The notion or concept of “Basic Law of Group dynamics” is introduced by S. H. Foulkes in his first book – Introduction to Group Analytic Psychotherapy (Foulkes,1948). This appears in a discussion on how group psychotherapy and even social therapy enable formation/transformation for the group as well as for the individual.
Bringing this to a group/social scene he defines:
A Basic Law of Group Dynamics …. the deepest reason why these patients, assuming for simplicity’s sake Psycho-Neurotics, can reinforce each other’s normal reactions and wear down and correct each other’s neurotic reactions, is that collectively they constitute the very Norm, from which, individually, they deviate. (Foulkes, 1948)
This seems at first to be a paradox. On the one hand being more of the same and on the other hand developing individual differences. Foulkes explains this in a metaphor by saying that even when you wash dirty shirts in dirty water the shirts will appear cleaner afterwards.
Basic Law of Group Dynamics and Connections to Field Theory and Gestalt Psychology
It is often mentioned that S. H. Foulkes is theoretically influenced by Kurt Lewin and his concept of Field Theory and Life space. This concept focuses on forces as conflicts and motivational factors that create a certain social field. Lewin stresses that the social field where two persons or a group of people meet will interact in a way that is unpredictable. (Lewin, 1947). Primarily because the individual brings his own life space into a social field and for coping in this field it is necessary to create a common language.
In Anthony and Foulkes’ (1957) first edition of the book Group Psychotherapy – The Psychoanalytic Approach, E.J Anthony elaborates the connection between Lewin’s field theory to group analysis while in the second edition from 1965 this has been omitted (Nietzgen, 2016). It seems that in the second edition Foulkes had been the leading editor. Foulkes distances himself from Lewin and emphasizes his theory as closer to and has more in common with the ideas of Kurt Goldstein, Adhémer Gelb and Gestalt Psychology. Furthermore he stresses his relationship to psychoanalysis which was never the case for Lewin.
In a letter to Helen Durkin written in 1965 and published by Elisabeth Foulkes in Group-Analytic Contexts (July 1994) Foulkes stated this very clearly:
My main point is that group analysis belongs to analysis – a straightforward development of Freudian analysis – and not at all to group dynamics in Lewin’s sense. K. Lewin’s work had no influence on mine whatever and I am not familiar with it. He also got interested in groups (not therapy) at least ten years later! I thought I had made it clear now beyond doubt that I am firmly on psychoanalytic grounds, treat the individual in the group, see transference and resistance as central, do not direct my interpretation to the group and so forth. In fact I consider my work as an intensive study and contribution to psychoanalytic pathology and therapy on fundamental grounds. (…). I am therefore concerned with psychodynamics and, so far as I work in a group setting, with psychodynamics in the group (matrix)
The change from the first to the second edition in Group Psychotherapy -The Psychoanalytic Approach is interesting and reflects Foulkes’ own ideas on who influenced him. He stated that Anthony “tried to build theoretical bridges to which I did not object”. (Elisabeth Foulkes, 1994). In Selected Papers (S.H.Foulkes, 1990) it is clear that Foulkes deviates from the concepts of Lewin (see p. 129, 148,175 and 287) and his main objection is that Lewin did not understood psychoanalysis and had a critical and sceptical approach to psychoanalysis.
Foulkes also brings the Basic Law into the fore as different from classical psychoanalysis, where the vertical analysis in a dyadic relationship aims to uncover the individual’s past and attain insight in the inner psychological dynamic stemming primarily from the family group.
In Group Analytic Psychotherapy this happens also through multiple transference. In addition, the horizontal level has a great significance in the (social) psychological development. Foulkes’ technical method of analysis “by the group” is thereby an important factor in the matrix of the social/collective field and in the individual.
Foulkes considered the ideas of “an internal psyche” and “an external social world” as an artificial distinction as well as the individual as an artificial construct. What is inside is also outside and vice versa. (Foulkes,1973, Dalal,1998). The argument is that the community/ the group “determines what is normal, socially accepted behaviour”. This assumption has its roots in Norbert Elias’ work and findings, who in Civilizing Process stated:
…libidinal energies which one encounters in any living human beings are already socially processed; … they are in other words, sociogenetically transformed in their function and structure, and can in no way be separated from the corresponding ego and super-ego structures (Elias, 2000, p. 409).
In the group analytic setting Foulkes express thoughts in line with Elias when he describes the therapeutic factor the Group as a Forum (Foulkes 1948, p.166), where he states that the function of the group “symbolises the community as a whole….The individual sees himself in a new light by consent or disapproval, the boundaries of the ego is under revision” including the super-ego and Id.
The psychoanalytic concept of working through has an important equivalent in group analysis “namely the observation and interpretation of the individual members reaction towards each other, towards the group, and towards the leader”. (Foulkes, 1964)
A collective norm is not meant to be similar with conformity and uniformity but at best (and in an optimistic way) a possibility for creating the mould for personal development. Brown (1998) says, the therapeutic group from which individuals deviate is never ideal. It is what the individual member and the group-as-a whole can make of the good and the bad that determines the therapeutic process – the strangeness of others, the struggle with fairness, and the development of a capacity for concern for oneself and others in the process of defining oneself.
In this process we need both an “I-identity” and a “We-identity”.
