Unbounded Worlds – A Challenge for Group Relations?

Unbounded Worlds – A Challenge for Group Relations?

Shmuel Erlich

Group Relations (GR) came into being and evolved against the background of the world as constituted in the 1950s and in the aftermath of WWII. Its universe was not only clearly bounded – it was super-bounded. Good and evil were sharply separated and demarcated through the opposition between Democracy and its nemeses: Fascism, Communism, Totalitarianism.

The emergence of GR at that time stemmed from the serendipitous confluence of two currents: An enlarged perspective of social science, expounded by Kurt Lewin’s field theory (1951) and Bertalanffy’s Systems Theory (1950) on one hand, and the group-as-a-whole transference and mentality, coupled with psychoanalytic defensive activity, as formulated by Bion (1961) on the other hand. Trauma played a significant behind the scenes role as well: the emergence of GR in England took place against the background of a severely injured and declining empire and the residual traumata of war, to wit also Bion’s work with traumatized soldiers and his own traumatic experience in WWI. Thus, advances and new discoveries were intertwined with the breakup of the old order and the comfort and safety it provided.

Psychoanalysis was a major input that informed and saturated the newly created GR theory, methodology and practice, along with Systems Theory. In the history of psychoanalysis as well this was a period marked by the interplay of trauma and a struggle between rigidification and innovation. WWII brought about the temporary decline of European psychoanalysis. The psychoanalytic center of gravity shifted to the US, where it became popular, academically respectable and financially successful, but at the same time increasingly stiff and removed from experiential immediacy. When GR was imported in 1966 to the US by Kenneth Rice and Pierre Turquet, which is when I first encountered it, it felt like being colonized by the British once again – by a language, a mode of articulation and a set of concepts that were at one and the same time immensely appealing and strange. “Authority and Leadership” were indeed the order of the day and what it felt to be all about.

GR teaches us to investigate the roots of processes, and it is only appropriate that we explore what went into the creation and evolution of GR. My main point is this: Implicit in the major innovations represented by GR are the residues and impingements of traumas, of national and international struggles, of loss and decline, but also of the hope for a new world and a better social order. It is pertinent to a perspective on where GR is in the present world and in its own developmental track. Surely such a perspective on areas pertinent to GR must take account of the changes that have occurred, or that we are still embroiled in.

If we look at the evolution of the titles of GR conferences, we may note a tendency towards a shift, sometimes subtle and sometimes deliberate: “Authority and Leadership” seem to have relinquished their first line prominence, which they have occupied for decades, and have either been dropped, moved to a less prominent second line, or were otherwise modified. At the same time, various other components of GR methodology, reflected in other terms, have acquired greater prominence and titular visibility. A few recent examples: “Discovering Leadership: Authenticity, Action and Responsibility – a group relations conference”; “Identity, culture, and class in group and organisational life: a group relations conference”; “Working in organisations – the unconscious at work – a group relations conference”; “Role, mask, and person in groups and organisations”; and so on. In our history of OFEK conferences it is remarkable that for the first two conferences ‘authority’ was completely dropped in favor of: Task and Organization. The reason given was that in post-Holocaust Israel the word ‘authority’ carried offensive negative associations, and no one would come. After the first two conferences it was restored to the title, to be dropped again later on, and more recently authority and leadership seem to have experienced at least a partial revival. The upcoming OFEK international conference, for example, bears the title: “Leadership, Identity and Role: Fantasy and Reality”. In a similar vein, this year’s Leicester brochure bears the title: “Task, Authority, Organization”, bracketing Authority with the notions of Task and Organization.

Multitude factors are involved in this shift, and I wish to single out only two of them: First, the wish/need for innovation, for distinguishing and differentiating oneself from previous work, as if this change of emphasis signals novelty, freshness and progress; and second, the pressures of competing in a crowded marketplace, where ‘task’ and ‘organization’ possess greater immediate familiarity and appeal. This is not a criticism; but it does raise the question: are authority and leadership no longer the issues they represented in the beginning of GR? They certainly were ‘the’ issues in the 50s, 60s, even 70s and 80s. And I firmly believe they are as relevant today. Yet something has changed in the social world we live in, and therefore also in the focus of GR work.

