Operative Groups: The Latin-American Approach to Group Analysis (Book Review)

Author:  Tubert-Oklander, Juan and de Tubert, Reyna Hernandez
Publisher: London: Jessica Kingsley, 2004
Reviewed By: Macario Giraldo, Fall 2004, p. 66

This book written by two Mexican analysts presents some new untapped regions of group analysis. The authors come across throughout as very experienced clinicians who, in addition to treating patients on the couch, travel comfortably in practically every aspect of psychoanalytic application to groups. They discuss primarily from a theoretical point of view the concept of Conceptual Referential Operative Schema (CROS) and how it is applied in groups such as: the small group, therapeutic communities, multifamily therapy groups, supervision and training of psychotherapists, learning groups, and laboratory and workshop groups.

The book is rich in group theory from Freud through Bion, Foulkes and other writers. Perhaps because this is an introduction of the major ideas of Pichón Rivière, more detailed clinical examples of the application of the basic concept of CROS to the small psychoanalytic group is scarce as opposed to the larger groups, and learning groups. The inspiration for the book appears to be an attempt to bring to the English-speaking world the personality and the work of a remarkable Swiss born Argentine psychoanalyst, Enrique Pichón Rivière. The authors cover aspects of Pichón Rivière’s life and his extraordinary dedication to the work with psychotics and regular neurotics using an approach that he preferred to call social psychological.

In a number of ways, his approach resembles that of the American psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan who had begun in the late 1920’s, a decade before Pichón Rivière in Argentina, to use his concept of interpersonal relationships as central in the understanding and treatment of mental afflictions. Sullivan, however, did not conceptualize the use of the group as Pichón Rivière did from the beginning, starting a pioneer work even before Bion, Rickman and Foulkes did in Europe.

The authors point out that Pichón Rivière “felt that there was an essential identity between the processes of teaching and learning, on the one hand, and of therapy, on the other. He believed in a continuum of feeling, thinking, learning, understanding, and healing, which was organized around the axis of rational action. For him, that was the crux of the matter: only action was able to modify reality, and the goal of dynamic groups was to create the basis for an effective operation, both for the group and for the individuals that composed it; hence the name ‘operative groups’ (p. 20).”

Further explaining the goal of operative groups the authors state: “The final goal of operative groups is, therefore, to attain a higher order learning which transcends the mere acquisition of information and the development of skills. This experience of praxis gives the members an opportunity to learn to learn and to learn to think. This amounts to a major change in their personalities and their interpersonal and social relations.(p. 57).”

The approach described by the authors is remarkable in terms of the disciplined and scientific attempt to apply psychoanalytic concepts to the work with groups. It is of special interest if we are to apply these principles to a diagnostic analysis of the CROS of institutions and organizations.

Communication theory and group dynamics theory are used carefully and with promising possibilities for analytic insight into the functioning of small and large groups.
It is questionable to this reviewer whether this approach can truly utilize the basic tenets of psychoanalysis, transference, repetition, the drive, and especially the unconscious, and in contemporary trends, intersubjectivity as a central direction in doing clinical work especially with the small psychoanalytic group. The way the approach is described would indicate that the free flow of process in the psychoanalytic group is interfered with an assigned rational task. If that is so one would question to what extent this method used in the small psychoanalytic group enhances appreciation for the mysteries and discoveries of the unconscious, for a journey into the “unthought known.”

A Reply to Macario Giraldo
Reyna Hernández de Tubert and Juan Tubert-Oklander
Psychologist-Psychoanalyst, Winter 2004, pp. 4-7


A couple of weeks ago, we were happily surprised to find and read Macario Giraldo’s thoughtful and sympathetic review of our book Operative Groups: The Latin-American Approach to Group Analysis, published in the Fall 2004 issue of Psychologist-Psychoanalyst. This was a thoroughly academic, deep, and reflective comment on our text, and for this we can only be thankful to the author. But the latter also poses some very interesting questions about our approach to group analysis, and takes exception at some of the possible consequences that he infers might derive from the clinical application of this perspective. This certainly deserves a reply.