In a paper (Group Psychotherapy in the Light of Psychoanalysis, 1964) Foulkes discusses the terms “adjustment and insight” in relation to the Basic Law of Group Dynamics. The aim of true therapy is, therefore to develop insight and adjustment, vital inner adjustment establishing harmony between the individual and his world – not conformity. Insight promotes adjustment, adjustment facilitates insight. Insight without adjustment does not go very far; adjustment without insight is incomplete but it can work.
In the same paper he later says that the term “adjustment” is not a “well-chosen term” because of the profound problem of how individuals are integrated or rejected from others: “the compatibility of the individual’s “private” world and the world of his fellow beings, which, if not achieved, always means severe disturbance” (p.92). This implies the understanding and inquiry of values and norms and to which degree the individual deviate. In the same book Foulkes again discusses how patients with different kind of mental disturbance collectively create “norms and values” and Foulkes observation is never the less that these deviants’ orientation in group-psychotherapy “show that these deviants agree collectively in between them upon the same basic values as are held by their own community”. (p. 298 in the paper A Brief Guide to Group-Analytic Theory and Practice, Foulkes,1964).
The terms “norms and values” are in my opinion not at all fixed terms. They shift over time according to Zeitgeist, economically, political and social conditions etc. and these always need to be exposed to a critical inquiry. Norms and “normality” are parts of the social (un)conscious. Foulkes states, in a discussion about the normal and abnormal, “that the concept of “normality” in a certain culture or class depends on that culture’s value system”.
Nitsun (2006) challenges Foulkes’ notion of the Basic Law of Group Dynamics when he brings the discussion on (homo)sexuality and desire to the fore. He is critical of the view that the “deviants” could be forced to adjust to the actual norms and values concerning sexuality.
Groups constitute their own emotional and unconscious norms depending on the valence (Bion’s expression) or vectors (Lewin’s expression) which implies that groups are pending between constructive – destructive dimensions.
Foulkes often referred to the group process in an optimistic way. It is absolutely necessary to have the “bad” group in mind – like the Anti-group (Nitsun, 1996) as well as Basic Assumptions groups (Bion,1961), Incohesive groups (Hopper,2012) and totalitarian groups with a “false collective self” (Klimová, 2015).
Basic Law of Group Dynamics and how group members collectively constitute the very Norm, from which, individually, they deviate have to be understood in context on a personal and social level with historical roots (the past) and in actual social context and dynamic matrix unconsciously and consciously (Nietzgen, 2016). How a specific group act, react and interact and how an individual member develops psychologically in a group depends on the interchange between members themselves, and members and the group analyst.
Karterud and A. Bateman (2012) raise an important question to the group analytic approach and especially to the Basic Law of Group Dynamics by asking “how can “sick” people develop a functional group?” Karterud and Bateman’s answer is that the group also requires a firm and active leader. The group cannot do it by its own. These thoughts derive from Mentalizing Based Treatment in Groups (MBT-G) for patients with a borderline personality disorder (BPD). This is not a surprising answer and every therapy group needs a therapist/an analyst but the degree of the level of activity has to find a balance between a directive and a non-directive approach. Group analysis has evolved from a classical stance (“a blank screen”/ a reflective position) to a more relational approach in an intersubjective field where the therapist/conductor more or less always is in a reflective process in finding a balance in a so called “passive – active” dimension.
In the guidelines from American Group Psychotherapy Association ((AGPA 2007) evidence based research has shown that a positive outcome for group psychotherapy is related to the therapeutic factor “cohesion” which might be seen as a “collectively norm” constituted by the members including the therapist. B. Thygesen (1992) emphasizes that group cohesion can be too tight while group coherency gives room for diversity and individuation.
In short-term Group Analytic Psychotherapy (Lorentzen, 2014) group cohesion has a central role in establishing a ground for working therapeutically where group specific factors (like mirroring, resonance etc.) can facilitate change and “ego-training in action”.
The role of the leader is prominent in any kind of groups and psychotherapy groups. This is also a finding from a non- therapeutic perspective as seen in the writings of Lewin who links the function of the group process to the leader’s role and points out the outcome in authoritarian, autocratic and democratic groups.
A democratic norm and attitude by the conductor is an essential part of how Foulkes developed his theory and thinking with his background in Nazi-Germany.
The therapeutic group evolves its own norms and values in the personal and social matrix. Miriam Berger (2017) connects the Basic Law to a “democratic ego in action” (cf. the concept of “ego-training in action”) and states “that the human capacity for co-operation and reciprocity is the most significant resource for personal and social growth”. She also highlights the other side of the coin by the notion of “the negative matrix” in which the group at the same time creates a “network of prohibitions and restrictions, which become norms in their own right”.
Finally – Basic Law of Group Dynamic can be seen as a dynamic concept in which the group process creates the mould for the ability to form a personal identity and self- realisation in relation to others but, there is also a danger in developing a “false self and a false we”.
This is both actual for the small analytic group as well as larger group in general. Now a days many societies faces a deep split and polarization tendencies between humanization and dehumanization. How can we understand that in the light of the Basic Law and how this influences society? I am not clear about that but through the work with this article I have got more and more attention to subgroups who constitutes collective norms which function in the Matrix as a network and systemically influences (social, cultural etc.) subgroups in a struggle which can be destructive or creative/constructive. These matters might better be worked through in Median and Large Group.
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