Group Analysis

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Broadly defined, group analysis is a psychoanalytic approach to the experience of the unconscious in the group situation and a method for investigating the psychic structures and processes that manifest themselves in that context. It uses concepts and techniques from individual psychoanalysis, as well as original psychoanalytic observations from the study of groups. In a more restricted sense, group analysis is a technique of group psychotherapy.

Trigant Burrow proposed the notion of "group analysis" in 1927, but it was only at the beginning of the 1940s that Siegmund Foulkes, John Rickman, and Henry Ezriel founded the "Group Analysis" tendency in London. Their work was informed by the structural perspective of Gestalt theory. At around the same time, Wilfred R. Bion was developing original ideas about group structures and processes based on basic concepts of psychoanalysis and Sigmund Freud's speculations on group psychology. Foulkes's initial objective was to propose an alternative to the limitations of individual therapy, while Bion's aim was to explore the ways in which group processes could be specifically mobilized in the treatment of certain traumatic, borderline, and psychotic pathologies.

In the theoretical current inspired by Foulkes, the group is a totality; the individual and the group form a figure-ground whole. Within the group, the individual is like the nodal point in a neural network. Foulkes believed that all illness is produced within a complex network of interpersonal relations. In Therapeutic Group Analysis (1964), he writes: "Group psychotherapy is an attempt to treat the entire network of problems, either at the point of origin in the primitive group of origin, or by placing the disturbed individual into the conditions of transference within an alien group." The group possesses specific therapeutic properties, which are expressed in the five basic tenets of Foulkesian group analysis: the capacity to listen to, understand, and interpret the group as a totality in the "here and now"; taking into account only the transference "of the group" on the analyst and not lateral transferences; the notion of "unconscious fantasmatic resonance" among the members of the group; "shared tension" and the common denominator of the unconscious fantasies of the group; and the notion of the group as a "psychic matrix" and frame of reference for all interactions.

In his 1961 book Experiences in Groups, Bion distinguishes and articulates two modes of psychic functioning in groups: the "work (or W ) group," dominated by the processes and requirements of secondary logic; and the "basic-assumption group" defined by the concept of group mentality (p. 105ff). "Group culture" is the structure acquired by the group at a given time, its self-assigned tasks, and the organization adopted to perform them. Bion defines "group mentality" as the mental activity that takes shape within a group based on the opinions, will, and the unconscious, unanimous, and anonymous desires of its members. It ensures that group life will correspond to the basic assumptions that determine its course. Basic assumptions are made up of intense emotional states, primitive in their origin, that play a determining role in a group's formation, the performance of its task, and the satisfaction of the needs and desires of its members. An expression of unconscious fantasies, these assumptions submit to the primary process and remain unconscious. Basic assumptions are also defensive group reactions used as magical techniques, especially for combating the psychotic anxieties reactivated by the regression the group situation imposes. Three basic assumptions govern the course of psychic phenomena specific to the group and satisfy the desires of its members. The basic assumption of dependency (baD ) is grounded in the conviction that the group has come together to receive security and the satisfaction of all the needs and desires of its members from someone (therapist, leader, master) or something (idea, ideal) upon whom (or which) it is absolutely dependent. The corresponding group culture is organized around the search for a more-or-less deified leader and manifests itself in passivity and loss of critical judgment. The basic assumption of fight-flight (baF ) rests on the collective fantasy that there exists an internal or external bad object embodied in an enemy: a group member, illness, an adverse or erroneous idea that the group must either attack or flee. The group finds its leader among paranoid personalities likely to feed this idea. The basic assumption of pairing (baP ) is sustained by the collective fantasy that some being or event will resolve all the group's problems: Messianic hope is placed in a couple whose child will save the group from hatred, destruction, or despair. Group culture is organized around the idea that the future will bring long-awaited solutions, but for the future to come, their messianic hope must never be realized. In his book Group, the Italian writer Claudio Neri extended and further elaborated Bion's ideas into field theory.

The French current of thought in group analysis has focused its research on the unconscious function the group fulfills for its members. Jean-Bertrand Pontalis (1963) emphasized the importance of instinctual cathexis and representations whose object is the group. According to Didier Anzieu in Le Groupe et l 'Inconscient, the group, like the dream, is essentially a means and a locus for the imaginary fulfillment of the unconscious desires of its members. Although the group's structures and psychic processes obey general mechanisms that are characteristic of all products of the unconscious, some of them are specific to the group situation, as witness the group illusion. The model of a group mental apparatus proposed by René Kaës (1976) describes a mechanism for linking and transforming the psychic structures committed to the group by its members. This mechanism produces the group's psychic reality and processes it within the group. In his 1993 book Le Groupe et le Sujet du groupe (The group and the group subject), Kaës emphasizes the role of repression, denial, or rejection, and the unconscious alliances underlying the formation of the psychic reality of the group and its members.

RenÉ KaËs

See also: Anzieu, Didier; Balint group; Bion, Wilfred Ruprecht; Collective psychology; Family; Family therapy; Foulkes (Fuchs), Sigmund Heinrich; Group phenomenon; Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego ; Group psychotherapy; Identification; Primitive horde; Second World War: The effect on the development on psychoanalysis; Sociology and psychoanalysis/sociopsychoanalysis.


Anzieu, Didier. (1975). The group and the unconscious. (Benjamin Kilborne, Trans.). London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984.

Bion, Wilfred Ruprecht. Experiences in groups. London: Tavistock Publications, 1961.

Foulkes, Siegmund Heinrich. Therapeutic group analysis. New York: International Universities Press, 1964.

Kaës, René. Le groupe et le sujet du groupe. Paris: Dunod, 1993.

Neri, Claudio. (1997) Group. (Christine Trollope, Trans.). Rome, London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley.

Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand. (1963) Le petit groupe comme objet. In Après Freud. París: Gallimard, 1968.