Socioanalytic Methods: Discovering the Hidden in Organisations and Social Systems

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Socioanalysis is the study of groups, organisations, and society using a systems psychoanalytic framework: looking beneath the surface (and the obvious) to see the underlying dynamics and how these dynamics are interconnected. This book examines several of the methodologies used in socioanalytic work. Even though the beginnings of socioanalytic investigation lay in the mid-twentieth century, a broad look across several methodologies has not been done before, despite separate publications dealing with particular methods. In addition, several new methods have been developed in recent years, which the present work incorporates.Connecting all these methods is their aim of 'tapping into' the dynamic operation of what the author calls 'the associative unconscious' within and between social systems. The associative unconscious is the unconscious at a systemic level. Each of the methods discussed in this book accesses the associative unconscious in different ways. They help bring hidden dynamics to the surface for people to see how they influence, aid, or inhibit their activities. Excitingly, they can show what we know at some level but have not yet been able to use. And, because the methods explore social systems, they can contribute to new collaborative endeavours for thinking the future.

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Chapter One - The Associative Unconscious



The associative unconscious

Susan Long and Maurita Harney

Charles S. Peirce defines his famous concept of “abduction” as follows: “Abduction is the process of forming an explanatory hypothesis. It is the only logical operation which introduces any new idea” (Peirce, 1903, CP, 5.171,1 cited in Hoffman, 1997).

In this chapter, we describe the idea of an “associative unconscious”, differentiated from the repressed dynamic unconscious so well articulated through Sigmund Freud and his followers. In looking at an associative unconscious, we will explore some of the ideas of the philosopher Charles S. Peirce, whose concept of “abductive logic” not only provides a logic to underpin psychoanalytic and socioanalytic thinking, but also provides a conceptual framework for the associative processes that we believe are central to the unconscious, especially as it is evidenced in social groupings.

A clear philosophy of science has never fully been articulated for psychoanalysis. Much discussion has centred on debates about whether or not psychoanalysis can be considered a science, given traditional views of science (Grunbaum, 1984; Webster, 1995). Following Ricoeur and Habermas, and in defence of psychoanalysis, hermeneutic definitions appeared in the mid-twentieth century,regarding psychoanalysis more as an art and a linguistic interpreter of human experience (e.g., Steele, 1979). In addition, psychoanalysis is sometimes claimed to be a philosophy in itself: sui generis, not fitting into other categories such as psychology or social science or medicine “because in the end, if psychoanalysis develops as a mature science, it will find that the successful models are those proper to it and not those developed by analogy to other disciplines” (Etchegoyen, 1999, p. 501). Indeed, its resistance to categorisation and difficulty in finding an established place as a discipline in universities worldwide might be due to its not having a clear or established philosophical partner. While challenged from within a positivist scientific perspective for its lack of laboratory experimental confirmation, the concepts of repression and the unconscious are still compelling as explanatory tools: clinically with patients, socioanalytically with groups and organisations, in art and literature, in social and political analysis, and in the popular imagination. Moreover, recent neurological work questions the challenge to the scientific status of psychoanalysis (Carhart-Harris & Friston, 2010), suggesting a neurological basis for the effects of unconscious processes.


Chapter Two - Work Culture Analysis and Reflective Space



Work culture analysis and reflective space

James Krantz


The task of this chapter is to discuss work culture analysis, case study, and working hypotheses as part of the overall constellation of socioanalytic methods. This brings to mind a wonderful story told by my colleague, Tom Gilmore, about the little boy sitting in class, learning about different cloud formations: nimbus, cirrus, cumulus, and so on. Excitedly, he runs out after class to identify them, but is disheartened to discover that in reality they are not so distinct. The harder he looks, the more they blur and the more difficult it is to distinguish them: so, too, with many of the topics addressed in this volume.

This is, I believe, because there are some underlying commonalities to all socioanalytic approaches. My attempt here is to discuss these three “technologies”, and to put them into the broader context of the socioanalytic paradigm with its underlying unifying elements. Only then, I think, does it really make sense why we do what we do in the way that we do it.


