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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

The Container and its Containment:A Meeting Space for Psychoanalytic and Open Systems Theories

Bions theoretical conceptualizations regarding processes in groups and in society which he developed during the late 1940s and 1950s became a central factor in the pioneering work that started to develop at the Tavistock Institute after World War II regarding organizational theory and practice. This work attempted to make links and build bridges between psychoanalysis and systemic theories; between Melanie Kleins psychoanalytic theories regarding the individual and Bions theories regarding groups and organizational processes and practices, especially those related to 'open systems theory' of organizations (Miller and Rice, 1967). Among the most prominent and influential pioneers in these endeavors was Jaques (1955), who conceptualized the connection between anxiety and organizational structure and culture. His conceptualizations have become an anchor for those theorizing and working with organizations from a psychoanalytic perspective. However, some forty years later, Jaques presented a sharp turn in views. In his article: 'Why the Psychoanalytical Approach to Understanding Organizations is Dysfunctional' (Jaques, 1995) he rejected his previously held views on the importance of the unconscious in understanding organizational dysfunctonality and of the use of psychoanalytic methods of interventions. As an alternative to his rejected views he offered an approach to organizational effectiveness and workers satisfaction that is based primarily on organizational structure and design. Jaques dramatic change of views, where psychoanalysis became 'bad' and systemic concepts such as structure, design and authority are seen as 'good' may perhaps be a manifestation of conceptual splitting. Such splitting may partly be due to difficulties in conceptual integration between psychoanalytic and systemic approaches. Indeed, Armstrong (1995) raises questions regarding the meaning of organizational consultancy practice which is described as 'psychoanalytic and systemic'. He writes: 'What kind of coupling is envisaged here? Is it simply the coming together of two frames of reference, with their associated disciplines and methods, each of which is then brought separately to bear on the issues and dilemmas presented by organizational clients? Or is it more like Bions 'reversible perspective' in which the same phenomena can be seen now this way, now that, as in the figure/ground illusions (?) Or again, is it rather a clumsy, provisional way of pointing to or naming something new, neither psycho-analytic nor systemic, but psycho-analytic and systemic; an emergent but not yet fully distributed third (Armstrong, 1995, p. 1).' Jaques 'conceptual split' between psychoanalytic and 'systemic' approaches as well as Armstrongs views on the unclear coming together of the two frames of reference, strengthen my own impression of the need to continue to explore and to conceptualize the place of psychoanalysis in organizational theory and consultation.The purpose of this paper, then, is to grapple with some aspects regarding the place of psychoanalysis in organizational theory and consultation, with an emphasis on the connection between psychoanalysis and open systems theory.'