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Bion's Legacy to Groups

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'It is characteristic of some forms of scientific genius to alter not just what we see in the world, but how we see it - not just the view, but the lens. One thinks of Freud's discovery of the transference, or of Melanie Klein's attention to the play of children. Wilfred Bion's study of groups and group processes also has this quality. More than the content of what he saw and captured in the concepts of two modes of mental functioning in groups and in the differentiation of the basic assumptions, it was the way he saw or, more broadly, the way he sensed the emotional life of the individual in the group, and in the first instance his own, that opened up a quite new territory for exploration. Those of us whose practice takes place primarily in the institutional or social domain can find in his more psychoanalytic work seeds of new thought extending beyond the consulting room.Going "beyond the confines" might perhaps more generally stand as a metaphor for Bion's enterprise. This is the debt that the papers collected in this volume first and foremost seek to record - a debt that is both personal and institutional. One hopes that they may also, warts and all, exemplify something of his legacy - a legacy of capturing thoughts about thought or of looking at how we look, in the varied and the different worlds we inhabit and that inhabit us.'- David Armstrong, from his Foreword

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1. The internal establishment

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Paul Hoggett

Bion never ceased to have the group in mind. His explorations of psychosis and his theory of thinking have provided an avenue for examining the “negative emotions”—that is, those emotions that are antithetical to thought and life. Drawing upon the work of Bion, Rosenfeld, Meltzer, and Steiner, this chapter develops the hypothesis that there exists in the life of the mind and the group an “internal establishment”—a highly organized agency under whose protection a kind of life is allowed to continue. Within the group, the establishment operates as an invisible, secretive, reactionary force that patrols the frontier of a section of the group’s “unthought known”—a known that threatens the group illusion.

Internal destruction

I wish to explore the hypothesis that an internal establishment exists which operates as a reactionary force within the life of the mind and the group. I use the word “reactionary” to convey the idea of something that is the locus of much of our destructive-ness—destructive of our capacity to identify our feelings, “to make sense”, to give words to experience, and to live truthfully. Perhaps the term “reactionary” understates what we may be dealing with here. When Rosenfeld (1987, p. 107) states, “I believe that some deadly force inside the patient, resembling Freud’s description of the death instinct, exists and can be clinically observed”, he deploys the clarity that I am groping for.

 

2. Beyond Bion's Experiences in Groups: group relations research and learning

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Robert M. Lipgar

Experiences in Groups: notes in retrospect

Although Wilfred Bion’s collection of papers, Experiences in Croups (1961) is considered by many—and perhaps by Bion himself—to contain only sketches for a theory about group relations, it is a seminal work and of enduring importance. We were first introduced to these papers at the University of Chicago in the early 1950s by Herbert A. Thelen (1954,1984). We were a lively group of graduate students who gathered around Thelen1to study the way people worked and learned in groups and how groups influenced how people worked and learned. We were particularly interested in demonstrating scientifically the advantages of democratic leadership. In our zeal, we were inspired not only by Thelen, but also by the work of John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, and Wilfred Bion.2

For those of us who sought relief at that time from the rigidities of logical positivism and the seeming sterility of behaviourism, Bion’s attention to states of emotionality, covert processes, and the group as an organism was refreshing. For those of us who were concerned—and more than a little apprehensive—about man’s capacity for inhumanity to man, Bion’s sensitive examination of the individual in relationship to the social context was especially meaningful. The idea of a “group mentality” as a “pool for anonymous contributions” gave us new ways of thinking about our group experiences. The fact that silence gave consent resonated deeply with our post-World-War-II mentality. Bion’s attention to, and respect for, affect, combined with his commanding intelligence, assured him a special place among us.

 

3. Are basic assumptions instinctive?

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Eric Miller

Psychoanalytic theory derives from Freud’s realization that attempts to understand neurosis by focusing on a study of the individual patient had yielded very little insight. His fundamental discovery was that the shift of focus to the analyst-patient dyad and to the transaction between the two—the transference and countertransference—could uncover rich material that was held in the patient’s unconscious. That dyadic relation was an “intelligible field of study” (Bion, 1961, p. 104). As a result, Freud and his successors have given us a much deeper understanding of the processes of human development from infancy onwards and of the ways in which they shape our perceptions and relationships as adults.

