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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021



Parallel Papers Session 3
Presented Online
Saturday 6 July 11.00pm-12.15 pm, EEST
Paper Code: PP6
CE Credits Available

Citizens Assemblies as a representative forum for civilizations and their discontents - working with conscious and unconscious dynamics in societal challenges and dilemmas.

Presenter: Manon de Jongh
Moderator: Aaron Nurick

Citizens Assemblies as a representative forum for civilizations and their discontents - working with conscious and unconscious dynamics in societal challenges and dilemmas

Our democracy is seriously threatened. In these years, international, national, and local democratic conversations are overheated, steered by emotions and regress in favor of sharp polarization. At the same time, we see a political landscape where populist and politically extreme movements and parties with ‘simple and populistic solutions’ are gaining increasing support. We are experiencing a public conversation where special interests trump overall, holistic perspectives and considerations, which challenges sustainable development in society.

In this paper presentation, it is examined how Citizens Assemblies, as a representative forum for civilizations and their discontents, can offer an arena or laboratory in which complex societal challenges can be understood and worked with sustainably and therewith help our democratic system to function beter. A systems psychodynamic and psychoanalytic perspective is used to argue that Citizens Assemblies represent those dynamics known from working with large groups and that, consequently, the potential of Citizen Assemblies cannot be redeemed without acknowledging, understanding, and working with conscious and unconscious levels of the group (de Jongh & Tortzen, 2023).

A Citizen Assembly is a deliberative democratic instrument. Its purpose is to strengthen the democratic conversation by creating learning amongst participants and increasing the quality of policy making by working with the diversity, creativity and ‘everyday perspectives’ of citizens. During these years, Citizens Assemblies are increasingly being used by many countries and local municipalities to deal with challenges and dilemmas of democratic value. For example, on how society can be developed or how complex challenges can be faced.

In 2006, the Dutch government was the first government in the world to organize a large-scale national Citizen Assembly and, through that, involve 140 citizens, for a period of a year, in a public issue. This case offered a unique possibility to study how a large group of citizens collaborate and what happens underneath the surface when such a large group assembly carries out its task. My study, based on my doctoral work in the Netherlands involving a range of qualitative and quantitative data, shows that the work of Citizens Assemblies is significantly hampered by complex conscious and unconscious dynamics. In particular, large group psychodynamics (Agazarian & Carter, 1993; Penna, 2022; Weinberg & Weishut, 2012) like strong emotions, identity problems, and chaos (McMillan, 1981; Kreeger, 1975; Schneider & Weinberg, 2003; Turquet, 1975), problematic defenses (Menzies Lyth, 1989) and projective processes (Main, 1975; Volkan, 2006) are rife. Unless these are understood and worked with, regressed Citizens Assemblies will continue to exhibit narcissistic and paranoid characteristics, reorganize themselves by sharing and utilizing primitive mental mechanisms and therefore struggle to achieve their task in increasing democracy in society.

My paper contributes both to the understanding of Citizens Assemblies and large groups and also by widening the application of system psychodynamic thinking and application to this important area.

Biographical Summary

Dr. Manon de Jongh
Ph.D in organizational psychology at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. Assistant professor in organizational psychology at Roskilde University, Denmark. Leadership and organizational consultant, coach. Lectures at Roskildes University’s Master of Psychology of Organisations and is staff member at the Master’s Large Group sessions and Group Relation Conferences. Working from a systems psychodynamic approach, Manon tries to make a difference through projects that involve leadership, organizational and personal development, multiparty collaboration, co-creation, citizen
participation, democratic development and systems change. Manon receives continuous supervision from psychoanalysts.

Latest publications (translated from Danish):

  • de Jongh, M., Svalgaard Nielsen, M. & Tortzen, A. (2023). Wicked problems from an organizational psychology perspective
  • de Jongh, M. & Tortzen, A. (2023). Can we solve complex challenges with citizen assemblies?
  • Tortzen, A. & de Jongh, M. (2021). Co-creation in practise
  • Fogsgaard, M. & de Jongh, M. (eds). (2018). Leadership and co-creation in the public sector.