As Giraldo clearly points out “the inspiration for the book appears to be an attempt to bring to the English-speaking world the personality and the work of a remarkable Swiss born Argentine psychoanalyst, Enrique Pichon-Rivière.” This is indeed the case, but our goals for this presentation were wider that that, since we also strove to present our own ideas and experiences in this field and to illustrate the way in which theoretical and technical concepts are used in the real-life work with concrete groups. And this is precisely the locus of the reviewer’s questioning.

In passing, we should acknowledge that the author is absolutely right is pointing out the similarity between Pichon-Rivière’s approach and that of Harry Stack Sullivan’s interpersonal theory of psychiatry. Pichon-Rivière was certainly influenced by Sullivan, but more than that, he had a profound influence of several American authors who were part of the intellectual climate that nourished Sullivan’s thinking, such as George Herbert Mead and Kurt Lewin. Overall, both Sullivan and Pichon-Rivière were the offspring of American pragmatism, as derived from the writings and views of William James and Charles Sanders Peirce.

Giraldo also regrets the scarcity of “more detailed clinical examples of the application of the basic concept of CROS [Conceptual, Referential, and Operative Schema] to the small psychoanalytic group […] as opposed to the larger groups and the learning groups” (Giraldo, 2004, p. 66). In this he is again right. As we noted in the book’s Preface, we had intended to include instances of our work with therapeutic groups and families, but this proved to be materially impossible, since it would have required too large a volume, in terms of editorial policy. We therefore decided to leave these most interesting subjects for our next book, actually in preparation, whose tentative title is The Shared Unconscious: The Application of Operative Groups to Therapeutic Group Analysis and Family Therapy. Until this new project is finished and published, perhaps this brief text may clarify our stance on the subject.

But the reviewer’s most interesting questions focus on the compatibility of an approach that he feels overtly intellectual, with the sort of inquiry into the unconscious that takes place in the small psychoanalytic group. This he clearly states in the following quotation:

“It is questionable to this reviewer whether this approach can truly utilize the basic tenets of psychoanalysis, transference, repetition, the drive, and especially the unconscious, and in contemporary trends, intersubjectivity as a central direction in doing clinical work especially with the small psychoanalytic group. The way the approach is described would indicate that the free flow of process in the psychoanalytic group is interfered with an assigned rational task. If that is so, one would question to what extent this method used in the small psychoanalytic group enhances appreciation for the mysteries of the unconscious, for a journey into the ‘unthought known’ (Giraldo, 2004, p. 66).”

Such queries are surely worthy of a thorough discussion. It is true that Pichon-Rivière language and style sometimes gives the impression of an extremely rational approach to analysis. Like Sullivan, he was a staunch believer in the scientific method and thinking, but this was only one of the roots of his worldview and thought. Having been raised in the Chaco region of Northeastern Argentina, he was immersed, from the beginning of his life, in the mythical culture of the Guaraní Indians:

“He believed that his vocation for the Human Sciences derived from an attempt to solve the obscurities of a conflict between two cultures. As a result of his parents’ immigration, he was, from his fourth year onwards ‘a witness and a participant in the insertion of an European minority group in a primitive life style’ (Pichon-Rivière, 1971, p. 7, our translation). […] He was, from that time on, forever split between two conceptions of the world. One of them stemmed from his European roots: it was strictly rationalistic and found its way in scientific research. The other was derived from his contact with the Guaraní culture, which was magical and mythical, and it was expressed in his love for poetry, and his passion for surrealism and the uncanny poems of Lautréamont. It was only when he found psychoanalysis that he was able to reconcile these two worlds [Tubert-Oklander and Hernández de Tubert, 2003, pp. 26-27.].”

The Conceptual, Referential and Operative Schema (CROS) is a basic concept in Pichon-Rivière’s thought, and it is essential in his approach to group analysis. In his 1951 paper, “Applications of group psychotherapy,” he asserted that “the referential scheme is the whole of knowledge and attitudes that each of us has in his mind, and which he uses in working in his relation to the world and to himself” (Pichon-Rivière, 1951, p. 80, our translation). This implied that its core can be somehow consciously reconstructed, to a certain extent. Therefore, whenever we want to approach any given field of knowledge, we should try to examine, more or less consciously, the conceptual elements that we are regularly using in order to perceive, think, and operate. This amounts to a sort of epistemological critique of our own thinking. And, when this is done in a group setting, it promotes the development of a shared CROS, a group schema that acts as a common code and creates the conditions for a better communication between the group members, thus avoiding the pervasive phenomenon of misunderstanding.

