Matrices, mattresses and the relation to the referent group

Bion uses the notion of a “matrix of thought which lies within the confines of the basic group, but not within the confines of the individual.”[1],p79 It is this matrix of thought with which the individual may have some valency and which becomes manifest through the individual’s participation in basic assumption behavior within the group. This matrix of thought corresponds to an organisation of object-relating – the second axis of ‘loosening’ described in the previous blog on ‘sophisticated’ group mentality. The individual’s relationship to both axes of this matrix of thought is modified by a process of sophistication, but what is this process?

Basic assumption behavior is never ‘not there’. If it is not being acted from, it is through having been transformed by a process of sophistication. This transformation cannot, however, be total. There will always be some aspects of group mentality on each axis in which there is no ‘play’ i.e. that have not been ‘loosened’. If we think of the stuffing of a mattress as made from behaviors of symbolisation, then its quilting points are the behaviors based on symbolic equation (the first axis), and the organisation of these quilting points will be that organisation of object-relating that has not been loosened by the process of sophistication. In terms of this metaphor, the organisation of object-relating offered by the group makes a mattress which can support some aspect of the individual’s being.[2] To the extent that an individual subjects himself or herself to a group mentality, s/he is therefore constraining himself or herself along both axes – by both its ‘quilting points’ and by their organisation i.e. by constraints on how the quilting points may be used in relation to each other.

In addition to being subject to his or her unconscious, an individual is likely to be subject to numbers of mentalities, with different valencies to each one of them. The group mentality that characterises any one of these experiences of being ‘contained’ will have placed some constraints on the way sense is made of the individual’s experience,  through the ways in which some ways of attributing meaning (i.e. signifier-signified relationships) remain non-negotiable (i.e. have no ‘play’ in them). What happens, then, when an individual has a relationship to more than one group mentality where there are inconsistencies between the ways in which their respective quilting points are organised? For example, the way Bert is expected to provide social care by his organisation may not be consistent with the way Great-Aunt Agatha expects to be supported in her twilight years! Bert may want to fix mealtimes and organise social events around them while Agatha wants to reverse this – fixing the social events and organising meals around them.[3] How are these potential inconsistencies between different group mentalities resolved within Bion’s way of thinking?

Hierarchy as a way of banishing inconsistencies
As Bion said, “when a group meets, it meets for a specific task, and in most human activities today co-operation has to be achieved by sophisticated means“.[1],p129 During the course of his text, however, he replaced the term ‘sophisticated group’ with ‘work group’[1],p86, with the definition of a work group being uniquely derived from hierarchy as the source of definition for its boundary conditions, i.e. as derived from primary task.[4] Subgroups then appeared in three different forms, depending on what level of system he was talking about:

  1. Group: When writing about a small group, Bion identified subgroups as emerging through schism reflecting basic assumption behavior.
  2. Institution: When writing about an institutional context, Bion identified two conditions for internal sub-groups: that they should be free from having rigid boundaries (i.e. not centred on any of its members nor on itself), and that their value to the main group should be generally recognised.[1],p17 It was this thinking that evolved into the Institutional Project within the group-relations conference.
  3. Society: When he goes on to talk about specialised workgroups within society, he again refers to them as specialised sub-groups dealing with particular kinds of basic assumption behavior on behalf of society as a whole system.

These three kinds of sub-group fall under a vertical presumption of hierarchy, in the sense that they are each a subordinate part of a larger system. These vertical relations therefore enable inconsistencies to be removed by reference to an authorised larger context, from which the formation of sub-groups may be derived.[5] (In the case of group relations conference within the Tavistock Tradition, this authorisation comes ultimately from the conference director.)

To these we must add a fourth kind of relation between groups, however, identified by Trist as a characteristic of the horizontal cross-boundary relations within turbulent environments. These were the relation of a work group to a referent group, the horizontal relationships to which could give rise to inconsistencies in the relations between object-signifiers and their organisation – mattresses with different organisations of quilting point.

The challenge presented by the relation to ‘referent groups’
Emery and Trist understood that open-systems models could deal with the equifinality of material exchange processes between an enterprise and elements in its environment but not “at all with those processes in the environment itself which were the determining conditions of the exchanges”. Furthermore, the laws connecting parts of the environment to each other were themselves “often incommensurate with those laws connecting parts of the enterprise to each other, or even with those which govern the exchanges[6]. Following this, Emery proposed restricting the term “socio-technical” to ‘operative’ enterprises engaged in material exchange processes[7], distinguishing them from ‘regulative’ enterprises.

Trist further proposed that these regulative enterprises be described as being “concerned directly with the psychosocial ends of their members and instilling and maintaining or changing cultural values and norms, the power and the position of interest groups, or the social structure itself[8]. Trist called these regulative organisations ‘referent’ because they were defined by particular inter-organisational relations and boundary conditions within a larger ecosystem, functioning as a ‘reference group’ for the operative enterprise supplying them. Whereas the focus of the ‘operative’ enterprise was on exchange processes across its boundaries, the ‘regulative’ or ‘referent’ enterprise focused on the way its own interests were served within the context of the larger ecosystem[9].

Not only were the laws constraining the behaviors of these referent groups often incommensurate, but there were also many of them, each one demanding a different relationship with an ‘operative’ enterprise.[10] How, then, were these inconsistencies across the boundaries of an organisation to be resolved?