Chapter Three - Observing Anxiety: A Psychoanalytic Training Method for Understanding Organisations



Observing anxiety: a psychoanalytic training method for understanding organisations

R. D. Hinshelwood

“[Esther Bick's] method can be said to have made a tremendous contribution to the naturalistic, reflexive approach of both clinical and research psychoanalysis to their field of enquiry”

(Briggs, 2001, p. 279)

The aim of this chapter is to discuss certain aspects of the observation of organisations in terms of process material as reported by student observers, and the fruits of seminar discussion of their records. First, a short preamble will describe both the origins of the method, and also the way it has come, over the years, to be theorised.


In the course of teaching trainee psychiatrists in the early 1980s, I wanted an exercise for the trainees to help them to understand the particular kind of psychoanalytic work which can access hidden and unarticulated psychic matters (Hinshelwood & Skogstad, 2000). I recalled that an important feature of my own training as a psychoanalyst was the mother-infant observation course, which helped to recognise the infant in the patients I would be seeing as a psychoanalyst. What, I wondered, would be comparable for psychiatrists to learn about? I reflected that they will eventually be part of a multi-disciplinary team and have a considerable amount of authority, being frequently seen as leaders of that team. Would it, therefore, be useful for them to have the opportunity to study the dynamics of teams and units in the hospital? If this proved possible, this could become a method for psychiatrists to become more aware of the hidden pressures on them (and others) in the organisational dynamics of the units they would eventually be working in. This observational exercise proved very popular, and was expanded with a more general aim of teaching people to have a wider perspective of the unarticulated pressures on themselves in any working situation.


Chapter Four - The Use of Drawing as a Tool in Socioanalytic Exploration



The use of drawing as a tool in socioanalytic exploration

Brigid Nossal


Drawing is a powerful tool in the work of socioanalytic exploration. Its power resides in its capacity both to give simple expression to complex feelings and ideas about organisational life, and to provide a vehicle for change and adaptation for the individual and the group during the sharing and exploration of what the drawing reveals.

This chapter presents the what, how, and why of drawing as an important tool in socioanalytic exploration with clients or research partners in organisations. It explores research with socioanalytic practitioners (Nossal, 2010) and case example material from organisational consulting assignments. Its intention is to serve as a guide to practice.

A case is made for the following key ideas:

One challenge for the socioanalyst when working with people in organisations is to create the space or the right “container” in which to engage them in exploring emotional and, perhaps, unconscious experiences. While as consultants or research socioanalysts, we may undertake training programmes in this methodology and work hard and continuously at developing a “mind” for the work, the question arises, how is the client to begin to develop, through experience, a like “mind” for their own learning and exploration in their work? What is meant here by “mind for the work” is captured in Bion's entreaty that, when working with patients, the analyst should attempt to be without memory, desire, or understanding and to adopt a state of “reverie” (Bion, 1970). The same is true for the socioanalyst working with clients. That is, one needs to be able to clear one's mind of preconceptions and premature conjecture or conclusions and allow the kind of reflection that will enable the emotional reality of the situation under investigation to emerge (see also Long, 2001 on the “state-of-mind” for this work.). Part of the role of the socioanalyst is to stimulate this capacity for thinking in the client and, in this way, to provide an opportunity for self-development and an improved capacity for creativity in their work. This was the starting point for the research that is reported here. It seems that drawing is a very useful and powerful tool for enabling both the individual and the group to enter a “thinking” space where there is openness to sharing and exploring in new ways.


Chapter Five - Socioanalytic Interviewing



Socioanalytic interviewing

Susan Long and Wendy Harding


This chapter will explore issues in conducting interviews for socioanalytically orientated research and consultancy. This broadly includes two interrelated areas.

1. The systemic processes within a group, organisation, or society. Such systemic processes become evidenced through the experiences and behaviours of individuals and their interactions. As said in Chapter One of this book, “a metaphor is that of a jigsaw puzzle where each individual part is shaped very differently, yet the picture as a whole has its own unique integrity”. Consequently, with this in mind, individual interviews are considered by us as exploring the uniqueness of the individual while attempting to gain a picture of the whole.

