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by David Armstrong

My task today is to introduce you to a way of thinking about groups and group life associated with the name of Wilfred Bion. I will say something more about him in a moment. Before doing so I want to say that I am quite daunted by this task and for several reasons. First, of course, because I am unfamiliar with your language and therefore have to speak to you and try to communicate through the distance of a foreign tongue. Second, because Bion's way of thinking can often seem unfamiliar in any language, almost like a foreign tongue itself.

When he was working as a psychiatrist at The Tavistock Clinic before the Second World War, a young, highly talented but so far rather unproductive Irish writer, came to see Bion as a patient. The writer was Samuel Beckett. At the time Beckett had published a study of Proust and a few short stories and poems, but little else. Later, after he had left treatment, he was to begin working on the unique, strange, unfamiliar sequence of novels and plays that made his name.

As far as I know neither Beckett nor Bion ever referred in public to each other and what had taken place between them. But it has been well said by others that there is something of Bion in Beckett and something of Beckett in Bion. Both of them, for instance, draw on the capacity for irony. Both explore the realm of paradox in human life. Both are peculiarly sensitive and alert to what is silent, unstated and unchallenged in our relations and affairs. Bion is perhaps more optimistic. But his is an optimism which has been hard won, which has faced despair and is not to be buttressed by comforting but false illusions about the sources of human behaviour.

And both are puzzling, in the sense that one has to puzzle away at what they mean, without their providing any handy guide. Which leads me to a third reason for feeling daunted.

Because Bion's thinking has been very influential in some circles, including those in which Bob Young, Gordon Lawrence and myself work; and because at the same time few of us have his, or indeed Beckett's, peculiar genius for indirectness: the toleration of doubt, confusion, not - knowing, there is always a temptation to "sanitise" what he says; to make it sane, plausible, no longer so shocking or so apparently odd.

I am pretty sure that I will do the same, here and now, today. I do not apologise particularly for that, since that would be to apologise for what I am. But I think it is at lease appropriate here to note the danger.

Bion, in my view, is a transformative thinker. He can change the way one sees human things, in particular for me the things that happen in our social lives and engagement. But like all transformative thinkers the power of his writing lies in its allusiveness, its suggestiveness, its not being - to use an English phrase which I hope does not elude translation - wholly "laid on the line".

In what follows, I shall begin by saying something about Bion's background and the experiences he drew on, from the 1940's onwards, in charting his account of the dynamics of groups and, later, of individuals.

I shall then try to offer a short sketch of this account as it relates to our social experience in groups and organisations. Then finally I shall say something about the relevance of this account, as I see it, to the various concerns that bring us together today.

The course of an early life

Wilfred Bion was born at the turn of the century to British parents in India. His father was a civil servant, part of an occupying power, the British Raj. In his early childhood, Bion and his younger sister were, following the custom of Anglo-lndian families at the time, largely brought up not so much by their mother as by their Indian "ayah", who combined the roles and duties of servant and nanny.

At the age of eight, again in accordance with the immemorial practice of the British middle class abroad, he was sent off, uncomprehending, to boarding school in England and was never to return. For the next ten years he lived the life of an English public schoolboy: intense, competitive, un-reflectively elitist and exclusively male. But also lonely. Holidays from school were spent in the families of school friends, with occasional visits from his parents, back home on 'furlough'.

By the standards of the time there was nothing particularly exceptional in this pattern of childhood. But, nonetheless, it was a pattern which, reflected and laid down deep in the psyche, was to have over the years significant influence on the whole trajectory of Bion's work and thought.

All his life, I think, Bion shared something of the mental make up of the exile, who is nowhere fully at home. The Polish/English writer Joseph Conrad would be a comparable figure, or indeed Samuel Beckett himself, an Irishman who chose nonetheless to live, work and write in Paris and in French.

For Bion at first exile was not a choice: it was imposed. But later in life it was also on occasion to become a choice. As when, near 70, at the summit of his profession, the President of the British Psycho-analytic Society, he suddenly gave up his practice in London and left, quite improbably, to take up residence as a practising psycho-analyst in Los Angeles.

