Shaking the kaleidoscope: a few thoughts about groups, with Wilfred Bion


I won’t have time to write about them today but wanted to record some  quotations from  The Tavistock Seminars about groups –  seemed to me useful in thinking about some of the value of Shared Reading at its best.

There are great advantages in a group. Compared with a narrative story all in a straight line from A to Z, a group is like having the entire alphabet spread out. In short, between the lot of us we ought to be able to mobilize or germinate an idea that would be difficult for any single individual to produce. For that reason there is a lot to be said for universities, institutions like this one, for example, although it is bound to be clumsy because we have to place them geographically—we have to say, “Meet at the Tavistock Centre“, and in this way it is dependent on a geographical distribution. But the more widespread the actual members of a group can be, the greater the number of bases for thought there are.

Here we haven’t two people; it is like having the whole of one person at all ages and at all times spread out in one room at one time…

…In a group of this kind, maybe we could see the sort of thing that you describe, but also see the way in which an idea tracks through the community, and from that regard it as a sort of model that gives us some idea of how an idea tracks through the mind of the individual, using this very small community which is the totality of the thoughts, ideas and feelings that appear to be bounded by the physical integument of the body.”

(from “The Tavistock Seminars” by Wilfred R. Bion)

The idea that the group is more than  the sum of its parts is a great one: we make something else when we are together. That something else connects to something I was reading in the essays of Emerson  –  Man becomes Men, the Human becomes individuated women and men. But the idea that there is something bigger than us as individuals, though  individuals are parts of  the greater body, is one we hunger for and we often go hungry. there aren’t many ways – football, concerts, political demonstrations aside –  where we become a greater sum. And a crowd is not a group. I was struck while reading by the thought of the astronomical work that is being done on the internet, where hundreds of thousands of individuals watch  particular small pieces of the night sky for changes –  can’t remember what this programme is called… can anyone help? – The number of individuals greatly increases the power of the investigation.

I think there is sometimes something like that in Shared Reading  groups –  to do with the  range and  nature of personal experiences brought to the table. One of the aspects of the group work consistently commented  on by participants and  Reader Leaders and observers is the  inclusive nature of the group experience. Of course this pulls two ways –  people have the chance to bring themselves in all their personal individuality. But then power of  group-think also exerts itself: we become as one.  I’ve always thought that in some way groups should be regularly  broken up and reassembled – shake the kaleidoscope to get  different patterns.  Lots of people disagree with that, naturally liking the regularity and consistency  of  the same people, same group leader.

Some of the best, that is to say, most productive ( I know there’s an argument for ‘the best’ being something other than ‘productive’, but speaking personally here) groups I’ve been involved in have had quite a bit of change in them.  New letters in the human alphabet, or letters not yet known or spelled out in the group, can have a profound and  useful effect.

But, sorry, times up  for today.

One thought on “Shaking the kaleidoscope: a few thoughts about groups, with Wilfred Bion

  1. Heather July 21, 2017 / 1:02 pm

    I fully agree with the idea that what happens in group is somehow more than the sum of its parts. An example similar to the astronomical one is the mapping of bird populations. Individuals get involved with ringing and recording birds and this info helps to map the overal population.

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