A brief history of group relations

Before coming to work for Bureau Kensington, I had never even heard of group relations. Which is too bad, because it’s a fascinating and, I think, really important field.

Group relations is the brainchild of a group of psychiatrists, psychologists and sociologists from The Tavistock Clinic (eventually the Tavistock Institute) who were interested in applying the psychological discoveries of WWII to modern life. Inspired by the work of Melanie Klein, Freud, Gustave le Bon, and so on, they drew on their knowledge of social psychology, psychoanalysis, and sociology to begin to answer the question: why do people behave the way they do in groups?

One of the key concepts of group relations is “group phantasy” – the idea that a group has not only a conscious purpose (playing music, doing a particular job or task, playing sports) but a set of unconscious needs and desires that are sometimes completely at odds with their stated purpose. A group will alternate between doing what they’re supposedly there to do and setting up defenses against doing it. When I learned about this I had a total “AHA!” moment. It made so much sense of every time I had to do group work in school and half the group did nothing, or all those times a rehearsal has turned into an excuse for noodling and bragging.

Out of the work of Tavistock analysts Wilfred Bion and Kurt Lewin* came the first group relations conference. To those who have never been to a group relations conference (like me) it seems to be a bit difficult to explain exactly what one is. According to the Tavistock Institute website, a group relations conference:

…offers opportunities to learn about group, organisational and social dynamics; the exercise of authority and power; the interplay between tradition, innovation and change; and the relationship of organisations to their social, political and economic environments.

By necessity this is a little vague, which may be why the Tavistock Institute and group relations in general have attracted a small but devoted following of conspiracy theorists who are convinced that they have secretly brainwashed the world.

No, really.

This video:

is a hypnotic if not entirely logical explanation. It’s amazing that a group of earnest academics could be responsible for not only making the Beatles famous – and I agree, the wild success of the Beatles is a bit improbable – but for the success of Henry Kissinger, the MK Ultra program, and the massive global brainwashing I mentioned above. They are the Freemasons and Illuminati rolled into one, I gather. I had no idea that when I took on this job I would be so close to the global centre of power! (Bureau Kensington is, of course, not a member of the Tavistock Institute, but our principal consultant Dr. Williams has attended the Leiscester conference, worked with them, and authored papers with their scholars.) I haven’t run across any documents detailing their plan for world domination, though….yet.

Seriously, it is amazing that someone – quite a few someones, actually – would bother to construct a conspiracy theory around group relations. It’s not as odd as the guy I met who was convinced that the Mennonites were out to get him, but if you feel like going down an internet rabbit hole I highly recommend it, if you like that sort of thing. The anti-Semitic overtones of the conspiracy theorists and the involvement of the completely bonkers LaRouche movement add an interesting and twisted wrinkle.

I’ve always thought that conspiracy theories were over-explanations of real phenomena or irrational reactions to real emotions. For example, the reptoid conspiracy theory (world elites, including celebrities and royalty, are really reptilian aliens in disguise) is ridiculous; but the growing gap in income and quality of life between rich and poor is not. The various 9/11 and London subway bombing conspiracy theories are repellant, not to say insensitive to those who died, were injured, or lost loved ones in those incidents; but a refusal to believe that a traumatic thing has happened is hardly uncommon. (For example, people often refuse to believe their terminal cancer is terminal.) So I don’t know exactly what these conspiracy theories say about group relations, which seems like an innocuous, interesting discipline – except that perhaps the perceived elitism and somewhat closed nature of the field are a prime medium for growing suspicion. And the only antidote is openness and accessibility.

For your edification, some details on the Tavistock conspiracy:

Click at your own risk – I can’t guarantee that all of these sites are free of malware, or that you won’t waste your entire afternoon obsessively reading and saying “WHAT?” so loudly you wake up your dog.

*A great outline of Lewin’s work is available here.


3 thoughts on “A brief history of group relations

  1. Two things I really liked when reading your light-hearted and yet serious introduction of Group Relations and the Tavistock:

    One is how you don’t shy away from exploring how the vagueness in our language may be suggesting our powerfulness, thereby our own contribution to not only attracting the conspiracy craze but really our own unconscious part in creating the suspicion. Which raises the question if we, with our small but devoted following of professionally interested enthusiasts, could still feel as relevant if we weren’t equally chased by the paranoids anymore…

    Two is how you connected the psychotic absurdity of these conspiracy theories with the incomprehensible inequality and injustice of the real world. It made me think that going off your rockers is not necessarily more insane than continuing to act as if nothing strange is happening. Just different defenses, and to be sure: I like mine better (but that’s always the case with defenses, isn’t it?)

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