is significantly diluted by the person's overall social network. To put this another way, suppose that the person has no natal TSquare, but that the current Pluto transit produces a TSquare. Ordinarily, one might expect the formation of such a configuration to have a very large impact, in particular because of the lack of the configuration natally. But if the person already has a TSquare involving their natal Moon within their social network, then the transit is quite simply "nothing new".
An important final point is this: it is clear that over time different parts of one's social network become important. Sometimes, one suddenly remembers an old friend and it becomes important to see that person. Although we will often interpret this "event" in relation to the influence of some concurrent transit, what is it that causes one to remember that particular friend? My suggestion is that that friend becomes important because one already has a synastry with that person which is similar or identical to the nature of the transit. In effect, the friendship provides a mitigator or neutraliser. Our dependence on our social networks is not just because of the unique, emergent behaviours we produce with each other, but because of the release or escape they provide from prevailing transits .
The Problem Of Orb
There are few more vexatious problems than that of orb, with values ranging as wide as seventeen degrees in certain circumstances (Jones, 1960), and as narrow as 1.5 degrees or less. Although orbs of about five degrees are the norm, this merely represents a practice. It does not appear to be based on research findings (but see Ridgley, 2000 for an example of a research study partly directed at resolving this question); and unfortunately there are a number of competing theories each justifying radically different values. However, an important trend to note is that orbs have tightened considerably over the last century; and that there is an almost universal tendency to consider that tighter orbs mean "stronger" influences.
Although what I present here is 'yet another theory', it has the advantage of being part of the larger theory or framework of a 'social' astrology, and it provides quite specific and testable ideas of how orb works. It also shows that the wide variation in values used by different schools of astrologers may be the outcome of a factor not previously considered important: that of the typical client's social network size; or more generally the population density of the community within which the astrologer operates.
The solution I present here is simple: from the synastric perspective, tighter orbs in the individual natal chart are "stronger" because, given a 'tight link', it is less likely that one's social network will include someone whose chart forms an even tighter link, and thus 'interferes with' or modifies the behaviours (actions, thoughts, feelings) otherwise shown by that natal aspect. In other words, the tighter the orb, the less likely it is that synastry will invalidate astrological delineations based on the individual natal chart alone. For example, suppose one has the configuration Moon Square Pluto with an orb of one degree. Within an active social network that includes five close friends or associates, the probability that at least one of those friends will form a closer fourth harmonic link (Conjunction, Square or Opposition) than this natal configuration is some 43%. The one degree link is therefore reasonably likely to remain 'intact'; apparently, a truly "individual" attribute. However, once the orb is increased to two degrees, the probability of a closer link to a friend's chart increases to some 67%, meaning it is now quite likely that a new or emergent behaviour with that friend will override the 'individual' configuration.
Put another way, the tighter the orbs used in delineating a natal chart, the more often the delineation will be true. The wider the orbs, the less often the delineation will be true, because it is more likely that the client will develop significant social patterns of behaviour with other people in their regular social network that override or modify the individual potential. In this perspective, the words "stronger" and "weaker" are actually ways of expressing our experience of what is 'more often true' and 'less often true' when we read charts for individual clients in isolation from their social context.
This perspective also casts light on two other points. It explains the very wide orbs that some astrologers use. They are used because occasionally they do in fact work. They will work because the clients in these cases have developed within a social network where no overriding synastric link has occurred. In the example I gave previously, a natal Moon Square Pluto will occasionally mean what that configuration is expected to mean even if the orb is 20 degrees, if the person involved has no relationships within which a closer Moon link occurs. It also explains the modern tendency to adopt tighter orbs than appear to have been used in previous centuries. This is happening because population density and mobility have increased to unprecedented levels compared to previous centuries, enormously reducing the chances for individual natal potentials to remain intact, and raising levels of purely social behaviour.
My final point concerns a crucial distinction between tight-link and loose-link configurations (including "unaspected" planets) in the natal chart. Dale Huckeby (personal communication, 13 March, 2000) has made the tentative observation that the charts of famous people tend to show "a kind of looseness". In contrast, "it's almost as [if] too 'powerful' a chart (in conventional terms) makes Jack a dull boy, or at least not a standout". It is now possible to understand this observation. Tight links and configurations within the natal chart are essentially more impervious to social networks. People with a predominantly tightly linked chart are more self-contained, less influenced by others, less changeable, and more likely to be successful subjects for individualistic natal chart readings. People with predominantly loose charts however are much more likely to develop a range of behaviours that alter significantly according to social context, that is, according to who they are interacting with at any given time.
