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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021


Parallel Papers Session 2
Friday 5 July 3.30pm-4.45pm, EEST
Paper Code: PP5

CE Credits Available
Presented Online

Tension in Groups: The Developmental Conflict in Groups.

Presenter: Conrad S Chrzanowski
Moderator: Sarah Wynick


Wilfred Bion's (1961) ideas regarding schisms can illuminate paths into the future for organizations, communities, and civilizations.

In his landmark book, Experiences in Groups, Bion (1961) proposed a number of novel and complex ideas regarding group experience. Most notably, his dependent, fight flight, and pairing basic assumptions organize the group emotionally when in a regressed state. This is opposed to the work group mentality.

However, an often-overlooked aspect of Bion's group work are his ideas regarding group schism. Schism is the breakdown of the group into two or more subgroups usually over different beliefs. Bion describes the schismatic breakdown as hinging on the group's task of containing the developmental conflict. The developmental conflict refers to the tension and conflict generated by the attempt to contain primitive and sophisticated. When primitive and sophisticated are contained, the group can produce the "new idea". The "new idea" is synonymous with Bion's conception of development. My claim is that Bion's work in this area of schism allows for theoretical and practical advancements in our understanding of conflictual group processes, in particular, despair and discontentedness at the (real and psychological) border between one group and another.

Nations, organizations, and groups are quick to overemphasize and draw the line between each other over differences that appear small to outside observers but are experienced as very large and crucial to themselves and their neighbors. Freud notes this phenomenon in Civilization and its Discontents (1930), and earlier in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), and in The Taboo of Virginity (1918). In these papers he writes of the "narcissism of minor differences" between groups large and small, but especially between very similar neighboring ethnic groups. The charge often made and enacted by each group toward the other is that the other group is regressed, stupid, lazy, overpopulated, overly aggressive, over-sexed, over-drugged, etc, resulting in strong dislike and/or contempt for each other. This dilemma is partially echoed in Bion's comment regarding within-group tensions and schism- "I am reminded of allegations that a society breeds copiously from its less cultured or less educated members, while the ‘best’ people remain obstinately sterile" (Bion, 1961, p. 127-128).

While Freud's concept of the "narcissism of minor differences" fits well with the phenomenology of the inter-group tensions, it does little, as even Freud points out, to explain anything about the phenomenon. In my view, Bion's idea that the tension and complexities produced by the attempts to contain the developmental conflict, (between groups, and even between members of a romantic pair - as I am developing elsewhere) is a phenomenon that generates, or, at the very least, supports these extremely hostile, biased, perceptual- emotional, conflictual experiences between opposed groups.

The developmental conflict is an unconscious group conflict produced by the necessary pairing of primitive and sophisticated. These are necessarily paired because goals necessarily bring primitive and sophisticated, instinct and development, together. As Bion notes, whenever a group forms, it is always there to "do" something. That "doing" is toward a goal- i.e., a work task, joining together on an emotional theme, or some combination of the two. The intent of this presentation is to generate conversation and further articulation of the dynamic factors related to schism that impede and affect a group's focus and functioning, especially in regard to its relation with adjacent or opposed groups.

Biographical Summary

Conrad S Chrzanowski PhD received his bachelor's degree in psychology and philosophy from Rutgers College and his doctoral degree from Long Island University, Brooklyn Campus, NYC. He is a clinical psychologist in private practice in NYC, a university lecturer, author, and professional coach. In his clinical practice, Conrad specializes in couples therapy and the individual treatment of moderate to severe psychopathology. Conrad's professional background spans executive coaching, consultation work with the International Refugee Assistance Project, non-profit work with at-risk youth, outpatient hospital psychiatry, and geriatric psychology. His special interests include psychoanalytic theory and technique, infant and child development, personality development, organizational and social systems, creative states of mind, coaching methodologies, leadership presence, and studying the work of Wilfred Bion.