The Role of Social Images in Conflict

and Pathology of “Normality”


Edi Gatti Pertegato and Giorgio Orghe Pertegato


Presented at the 84th Anniversary Conference of the Lifwynn Foundation

C. G. Jung Foundation, New York City

  October 29-31, 2010



 Trigant Burrow’s concept of “social images” is strictly correlated to individual and social conflict and to the pathology of “normality”, conceived as a social neurosis. From the beginning of his psychoanalytic practice he questioned Freud's instinct theory by stating the social nature of man and the interrelational nature of conflict, coming to assign a primary role to “social images”, which, in substituting for the individual and community reality, affect the unity of man and between men. Their overcoming, even hindered by the "parallelism with dream images”, is made possible by the “analysis of the group by the group” Burrow himself introduced.



1. Is conflict an unsolvable problem?

2. Social images as a substitute for reality



1. Is conflict an unsolvable problem?  

This paper deals with the deepening of a basic aspect closely connected with individual and social conflict, division and psychopathology, namely, the origin and nature of “social images” whose role is crucial and may be expressed in manifold facets. Conflict represents a most crucial and topical issue. In reality, despite the many attempts to study and face conflict, we can’t avoid to see how more and more it has been growing and bursting out during the last century and how it is still widespread and rampant in our time at every level, in interpersonal and family relationships, in groups, society, institutions and nations.  Already over seven decades ago, Clarence Shields (1937), in the preface of Trigant Burrow’s book The Biology of Human Conflict, in observing that conflict through the ages has become so increasingly insistent that “it is now definitely a major problem,” outlines a very disappointing situation about the possibility of its overcoming:


“But man, despite his marked ability to meet difficult situations, does not seem to comprehend, to encompass this particular problem of conflict within himself. It is there. We talk about it. We all know it, but we don’t seem to go forward to meet it - not as a unit. It is present both in war times and peace times, in commerce, the industries and the professions; it is indicated in crime, in insanity and in normality - in the behaviour of all of us. And yet we seem only to stand around and look in each other’s faces. (p. 8; my italics)

 To Freud himself conflict, although it was the central notion of the theory of neuroses based on opposing forces or principles, constituted an enigma. In “Reflections on War and Death” he points out very significantly the problem of man's interrelation discord and conflict by writing:

“Why it is that even in time of peace every nation and all the individuals within a nation should disdain, hate and abhor one another is indeed a  mystery. I simply cannot understand it” (Freud, 1915, in Burrow, 1949).

Are we then in a dead end, and should we conclude that we are helpless in meeting conflict in its own real nature and implications?  Thus, have we no choice than viewing it as intrinsic to the human beings, or is there a way out?

Well, there is a “giant figure,” as Nathan Ackerman (1964) called Trigant Burrow, who caught the “vast sickness of human relations” and “struggled his entire life to understand that worst of plagues – man against man.” (p.(vi)

It’s highly surprising that Burrow’s great contribution on conflict is so overlooked, when not wholly ignored in the psychoanalytic and group analytic fields. Shields informs us that Burrow, through his investigations, endeavoured “to outline this problem and a method for knowing it.” (p. viii)  Indeed, conflict constituted the focus of Burrow’s lifelong group analytic researches with various groups and an experimental community, which were viewed as a cross section of society at large.   

Contrary to Freud, who ascribed conflict to the instincts’ vicissitudes, that is, as pertaining to the individual as a monad, Burrow viewed the individual as a unit within the human species.  He conceived of the individual’s origin as interrelational, namely, closely connected to the individual relationships with a distorted familial, community, and social environment, starting from the primary one, represented by the parents. (E.Gatti Pertegato, 2009a)

He came to establish that cooperation is primary in respect to conflict and division (1926), introduced the concept of a “social instinct” and assigned a leading role to “social images” in obscuring this basic bond and inducing conflict and dissociation. (1928c).         

Since his early discovery of the “social image,” and the “social basis” of the neurosis, step by step, he came to realize that “man embodies the basis of knowing it,” and elaborated a method for grasping it in its unity and complexity; that is by considering a human as a whole in interaction with his/her environment. As there was no guide, no precedent, this took place gradually during sixteen years of group experimentations and each step was taken as a result of such investigation, whose direction was dictated by the material observed, namely human material. (C. Shields, 1937) 

Let’s hear Burrow himself (1937, p.16):

 “In these studies I have attempted to formulate certain aspects of the altered adjustments in the sphere of feeling and thinking that took place within and among my associates and myself as a result of this daily living experimentation in the organism total reactions”.