Of course, these are general characterizations. Almost every chart contains a mixture of tight and loose links. The lesson is that in most social networks our tight links indicate our individually persistent behaviours; whereas our loose links indicate where our capacities for relationship and change are greatest and where we act, think, and feel significantly differently from person to person and from situation to situation.
In this paper I have attempted to show that, except with the very tightest links, attempting to delineate the chart as if the individual exists in complete isolation from his or her social networks is simply wrong, and that it produces problems for individual prediction which are already well recognised. These problems will worsen as social networks continue to become larger, and mobility makes them more changeable.
We are not just individuals; we are not even mostly individuals. That which is reliably individual about us is described by the handful of very tight links within our charts. Otherwise, we are social and contextual beings. Just as we have certain individual patterns of behaviour, so we have patterns of behaviour that we develop in unison with others. These patterns do not 'belong' to any one of the participating parties, but are unique products of the synastries specific to those parties. As such, it is not tightly linked configurations, but rather loose configurations that show our capacity to 'reach out to others' or act in genuinely social ways. Moreover, as populations and mobility increase, we are becoming steadily more social, more and more creatures of our immediate context. Correspondingly, individually based astrology will continue its evolution toward tighter and tighter orbs.
The social astrology I advocate here emphasises that the natal chart should never be interpreted in isolation. Although one cannot take all the actual and potential relationships of the client into account, and this means that prediction can never become a certain practice, a considerably deeper understanding of the whole person can be achieved by considering all the charts of the person's closest relationships together. Indeed, there are many things that we attribute to ourselves as individuals (particularly because of our Western, individualist mindset; and the rhetorical attributions of blame and responsibility which we make in our everyday language) which are actually the social products of our more long-standing relationships.
In future articles I will attempt to show how these concepts should be applied. I will also show how the social approach developed here may point to a possible new approach to mundane practice.
 Many of us think of astrology as a science, or a nascent science; others prefer the term craft, some use the term technology. The term 'art' is used as a general term. « Text
 In my own practice, the separative nature of bi-wheels is removed by allowing the charts of the parties, and the current transits, to be combined into a single "merged" chart. « Text
 Indeed, it can be argued that even when alone we are acting in relationships; hence, that all action is social (Guerin, 1999). The corrollary is that the natal chart is not "almost always", but always inadequate. « Text
 Astrologers who find this too radical a conclusion will be relieved to know there is an important qualification to this, which I deal with under the problem of orb. « Text
 I say 'of the usual sort' to distinguish what I am talking about here from the important, developmental ideas of Dale Huckeby (1999). I intend to show in a future article how the ideas I have presented here are compatible with that framework. « Text
 However, note that in future I will put these ideas in a significantly different conceptual framework in conjunction with Dale Huckeby's (1999) ideas. « Text
Guerin, B. (1994). Understanding social behavior. Reno, NV: Context Press.
Guerin, B. (1999). Sixteen reasons why we are acting socially when we are acting alone. University of Waikato: Unpublished manuscript.
Doise, W., Mugny, G., & Perez, J. A. (1998). The social construction of knowledge: Social marking and socio-cognitive conflict. In U. Flick (Ed.), The psychology of the social (pp. 77-90). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Donnell, A. (1999). The philosophy of science and its implications for astrology. The Wholistic Astrologer, 1, 20-26.
Huckeby, D. (1999). Astrological correspondences: The patterns in our lives. The Wholistic Astrologer, 2, 38-45.
Jones, M. E. (1960). Essentials of astrological analysis. Stanwood, WA: Sabian Publishing Society.
Levine, P. (1999). Prediction, accountability and the spirit of astrology. The Wholistic Astrologer, 2, 46-49.
Ridgley, S. K. (2000). Astrologically predictable patterns in work related injuries. Doctoral thesis: Available online at http://safire.net/sara
Rogers, R. S., Stenner, P., Gleeson, K., & Rogers, W. S. (1995). Social psychology: A critical agenda. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Sheeran, B. (2000). On prediction and the unpredictable. The Wholistic Astrologer, 3, 51-53.
Webber, J. (2000). The horoscope as text: Beyond a humanistic or medieval astrology? The Wholistic Astrologer, 3, 3-10.
Ed. N.: André Donnell is currently pursuing doctoral research on minority influence and dissent from a discourse analytic and social constructionist perspective. His educational background includes social and clinical psychology, psychometrics, and social science research; with additional credits in physics and mathematics. His astrological interests currently include the application of mathematical and statistical analysis to resolving or examining certain epistemological questions in astrology. In addition, he is interested in applying both psychometric methods and computer simulation ('microworld') models to astrological practice.
All rights reserved © 2001 André Donnell