To be an exile is to find oneself or to place oneself outside the familiar: on the margin and neither wholly in or wholly out of either one's own culture or that of one's adopted host. It is both a break with expectation and a courting of absence: a "no-place” of the mind, not quite here or there.

This placing of oneself outside a "system of representation", with its spoken and unspoken assumptions, habits and frames of mind may lead to or be provoked by disenchantment and a sense of isolation, that is rooted also in a certain narcissism. But it may also stimulate a creative, if anxious curiosity: a refusal to take an apparently known world for granted.

I believe it is this movement of the mind, amounting to a kind of mental disposition, which is at the heart of all Bion's work and practice, both in the study of the group and of the individual. Something he would himself later refer to as the capacity to "alter one's vertex".

This sense of "exile", however, drew on more than the immediate experiences of childhood I have referred to. For at the end of his childhood Bion was suddenly precipitated into experiences far less familiar and far less expected than the habitual fate of an English, middle class, elder son: the experiences of a front line soldier in the War of 1914 - 1918. At the outbreak of War, Bion had volunteered for service at once and without question. Much of the War he spent as a Tank Commander on the battlefields of Northern France. He ended the War apparently covered in honour, decorated for bravery and promoted to the rank of major.

Towards the end of his life, Bion wrote out this experience in a remarkable piece of auto-biography: The Long Weekend. In this unique document he makes it clear that in some respects the War scarred him for ever. It shattered, in him as in others, the illusions of a lost generation and set him on a path of self and social discovery that it would take the next 30 years to work through. At the centre of this experience was the beginning of a recognition of the waste of human reason: the narrowness of the dividing line between intelligent feeling or feeling intelligence and blind stupidity. More than this, a recognition of how pervasive was the capacity to lie in human affairs, to dissemble and evade: from the High Command downwards.

The sense of exile, I think you could say, turned inwards, into the whole texture of Bion's relation to our common nature.

It was to take the experiences of another War, at the mid point of Bion's life to discover a position and a method from which this sense of inner exile could be put to creative use.

In December 1940 Bion was appointed as a psychiatrist to join a group of colleagues working under the aegis of the Army Command, and including in its number psychiatrists and psycho-analysts who had been or were later to become members or associates of the Tavistock Clinic. In this capacity he pioneered radically new approaches, first of all to the selection of officers; second to the treatment and rehabilitation of soldiers suffering from war neuroses, using group methods.

There is not time today to chart in detail the steps through which these approaches took shape. What I do want to mention, however, are a number of assumptions or intuitions which seem to have guided the evolution of Bion's way of thinking and working, probably from the outset.

The first was the assumption that the group and the relation of individuals to the group was a distinctive and proper object of study in its own right.

The second, methodological assumption, was that to study this object required one to abstain from taking up any declared or expected position in relation to the task of the group and/or its structure, for example of leadership. To put this another way, one was required to detach, or "exile" oneself from the group's "system of representation", while seeking to remain in contact with the emotional undertow of the group's life, as this was registered in oneself.

This move of abstinence in the service of emotional understanding can be seen as the equivalent of Freud's emphasis on the act of abstinence required in individual psycho-analytic work. Later in life, Bion would characterise this as the need for the analyst to suspend "memory and desire".

It was the constellation afforded by these two assumptions that provided the mental space, if I can borrow this phrase from Robert Young, in which the distinctive qualities and dynamics of group functioning could be experienced, reflected on, formulated and given back through interpretation.

There was also a third assumption, from which Bion was never to depart. This was that the understanding which derived from working with groups, and which could at best make a difference to the behaviour of their members, was always and only an understanding of the individual-in-the-group, never of the individual alone. It followed that the group could not be used as a vehicle for individual therapy.

I think that there was a corollary to this, about which Bion was perhaps less explicit: namely that the understanding which derived from working with individuals could not in itself alone explain the behaviour of the individual in the group.

