Location of disturbance, UK politics and racism

The bad apple fallacy

This week-end I wrote a short Twitter thread attempting to apply the group analytic concept of location of disturbance to the current political context in the U.K. Principally, I was arguing that when controversial political figures like Johnson known for their racism get to power, we are quick to regard them as individual political mishaps rather than as manifestations of structural or collective configurations and dynamics. This is the logic of the bad apple theory which has been used from time immemorial, to distance ‘ourselves’ from those violent systems, we’re all a part of.

I proposed that locating the problem or disturbance in Johnson is in reality unhelpful, in that it takes us away from how he was supported to rise to power -– despite his overt bigotry — the millions of Brits who stand by him not despite but, precisely because of his bigotry and his brand of overt, unapologetic racism (and homophobia and misogyny) which has nostalgic appeal, offers to so many an outlet to speak, what they dare not say, through his mouth and, to ‘resist’ this so called ‘political correctness’. I further posited that our focus on Johnson amounts to splitting of from ‘our’ own bigotry or complicity in racist systems.

It is indeed harder to consider that Johnson’s violence speaks something much more important than him and lies much beyond him as an individual politician even if he is the prime minister. That it serves functions for us as a collective or group and that it would not have come into being but for our collective ‘pathologies’. A few people following my thread, have asked for some reading to better understand the concept of location of disturbance. And I was glad! I have been transparent about my passion for group analysis, and the important insights it can offer us to understand what is going on in the world and in particular to formulate, whiteness.

Group analysis

I tried to oblige, with requests for reading, then quickly realised there was very little writing on the phenomenon that was accessible which took me to this piece. So, I am taking this opportunity to extend this thread and elaborate on the concept using everyday examples, I hope most people will be familiar with. The location of disturbance is central to group analytic scholarship. Thus, in order to understand location of disturbance it may be helpful to have some basic understanding of group analytic thinking. As a starting point, let’s provide a definition of what group analysis is. It is defined by his founder, as follow;

“The method and theory of group analysis is concerned with a dynamic understanding of the inner working of the human mind as a social, multi-personal phenomenon” (Foulkes, 1975).

In essence, group analysis is a psychoanalytic psychotherapy framework which focuses on the unconscious dynamics and communications occurring in groups as well as; a scholarly domain or method for investigating and formulating dynamics, structures and processes as located within particular socio-historical contexts.

There are a few premises that inform group analytic thinking. Including, the existence of a shared or collective psychic life, a transpersonal and transhistorical field within which we communicate, interact and derive all meanings (referred to in group analysis as the group matrix). The fundamental social nature of human beings and the belief that individuals function primarily in groups e.g family, institutions, social structures.

Not only does group analysis posit that we cannot exist outside of these groups but, that these groups exist within us. Another core premise is that individuals cannot be understood outside of their context and social networks. Finally and as an extension of the above; interconnectedness. The individual and the group or their contexts/networks are in constant communication and interaction and as such, are interdependent, co-constitutive and thus inseparable.

The location of disturbance

In analytic thinking disturbance can be taken to refer to a problem, a dysfunction or pathology which give rise to distress or difficulties in broadest possible sense. Common examples of psychological disturbance include all ‘mental health problems’ or other behavioural challenges such as a child suddenly becoming aggressive or refusing to eat. Traditional formulations of such difficulties within psychoanalysis and psychology at large have tended to be quite individualistic either, intra-psychic (e.g formulated through drive theory) and later dyadic (formulated through the exploration of infant-mother/parent relationships).

Group analytic conceptualisations of disturbance is fundamentally different as any disturbance is thought of as group phenomena. Disturbance accordingly is conceptualised as a disturbed group communication which may become apparent in the ‘here and now’ and within specific individuals but, which is only however a focal point for more distal phenomena involving them -– as individuals — but also transcending them. Disturbances are communication within the matrix which involve the whole matrix (Foulkes, 1983). The concept of psychological disturbance in group analysis is thus always dynamic, social and relational in nature, that is to say the disturbance is located in between people and, speak of a particular context.

What is being said here, is that no disturbance can ever be confined to or attributable to a single person or entity. Rather, the distressed or disturbed individual or the crisis is thought of as the site, the symptom of a problem belonging to a larger unit, to a collectivity, a group, an institution etc…which can therefore be conceptualised as owning or also providing the genesis for that problem/disturbance and in some ways; benefit from the same.

Who does the problem belong to?

Disturbance is believed to always be distortion, dislocation or displacement of group or social phenomena. It takes various forms depending of course on contexts including individual histories and social histories. The job of the group analyst (when practising psychotherapy) is to correctly locate and explore disturbances and to attempt to solve them inside their context or within the group itself by regarding themselves (as a group member) to be part of the disturbance/problem. In other words it is to ask who or who else does the problem belong to? Who is involved who is here and, who is involved who is not here, and how? What are the payoffs? And what histories are being reproduced? Always primarily, unconsciously. Let’s consider some of these questions through a couple of illustrations.

The sleepless child

A child has started waking up during their sleep. In the middle of the night, they awake afraid, having had nightmares. They quickly form the habit of seeking refuge in the parental bed and find sleep easily in between both parents. The latter initially keen to soothe the child, allow them to spend the rest of their night in their bed. In time understandably as the situation fails to resolve itself, they get frustrated and focus most of their waking communication on the child’s disturbed sleep and it’s impact in turn, on theirs. As the parents get impatient with the child, the child also in turn becomes more anxious and is now rarely able to spend more than an hour or two in their bed at night.

