Sunday, February 8, 2009

Reading Notes – On Group Analysis and the Social Unconscious

This post is reviewing a group of articles discussing the notion of social unconscious as understood by clinical practitioners of group analysis (i.e., psychoanalysis in group). This approach to psychoanalysis was developed S. H. Foulkes during World War II in England, when we was called to provide treatments to soldiers with psychological injuries. After the war, Foulkes developed his experimental approach into a full-fledge branch of psychoanalysis known under the name “Group Analytic”. This approach is often defined by the motto “analysis by and for the group”.

This approach is interesting because it provides a bridge to understand the relationships between the individual and the collective unconscious, and it is based on the empirical findings of clinical practitioners of group analysis. Furthermore, this approach sees the individual and the collective unconscious in a manner very similar to the fractal approach I discussed in a previous post (although these practitioners do not use the concept of fractal). As well, towards the end of his life Foulkes provides some new perspectives on his approach that open the doors wide open for the integration of concepts such as synchronicity and a-causal communications. These new perspectives were picked up by some of his followers, and provide also an interesting bridge to parapsychology. Although, none of the articles reviewed here used the word psi or parapsychology, we are just a step away.

The articles reviewed are:

Dalal, Farhad. (2001). “The social unconscious: A post-Foulkesian perspective”. Group Analysis 34(4): 539-555.

Powell, Andrew. (1991). “Matrix, mind and matter: From the internal to the eternal”. Group Analysis 24(3): 299-322.

Thygesen, Bente. (2008). “Resonance: No music without resonance—without resonance no group 1”. Group Analysis 41(1): 63-83.

Zeddies, Timothy J. (2002). “Unconscious experience in social and historical context”. Group Analysis 35(3): 381-389.

Individual and collective unconscious as a continuum

One of the key notions in group analytic is that the individual unconscious and the collective unconscious cannot be separated in a radical way. Both are understood to be on a continuum from the more shallow aspect of the unconscious (the individual one) to the deepest (the collective or social unconscious). In typical group analysis, the analyst helps the group to “elevate” to their consciousness elements of the social unconscious, so that as a group they can deal with the common issue they have. The goal is , of course, a therapeutic one for the group members to take charge of their own lives and move towards a more fulfilling life. For instance, a group can be formed with former alcoholics, who together bring to their consciousness that element of the social unconscious implying that “alcoholics are losers”. This negative view does not only reside in the unconscious depth of the group members, but can be found in the society at large. As group, they not only recognize this deep and debilitating unconscious complex, but they redefine as a group their collective identity as “survivors”. This, in turn, will help the group, as well as each individual, to reinforce their self-esteem and therefore be in a better position to remain sober, and ultimately leave their alcoholic past permanently behind.

What some group analysts did, however, is to go beyond that and try to encompass the entire social realm into their analysis. From that point of view, they reject the Freudian notion that there is a conflict between our natural ways and what society requires of us to be able to live in group. In blending the psychoanalysis of Foulkes and the sociology of Norbert Elias it is possible to say “they have shown us that, because developmental process takes place within a sociological milieu, the structures and preoccupations of this milieu are necessarily involved from the start. Further, as sociological processes are necessarily drawn into the developmental process, they must permeate the psychology of the individual at all levels.” (Dalal 2001: 547). Or, in other words, “what is unconscious is not bound by individual variables but something that is shaped from the onset by an intricately woven tapestry of moral and ethical values, beliefs and assumptions.” (Zeddies 2002: 382).

This issue can be more clearly seen through the notion of power relations between social groups, and how power shapes collective and individual identities. “Thus the possibilities available to any individual are constrained by the power relations in the milieu into which the individual is born. Therefore the nature of the so-called true individual authentic self cannot be other than fundamentally constituted by where it is positioned in the power relational field”. (Dalal 2001: 547). This notion is quite well known in the field of anti-racism studies, after the pioneer work of Frantz Fanon who showed that non-white colonized people learned from the start to be “inferior” and “obedient” to the colonizers. Norbert Elias, a pioneer of this type of sociological analysis, discovered these deep and subtle power patterns during some of his empirical researches in English small towns. He found that the identities of residents who could claim a multi-generational link to the town had more clout, power, and status than the newcomers, and this was creating the key social dynamics in these towns (Elias 1978).