It followed that to achieve a full understanding of human behaviour in the round called for what Bion came to refer to as ”binocular vision”: the ability to view the same phenomena: human experience and behaviour, now through the vertex of the individual, now through the vertex of the group.

This conception, rooted in a parallelism of method between psycho-analytic and group work, which Bion described as the "practice of scientific insight", paradoxically unifies the psychic and the social fields. In the sense that both individual and social behaviour are seen to be profoundly, if not exclusively, driven by emotional experience and the defences which individuals and groups unconsciously mobilise to contain or ward off the burden of anxiety such experience arouses. It is our belief in the explanatory and potentially constructive power of this conception, at both individual and societal levels, that brings us here and informs what we are seeking to share and explore together.

I have, however, now jumped too far ahead. What is the substance of Bion's account of group life; what is its contribution to the organisational and social concerns and dilemmas we encounter; how usable is it?

Experiences in Groups

I should say at once that I do not intend to describe in detail the account Bion offers of experiences in groups. This account was first published in a series of seminal articles which appeared in the newly founded British Journal, Human Relations, between 1948 and 1951. Although in offering this account Bion drew on his war time experiments, his primary source of material was his experience with groups of patients, and with groups made up of men and women from different walks of life who, in the context of post war reconstruction, were interested to study for themselves the sources of co-operation and conflict in organisational and social life.

I will try briefly to say something of how Bion worked and the direction of his thinking. It is useful to keep in mind that at the time this thinking was taking shape. Bion was also himself re-training as a psycho-analyst with Melanie Klein. In fact it is clear from Bion’s own published letters, and from the accounts of his contemporaries, that Mrs. Klein was somewhat unsympathetic to this dual interest. But Bion, to our advantage, was never someone who took easily to the uninformed judgements of others, however eminent. Certainly his analytic experience influenced and helped to shape his thinking about the groups, but equally the latter provided a source of insight into aspects of the analytic experience itself.

Bion's stance on working with groups, as I have alluded to already, was fundamentally, as we might now say, non-directive. That is, he did not seek to set an agenda, to take a lead, to impose or suggest a structure. He assumed the members were aware of the task of the group and at some level wished to collaborate in working to that task. He simply set himself to observe what happened and to comment on this if he felt he had an observation which might be of use. The instrument which he deployed was, in the first instance, what he later would term "common sense", by which he meant, I think, the use of all his senses in common.

However, there was something more than this also, amounting to a sixth sense which was the capacity to register and attend to the quality of emotional experience he was aware of in himself: apprehension, boredom, irritation, pressure to do or say something, or not to do or say something, the feeling of being on the receiving end of powerful expectations or feelings from others: admiration, contempt, envy, hatred, curiosity, love etc. This attention to his own emotional experiences included attention to the apparent corresponding or contrasting experiences of the group as a whole and the ways in which various constellations of such experiences circulated within and between different members.

In taking such a stance, Bion was quickly made aware of the resistance, incomprehension and suspicion it aroused. If he was not giving a lead, how could a group get down to work? Was he playing some kind of game? Surely with all those initials after his name and with his position as a psychiatrist or his reputation as a "taker of groups" he should show the way forward, set the group on its course?

Group members expected something to be present. Bion acknowledged the expectation but refused to comply with it. He made, you could say, the expected present absent. In order to make something absent, un-known, unthought but pervasive, present. Not out of sheer stubbornness. But because it was not immediately clear why this expectation needed to be met. After all the task of the group was clear. It did not seem to be a task that needed a leader, since there were no pressing decisions to be taken. The wish for a leader did not appear based on any evident reality. On what then was it based?

It was the exploration of this conundrum, which can so easily seem to fly in the face of what we might call "common-sense", in the more usual sense of this phrase, since surely every group needs a leader and who else but the appointed “expert”, - it was this exploration that led to the heart of Bion's insights.