The uncontained black member

A reflective group is joined by one person of colour, the only one. She is black and initially welcomed by the group who says is keen to have someone of a ‘different’ background. Julie, the newest group member very quickly notices micro-aggressions and other forms of exclusionary behaviour which clash with verbal/conscious communication and discourses of inclusion the group holds dear. She raises the matter and attempts to get her peers to understand the impact of their micro behaviours on her. Although she appears to be listened to, there is no verbal engagement with her experience. The covert behaviours remain and her recurrently raising the matter results in her being ignored and eventually marginalised. Julie becomes overtly distressed, angry and emotionally uncontained and is eventually excluded from the group.

The concept of location of disturbance as we have seen is used to describe and understand symptomatic behaviour which may be exhibited by an individual but which fundamentally is a representation of a much wider, largely unconscious group dynamic (Stobo, 2005).

This symptomatic behaviour can now be thought of as a group defensive mechanism which exists to sanitise the group and help the group preserve its ignorance vis a vis its own wishes which can be projected onto an individual who can then become the site of disturbance or indeed a scapegoat. The sleepless child in the first illustration became the manifest location of the disturbance. Their disturbed sleep became so difficult to manage for the parents, that it led to frustration and anger in them.

Whilst their attention was focused on the child, we may easily imagine that the couple may have had significant marital problems which they struggled to articulate. Indeed it is not unusual for a child’s sleep to become disturbed not when they themselves are experiencing difficulties but, when parents struggle with intimacy, frequently due to one or both of them having/recovering from affairs wether they are known or not to the other party (please don’t panic! I am not saying every time a child’s sleep is disturbed, it is because of affairs…however, an important line of enquiry would be to be curious about intimacy and communication patterns in the couple).

Location of disturbance and racism

The child is symbolically and physically acting as a separation or barrier between the parents which may in fact be unconsciously wished. Their presence can prevent couples not only from addressing a potential loss of sexual desire or libido but, also conveniently prevent them from talking about difficulties in their relationship; they can now focus on the child’s apparent sleeping difficulties. Disturbance often occurs in groups when critical communication or meaning cannot be articulated. Often, because they are too painful. Too threatening. And cannot therefore express themselves in words but through an individual disturbance who can come to act out or feel what cannot be spoken; within a particular group or system.

The failure of words, which is a failure of containment is consequently central to the genesis of disturbances. Social and psychological.

Stobo (2005), one of very few, possibly a handful or so of black group analysts in the U.K. was the first to use the concept of location of disturbance to contribute to the elucidation of race dynamics in groups. She proposed that the silences that occur when racism is raised, serve to regulate and maintain a psychic equilibrium within groups. That this silence holds and stands for a space in between white groups and people of colour (although she principally writes from a black perspective). And specifically, that this space holds the fear and terror of something which is too difficult, if not impossible to articulate.

Specifically, our shared and trauma laden histories of imperialism, colonialism and enslavement. What is feared and too painful to put into words is a discovery or acknowledgement of racism. We can use this formulation to understand Julie’s experience and the group’s responses to her. Julie was initially welcomed into the group who no doubt, saw itself as liberal and possibly above racism. And so unsurprisingly, as Julie tried to articulate the racism which was becoming manifest and targeted at her, this could not be contained, it was too much to bear for the group. That the racism was subtle and covert actually evidences this further. The group was conflicted about its racism and could neither express it or look at it directly, when invited to.

As Julie attempted to translate their unconscious racist communication by directly confronting it, the difficulty in communication thus again in containment in the group — the group disturbance — became located or rather manifest in her. The unexpressed and intolerable conflict manifested as a disturbance which she was selected, as the only black object, to carry the burden of. Alone. Containing the disturbance led to her becoming uncontained, distressed while white group members could through their lack of emotional display maintain a facade of ‘objectivity’, emotional maturity, detachment and separation from the disturbance they had actually co-created and which indeed equally belonged to them. Succeeding in excluding Julie and therefore in splitting off from their racism.

Concluding thoughts

It was my exploration of the current political context in the U.K. that led me to this piece on location of disturbance. From that lense, we could start to interrogate the open bigotry of our government as symptomatic or manifestation of group processes. And, consider that ‘we’ and certainly all white groups may be playing a part in this political drama. Perhaps here too the problem’s latency is located elsewhere and involves everyone rather then simply key hateful figures. Perhaps this is why so many feel gratified by Johnson’s bigotry. And support him covertly or overtly. Current forecasts indicate Johnson is leading the polls by 19 points, this really forces us to reconsider who the problem belongs to. Traditional psychoanalysis has tended to focus on the patient as an entity which could be extracted from their environment and social context. An environment further assumed to be benign as the default. Similarly, by focusing on individual political figures, we risk vilifying them and whilst this vilification may be legitimate and more importantly gratifying, it stops us from owning the problem and considering our contributions and complicity to the mounting overt hatred and violence and their associated inequality. The group analytic concept of location of disturbance forces us to think harder and to include ourselves in that thinking.

References (excluding hyperlinks)

Foulkes, S. H. (1983). The location of a disturbance. (1st ed., pp. 127-131) Routledge.

Foulkes, S.H. (1975) Group Analytic Psychotherapy Method and Principles, Maresfield Library: London.

Stobo, B. (2005) Location of disturbance with a focus on race, difference and culture. Dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the Master in Group Analysis (Unpublished Master Dissertation), Birkbeck College: London.

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