It seems to me that the early phases of GR have unconsciously avoided the traumas that affected and burdened the world in which they were conceived. Rather than deal with painful feelings, the focus was on structure and system, on institutional functioning, on the nature of boundaries, the clarity of task and the exercise of authority. In all this, the individual was not exactly irrelevant, but treated substantially as a signifier of the social structure he was embedded in – the group, the nationality, the kind of organization he represented. In a certain sense this may even be construed as an unconsciously totalitarian, meta-individual approach, whether it is regarded through the systemic lens, or the group-as-a-whole transference and basic assumption mentality.

Has the world indeed changed since then? Admittedly, this is a silly question, since the answer seems rather commonsensical and obvious. Indeed, the changes we have all experienced and lived through in the last decades are not only momentous and multiple, but the rate and speed of change seems to be rising exponentially. Yet we know that the answer depends very much on the focus and tools that are employed for studying and gauging change. Moreover, the psychoanalytic understanding of human nature – the place and impact of drive, desire, conflict and early experience – all suggest that at the heart of the rapid changes created and perfected by mankind, stands a human being whose internal world of experience is seriously, and quite often dangerously, out of sync with these external, fast-paced developments.

Given that the place we live in is marked by and struggling with this duality – increasingly rapid external change that is out of step with our basically unchanging internal psychic makeup – a duality that characterizes our current lives and the social dynamics that stem from it – what is the place and role of GR? Are we to be part of the forward propulsion of change, adapting ourselves to the shifting and constantly renewing styles and fashions? Or should we be the keepers and guardians of unyielding constancy and stability amidst this change, risking being anachronistic and out of step? If the objective of a GR conference is learning, what is to be the focus of this learning? Should it still be on latent institutional dynamics, governed by the impact of authority and the role of leadership? Have these issues become obsolete in the face of trends towards horizontal authority and shared leadership?

You may rightly object that these questions are irrelevant, since we have already moved beyond them, given some of the innovations that have been introduced into the classical GR format. Nevertheless, I maintain that GR as a theory, a practiced methodology and a movement is faced with these issues and is embroiled in the process of coping with them, and hence it is only appropriate to surface and focus them.

As a tentative contribution towards the exploration of the options we face, I would like to share our experience in a series of conferences that began in 1994 that have since evolved to their present form and shape. I am referring to the “Germans and Israelis, the Past in the Present” conferences, or as they are known in Germany, “the Nazareth Conferences”.

These conferences grew out of the felt need and recognition that the residual effects and aftermath of the Holocaust were an underlying, only partially and unsatisfactorily addressed dynamic in both German and Israeli-Jewish mental health professionals, hampering their capacity to work fully and well with these residues in themselves and in their patients. Recognizing both the pain and agony, as well as the difficulty of addressing this painful area, the idea of applying the GR methodology promised a fresh and potentially meaningful approach. Yet obviously the traditional GR methodology could not accommodate a structure in which two a priori identified nationality groups constituted the membership. A special design was created by Eric Miller together with the German and Israeli initiators of the project. This design consisted of mixed-nationality SSGs, single-nationality RAGs, an Institutional Event that began in simultaneous separate openings for the two nationality groups, and several Plenaries throughout the conference.

You may have noticed the absence in this design of an event commonly present in GRCs, namely the LG. It is testimony to the tremendous anxiety we felt, beginning with Eric and shared by all of us. The LG was deemed potentially too explosive and dangerous for the encounter between perpetrators and victims. That this fantasy projection was not altogether mad was confirmed by the first encounter in the opening plenary of the first Nazareth Conference. A German woman said she was so disappointed that there were so few Israelis present. An immediate response came from an elderly Israeli woman: “If you hadn’t killed so many of us, there would have been more.” Notwithstanding, or perhaps owing to this dramatic opening, the conference evolved along meaningful and fruitful lines. It became institutionalized in the mind, people expecting it to take place and planning their joining and participation. But the initial level of anxiety took several years to diminish. In the first three conferences with Eric as director, he steadfastly refused to include a LG.

What was this anxiety? Obviously, the immediate fear was of the aggression that would be liberated and insufficiently contained, the rageful attack and revenge of the victims and the guilty submission of the perpetrators to their punishment, perhaps in turn even mobilizing their counter-aggression. The anxiety of staff had to do with doubts about the resilience and strength of the structure to contain such aggression. Yet we have discovered that the source of anxiety was still deeper. In our book that describes the first three conferences (Erlich et al, 2009), we note that the main sources of anxiety and resistance were the threat to identity, coupled with the feeling of betrayal. Let me elaborate briefly.