Put very crudely and perhaps over simply the answer to this conundrum, at the end of Bion's journey, turned out something like this. The group, any group, organisation, society, needs and evolves a structure of tasks, roles, procedures, rules, ascribed status (what Bion referred to as the "group culture"), in order to contain the anxiety of the unknown and the responses which, unconsciously, are mobilised to defend against that unknown. The unknown is at the same time what is unknown and feared in each of us and what is unknown in the realities we engage with as we live and work.

Within the group, Bion believed, one can see operating a number of powerful unconscious and unlearned, quasi-instinctive, strategies of evasion and denial. Bion came to see these strategies of evasion and denial as constituting what he termed a "group mentality", opposed to the conscious aims, intentions and efforts of individuals.

No group, no organisation, and no individual; however sophisticated, is ever wholly outside the sphere of group mentality in this sense. And, paradoxically, Bion believed, this is at least partly because the ability of the group to mobilise group mentality is a powerful unlearned source of co-operation, (Valency)

Of course, co-operation has more benign roots than this as well. We need to co operate to achieve many if not all of our individual desires and aims. Just as, and this is a point Bion never denied, we need structures through which to co-operate and give direction to the enterprises we engage in. But these more positive, and more reality based sources of co-operation and structure always as it were "ride on the back" of something far more primitive and defensive.

The task of leadership and the intuitive skill of the gifted leader is to balance the requirements of co-operation and structure in the service of reality, with the constraints inevitably imposed by group mentality in the service of defense.

I have talked about 'group mentality' here in very general terms. In fact much of Bion's pioneering work lay in his charting the variety of strategies of evasion and denial which comprised that mentality.

There were three such strategies which Bion identified, each of which was mutually exclusive, though interchangeable, and each of which was characterised by particular constellations of emotion and fantasy. Bion called these "Basic Assumptions": baslc, because they seemed to be rudimentary, unlearned, instinctive; assumptions, because they operated like myths on the basis of an implicit "as if". They were named respectively as Dependence, Fight\Flight and Pairing.

Briefly a group operating under basic assumption dependence behaves "as if it is met in order to be sustained by a leader on whom it depends for nourishment, material and spiritual, and protection". The leader may be a person, a book or set of ideas and beliefs which operates as a bible.

A group operating under fight/flight behaves as if it has met to fight something or run away from it.

A group operating under basic assumption pairing is preoccupied with the idea of the potential birth or emergence of someone or something that will save it from its present state, from feelings of hatred, destructiveness and despair. Its prevailing emotionality is one of hopefulness and expectation: as Bion puts it, that the coming season will be more agreeable; that some new kind of community - an improved group, society, nation - will be developed etc.

I do not want here to belabour what Bion has to say about the Basic Assumptions and their vagaries. It is more subtle, complex and rich than I have made it sound. But I imagine most of us can recognise from the history of our own organisations and perhaps even more of our own societies something that resonates with these brief descriptions.

The more important point I wish to emphasise is Bion's single mindedness in acknowledging the source of such constellations in our intolerance and fear of what is uncertain, unknown or unthought in ourselves, our situations, our engagement with the world: emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.

I believe that this single-mindness and Bion's recognition of the strength, subtlety and inevitability of the unconscious stratagems of avoidance we have available as human beings offers, again paradoxically, the best opportunity we have for coming to terms with and perhaps for transforming our experience of and in the worlds in which, together, we live and work.

As a tentative, provisional way of justifying that assertion I want to leave Bion and turn to say something from my own experience of seeking to work within this frame of reference as a practising organisational consultant. I shall do this by describing to you the course of one recent assignment.

The Management of Vulnerability

I am working with the Chief Executive of a public agency in the UK, known as the Special Hospitals Service Authority. Special Hospitals are large psychiatric institutions working with men and women convicted by the Courts of offences against the person: physical assault, murder, sexual violence and abuse.

I see him once a fortnight in a consulting room at the Institute where I work. He is coming because, since being appointed as the first Chief Executive of this new Authority three years ago, he has sought to introduce a radical programme of organisational change. The objective of this change is to transform an existing culture and in two directions: from a culture of confinement and control to one of containment and therapeutic care; and from a culture of dependence on central authority to one of devolved accountability. This change is difficult and is provoking resistance. It is also risky and the public (Governmen/media/local communities) are looking over his shoulder.

