Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego

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Sigmund Freud's second essay, after Totem and Taboo (1912-13a), on collective psychology, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego is perhaps his fundamental work on that topic. He began contemplating the project in 1919: "I had not only completed the draft of 'Beyond the Pleasure Principle' ... but I also took up the little thing about the 'uncanny' again, and, with a simple-minded idea [Einfall ], I attempted a P foundation for group psychology," he wrote to Sándor Ferenczi on 12 May 1919 (Freud and Ferenczi, Letter 813, p. 354). His progress was slow; a first version was finished in September 1920, and the final version was finished in March 1921. It was published that summer. The close relationship between the discovery of dynamics operating in large dimensionsthe theory of the life and death instincts, advanced in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g)and the possibility of re-conceptualizing group psychology is noteworthy.

In contrast to Totem and Taboo, where Freud was applying psychoanalytic ideas to the psychology of groups and simultaneously acknowledging the differences between psychoanalysis and anthropology, here the brief and magisterial introductory chapter makes the claim that group psychology is part of psychoanalysis. Next he tackles a fundamental problem not elaborated in Totem and Taboo : What is the mental dynamic that holds together the individuals in a group, creates the group's forms, ensures its continuity and stability, or causes its disappearance? In other words, what is the morphodynamics of groups? Repeating a significant move in psychoanalysis, his abandonment of hypnosis, Freud proposed that the libido accounts for group morphodynamics. He accomplished this epistemological operation in three chapters, borrowing from Gustave Le Bon and William McDougall to describe the prevalence of the primary processes in ephemeral groups.

Freud refined his proposal by showing how two groups, the church and the army, can come apartin their different waysthrough the loss of libidinal bonds to the leader or among members, and how, in keeping with psychoanalytic dynamics, only the power of love is capable of overcoming the narcissism and hatred that distance us from one another.

It remained to identify the psychic formations that ensure group cohesion. This is the topic is addressed in the next three chapters, where, for the first time, Freud studied in detail the various known identificatory processes and distinguished the ego's identifications from those of the ego ideal. Hence his statement: "A primary group . . . is a number of individuals who have put one and the same object in the place of their ego ideal and have consequently identified themselves with one another in their ego" (p. 116). This statement holds true for passionate love and the hypnotic state, which he had used to shed light on the identificatory processes. Freud then verified its validity in the case of the primitive horde, as a structure, as discussed in Totem and Taboo. In the course of his discussion, the generic quality of alienation and submission inherent in group membership is brought to light. A final chapter sharpens the distinction between ego and ego ideal, a distinction that provides an opening for psychoanalytic investigation of the narcissistic psychoses.

In important supplements to this work Freud distinguished three paradigmatic forms and dynamics of groups, based on the degree of the weakening of the ego ideal and the ego that they impose: the horde, the matriarchy, and the totemic clan. He specified that the level of elaboration allowed to groups excluded the thinking of sexual difference. He proposed that the earliest individual psychology in which the ego ideal does not appear in weakened form is that of the poet telling the totemic clan the lie that explains their origins: "the myth, then, is the step by which the individual emerges from group psychology" (Postscript, p. 136). He also examined the relationship between direct sexual instincts and sexual instincts whose aim is inhibited, with only the latter being mobilized and tolerated by social bonds.

The notion of the intrinsic relationship between individual and group psychologywhich Freud sustained throughout his workappears the most clearly in this essay. Freud's bringing to light of the libidinal morphodynamics of groups made possible some fundamental work on identifications, the ego ideal, and the ego and narcissism that would be continued in The Ego and the Id (1923b). However, the mode of articulation of object relations and identifications remained enigmatic, in part. The relevance of the three forms and paradigmatic dynamics proposed is unquestionable. We can assume that these are deployed in every real human group, and that they are constantly in conflict. It should be noted that the horde of Totem and Taboo and that of Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego do not have the same status: The first is mythic and structural, while the second is actual and is endowed with active libidinal dynamics. The essay's lack of resonance among psychoanalysts, with regard to Freud's ideas about group psychology, can be explained by the fact that the majority of psychoanalysts after Freud, when working on groups, have hypothesized oedipal moments in them. Dealing with "the analysis of the ego," which has been referred to frequently, is another matter altogether.

At the beginning of the essay Freud made clear that he was working only on the libidinal dynamics involved in group cohesion. Three parameters were excluded: the influence of external reality on groups, the influence of "great men" on their level of development, and finally, an economic assessment of bonds and the role of hatred. This work was to be carried out in part in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a [1929]) and then in Moses and Monotheism (1939a [1934-1938]).

MichÈle Porte

See also: Collective psychology.

Source Citation

Freud, Sigmund. (1921c) Massenpsychologie und Ich-Analyse. Leipzig-Vienna-Zürich: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag; GW, XIII: 71-161; Group psychology and analysis of the ego. SE, 18: 65-143.


Freud, Sigmund. (1912-13a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.

(1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.

(1930a [1929]). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 57-145.

(1939a [1934-38]). Moses and monotheism: three essays. SE, 23: 1-137.

Freud, Sigmund, and Ferenczi, Sándor. (1992-2000). The correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Sándor Ferenczi, Vol. 2, 1914-1919. (Ernst Falzeder and Eva Brabant, Eds.; Peter Hoffer, Trans.). Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1966.

Kaës, René, and Anzieu, Didier. (1976). Chronique d 'un groupe, le groupe du 'Paradis perdu ': observation et commentaries. Paris: Dunod.

Mitscherlich, Alexander. (1963). Society without the father: A contribution to social psychology. (Eric Mosbacher, Trans. New York: Schocken Books, 1970.

Moscovici, Serge. (1981). The age of the crowd: A historical treatise on mass psychology. (J.C. Whitehouse, Trans. Cambridge (Cambridgeshire) and New York: Cambridge University Press.