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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Psychoanalytic Study and the Ethical Imagination: the making finding and losing of a tradition

This paper looks back to one of the founding strands in the psychoanalytic study of organisations: namely that tradition of innovative and action focussed enquiry that arose out of the war time experiments initiated by Wilfred Bion and a multi disciplinary group of colleagues between 1940 and 1945. It is argued that this tradition was rooted in a unique coming together of psychoanalytic insight and the ethical imagination applied to the social and organisational challenges and demands of war: that is the capacity to envisage new forms of group and organisational life in the service of human resilience and flourishing. This imaginative capacity was to spill over post war in the creation and early development of the Tavistock Institute, especially as represented in the work of Eric Trist and Fred Emery. Within this tradition, notably in its early days, the 'ethical imagination' was as much found as made, captured in and generated from the collective experience of independent working groups, notably the coal miners of a South Yorkshire Pit.In turn, from the outset it was subject to powerful resistances, societal, organisational and personal, It is suggested that over time the combination of resistance and an increasingly dependent culture functioned as a regressive pull, foreclosing a good deal of potential development at the interface of theory and practice and leading to an imaginative loss, in which the more radical origins of the tradition tended to be replaced by more neutral, conservative and adaptive modes of enquiry.At a time of unprecedented change in the environmental texture of organisational life, it is argued, re discovery of the ethical imagination has become a signal challenge to the continuing vitality and relevance of the psychoanalytic study of organisations.