This way of framing the argument seems to bear out Giraldo’s criticism, unless one takes into account that, for Pichon-Rivière, the schema was not only conceptual, but also included the emotional and the conative dimensions. In his particular epistemology, there was a confluence of cognition, affects, and action, in a continuous interaction and exchange between subject, object, and environment—both physical and social. Therefore, the major part of the CROS is necessarily unconscious, and it needs analyzing in order to become conscious.

In the past few years, we have been working with the concept of the Weltanschauung or conception of the world, as a more suitable term to refer to this schema. One of us has written extensively on the relation between psychoanalysis and the Weltanschauung (Hernández de Tubert, 2000, 2004). This term may also, of course, generate the same kind of criticism, since it is frequently used to refer to a systematic and logical discourse that attempts to account for all philosophical inquiries—such as, for instance, Hegel’s philosophy of spirit. Nonetheless, if one remembers that our use of the term refers to an actual psychological structure, which is mainly unconscious, and which includes all sorts of assumptions about the nature of reality, knowledge, language, self, others, values, and beliefs, it should be readily understood that it not purely verbal, coherent, rational, or conscious, and that it is a subject for analytic inquiry.

This concept of the Weltanschauung is similar to what Erwin Singer (1965) called the patient’s “image of the world.” In his analysis, such image was derived from early personal interactions with significant others, and it was the patient’s attempt to incorporate the analyst into his or her consistent image of the world, which generated transference. Of course, there is a part of the Weltanschauung that is clearly idiosyncratic to the individual’s experience of personal relations, but there is also another one that stems from the conscious and unconscious aspects of culture, and this is most difficult to identify in an analysis, since such assumptions are usually common to both parties.

It has been said that a fish would be the last animal to discover water, since it is always there, around it. The same is true for our relation with our culture: it is always around us and inside us, and most of it is thoroughly unconscious. We believe that such cultural aspects are easier to detect and analyze in a group setting, than in the classic bipersonal psychoanalytic setup. They are also a most important part of our motivational system, and of our deepest conflicts.

In this, much depends on the meaning that we assign to the term “unconscious.” Stephen Mitchell and Lewis Aron (1999) have noted that “ideas tend to come in clusters, and great ideas often burst forth in complex packages” (p. 77). The fact that Freud’s discovery of the unconscious emerged together with his ideas about drives, sexuality, and the Oedipus complex, tends to suggest that all these concepts must necessarily come together. This is not the case; Freud always defined the unconscious, not by its contents, but by its inaccessibility to our inquiry, which could only succeed after overcoming an active effort that avoided its becoming conscious.

The problem with the term “unconscious” is that it may be either an adjective or a noun. In Spanish, we have the advantage of the differentiation between lo inconsciente (“that what is unconscious”) and el inconsciente (“an entity called ‘unconscious’”); in other words, it is the difference between the nominal and the adjectival uses of the term. In English, the use of the definite article “the” suggests the idea of the unconscious as a concrete part of the self, some sort of internal organ. We believe that, on the contrary, “unconscious” should only be used as an adjective or an adverb (“unconsciously”). The unconscious that Freud discovered is a whole new dimension of existence, which is necessarily present in all human affairs, whether they are experienced in solitude, in a bipersonal encounter, in small or large groups, institutions, communities, or international relations.

