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08-09-2014 at 23:05
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Group - as – a - whole?

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Helle Østerby Andersen
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The group is more than a group of individuals and at the same time a collection of individuals is an understanding that pervades the group analytic theory. We are talking about the group- as – a-whole and emphasising the whole is more than the sum of its parts. But what do we mean when we say greater than and different from the sum of individuals what composes the-group-as –a-whole. And what makes the transformation - what kind of energy from one to whole? How to describe from parts to whole from individual relating to grouping relating. Individuality to Grouping and reversed?
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In the literature there are many different manifestations of the phenomenon: the group- as-a- whole; For instance Burrows calls it The group as a unit, Bion: Basic Assumptions, Foulkes Matrix, or network communications, Nitzun's anti group theorizing (shadow descriptions of the group- as - whole) Karterud's idea of ​​group self, de Maré’s Koinonia, and many more.

The first references to what could be understood as the group-as-a-whole, I have come across are from 1928. It is the American Trignant Burrows who wrote from his clinical experience as a group therapist. His concept could be seen as  “group- as – a- unit (not whole) understanding, as he wrote about "The immediate group in the immediate moment. " a moment that defines the group as one unit at one point.

Foulkes inspired by Gestalt psychology wrote about the group- as – a-whole. An idea of the group fluctuating between two separated entities  - a collection of individuals and a group- as- a-whole.  A movement is seen as fluctuation between figure and background, the fluctuation between the individual and the group.

Foulkes writes in 1964 that group-analytic psychotherapy … is a form of psycho-analytic therapy, and its frame of reference is the group-as-a-whole. (Foulkes 1964)

He also wrote that-“ each individual – itself an artefact though plausible, abstraction – is basically and centrally determined, inevitably by the world in which he lives, by the community, the group, of which he forms a part… the old juxtaposition of an inside and outside world, constitution and environment, individual and society phantasy and reality, body and mind and so on are untenable”.

(Foulkes 1983 p. 10)

 Dalal sums Foulkes main thinking - about parts and whole- up in his book about Taking the Group Seriously (1998):

1.The part is always connected to the whole

2. The “ whole” determines what takes place in the part

3. The “ whole” is always an artefact, an abstraction that is carved out of a greater complexity.

Then Dalal concludes that the individual is a level of the group (with Elias) a fluid unity as opposed to a former dichotomy.

Group - as - a whole is comparable to basic ideas / theory in psychoanalysis. The idea of ​​the Unconscious and Free Association. In group analysis the understanding is not that it is a collection of people who receives treatment individually in a group, but the group of individuals who is a group and by being a group treated by the group. Between the group and individual is where the possibility of transformation occurs.

The total group has been experimentally investigated for example, Bion's work with basic assumptions as something present in all groups. As if group culture is a thing in it self, or as Victor Schremer (2012) has it  -“ It is  realities that are an investable aspect of grouping “(p. 483). Bions used Melanie Klein’s notion of Projective Identification as the motor for how the individual and group interacted and regressed. The group fluctuation between stability and what Turquet named dissaroy (Turquet 1975) explained by Projective Identification.  Bion’s idea of how the group becomes the The-group-as-a-whole presuppose some kind of inside in the group-as-a-whole that can project and identify  - some kind of group mind? It is argued by G. Ahlin and  C. Sandahl that group process research foremost should concern the group-as-a-whole using observation methods. They have worked with this and published.

In two articles in the autumn  of 2012 Sept and Dec in Group Analysis Schermer writes that the concept of the group-as-a-whole is not a new phenomenon. It has been part of group theory since the beginning. Schremer points out that what is new is that we may have is a new possibility of explaining, or developing a language about what we really mean when we say the group-as-a-whole. He puts forward the point that complexity theories developed within quantum physics and chaos theory which has gained ground over the last 20 years is an opportunity to leave Newton's paradigm of linear causality and use a new scientific paradigm to understand some of the phenomena in groups, such as the concept of Bion's Basic Assumption, Nitzun’s anti group phenomena and the radical part of Foulkes theorizing in particular Matrix concept and the idea of ​​group - as - a whole. Schremer describes how it is group phenomenon’s that occurs on the edge between order and disorder. Complexity theory is a scientific paradigm that attempts to describe the way in which order and disorder are constantly fluctuating and combine with the objective of producing a higher order of living organisms. Disorder in the sense of unpredictability - turbulence – chaos  - but also an new/ another order.

This understanding is the group- as - a whole - for a moment - where the interaction between the individuals in the group forming meaningful whole, which in turn was not there before and sometimes does not come back yet can be captured by example. A comprehensive interpretation of the moment.

Schremer draws our attention to complexity theory as a biosocial phenomenon. Self -organizing processes that bring a higher order system forward. A higher order interacting and born out of a previous order. Randomness and turbulence re-configure phenomena into new patterns. Patterns are a " lucky " coincidences and complex contexts so to speak, stepping forward again to change.

There is not a universal theory of group - as – a - whole. There are theories about how the group- as - a whole becomes the group-as-a-whole or are the-group as-a-whole, the group therapists hypothesis case formulations (working assumptions) and the Common Understanding (generic model) where the emphasis is on the comparison of the group- as-a - whole against the individual as part which is reflected in the descriptions of the work with the whole group. The–group-as a-whole is a notion that must defined simultaneously as part being whole and whole being part and as being there to be seen to disappear to reappear in new shapes and orders to from order to disorder to order and so on.


Ahlin, G. (1988). Reaching for the group matrix? Group June 1996, Volume 20,

Issue 2,

Ahlin, G. (1995). A Zoom-Lens for Processes in Therapy Groups: Matrix Representation Grid (MRG) version 2 (manuscript).in Group Analysis, 21(3), 211–226.

Bion,W.R. (1959) Experiences in Groups. London. Tavistock

Bion W.R. (1970) Attention and interpretation. London Tavistock

Burrow,T.(1927) The Group Method of analysis. In  Pschyanalytic Review XIV(3)-268-280

Foulkes, S. H. (1983) Introduction to Group Analytic Psychotherapy. London: Karnac

Foulkes, S.H. Therapeutic Group Analysis. London: George Allen & Unwin1964

Dalal,F. (1998) Taking the Group Seriously. London. Jessica Kingsley Publisher

de Maré, P. (1991) Koinonia . From Hate through Dialouge to Culture in the Larger Group. London. Karnac.

Schremer,V. (2012) ‘Group-as-a-Whole and ComplexityTheories: Areas of Convergence. Part 1: Background and Literature Review in Group Analysis 45(3)

Schremer,V.(2012) ‘Group-as-a-Whole and ComplexityTheories: Areas of Convergence. Part 2: Application to Group Relations; Group Analysis and System Centered Therapy in Group Analysis 45(4)

Stacy,R.( 2003) Complexity and Group Processes. London. Routledge

Turquet, P. (1975) ‘Threats to identity in large groups in L. Kreeger (ed) The Large Group: Dynamics and Therapy. London Constable.

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