A four-term relation in which the organisation of symbolic equations corresponds to ‘ego’ prevents us from considering inconsistencies in the organisation of relations between object-signifiers arising from different forms of organisation of symbolic equation – different forms of mattress with different organisations of quilting point. To be able to do this we need to replace the singular ‘ego’ with multiple formations of mentality or ‘container’, later addressed by Bion in terms of multiple forms of ‘vertex’.[11] If we replace the term ‘ego’ with the word ‘formation’, we can begin to consider the subject’s unconscious valency for different ‘formations’.

Is Bion’s thinking able to address this problem of inconsistencies?
The 4-term relation between subject, ‘formation’, object-signifier and signified-object includes signified-objects that are experienced as ‘external’ in the sense of observable by others, and as ‘internal’ in the sense of being experienced in relation to the unconscious. In these terms, the ‘formation’ is organising meaning both in relation to the unconscious and also to the ‘social’, reflecting a double subjection. The organisation of quilting points in a ‘formation’ gives us a way of thinking about this double subjection in terms of how the organisation of relations between object-signifiers may also be over-determined by their relation to the unconscious, thus restricting their use for the purposes of sophisticated symbolisation in ways that indicate unconscious valencies.[12] But in order to articulate both double subjection and also how variations in the form taken by this double subjection are reflected in the relations between subjects, we will need a more complex structure through which a ‘sophisticated’ group mentality may relate to the ‘otherness’ of a referent group.[13]

The replacement of  ‘sophisticated group’ by ‘work group’, however, elides the problem of inconsistencies between formations by staying within the ‘open systems’ definition of the organisation and its overall primary task.  Does this make Bion’s formulation unable to address the problem of inconsistencies?  Bion may have limited his reading Freud’s work, but this did not make his reading inconsistent with a more complex structure able to address the problem.  Seeing how to take Bion’s reading further will make it possible to build on the experience accumulated within the field of group relations.  This is the question I begin to take up in the next blog, looking more closely at how Bion uses the word ‘container‘ in terms of the words ‘formation’, ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’.

[1] Bion, W. R. (1959). Experiences in Groups. London, Tavistock Publications.
[2] A reflexive example of such quilting points and their organisation would be the particular ways in which the terms ‘primary task’, ‘authority’, ‘leadership’, ‘role’ and ‘boundaries’ are used by group relations conference within the AK Rice and Tavistock Traditions.  The example is ‘reflexive’ because these terms are amongst the roots of these elaborations, while at the same time being questioned as to their adequacy for dealing with organisations that must respond to their clients one-by-one. See, for example, what is happening to ‘boundaries’, ‘authority’ and ‘containment’?
[3] This is the example taken up in the paper on ‘engendering boundary’, in which boundary is primarily a relationship to otherness rather than a secondary effect of a relationship to hierarchy.
[4] The early use of the concept of the primary task was to account for the role of the supervisor in managing the immediate boundary conditions of the worker-task relation within an organisational structure (Emery, F. E. (1993). Characteristics of Socio-Technical Systems. The Social Engagement of Social Science Volume II: The Socio-Technical Perspective. J. Fichtelberg, H. Murray and B. Trist, University of Pennsylvania Press). This worker-task relation constituted a bounded workgroup if the workgroup could be responsibly autonomous within definable boundaries of technology, territory and/or time (Miller, E. J. (1959). “Technology, Territory and Time: The Internal Differentiation of Complex Production Systems.” Human Relations(12): 243-272).
[5] It follows from these hierarchical presumptions that the primary task of a work group (and therefore its boundary conditions) are assumed to have been defined by reference to super-ordinate definitions of primary task. It is perhaps not suprising that, once Bion replaced ‘sophisticated group’ by ‘work group’, that notions of containment should become so associated with boundary conditions. I continue to use ‘sophisticated’ in order to avoid this conflation.
[6] Emery, F. E. and E. Trist (1965). “The Causal Texture of Organizational Environments.” Human Relations 18: 21-32.
[7] Emery, F. E. (1993). Characteristics of Socio-Technical Systems. The Social Engagement of Social Science Volume II: The Socio-Technical Perspective. J. Fichtelberg, H. Murray and B. Trist, University of Pennsylvania Press.
[8] Trist, E. L. (1981). The Evolution of Socio-Technical Systems. Perspectives on Organizational Design and Behaviour. A. F. Van de Ven and W. F. Joyce. New York, John Wiley.
[9] Trist, E. (1983). “Referent Organizations and the Development of Inter-Organizational Domains.” Human Relations 36(3): 269-284.
[10] This leads not only for a form of organisation that can address demands one-by-one, as in ‘organisations without boundaries’, but also the there being no such thing as an ‘environment’ in general, as in ‘THE environment does not exist’.
[11] The concept of ‘vertex’ is introduced in Bion, W. R. (1965). Transformations. London, Heinemann. The difficulty with using this concept arises from its roots in its reading of Freud’s project in terms of the beta-alpha ‘screen’. See ‘Bion, Lacan and the thing-in-itself’. This difference is written about at greater length in ‘anxiety and innovation’.
[12] As Hanna Segal points out, there is a long continuum between abstract symbolisation (at the ‘top’ of Bion’s grid, and full-on symbolic equation in which the object ‘is’ some aspect of an ‘internal’ experience. There are varying degrees of over-determination or ‘fixing’ of meaning-equation, therefore (i.e. ‘fixing’ of the relation between signifier and signified).
[13] In a later blog we take up this issue of the structuring of double subjection. In order to do so, it has to examine how this was not possible using Bion’s reading of Freud’s Project. (see footnote 5 in the earlier blog considering what was happening to ‘boundaries’, ‘authority’ and ‘containment’).

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