This public is highly ambivalent: scared and fearful of the dangerousness locked up in these institutions, which it wants to keep out of sight, out of mind: but also guilty and therefore sensitive to evidence of ill treatment and abuse. If patients escape there is an immediate outcry: also if once notorious patients are released. If a patient commits suicide, kills or is killed inside, there is clamour for a public enquiry. It produces a report and heads are expected to roll.

The Chief Executive knows something of the work my colleagues and I do with organisations. He thinks that it may be of use to him in thinking through his own experiences as Chief Executive and the dilemmas and challenges he is facing. We agree a contract of regular individual consultations. Later he invites me to work with the unit managers of each hospital if they choose to take this up.

In the early sessions with my client the work focuses on two stands. One is to do with looking at the strategy of change the Authority is embarking on and analysing the resistances, internal and external, structural and cultural. The other is trying to understand and get some purchase on the 'organisation-in-the-mind' of my client: by which I mean the emotional reality of the organisation, which is registered in him and is informing his relatedness to the organisation, consciously and unconsciously.

For example, one aspect of this reality relates to the way time is structured. It is as if two time scales are simultaneously present, held in tension within the institution and its members. On the one hand there is 'real' time, with its urgencies and demands: on the other a kind of illusory timelessness in which nothing will or can change - which reflects in some ways the formal decision of the Courts to commit patients for indefinite sentences, (the time of 'Her Majesty's pleasure').

The work goes along quite well, but I am left with a sense of missing the heart of the matter! There is a feeling of being in the presence of something 'unknown', elusive but near.

Half way through the series of sessions we have contracted, the Chief Executive writes and sends me an Aide Memoir of Key Issues Identified. I am struck by one item, in which he refers to the "isolation/vulnerability of the Chief Executive, particularly in an organisation which has no counterparts and which is new with high profile and ambitious aims".

We have touched on this theme already on several occasions. My client has seen it as an occupational hazard related to his particular role. This is exacerbated by the quality of his relations with the Chairman of the Authority, to whom he is close but unable to make use of as a 'container' for his own uncertainties. I am aware of being used myself in this way, as a kind of surrogate for the Chairman. (It was through the Chairman that I was first introduced to my client.) Now, reading this Aide Memoire, I have a feeling that this explanation does not go far enough. The kind of question I ask myself is "why does this system need its Chief Executive to be vulnerable, or to experience vulnerability?"

By this time I have begun working with two of the Managers of the individual Hospitals and with a Director of Nursing. I start to notice how each of them from time to time communicates similar feelings. Also the number of occasions sessions have to be cancelled or postponed because of illness. If vulnerability is an occupational hazard it appears to be no respector of persons.

More important than this, I begin to get in touch with my own feelings of vulnerability in the presence of my clients. For example, with one manager, who voluntarily chose to start sessions, I have nonetheless often felt to be on the receiving end of something akin to hostility: a kind of dead eyed challenge to say anything useful or illuminating that has a quite physical charge. In short, I feel frightened, both punished and tempted to be punitive in turn. With another manager I experience being drawn into being mindlessly reassuring in the presence of evidence of impending catastrophe.

These experiences of vulnerability in the presence of my clients have an institutional undertow, in that I become aware both of feeling the vulnerability of my own institution - what will happen if I make a mess of this assignment; and of experiences feeling the vulnerability of my own relatedness to my institution. I believe these registered in myself, can be understood as correlates of the experience of my clients. More exactly, I would say that I experience myself temporarily as both in and of their institution: something akin to a kind of institutional projective identification.

At some stage in this process I decide to look up 'vulnerability' in Webster's Dictionary. It is defined there as "capable of being wounded: liable to injury or criticism; subject at being affected injuriously or attacked. I realise something I might have spotted earlier. To be in a Special Hospital at all, whether as patient or staff, is surely to put oneself or to be put by others in a position which exposes oneself to being vulnerable, to experiencing one's vulnerability, in just this sense.