Psychoanalytic theory has also contributed to our appreciation of the dynamics of groups and larger systems, starting with Freud himself (Freud, 1912-13, 1921c). One of the more influential later examples is the proposition that social systems operate as defences against persecutory or depressive anxiety, a theory that was articulated by Jaques (1955)—though he much later withdrew it (Jaques 1995)—and built on by Menzies (1960) and others. But probably the most significant original insights into group behaviour came from Bion (1948-51, 1952, 1961). Most interpretations of psycho-dynamics of organizations had been—and still are—based on theory derived from the analytic dyad. Bion shifted the frame to the group and thereby identified—though he was cautious about claiming it (Bion, 1961, p. 104)—a new “intelligible field of study” (cf. Khaleelee & Miller, 1985). He did so by playing the role of analyst with therapy groups and later with groups who met for learning rather than for treatment. This gave him access to a set of dynamics that had previously been unrecognized; from these he developed a theory that introduced the concept of a proto-mental system related to the groupishness of the human individual, and he identified basic assumptions that he believed to be inherent in the underlife of all groups. “The individual”, he said, “is a group animal at war, both with the group and with those aspects of his personality that constitute his ‘groupishness’“ (p. 168).

 

6. Oneness and Me-ness in the bad

ePub

Diane Hatcher Cano

… the group is often used to achieve a sense of vitality by total submergence in the group, or a sense of individual independence by total repudiation of the group…

Wilfred Bion, Experiences in Groups

Wilfred Bion spent only a fraction of his long and creative career actively working with groups and writing about them, but it was in this arena that he made his first original contributions (which continue to spur our thought today), and there is a sense in which he never left the group, because as we know, for him psychoanalysis was primarily the study of how we think, and for him how we think is in relation to the other.

Bion’s conceptualization of groups as sharing unconscious, as well as conscious, purposes and patterns of interaction is taken for granted by us today, as if groups had always been studied from this point of view. His description of group members unconsciously cooperating in a few characteristic, repetitive patterns that give the impression that they share a basic assumption about their purpose still informs not only our observations of group interactions that do fall into the patterns he identified, but also our efforts to comprehend others we discern which apparently do not. As a result, his way of looking at groups has led on to the description of other basic-assumption states beyond those he identified as dependency, fight/flight and pairing (familiarly known as baD, baF, and baP). Specifically, in 1974 Pierre Turquet described a fourth basic assumption which he called “Oneness” (baO) in which members “seek to join in a powerful union with an omnipotent force” or “to be lost in oceanic feelings of unity”. And two decades later, W. Gordon Lawrence, Alistair Bain, and Laurence Gould (1996) described a fifth basic assumption, which they named “Me-ness” (baM), in which the assumption is that there is to be no group at all—just unaffiliated individuals, whose only joint purpose will be to thwart the formation of a group out of fear that they might be submerged in it or persecuted by it if it did form.

 

7. An attempt to apply Bion's alpha- and beta-elements to processes in society at large

ePub

Hanna Biran

In his book Learning from Experience Bion refers to two principal and different elements of thinking. The first, called “alpha-elements”, are elements that can be thought; the second, called “beta-elements” it is not possible to use for thinking.

It is “alpha function” that translates what is absorbed by the baby through the senses in a pre-verbal form into words, dreams, expressions of feeling, and dialogue; it effects the transformation from thoughts that cannot be thought to thoughts that can be. At first the mother performs this function for the baby; she translates the baby’s distresses for it, gives names to its hardships and anxieties, and thus calms and contains it. Later, once the baby has concepts, it learns how to carry out this transformation for itself. Those sense impressions that do not receive a name, a word, or a thought, that do not appear in dreams, are all those elements that did not undergo transformation and remained as beta-elements. Bion calls them “things-in-themselves”. They are like undigested splinters that will usually appear in a form of acting out or as a psychosis. The psychotic suffers from these undigested elements, which appear in a concrete form that he cannot change into a metaphor or an idea, that he cannot name, and they overwhelm him in what Bion calls “nameless dread”.

 

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