The bipersonal psychoanalytic situation is particularly adequate for making conscious the unconscious relational phenomena that constitute the transference-countertransference field, and their relation to the intrapersonal processing of mental phenomena The small group is the best setting for exploring the articulation between intrapersonal, interpersonal, and transpersonal mental phenomena. The large group, on the other hand, throws the transpersonal (institutional, cultural, and societal) phenomena into a sharp relief, while letting the individual aspects of experience fall into the background. We do not yet have a devise for making conscious the unconscious aspects of regional, national, or international mental processes, although Bion (1948-51) suggested a possible way of investigating them by means of demographic information. Therefore, from our point of view, what we do in our groups is an inquiry into “the mysteries of the unconscious,” and the “unthought known.” Of course, this implies that the unconscious is not coextensive with the individual self, and that there are mental processes—both conscious and unconscious—that do not have a subject. In other words, the unconscious may not even be “mine,” or “yours,” but “ours” (Tubert-Oklander, 2005).

One last point to discuss is that of Pichon-Rivière’s concept of the “group task,” which seems to conflict with S. H. Foulkes’ (1948, 1964) assertion that, in therapeutic group analysis, there should be no formal task, since this would hamper the spontaneous flow of free-floating discussion, which is essential to gaining access to the group’s unconscious processes. But Pichon-Rivière’s idea of a task did not necessarily mean an explicit rational agreement. For him, every human group meets around a task, which is partly conscious—the explicit task, i.e., the visible activity that they are trying to accomplish—and partly unconscious—the implicit task, i.e., the therapeutic change that the group has to attain in order to fulfill its goals. This is clear in the following quotation:

“The group technique that we have created—called operative groups—is […] explicitly centered on a task, which can be learning, healing (thus including therapeutic groups), diagnosing difficulties in a work place, creative work in an advertising company, etc. Under this explicit task lies another implicit task, which tries to break, by means of elucidation, the stereotyped patterns that impede learning and communication, thus acting as an obstacle to any progress or change [Pichon-Rivière, 1969, pp. 152-153, our translation].”

Therefore, a small therapeutic group has the task of attaining the healing and the maturation of its members, and a family therapy is a group which is trying to help the family to aid its members so that they may overcome their sufferings and lead a better life. This sort of explicit group task is obviously of a greater level of abstraction—what Gregory Bateson (1972) used to call a higher logical type—than any concrete behavioral activity. So, the kind of therapeutic task which sets the goal for small group-analytic groups may well be accomplished by means of the apparently aimless interchange among the members that Foulkes called “free-floating discussion.”

Once again, we want to thank Dr. Giraldo for his splendid comment, and we hope that we may have clarified some of his queries with this reply.

References

Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine Books.
Bion, W. R. (1948-51). Experiences in groups. In Experiences in Groups and Other Papers (pp. 27-137). London: Tavistock, 1968.
Foulkes, S. H. (1948). Introduction to Group-Analytic Psychotherapy. London: Maresfield, 1984.
Foulkes, S. H. (1964). Therapeutic Group Analysis. London: Maresfield, 1984.
Giraldo, M. (2004). Review of Operative Groups: The Latin-American Approach to Group Analysis, by Juan Tubert-Oklander, Reyna Hernández de Tubert. Psychologist-Psychoanalyst, 24, 66.
Hernández de Tubert, R. (2000). Inconsciente y concepción del mundo. In Kolteniuk, M.; Casillas, J. & de la Parra, J. (eds.), El inconsciente freudiano (pp.63-78). Mexico, Editores de Textos Mexicanos.
Hernández de Tubert, R. (2004). La concepción del mundo: una perspectiva psicoanalítica. Paper read at the International Congress of Psychoanalysis. New Orleans, March 2004.
Mitchell, S. A. & Aron, L. (eds.) (1999). Relational Psychoanalysis: The Emergence of a Tradition. Hillsdale, NJ, The Analytic Press.
Pichon-Rivière, E. (1951). Aplicaciones de la psicoterapia de grupo. In Pichon-Rivière (1971a), pp. 75-81.
Pichon-Rivière, E. (1969). Estructura de una escuela destinada a psicólogos sociales. In Pichon-Rivière (1971), pp. 149-160.
Pichon-Rivière, E. (1971). El proceso grupal. Del psicoanálisis a la psicología social (1). Buenos Aires: Nueva Visión.

Reviewer Note

Macario Giraldo is a psychologist in private practice in Washington, DC and director of the National Group Psychotherapy Institute at the Washington School of Psychiatry.

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