From a psychological perspective, this means that it had “a dire and debilitating effect on the psyche—leading eventually to depression or expression of anger and self-hate” among the newcomers (Dalal 2001: 552). Again, this can be also seen in the context of inequalities between social classes, where people with less money internalize their “losing position in the materialist consumerist race”. Materialist consumerism is definitely a phenomenon only in existence since the Industrial Revolution, and most prominent since the second half of the 20th century. So, it is therefore possible to say that “the social and historical context shapes what can be explicitly known and what must be repressed, denied or remain unformulated. This feature of unconsciousness helps, I think, to better appreciate how wider social or cultural forces shape the boundary between conscious and unconscious states, and how the unconscious is a social and historical artefact” (Zeddies 2002: 384). Now, if one thinks about a frustrated community that has certain shared values that prevents the expression of collective dissent or of violence (like very strict Christian values), then we can have a situation very similar to the ones found in individual RSPKs.

This point has also a lot of implication for the study of psi. After all, if the unconscious is an historical and social artefact, and that the source of psi effects is linked to unconscious mental processes, then parapsychology has it work cut out. It is especially true if we take this notion of “social or cultural forces shaping the boundary between conscious and unconscious states” seriously. The direct implication is that positivist attempts to find a universal threshold between the conscious and the unconscious (the liminal zone where psi occur) is a fallacy. Where this zone is can only be described in relative terms within the framework of a culture. So, not only its content is specific to a society, a culture, an era, but also how it is triggered. This would also provide some explanations, i.e. going beyond description, of what Vallée and others have noted in terms of the cultural and historical content of UFOs and apparitions (seeing aliens now, seeing fairies then), as well as to how and when it is more likely that they appear in a given society (for instance, Bigfoot appears in very low density areas in the Western world; a monkey-like and terrifying creature appears in India in the middle of East Delhi in May 2001).

Some aspects of the unconscious dynamics

Many individual psychoanalysts find themselves facing psi effects while engaging with their clients in their clinical practice. The famous story of Jung, the over-rationalizing client and the scarab is a well-known one. Present-day analysts are becoming more vocal about these phenomena. For instance, “psychic phenomena—telepathy, clairvoyance, etc.—once a domain most commonly addressed by Jungian analysts, is increasingly coming under investigation from a psychoanalytic perspective as well. [...] Only a handful of psychoanalysts since the 1950’s on have addressed the matter of occultism directly, but for a growing number of psychoanalysts (Mayer, Morgan, Matte-Blanco, Toton, for instance) it is no longer a question of whether or not these phenomena beyond sensual experience exist.” (Reiner 2004: 313).

I assume that analysts involved in group analytic are also facing similar situations, and they too are starting to come out of the wood work. For instance, “the process of imaginative identification that we call empathy may even turn out to be a sensitivity not unlike clairvoyance! This astonishing fact, of physical and mental interpenetration, calls to mind Foulkes’ statement that: ‘it is always the transpersonal network that is sensitised and gives utterance or responds. In this sense we can postulate the existence of a group mind’” (Powell 1991: 319).

More recently, another group analyst, using his own clinical experience, looked into the concept of resonance proposed by Foulkes to understand the social unconscious. He proposed something quite close to what parapsychologists are saying about psi. “Communication without any particular message being sent or received—that was Foulkes’ definition of resonance. It might as well be defined as instantaneous interaction without any information or exchange of energy being in fact non-local.” (Thygesen 2008: 78).

