The “Collective” In Psychology

Posted: 10/01/2018 0 Comment Related items :

The “Collective” In Psychology
Adam Blatner, M.D.
Revised May 26, 2004

Is there a collective dimension of the mind? I’m not speaking of Jung’s concept of “collective unconscious,” which refers to the inherited dimensions, perhaps better called “instinct.” Rather, what of the relationships of mind to larger groups, not just in telepathy with one other person, but to some not altogether minor degree with groups and larger collective affiliations. We hear of terms like “mass psychology” and “group mind”– what about these observations? A recent issue of the journal, “What is Enlightenment” addresses this topic, for example. Here are some further observations which I wrote about five or six years ago and posted on this website in 2002:

The nature of mind in psychology has tended to be addressed in terms of individuals, but there needs to be an increased sensitivity to the subtle power of the group and the wider culture. Beyond the psychoanalytic theories of “object relations” and “bonding,” which tend to address more one-to-one feelings, we need to recognize the sense of belonging to a nuclear and then extended family, to a nursery school or kindergarten class, a club, a church, and widening circles from that. The patterns described in sociology have real influence on the individual.
The collective in psychology can operate chaotically and powerfully, such as in mob psychology, or more subtly and over a longer period of time. I want to use this term “collective” to refer to groups that can exert culture-like influence. (As I mature in working with this concept, my definition may become more precise.)

Some Disclaimers

In using the term, “collective,” I’m not referring to Jung’s term, the “collective unconscious.” (I wonder if this is in part a problem of translation from the Swiss German.) Jung was not referring to a dynamic that is occurring in the present moment, a sort of shared psychological process, but rather to a common “tendency” to think or imagine in certain ways. It’s mixed with another misleading term he used, “race,” which back before Hitler made the term especially problematic, referred to the human species and how it evolved. So this collective unconscious involved the many elements of instinct and their associated correlates in the psychology of imagination that were shared by all of humanity–i.e., the “archetypes.”
Nor am I referring to what the British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion meant by the group mind, although it comes a little closer. From what I can gather, Bion’s idea suggested a psychic connection on a group level, which may or may not be valid.

The Range of Collectives

What I’ll be addressing, though, is that other more obvious sense of “we-ness” that we all feel, more or less, depending on our involvements in a wide range of social roles. Historically, it involved age and sex roles and tribes, what women did, what men did, what the young people did (I’m reminded of the opening song of the 1960s Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof, when the cast sang the song, “Tradition!” describing the roles of the different family members–The Papa, The Mama, The Son, The Daughter.)
As society became more complex, vocational groups emerged, the guilds, and then other specialized classes. With the growth of communications technologies, such as through writing and early postal messengers or travelers, groups of people with shared interests could be distributed over a wider area, such as the intellectuals of medieval Europe. As communications expanded, people could begin to identify with groups that were in less immediate personal contact, so that within a region or even a nation there could be “fans” of this or that movie star, band, artist, comedian. Politics became a more collective sociological phenomenon and democracy became possible.
In the second half of the 20th Century, groups that had previously been somewhat “marginalized,” in part because they couldn’t gain access to mass communications, were able to shift this balance as access became easier. Mimeograph, fax, telephone, and similar simple technologies empowered groups to communicate among themselves, and this helped them to organize, hold conferences, demonstrations, circulate newsletters, etc. This collective phenomenon gave rise to more of a sense of identity among women, gays and lesbians, various racial or ethnic minorities, and other political groups.
The phenomena of journals, newsletters, telephones, the mail, and national and international conferences led to a more active involvement with hobbies, academic interests, sub-specialties, and such–especially those that were a bit unusual. The point here is that some interests are fairly common and therefore one can find playing-partners or associates easily within one’s local range of activity; other interests are more specialized and rare, and a much wider area that includes many more people must be “covered” in order to find the relatively small number who share that interest.
With the entrance of the internet into human culture, this process has expanded even further, so that for the first time in history, people with rather rare conditions or interests are able to find each other and communicate about their common concerns.
So, collectives may be organized according to a wide range of criteria, such as the following:
religion politics vocation sex and gender
hobbies academic fields race and ethnicity languages
industries sports political factions professions
sciences organizations large unions economic class
…and so forth..