2. The in-depth discovery of unconscious processes that affect the group, organisation, or society. Such unconscious processes might be evidenced in individuals (as in narcissistic leaders, e.g., Kets de Vries, 1996), although in socioanalysis we are interested in how these processes are shared in, for instance, basic assumption behaviour (Bion, 1961), social defences (Menzies Lyth, 1988, 1989), and other structural and cultural phenomena.


Chapter Six - Social Dreaming



Social dreaming

Lilia Baglioni & Franca Fubini

“I had been preoccupied with dreaming because it was felt that it could make a contribution, as a tool of cultural enquiry, to the quality of human living because it always seems to illumine the current problems of existence”

(Lawrence, 2009, p. x)

“Wordsworth says ‘hearing often times the still, sad music of humanity’. I presume we are in contact with our fellow human beings”

(Bion, 2005)

The space in between

Thoughts, and particularly new thoughts, live in the space between minds, a space that does not belong to anybody and yet it is owned in common by all. The notion that ideas come from individual minds and, therefore, are a private possession is contradicted by the evidence of practice. A new thought or a new idea can be sensed by many people at the same time. Bion says,

For example, take a group like this. We have a collective wisdom that is extraneous to the little that each one of us knows…I think there is something by which this combined wisdom makes itself felt to a great number of people at the same time. (Bion, 1980, p. 29)


Chapter Seven - Thinking Organisations through Photographs: The Social Photo-Matrix as a Method for Understanding Organisations in Depth



Thinking organisations through photographs: the social photo-matrix as a method for understanding organisations in depth

Burkard Sievers


The social photo-matrix (SPM) is an experiential learning method for understanding organisations in depth. Its aim is to experience, through collective viewing of digital photos taken by the participants of the social photo-matrix (and subsequent associations, amplifications, systemic thinking, and reflection), the hidden meaning of what in an organisation usually remains unseen and, thus, unnoticed and unthought.

The method of the SPM has grown out of my experience and work with social dreaming, developed by Gordon Lawrence (Lawrence, 1998, 1999, 2003, 2005; Mersky, 2012; Sievers, 2001, 2007a), and organisational role analysis (e.g., Newton, Long, & Sievers, 2006; Sievers & Beumer, 2006).

This method is based on the assumption that photographs are the medium for new thoughts and thinking while the photographer remains in the background and is usually unknown. This chapter describes the method, design, process, and some of the learnings from, and insights into, what it means to use photos as a means of understanding what might be below the surface of an organisation. I use two case examples. The first is a seminar with postgraduate students in a Department of Business and Economics at a German university, and the second in a penal institution for remand prisoners in Germany.


Chapter Eight - Social Dream-Drawing: “Drawing Brings the Inside Out”



Social dream-drawing: “Drawing brings the inside out”

Rose Redding Mersky

“All representations are transformations”

(Bion, 1965, p. 140)

Introduction: from the depths to the drawing pad

The use of individual dreams and dream material to illuminate social processes was pioneered by the work of Gordon Lawrence and his social dreaming methodology (1999b). Participants in the matrix are invited to share recent dreams, and members of the matrix make associations to them. The hosts of the matrix “take” these dreams, offer hypotheses that link the dreams thematically, and suggest possible underlying meanings relating to the social or organisational world of the matrix. It is this use of dreams to explore the underlying issues of social systems that has led to my interest in developing a related methodology, social dream-drawing.

For a period of years, I have been working with groups of colleagues and professionals in related fields to develop this methodology as a means of illuminating and potentially helping to resolve emerging, but perhaps not as yet fully conscious, professional issues.


Chapter Nine - OPUS Listening Posts: Researching Society



OPUS Listening Posts: researching society

Olya Khaleelee and Lionel Stapley

This chapter is written in two parts. The first section, by Olya Khaleelee, a previous Director of OPUS: An Organisation for Promoting Understanding of Society, outlines the early development of the concept and method of the listening post. The second part, by Lionel Stapley, the current OPUS Director, describes the listening post methodology as it is now practised and provides an example of a listening post report. To avoid any misunderstanding, it should be noted that, during its history, the organisational name changed to OPUS: An Organisation for Promoting Understanding in Society, and then changed back again to the above.