Moreover, the reason patients or most patients are there is precisely that their behaviour has in turn exposed or exploited the vulnerability of others. (I recognise of course that this may have involved the patients own feelings of vulnerability, projected into their victims.)

Seen from this perspective, I now sense, the managers feelings of being isolated and vulnerable can be understood as a registration in themselves of an emotional experience that is part and parcel of the life of the whole organisation; that arises out of and in turn illuminates the very nature of the task on which all the members of the organisation are engaged. As such they are not so much an occupational hazard as the raw material for work: in processing and responding appropriately to what is happening in the interaction between staff and patients, patients and patients, staff and staff, the organisation as a whole and its context.

I can then formulate this into the thought that the Special Hospitals and those who work in them are presented with the emotional task of 'managing vulnerability'; or more precisely of managing the emotional experiences of being vulnerable and of making others vulnerable to oneself. This task emerges for me as the primary process of the institution: not its aim, but rather something without which none of its stated aims are likely to be achieved.

What my clients have put me in touch with is how, faced with such an emotional constellation, one is pulled into projection. As managers of these institutions they are the recipient of these projections. As a consultant working with them I am the recipient of their projections. As institutions more generally, the Special Hospitals are recipients of the society's projections: its fear of and its fear for what is most vulnerable in itself. Hence the ambivalence: the continuous oscillation between demands that the vulnerability locked up in the Special Hospitals be confined and controlled to keep us safe; and guilt at the cost, the risk to humane care and treatment.

This formulation, arising out of the space between my clients and myself, releases and reveals. It sets a new agenda because it clarified where the resistance to the present agenda of change lies. For that agenda implies a capacity to make oneself vulnerable, and to handle that experience in new and more emotionally taxing ways. Small wonder it encounters defences. The challenge is to contain this vulnerability, not to control it, or project it. But to contain it, it has to be acknowledged not as a hazard but as an occasion: the occasion for real work: the proof of being in touch and the means of keeping in touch.

What is it that has happened here, between my clients and myself? I referred earlier to a time during work with the Chief Executive when I had a sensation of being in the presence of something 'unknown'; elusive but near. But I would now see it differently; that my clients and, in so far as I was in emotional touch with my clients: myself, were in the presence of something known but not formulated: something 'unthought'; the organisation's way of being there for the finding.

The 'unthought known'. The phrase is not mine. It is taken from the work of the British psycho-analyst Christopher Bollas, to which I was introduced by a close colleague during the course of the assignment I have described. I am not qualified to expound Bollas' idea clearly, which originates from the psycho-analytic encounter between analyst and analysand. But like all creative conjunctions (compare it, for example, with Wilfred Bion's 'thoughts in search of a thinker') it sets up resonances in other spaces, other contexts.

I think that what I am trying to share can be seen as a bringing into view at an organisational level of something known in the organisation, known in the emotional and physical and perhaps imaginal life of the organisation, which has resisted formulation: something primary and ordinary, that is lived, but only as a shadow. And once formulated, once brought towards thought, paradoxically creates a difference which makes a difference to how every decision, policy, action is understood. It does not make things any easier; it does not show a client what to do. But it discloses meaning: introduces the client, as it were, to the organisation-in-himself and himself-in-the-organisation. And this disclosure sets a new agenda.


In describing this case to you I have made little reference either to Bion or, more specifically, to the immediate concepts and concerns of group relations. Yet I think how I worked, what I worked with and what emerged for my clients and myself from this work could not have happened without the grounding these had laid down, the geography they had opened up and charted in my own "mental space".

What is it at the end of the day that sets a new agenda, in a good, a positive sense, here in your country as back home in mine: an agenda that, however difficult will at least address what is real. I believe it is no more and no less than one's openness to insight, in the exchange of one with another, me and you, I and thou.

The Human Nature Review
Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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