The structure and design of these conferences provides opportunities for encountering the other, as well as meeting oneself and one’s own group. A possible outcome of this encounter is the changed image of the other, which brings about a shift in the perception of oneself. The other is an invaluable determinant of one’s own identity, and as the image of the other undergoes change, the personal and collective group identities change with it. This change is experienced as a serious threat on all psychic levels: it destabilizes one’s sense of the world as an organized, coherent, meaningful place. It undermines the clear delineation of good and bad objects, upsetting habitual patterns of projection. It challenges the primitive schizo-paranoid order, but it does not immediately create movement to a depressive integration. Worst of all, it undermines one’s ties and roots in psychic and social reality. The changed perception of the other works against the view of the world that is part of the emotional ties with one’s parents and family.

Such threats to identity emerged because Germans and Israelis came in actual close contact. Because the conference had shaken deeply established identity patterns by changing one’s view of oneself and the other, it produced disarray, tension and upset. It is difficult to give up familiar roles, such as the role of perpetrator for the Germans and that of victim for the Israelis. But the overriding danger that may block change is the fear of betrayal – of parents, relatives and culture – and the associated shame and guilt.

Beyond these dangers and difficulties, the emergent lesson of these conferences was the need and value for each group to do its own work in the actual presence of the other. This lesson was carried forth in the next series of conferences which took place in Cyprus, followed by conferences that extended the scope to include diaspora Jews, affected others, and Palestinians. We founded a new organization that took charge and responsibility for this work – Partners in Confronting Collective Atrocities (PCCA). The mission of this organization is to take forward the understanding and methodological approach we have gained and to apply it in areas and with memberships suffering from residual traumas due to violence and atrocities, whether national or international, ethnic or religious, political or historical. The shadow of the Holocaust is very much a leitmotiv affecting our understanding of what we meet, but the focus of the work has shifted to a larger European perspective.

You may well ask: Where is authority and leadership in these conferences? What makes them GR conferences? The question was indeed raised by some staff members. I my view, this is a pseudo issue. Authority as well as leadership are always present, explicitly and implicitly, as in all institutions and organizations. The conference is structured along familiar roles of management – a director, associate director and administrator. Staff are clearly allocated, deployed and authorized in their dual role as consultants and collective management. Boundaries – of task, role, times, language and territories – are carefully and mindfully monitored, as are the points on the continuum of authorization for members in the Institutional Event (our version of the OE). The conference comprises the usual events – SSG, LSG, RAG, IE and Plenaries, in addition to such recent additions as a Social Dreaming Matrix.

So wherein lies the difference? In that the Primary Task of these conferences does not aim at learning about institutional unconscious dynamics as these unfold, but rather at using these to manage and to interpret, in line with the overall theme of the conference, be it feelings and fantasies about “Germanness” and “Israeliness”/”Jewishness”; Victims and Perpetrators, Now and Then; A House Divided against Itself – Identities and Cultures in Violent Conflict; or Exclusion, Resentment, and the Return of the Repressed: Europe in a Globalized World; and so on. Put differently, the focus has shifted. The dynamics of authority and leadership, of role and task, etc. are important and omnipresent. It is the GR methodology that allows us to perceive, identify and work with them in the staff, with the membership, and with the conference institution-as-a-whole. Yet all of these are in the service of a different dynamic understanding and learning, which hopefully also creates the change that comes with understanding. In this sense, it is a figure and ground exercise.

Let me share a specific instance that took place in one of the conferences in Poland, which illustrates what I have been saying.

The conference membership was dominated by Germans and Israelis with an assortment of others from various European countries. There were 2 or 3 Polish members, as well as two members whose mother tongue was Polish but who lived in different countries. In the Institutional Event the membership formed various groups which could be seen as striving for a measure of cooperation and peaceful coexistence, perhaps invoking the image of the European Union. Slowly and belatedly it emerged that while these intergroup activities and interactions with management went on, a clandestine and unreported meeting of the Poles and Polish-speaking members was taking place, without anyone mentioning it or being explicit about it. These meetings took place within or at the outskirts of the territorial boundaries and always within the time boundaries, yet management learned of it rather late in the event. It was as if there was an additional unrecognized group within the event. In the final plenary of the Institutional Event this finally emerged, and the explanation given by these members was that they met to speak Polish, their native or mother tongue.

