What Is a Group? Discuss, with Reference to Bion's ‘Experiences in Groups’ and Your Own


Four people are in a room, lifting a piano together from one side of the room to the other.   How many entities, or things, are in the room?   Uncontroversially, there are at least five – the piano, and each of the four persons.   But is it correct to say that there is also a sixth thing, namely a group of piano-lifters?   What is a group – is it really a thing as such, or is the word simply an abstract shorthand that we use to denote some individuals who interact?

Before beginning to answer this question, it is pertinent to consider why it matters to those interested in studying group and organisational behaviour.   Freud (1921) opens his most famous discussion about groups by arguing that the study of individual psychology always involves some element of social study.   Is the reverse also true - that studying groups and society is not a reality in itself, but a different formula for studying the actions of individuals?   At first sight, Bion (1961) appears unequivocally to favour language which takes for granted the existence of the group qua group:

When the group has come together in this way, it has become something as real and as much a part of human life as a family.   (p.69)

Le Bon (1895) (whom Freud quotes extensively) is even more straightforward:

There are certain ideas and feelings which do not come into being, or do not transform themselves into acts, except in the case of individuals forming a group…[who] constitute a new being which displays characteristics very different from those possessed by each […] singly. (p.29)

But other, later theorists take quite the opposite view:

The view that a group has properties over and above the individuals who make it up and their inter-relation, can be very misleading.   (Cooper, 1999)

Surely this controversy must be resolved if we are to know just what it is we are talking about when we offer hypotheses about groups and organisations, otherwise we may be justly accused of a very...