Resonance, in the group analytic approach, is what occurs at deepest level of the unconscious, the social unconscious. Metaphorically, it implies that people are “in tune” at a deep level so that there is no need to communicate to have communication. A concrete example is on 4 May 1955, the 10th anniversary of the end of the German occupation of Denmark, “what was unforgettable was, that the whole of the city (of Copenhagen) was illuminated in less than one hour ... Without any agreement and without anyone knowing from where all these candles came ... they suddenly stood there side by side in every window sill, small torches, sending their flickering light from home to home all over the country” (Thygesen 2008: 64). Thygesen, will discussing resonance, also see it as the key to understand how small group identity emerges. “[...] the processes expressed in resonance, are a prerequisite for the group-formation as such. In the sense that a gathering of people turns into a group with members’ experience of a ‘we’, seen from outside as an ‘it’, and in the sense that the group is seen and understood as a unity and a wholeness.” (Thygesen 2008: 79).

I think this concept of resonance can be quite useful to understand the inner dynamics of RSPKs, where a family is at a deep unconscious level “in tune” in their dysfunctional dynamics, which gives strength to the psi effect. From a parasociology perspective, I think it is also possible to have a society unconsciously “in tune” at a deep level and thus provide strong enabling conditions for a macro psi effects.

Lastly, it is interesting to relate a few elements together. The fact that teens are often associated to RSPKs appears to me a matter of deep individual identity being tumultuously created at the deepest level of the unconscious (rather than being a biological issue per se). Batcheldor, cited in Heath (2003), spend also quite a bit of time in the group-sitter experience in developing a group-mind in creating a “light party-like atmosphere to minimize witness inhibition” (p. 157). Lastly, Ginach (2004) underlined that strange and disruptive synchronistic events occurring at the social level when there are deep contradictions in the national identity. Hence, socially and culturally bound contexts in which identity is created at deep unconscious levels appear to be playing a key role in various forms of psi effects.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet


solve it said...

Your entry came to me via what for me is a relatively new discovery, “google alerts.” The alert I requested was “group psyche.” This Internet service facilitates the sharing of knowledge, or reveals content that has previously been hidden (or unconscious) to the receiver. Having never heard of parasociology I was delighted to find that others have been interested in the topic of how individual and group and collective conscious and unconscious interrelate. I wrote a dissertation, with interdisciplinary discussion, on what is occurring when a group participates in a sand tray session, that is, the placing of miniatures (which through this use are given metaphoric and highly communicative content) by group members into a framed tray of sand, and the discussion and activity that follows. The group creates a unique picture that automatically through projection reveals the current state of the collective psyche in some depth although it is expressed by and through unique individuals. I have observed how a person’s contribution may make sense personally while combining seamlessly with the larger constellation. Sometimes it is also clear that individuals are prompted to express content that is not especially pertinent to themselves, but serves the apt depiction of the collective. If there is change in one area of the tray as a result of discussion, participants tend together to adjust the remainder of the tray as well, and appear to be collectively learning, or adjusting both conscious and unconscious. Extending this dynamic to the world outside the sand tray room, it makes sense that some of us become carriers of expression, metaphoric or otherwise, that is in need of being revealed, like a resource or a symptom.
I also learned that when a group is questioned separately their answers tend to be additive rather than repetitive which indicates to me that together we function as both a learning and revealing “organism” within which we function like unique, potentially contributory “cells.” Sophia Hughes, PhD.

Eric Ouellet said...

Hello Sophia,

Thank you for your comments.

My Ph.D. is in sociology, as you can probably see, and I am ventruing into psychology in an attempt to link the two in a non-reductionist way.

Your comments are very helpful, and please feel free to intervene. A constructive dialogue between sociology and psychology is badly needed in the social sciences in general. A clear example, is that when I do qualitative empirical research in a sociology, I also notice the addition effect that you mentionned, especially when I attempt to assess organizational worldviews, and institutional ways of thinking.

Best Regards,