Basics of group relations: Bion’s basic assumption groups

This is the second in a five-ish post series on the background and basics of group relations. Read part one here.

A key figure in the history and development of group relations was Wilfred Bion (1897-1979). (Incidentally, he is also the originator of the quote that inspired the title of this blog – “The purest form of listening is to listen without memory or desire”.) I’m not going to go into it in huge detail because I already covered the development of group relations back in September ( “A brief history of group relations”), but suffice to say that Bion and his colleagues at the Tavistock Clinic (now the Tavistock Institute) pretty much invented the discipline. Bion’s 1953 book, Experiences in Groups, outlines the difference between what he refers to as “work groups” and “basic assumption groups”.

In Bion’s view, a work group is task-focused, efficient, able to get work done, and more or less in touch with reality. In contrast, the basic assumption groups are focused on reacting to a collective phantasy – unconscious needs and desires that arise from the collective anxieties of the group – rather than focused on their task, which they approach inefficiently or not at all.

Bion identified three different basic assumption groups, each depending on a different background anxiety. The basic assumption of dependence (baD) creates a group that is dependent on its strong leader. The leader is imbued with god-like qualities and the group can do nothing without him/her. This is a depressingly common state of affairs, as anyone who’s ever worked in an organization will know.

An example of this came up in our class*. One participant was attempting to work with a team in their organization who were so under the thumb of their leader – let’s call him “Stan” – that they referred to themselves as “The Clan of Stan”. Needless to say the Clan of Stan was not the world’s most productive or cooperative division, its members fearful and timid, unable to do anything on their own or colaborate outside their own group.

The basic assumption of pairing (baP) is a bit weirder. Under this assumption the group expects the birth of a Messiah or a saviour figure who will appear to solve all their problems. This savior will be born of two of the group members, whom the group imagines as having sex with each other. This reveals the rather sex-obsessed fingerprint of Freud, as the two imagined parents can be of any sex or gender.

This may be a bit of a stretch, but when I heard this (after I got over the “Huh?” factor), it rather reminded me of shipping. I’m not talking about moving goods from one place to another, but of the largely internet-based phenomenon where fans of a book, movie, game, television show, or other artistic work get obsessed with the idea of two of their favourite characters being in a relationship. Popular pairings have accumulated a breathtakingly large literature of fan-written stories. These can be probable combinations like Mulder and Scully from the X-Files, which the show itself continually hinted at; less probable ones, like Kirk and Spock from Star Trek, who don’t seem to show any attraction to each other on the original series, but hey, who knows; or really, really improbable ones. (If you’re not at work and have a minute you will really enjoy cracked.com’s list of “The Five Most Baffling Sex Scenes in the History of Fanfiction”. You’re welcome.) Fans often seem to feel that if their favourite couple got together the show/movie/whatever would be so much better. They’re usually wrong, as X-Files fans found out during the last X-Files movies (I’m still bitter about that one).

The last of Bion’s basic assumption is fight/flight (baF/F). In this case the group believes itself to be under attack from an external aggressor, that it must protect itself at all costs. This, like baD, is a depressingly common situation.

An example from our class: One of the participants worked in an organization that had recently merged with another organization. Putting together a holiday party proved difficult. Workers from each of the former organizations exhibited hostility towards the other group and didn’t want to share their celebration. As far as I could tell from the participant’s description, nothing bad was going on between the two groups, but still there was a lot of hostility and bad feeling.

This seems to cover most of the ways in which people get weird in groups; however, later thinkers added two more.

Pierre Turquet proposed the basic assumption of oneness (baO) in 1974. This is a desire to lose onself in the group or to surrender oneself to a higher power. I haven’t read as much about this one (it wasn’t covered in class either!) so I don’t know as much about it, but it sounds to me like it could explain how people get involved in cults and destructive religious groups.

In answer to this Lawrence, Bain, and Gould (1996) proposed the basic assumption of me-ness (baM) – the desire of the group to not be a group. Again I don’t have as much background info on this, but this reminded me of Margaret Thatcher’s famous “There is no such thing as society” speech:

There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate. (Interview with Douglas Keay for Women’s Own, 1987)

Our instructor emphasized that any group can go from functional work-group to a less functional basic assumption group when under stress, and that groups can go from one basic assumption to another when subject to different forces.

So what’s the difference between work groups and basic assumption groups? Why does one group of people work together with reasonable efficiency while another develops the delusion that the team down the hall is stealing their photocopy paper? In work groups people can for whatever reason tolerate their incompleteness; they can acknowledge that they can learn and grow, thus get past the phantasy into connecting with reality and the group.

Next up: projection and projective identification.

*Names have been changed and examples altered slightly to preserve anonymity.

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