Living Collectives
I think it might stretch our minds in an interesting fashion if we considered that large collectives of human endeavor had, in a sense, their own “lives,” and we at the “unit” level both influence and are influenced by the collectives in a way analogous to how cells in a body both affect and are affected by the whole body’s changes.
A collective is a group of people who are active in an endeavor, and whose activity has gained enough momentum so that if a number of key people leave or die, the activity will continue. Collectives have some kind of symbolic meaning so that they evoke a sense of allegiance. There is a desire to promote and continue the tradition. Some features which tend to sooner or later become part of a collective is a history (written or oral), a sense of boundary and identity and some sense of its value, importance, or destiny. There’s almost always a certain degree of organization, and usually some modality for intercommunication among its members.
There are many activities which constitute an individual’s endeavor, or a family, or group’s identity and aspirations. But there’s a certain point in the time, size, and vitality of a growing group when it transforms from an aggregate of individuals into a more complex system. In evolutionary biology, there are one-celled animals and organisms which are essentially just a mass of individuals clustered together, and then there are animals in which the cells have differentiated and the whole operates to the benefit of all.
Collectives can therefore vary in numbers and intensity of emotional involvement, and can exist at several levels simultaneously. For example, I feel an involvement with the general challenge of health care in the population, including education and prevention, economic issues, etc.; and with the medical profession; and with psychiatry as a specialty; and with the imperiled endeavor of psychotherapy within that changing specialty; and with a special interest in the more active and creative forms of therapy, the arts therapies, etc., and with psychodrama and drama therapy in particular. Furthermore, my allegiance to certain specific groups has fluctuated and will continue to do so as my own interests and social connections evolve.
Collectives might be thought of as social meta-organisms, if that could be a plausible term, and as such, they might be viewed as having a kind of birth or transformation from mere groups that can gather and disperse to a kind of group that can sustain its own momentum. I think this is the essential quality.
When a group can lose its leaders and new leaders arise, when the ideal or image, the complex of concerns and beliefs of the group thicken to the point of having its own culture, then group dynamics shift qualitatively into a more complex form of social psychology that might be then called “collective dynamics.”
And yet, although collectives can have a longer life span than the activity or involvements of the initial, or even second generation of group members, they may pass away, dissolve, decline, or be transformed into a group with a different character and task. The point is that they attract adherents, so that in this sense, they stay alive, and perhaps they generate new “satellite” groups or “chapters” in other towns.

The most important aspect of the concept of collective is that these entities develop their own myths, not just unconscious assumptions, but symbolic gestalts which serve a variety of needs. In turn, the mythic influences of the collective can profoundly influence the participating individual’s most basic emotional-imaginal dynamics. Thus, this concept can help to illuminate many of the principles of cross-cultural psychology, and in our emerging “global village,” any adequate psychology must include these perspectives as integral elements.
Already people are more actively involved in numbers of roles that are far greater than a few hundred years in the past–Gergen (1990) has called this condition “the saturated self.” One way to cope with this diffusing tendency of the “postmodern” condition is to more consciously recognize it, and to respect the power of the collective to draw upon the sense of loyalty, to make demands upon the individual’s time and money. One implication is that it will be necessary to make more vigorous efforts at diagnosing and prioritizing personal goals.
What might it mean, then, to consider that we are parts of intangible “organisms” with different sorts of non-material boundaries than our own? Could this awareness of our social creaturehood also extend to our spiritual nature? I find a turn of phrase I heard most intriguing: What if instead of thinking of ourselves as physical beings who have spiritual experiences we open to the possibility that we are spiritual beings having a physical experience? (See Paper on “Our Social Beingness”)
Here’s a related example: A quasi-mythic feeling has grown along with a more ecological concept: The “Gaia” hypothesis. Put forth in the late 1970s by James Lovelock, he noted that the biosphere is so rich in self-regulating mechanisms that by every criterion of what constitutes a living organism, Mother Earth, in the name of the Greek earth goddess, “Gaia”, qualifies as a living “being.”
The main point of considering the nature of the collective in human affairs is that it sharpens our attention to socio-cultural influences. Much of psychology and psychotherapy is still too concerned with the individual. Problems are viewed as being the products of past history in the family, school, or neighborhood. While this is somewhat valid, we need to balance that tendency by giving more weight to the influence of not just “peer-pressure,” but the more subtle but, as I noted, in aggregate, powerful dynamics of larger collectives. What would “they” think? What am I “supposed” to do?
Collectives are to a surprising degree the sources of norms, values, and especially allegiances and identities. The individual’s sense of self is to some significant degree tied up with “being” [insert here name of affiliated broader collective].
One corollary is that a degree of insight and psychic liberation can occur as people become more sharply aware of what their various identifications are and beyond this, the nature of identification itself as a psycho-social dynamic. Indeed, the Buddhist philosophy is for some far more of a way of working psychologically than as a “religion” per se, in that it emphasizes attention given to identification and the potentials engendered consciously dis-identifying with the collective..
Another implication is that we view our history as a process of successive openings to humility, to reducing egocentricity and ethno-centricity and species-centricity, which correlate with the discoveries of Freud, Darwin, and even Copernicus. In other words, what if our individuality is not the end-all of life, but rather we begin to view ourselves also as a living component of many greater systems? There are current intellectual trends critiquing the individualism of our modern age and inviting us to open again to our capacity for community and ecological responsibility. Considering the reality of collectives may be a component in this shift of paradigm.

A Pitfall:
One of the issues that came up for me on reading the recent issue of What is Enlightenment is this: The theme of group mind should not always be viewed as coming up with more positive, advanced, loving, humane insights. I think it is equally possible for groups to generate an in-group, “we are sooo right on” false sense of confidence that it can in turn lead to great evil. I believe the dynamics that gave rise to the “March of Folly” that Barbara Tuchman writes about in her book (with that phrase as its title) involves such internally reinforcing forms of “groupthink.” So group mind as a phenomenon should not be given any mystically authoritative status or accorded blind faith. I do think group mind can be creative, but this still must be run through our critical faculties, because sometimes it is the outsider, the heretic, the rebel, who offers the greatest actual insight, the thinking beyond the habitual paradigm, and the greatest creative promise.
This paper also relates to other papers on this website, such as “Our Social Being-Ness”

Adam Blatner, M.D.