This bit of enactment could be understood and interpreted in many ways. It underscores the tremendous and insufficiently recognized significance of language – as a boundary, but also as a container, a matrix for identity, roots, and early life experience. Significantly, a similar event took place in one of the Cyprus conferences, when the Palestinian members closed themselves off in a room, refused to emerge from it and to interact with staff or other groups, because they wanted to speak Arabic.

Now this could be interpreted in terms of the need to violate the boundaries set by management, and hence as a rebellious protest against authority, perhaps even a bid for alternate leadership. But I chose to interpret it along different lines: I thought it was an in vivo demonstration that to assert and maintain one’s identity as a national minority in this complacent European world could only be done by avoiding contact with the authorities or the dominant majority, risking or even creating a break with the law of the land. If national identity is threatened, felt to be outlawed and forbidden, it can only be maintained clandestinely or in defiance of authority. In such a cultural context, language becomes a refuge for identity. At the same time, its clandestine character poses a serious threat to democracy, for which transparency and participation are guiding values and norms. You may wish to reflect on the pertinence of this observation to current socio-political trends. For me this was probably the most telling event of the conference.

These developments and illustrations help to focus the challenges GR faces under conditions of a rapidly changing sociocultural milieu and the unchanged elements of human constitution, mind and soul.

I want to share with you my own conclusions and tentative suggestions. As I have tried to demonstrate, GR came into being through the amalgamation of psychoanalytic and systemic insights. These two different components represent essentially opposed emphases on the internal vs the external world. While their fusion in the GR practice has been no less than brilliant and powerful, there has always been a certain strain between them.

In GR we are currently trying to hold together two very distinct aspects of our human existence, namely the duality of our nature, which Bion (1961) described as the tragic dimension of human existence… the conflict between two inherent and fundamental aspects of the human being: that of being a herd animal which can fully exist only within a matrix with others, and that of possessing an individual subjectivity that only knows itself and seeks to follow its own individual course. It corresponds to what I described earlier as the dilemma of emphasizing the group, the institution and organization as against the experience of trauma and pain. I think that in recent times GR conferences have developed awareness of this dilemma and tried to accommodate both aspects by including events and experiences that may address the internal world and inner space. The question is: has this resolved the issue or merely obscured it? Or: Is there a price for holding both ends of the stick?

Let me clarify to avoid misunderstanding: In no way am I advocating turning GR in a more therapeutic direction, aimed at healing individual pain and suffering. I am suggesting that perhaps what we need, faced with the challenge of a turbulent and violent world, is to proceed simultaneously in two parallel, equally important tracks. One track would preserve the initial aims of GR, i.e., to provide opportunities for learning about the unconscious dynamics in groups and organizations in ways that would contribute to participants’ functioning in role in their organizations. This would entail the unabashed clear emphasis on authority and leadership, as well as other familiar aspects, such as boundaries, task and role.

The other track that I envision is GRCs in which the learning and experience gained in the first track are brought to bear on a variety of current and/or historical issues, where individual issues are contingent upon group identity, historical struggles and aspirations. The trauma, pain and suffering are at one and the same time the individual’s and the group’s, and the individual is affected because of his ‘groupiness’, as Bion put it, and therefore it can best be dealt with at the group level. Jews and Armenians, Serbs and Chechnians, Tutsi and Cham, Vietnamese and Americans were all persecuted and murdered not for any individual reason but because they belonged to a specific group and identity. There are naturally less gruesome examples to be found, such as workers, people of color, or Mexican immigrants, each with its oppressors and counterparts. The point is that GR can contribute significantly towards providing a way of working with them as a group, employing the method gained through its exploration of unconscious institutional dynamics.

In closing, let me reiterate what we have learned from GR: If we can re-focus and be clear about our Primary Task, there is every reason to believe that we will meet these challenges.


1* Keynote address for Belgirate VI Conference, “The Place Where We Live: The Space for Group Relations”, 1-4 November 2018.
2* Sigmund Freud Professor of Psychoanalysis (Emeritus), The Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Psychoanalyst in private practice; consultant to organizations; Founding Member, OFEK, PCCA.
2019-12-15T20:18:46+00:00