Academic journal article Organisational and Social Dynamics

Locating Unconscious, "Societal-Collective" Processes in Psycho-Social Research

Academic journal article Organisational and Social Dynamics

Locating Unconscious, "Societal-Collective" Processes in Psycho-Social Research

Article excerpt


There have been many usages of the concept of unconscious in tandem with an entity larger than the individual: group, cultural, social, collective-to name the most familiar. All in different ways have been subject to criticism, yet perhaps there remains some sort of pressing need for a conceptualisation of unconscious processes that are meta-individual. The binary thinking that has characterised social science afflicts these debates. A similar dilemma affects psycho-social research, which draws on a psychoanalytic epistemology (dialogue of unconsciouses, transference-countertransference, unthought known, learning from experience, thoughts without a thinker) but is commonly deemed thereby to reduce its level of explanation to the individual and interpersonal. From the other (social) side of the binary, more recent accounts of societal or community-level affect flows appear to omit the workings and agency of minds in the circulation of (unconscious) resonances.

In this data analysis, I use the concepts of "scenic" ("an affective and embodied register of meaning", Bereswill, Morgenroth, & Redman, 2012), and "scenic understanding" (a process by which cultural texts and research data are reflected upon through affective and embodied experience) deriving from Alfred Lorenzer, German cultural analyst and psychoanalyst. He suggested that it was possible, through scenic understanding, to access a form of unsymbolised socio-cultural knowledge, a kind of societal-collective unconscious.

In this paper, the selected data extract is derived from psychoanalytic observation notes, generated as part of a funded psycho-social research project. Through this, and the reflections it provoked in Lynn Froggett and myself (Hollway & Froggett, 2012), I explore "unthought known" material emerging into symbolisation, generated by a friend of the participant visiting the home where the weekly observation takes place (recorded in observation notes). It shows societal issues of contemporary importance (racial, generational, class-based) manifesting in relational processes during the research encounter, when methods are adequate for noticing and reflecting on these. I ask: is the idea of socio-cultural unconscious knowing useful in making sense of what is happening on the actual occasion represented in the data extract? How does this concept help psycho-social research to conceptualise the learning achieved through noticing and reflecting on researchers' emotional responses?

Key words: social unconscious processes, scenic understanding, provocations, infant observation method, symbolisation, epistemology, intrusion, social difference.

The unconscious in literature, as I would see it, is a collective unconscious, although admittedly not in Jung's sense

(Lorenzer, 1986, p. 28)


The dominant idea of the unconscious (the "Freudian unconscious") is of something unique to the functioning of a particular individual, structured through their personal biography, albeit trading with external objects through processes of projection and introjection. Historically this concept has been developed through the most common practice of psychoanalysis, namely the single individual in treatment with an analyst. In this model, the processes that are understood to be working beyond the individual are, predictably, dyadic ones. Many have fashioned definitions of group, institutional, collective, normative, cultural, social - even internet - unconsciouses that argue with this dominant model (Dalai, 2001; Foulkes, 1971; Hopper, 2001; Hopper & Weinberg, 2011; Jung, 1991 [1959]; Layton, 2004, 2006; Lorenzer, 1986; Weinberg, 2006). My focus is on Lorenzer's "societalcollective" unconscious in what follows.

The above concepts that posit a supra-individual unconscious entity seem, because of the dominance of this individual /individualising unconscious, to be locked into a hmiting set of dualistic terms, the overarching binary being individual-social. …

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