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08-09-2014 at 23:10
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Socialization – is this a fundamental concept in Group Theory and Practice?

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Per Sørensen
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Socializing is a force working in society and cultivated in therapeutic groups, which can be seen as the individual drift towards the collective norm, as a translation in the group of unconscious to conscious and the autistic to the social, where in Foulkes expression “the accumulated soot in the ivory towers is swept clean”.
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In Group Psychotherapy: The Psychoanalytic Approach (1) Foulkes writes about group specific factors under the heading “socialization through the group”:   Socialization is a factor in human environment that operates through life. No one can escape modifying influence of the society in which he lives. Because of deep psycholocial disturbances an individual may feel isolated and inadequate in group situations and may constantly seek to evade it. A circular response is established the more inadequate he behaves the more inadequate he feels, and the more inadequate he becomes. Society shows it self intolerant of his neurotic shortcomings and may refuse to accept him all together. He may then reject society and become a recluse, and the lack of social integration may lead to egocentric thinking and eccentric standards, which may finally necessitate his admission to a mental hospital.                                       

So Foulkes see socialization as an important factor in the social realm which shapes the individual, which have a profound impact and can go wrong through a circular response which lead to rejection, egocentric thinking and admission to a mental hospital.  Society shapes the mad.  Dieter Nitzgen writes in The Social Unconscoiuss, Groups and Society (2) “Foulkes never write how social facts impinge on the individual psyche. Although he hinted at their double nature as inhibiting and facilitating forces, he did not elucidate the process of their psychic representation. Unlike the repressed unconscious, which was based on specific mechanism of defense, he did not outline the defensive process associated with unconscious social facts”. So socialization as an idea is connected to concept of the social unconscious, cultural development and transmission and a psychoanalytic understanding of development of personality structure in a specific society.

Foulkes continues in In Group Psychotherapy:  “In the therapeutic group acceptance is the keyword. The rejected and isolated are brought in on equal terms. The cardinal lesson of social living is gradually learned – the reciprocal need to understand and be understood. The group listens with patience to the articulate, and helps with a clearer formulation of his problem. It brings him to realize that he is not alone in the absurd, obsence or incongruous impulse or thought. Much anxiety and guilt are alleviated and long bottled-up feelings find release. With increasing socializing, the character of intercommunication changes. What was egocentric and leader-centered become altruistic and group-centered... The value of talking for the sake of communication is realized. One of Freuds patients referred to it as “chimney-sweeping”, the accumulated soot in the ivory towers is swept clean.”

It is not clear what Foulkes understand by socialization in this text, but a more benign circular response is possible because of the acceptance in the therapeutic group. So in this way there is a difference between society and the group. A cardinal lesson of social living is learned gradually – the reciprocal need to understand and be understood.

A key understanding in group analytic thinking is the idea of adjustment and change. People is part of a system - in a therapeutic setting the group, which is in dynamic balance. It is not at rest but adjust constantly to the given conditions. This adjustment contains creative elements. The members of the therapeutic group have problems which make them deviate in a certain degree from the group norm. The group contains healthy forces, which challenge this deviation and forces the individual to participate in a discussion of the symptoms that is an expression of the deviation, so the group collectively can understand, help and share difficulties. This process where the individuals’ isolation is broken and the participants of the group meet and change under a common norm is socialization. There is a balance between destructive forces which lead to fragmentation and forces which stimulates commitment and constructive processes. Is there an inherent process in analytic groups which supports a constructive development and lead to adjustment that slowly develops the group toward the norms of the society? And are the group more normal than the individual members and does this promote healthy and constructive values and relations and integration in society?              

It is Foulkes understanding that we as human beings have a fundamental need to communicate and the group is the tool where this need emerge and is expressed both conscious and unconscious. The mind should be seen as an interpersonal phenomenon and the group in a therapeutic setting a place where intrapsychic problems become interpersonal problems - and the interpersonal problem become intrapsychic problems. Communication is an expression of all processes in the group both verbally and nonverbally. There are different levels of communication some conscious, some outside the conscious realm. The therapeutic process is - in a more superficial impression- verbally, where the free discussion takes different associative patterns in the group. Foulkes speaks of translation, as an essential part of the therapeutic process, a translation from a more primitive level to a conscious level, where the group members verbally expresses their difficulties and conflicts. There is a movement from the latent to the manifest. In Foulkes understanding this process is like a dream analysis, where latent parts of the dream are made conscious. Communication crystallizes certain mind patterns and communication connects the group in a fluctuating network. Therapy is a shift in communication where the unconscious are made conscious in the group. This translation does not take place between the therapist and the patient, but by the use of the whole group, and depend of the group’s ability to allow free discussion. Symptoms are autistic which stays fixated when not communicated. If the symptom is articulated in the group it receives a social meaning which deepens the understanding of the symptom through reflection and resonance in the group. This shift from the autistic to the social did Foulkes conceive as liberating.

Foulkes continues”therapy lies in both ends of the communication process. At the receiving end, the listener’s threshold for reception is variable… based on the individual’s  “framework of reference”(he) may conduce to a personal manipulation of the group material to the bewilderment to the others in the group. The amount of distorsion is related to the individual’s adaption to reality (1).                                   

Karterud and Nitsun (3, 4) has criticized Foulkes model for socializing in group. The model is based on the assumption that dissocial and deviant sides are normalized and the group is the normalizing factor. But the group norm can in itself be deviant and dissocial and there is a risk for a fragmented and alienated group especially with more disturbed patients. It can be seen as part of development in society, where an earlier assumption of the group as a mirror for the surrounding society is no longer a reality as the society in itself can be fragmented. More fundamental Karterud and Nitsun question that the group inherently is a harmonizing and synthesizing factor which modify aggressive and disturbed aspects in people.          

This is a problem which Foulkes addresses in the text from 1965 where he states that the listeners reception can be distorted related to his adaption to reality and conduce personal manipulation of the group material. But it does not seem to affect Foulkes idealized concept of socializing in groups.   


1.       Foulkes, S. H. & Anthony, E. J. (1965). Group Psychotherapy: The Psychoanalytic Approach. London: Karnac.

2.       Nizgen, D. (2011) The concept of the social unconscious in the work of S.H. Foulkes. In Hopper. E. & Weinberg H. (Eds.) The Social Unconscious in Persons, Groups, and Society (pp. 3-23). London: Karnac.     

3.       Karterud, S. (1989). The Influence of Task Defintion, Leadership and Therapeutic Style on Inpatient Group Culture. Therapeutic Communities, 9, 231-247.

4.       Nitsun, M. (1996). The Anti-Group. London: Routledge.

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