Part 1: the early development of OPUS Listening Posts 1980–1989

Olya Khaleelee


One prevailing and pervasive motif is of everything falling apart. A university teacher experienced around him a fear of impending dissolution (or was it ‘disillusion’) and disaster…The sense of doom and the inevitability of death is located in an expectation of nuclear war. (Khaleelee & Miller, 1980, p. 7).


Chapter Ten - Organisational Role Analysis



Organisational role analysis

John Newton

Beginning in role

We are all born into existing social systems. Whatever the circumstances of our birth, we arrive to encounter the expectations of others. These expectations include the fantasies about us held by those who anticipate our arrival, such as parents, extended family, friends of our family, doctors and midwives, plus the expectations held by these and others in our community of how we will be behave. Such expectations exist not only in the minds of our immediate human contacts, but also in the collected form of guidelines and textbooks on parenting and childhood development that shape parenting and educational and health practices directed towards us. Our gender, birth order, and the ethnic, religious, political, economic, and geographical circumstances of our inherited social context will also contribute to our formation. The dynamics of this formation, the push and pull between external expectations and the emergent characteristics and drives of the individual, can be analysed in terms of the roles that the individual accepts and/or creates in the process of forming an identity and determining a life course. Role, in this sense, is the pattern of attitude, meaning, feeling, and behaviour that characterises an individual's way of living and working within the various systems of activity, such as a family, work organisation, professional association, social clubs. etc., through which a life is led.


Chapter Eleven - Role Biography, Role History, and the Reflection Group



Role biography, role history, and the reflection group

Susan Long

Role biography

Role biography is a term used to describe a biography of the person-in-role as described through the various work roles that they have taken up throughout their lives (Long, 2006). This is distinguished from “role history”, which is a history of a particular organisational role, shaped over time by its various incumbents, especially the original or foundation role-holder (Chapman & Long, 2009). Both role biography and role history, taken together, give the current role-holder a strong sense of how the past might be unconsciously influencing their current behaviour in role. This can be added to the exploration of their role in its current system.

Role biography provides a method for understanding the impact of work roles taken throughout life on the client's current work role. This can give the role-holder a better sense of his or her uniqueness in role. It can also give a fuller understanding of where valencies in role have their origins. New roles are not taken up in a vacuum. The person has a history of role taking. In contrast to a personal biography tracing the development of a personality over time, the role biography stresses how past roles affect current roles. The emphasis is on the current role and how the past might be unconsciously driving behaviour in the role.


Chapter Twelve - Diagnosing Organisational Work Cultures: A Socioanalytic Approach



Diagnosing organisational work cultures: a socioanalytic approach

Jinette de Gooijer

Surveying the health of workplace culture is contemporary practice in many organisations. There are many instruments in the marketplace that offer to evaluate and measure employee satisfaction, to map culture against various characteristics of employee behaviour and business performance, or to compare “espoused culture” with “culture-in-use” (Argyris & Schön, 1974). The fantasy is that a work culture is an asset that can be managed and thereby controlled.

What can a socioanalytic approach offer to understand work cultures and organisational change? Primarily, socioanalytic methods seek to engage people in a collaborative task of analysis, interpretation, shared insight, and active choices. Unlike the more commonplace culture survey, a socioanalytic approach to assessing work culture is neither done to people, nor presumes to be objective in the usual sense. Rather, it engages with people as subjects, acknowledges their subjective experiences as valid reality, and considers work culture as the product of a dynamic social system. To understand a work culture with a socioanalytic mind is to see, feel, listen, and experience the organisation as a living system of people working in roles at purposeful tasks. That, at times, this system of working together might not function well, or be experienced as completely dysfunctional, is not unusual. Organisations are social constructs. They exist within an external reality of a society and its communities, the marketplace, and physical environment. But the internal reality holds a mental world of emotions, beliefs, fantasies, and assumptions that sit below the surface of people visibly going about their work. This mental world is what socioanalysis refers to as the psychic reality of the organisation, discernible through the felt experiences of its members.


