NINE. Group analysis in contemporary society

“The community is represented", so argued Foulkes (1966 p. 155), "in the treatment room", including the "valuations" and "norms" of that community. "Community" has changed immeasurably since this was penned and this chapter considers four domains in which group analysis, as therapy and theory, can play a modest role in containing or illuminating some complex issues of the contemporary world. It is not only a question of "modernity" in the singular, for, as Taylor (2004) argues, we live in an era of "multiple modernities", consisting of divergent amalgams of practices, institutions, and ways of life. And, as Giddens (1991) argues, ". because of the 'openness' of social life today, the pluralisation of contexts of action and the diversity of 'authorities', lifestyle choice is increasingly important in the constitution of self-identity and daily activity" (p. 5).

Based on the United Kingdom context, but applicable beyond it, the four domains to be addressed are: (a) democracy, where it is argued that group analysis not only promotes novel democratic processes but that such processes have important effects on subjectivity and experiences of agency; (b) an increasing, older adult population, where the contribution of group analysis in assisting older adults to deal with the pressures they face is explored; (c) identity politics, where it is suggested that group-analytic practice can enable new voices to be heard, in this instance that of "carers"; and (d) values, in which it is argued that group analysis exemplifies values of diversity and difference and can actively contribute to the understanding and enhancement of the plural world(s) we now inhabit. At the same time, what group analysis offers needs to be subject to critical scrutiny, so that its own regulative ideals and historical location can be discerned.

Group analysis—democracy in practice?

As a therapy, does group analysis represent an instance of what a contrived, associative democracy between strangers might look like? The historical rise of group analysis (indeed, social psychology) can certainly be linked to post-war values of social democracy (Rose, 1990, 1998). "Group", like "community", was born around this era, as a social means and end, from school to factory, neighbourhood to clinic. Using a similar social comparison, Nitzgen (2001) regards the group-analytic process as "training in citizenship".[1] One question is whether the "communicative optimism" of group analysis is based on an idealisation of its democratic potential, and an occlusion of power, or is it just one part of constant dialectic, involving progressive and defensive movements? The person, below, on whom I mainly concentrate illustrates something of this complicated dialectic and how his progress was interwoven with issues of intergeneration self-concept and emergent voice, as facilitated through expanding group dialogue.

Prakesh and Andrea: group life

Prakesh accepted prospect of group analysis only on the basis that it was "the sound recommendation" of his clinician (who also conducted the group). Otherwise, he had no ready concept of what "talking in a group" would mean. Thus, within the pre-group assessment, there was deferential attitude to authority, based on reliance on supposed, expert "superior knowledge"; he presented as the gentleman and compliant patient. In my attempts to understand his experiential world, it was clear that Prakesh was adept at fitting in and satisfying his family, bosses, and colleagues (and now therapist). He had always valued advancement and took obvious pride in his children, the next generation. He came to the UK as a teenager, effectively as the family envoy, hoping to forge a better life from his native Africa. The rest of his family joined him. The central irritant in an idealised family portrait was his father, for whom Prakesh's efforts were said to be never good enough. Prakesh nursed a grievance against him, made worse by his father's failing health. It was within this context, looking after (nursing) a deeply resented father, that I understood his presenting anxiety symptoms. Psychoanalytic concepts offered useful pointers: had Prakesh internalised a frustrated-frustrating father? Was Prakesh's characterological deference the result of having split off and denied aggressive resources? Were his anxiety symptoms expressive of an oedipal constellation involving rivalry and between siblings over psychic inheritance—that is, who carries the family future? Were these, however, sufficient explanations?

In many ways, Prakesh identified with a non-democratizing traditional culture, within which deference to a patriarchal family structure was central. There was a problem, however, in so far as, while such identification provided security—knowing where he stood—it inhibited change. Fitting in to family-of-origin expectations and with work colleagues/managers ("elders and betters") provided him with (limited) approval, but was detrimental to his growth and initiative.

His father's personality proved a problematic model and Prakesh consciously sought to be different. Prakesh created an avowedly non-patriarchal structure with his own family (wife and children), based on egalitarian values and a non-dominant partnership between himself and his wife. He faced troubling psychic choices, however, in that in order to be the more equal person he aspired to be, he needed to construct a different sort of inner authority and to displace the critical father and certain elements of his conservative culture.

Prakesh had things in common with group member Andrea, an English woman who had internalised highly restricting, avoidant attitudes that severely limited her horizons. Prakesh was limited by contradictory aspirations of self whilst Andrea was crushed by a pervasive, negative self-image. Consistent with this, Andrea found it hard to initiate or to elaborate on her difficulties (i.e., did not believe she had "speech rights") and regarded others as "clever" or "interesting" (unlike herself). She was described by group members as "downtrodden", whilst Prakesh was described as "inhibited" or "frustrated"; both complained about relative disadvantage in terms of material resources and an implied absence of power in their social situations. In the unfolding group dialogue, Prakesh and Andrea encouraged each other, as if seeing split-off needs and ambitions in the other (benign mirroring), but both needed considerable group support and permission in order to be able to take more group time and consolidate confidence in their contributions. In the transference, to both Andrea and Prakesh, I represented both an unchallengeable authority—the group boss/professional/ father—and a potentially transformative figure, able to facilitate novel selfobject experiences through the very refusal to occupy the omniscience attributed to me.

  • [1] In his 1949 New York lecture, Foulkes (1949, p. 64) linked the spirit of group analysis with "concepts of a democratic way of life and for good world citizenship". Hopper (2000) argues that the formation of the "citizen" entails a new model of maturity, beyond that of traditional psychoanalytic theorisation, a view supported by Nitzgen (2001) in his review.
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