Chapter Thirteen - Group Relations Conferences



Group relations conferences

Eliat Aram and Mannie Sher

Gordon Lawrence (2000, p. 51) writes that



…[group relations] is the most potent of methodologies because it enables one to distinguish between phantasy and reality. It also enables one, among other things, to judge between truth and the lie; to come to grips between projection and introjection, transference and countertransference, which are the basic “stuff” of human relations.

Group relations (GR) is a method of study and training in the way people perform their roles in groups and systems. These can be work groups, teams, or organisations, or less formal social groups such as faiths, race, and gender groups. A group might be said to be two or more people interacting to achieve a common task. GR theory views groups as tending to move in and out of focusing on their task and adopting a number of different defensive positions based on unarticulated group phantasy.

There are certain features of GR work that are held in common and are probably subscribed to by most practitioners of this craft. These include working with transference and countertransference phenomena, skill in interpreting group unconscious dynamics, working within the boundaries of space and time as well as within psychological boundaries, being clear about working within role and task, working with group-as-a-whole, not individual, phenomena, and having the capability of generating working hypotheses about group and organisational functioning.


Chapter Fourteen - Socioanalytic Dialogue



Socioanalytic dialogue

Bruno Boccara


Policy failures and discontent

Policy makers worldwide seem to be increasingly confronted with popular protests, whose intensity and suddenness they often fail to anticipate. Widely divergent explanations as to the causes suggest that they might also be failing to sufficiently grasp all the underlying issues behind these protests. Simultaneously, citizens appear dismayed and repulsed by the political tension and policy paralysis often gripping their societies. Examples include the dramatic increase in polarisation in countries such as Chile, Israel, and Nigeria, citizens' fears and despair in response to the debt crisis and resulting fiscal tightening in Europe, and the erosion of trust between youth-led democratisation advocates and Islam-based political groups in North Africa. These developments point towards the need for a better understanding of the underlying psychosocial dynamics as a prerequisite to being able to successfully and collectively address them.


Chapter Fifteen - Wonder and Socioanalysis



Wonder and socioanalysis

Alastair Bain

“O” Poem On Being at Soapy Bore

(“O” is Wilfred Bion's symbol for ultimate reality)

Being different.
How different?
Can't ask.
You can but no answer.
‘O’ can be been
But never known.

Heart of Dreaming
By its throb.
Not known.

Pages whipped from my hand
The wind.
Pages torn
By the wind.
And browned

By the riverbed.
Pens disappeared.

Nothing to write with
No pages to write on.
Forced into being.

Log burning
In riverbed
Sit around.
Dreams around.

Casting shade.
Shade moves
With the sun.
We move
With the Shade.
Around the tree.

And across the riverbed
On burning afternoons
To t'other side.
Where more shade.
We work and play
And in the coolness of evening
Go back to the burning log.
Dreaming around.

Evening pleasure
Walking barefoot in the riverbed.
Middle of the day
Only aboriginal children revel
On the burning sand
And show us the coolness
Under the sand
And point to the water under the riverbed.

Same Being
Many names

Criss crossing origins
But Here

And Now.
Not Now.
Later never arrives
In the Present.


Chapter Sixteen - Using and Creating Socioanalytic Methods



Using and creating socioanalytic methods

Susan Long

The methods in this book all open up a path to the unconscious, through connections, amplifications, associations, and patterns. While socioanalysis may, at times, focus on the repressed, the foreclosed, or the denied experiences of groups, organisations, or society (see, for example, Hirschhorn, 1988; Long, 2008, Sievers, 2003; Stein, 2008), the focus in this book is on accessing the associative unconscious as a path not just to the pathology of the system, but to its creative potential.

Socioanalysis (systems psychodynamics) is a young discipline. In terms of the Peircean philosophy of science, discussed in Chapter One, it works largely within the first, yet most creative stage of scientific discovery when data is created through an inquisitive state of mind, patterns are discerned, and working hypotheses are formed to guide further exploration. It is a science of subjectivity, devoted to understanding how subjectivity works collectively in groups, organisations, and society, recognising that the collective comes before the individual and that subjectivity and mind are formed and shaped in the social (Long, 2001).



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