 2. Social images as a substitute for reality

“Social images,” “social unconscious” and “mirroring” are key-concepts in the study of conflict. They were introduced for the first time by Trigant Burrow in 1924 in his extraordinary paper Social images versus Reality” and will acquire more and more relevance in his approach to group researches.  Burrow was a prolific author but, being dissatisfied of the individualistic conception of psychoanalysis, challenged by his analysand Clarence Shields, who will become his main collaborator, in 1918 gave up his psychoanalytic practice and stopped writing, in order to study man’s behaviour and his disorders, first in a mutual analysis and then in a group setting (E.Gatti Pertegato, 2009b). Burrow’s paper Social Images Versus Reality is the break of his six years silence, from 1918 to 1924, entirely dedicated to group experimentations, and represent the first theoretical paper on group analysis. A torrent stream of many papers followed with the report of the enriching outcomes, which emerged from his group analytic researches. In this first paper, “social images,” their origin, nature and overcoming are faced in the light of the application of Einstein’s theory of relativity to the mental sphere which alone takes into account man’s social environment, and stresses the necessity to forego the “absolute basis of evaluations residing in the private judgement of the individual” in favour of the  adoption of “a basis which being relative to and inclusive of our  mental and social processes will envisage both on the basis of a more universal and encompassing evaluation.” (p.235).

Here, we also meet with the implicit formulation of the transgenerational-transpersonal processes and of the existence of the social mind in the individual, the current “internal groups.”  What does Burrow means by “social images”? He refers to images of the social mind, such as systems of values, attitudes, behaviour and moods which are currently and unquestionably accepted as “normal” into society, but which do not reflect both the individual and the community’s reality. (E. Gatti Pertegato, G.O.Pertegato, 2006). In spite of this, they generally characterize the so called “normality”, which in Burrow’s view is but a shared illness and for which he coined the concept of “social neurosis”, because of the pervasive tendency “to enact a given role, to portray a certain character or part” (Burrow, 1928a, p. 199) to the detriment of  one’s own true self and cooperation.

What is the nature of social images? From an inclusive or relative analysis, there is a parallelism between social images and dream images, as “these mental pictures within the social mind present the same mechanism that actuates the dream images within the individual mind” : they have “the same tendency of substitution, symbolism and indirection” that “underlie the dream.” Either the unconscious of the individual or the social unconscious show a correspondence in their psychic manifestations: they show the same “hidden, furtive, self-protecting nature of all unconscious processes, individual and social,” so that man “is now unconsciously occupied almost entirely with his own image and its reflections”, including  the tendency to avoid every approach to self-disclosure (Burrow, 1924, p.231-232).  Burrow states:

 “Such images constituting our social self-reflections present a myriad of facets. We rise from the sleep images of our individual unconscious only to enter the no less unconscious reflections of our social mind in its waking activities” (p.232).  As a consequence,  “in his social relationships the individual sees himself in the light in which these relationships reflect him. All of them give back his personal image in the social mirror they present to him.”


Thus, the individual, in a sort of role-playing, is unconsciously induced to assume   various role models, so that “the so-called social consciousness becomes but an unconscious exchange” of arbitrary social images (p.232). 

“The more we consider this self-reflective tendency, the more we may realize how readily we fall into the adoption of this, that, or the other characterological role in response to the image that is unconsciously being played opposite us.” (p.232)

How does this happen? And what is the origin of social image’s? The results of experimentation in group analysis show that personal and social images, individual and social unconscious, are strictly correlated in a circularity: society-individual-society.  The individual’s unconscious is “foddered” by social images coming from the social unconscious, to which in turn the individual himself accedes. Ultimately, social images replace the individual and community’s true reality, causing dissociation, alienation, conflict and division, giving rise to the “I”-Persona”, that is a false personality. Lloyd Gilden (1999) describes in detail the phases and the modalities in which the personality’s split turns into the “I”-Persona, a mask which replaces the individual’s true reality.

The origin of social image’s is traceable to the mother-image, but it does not reflect the mother’s personality; rather it is the image of the social setting around her. The “child automatically replaces the biological reality of the parent-organism with the social image that is artificially reflected to him by the parent”. (p. 233)

According to Burrow, “much of the confusion of psychoanalysis” is due to the failure to make a distinction between the mother-image and the mother’s personality.  The mother-image and the community-image have “the same underlying psychology,” thus, as the mother-image “bears no relation whatever” with the mother’s reality (p.233), so the social image has no correspondence with the reality of the social organism. Burrow argues that such a conclusion “deals a stunning blow to our social as well to our personal prepossessions. It means that we shall reckon altogether anew with the unconscious factor that is of central importance in psychoanalysis – the factor of the mother-complex – and that […] we shall have to alter the very foundations of its present interpretation, individual and social.” (p.234) 

That’s the direction Burrow took by challenging the neurosis of humanity and mental disorder “in its social as well in its individual intrenchments,” in which social images play as crucial role. The means to recognize and overcome this “fetish of our social image-worship” resides only in a relative or inclusive “analysis of the social mind as it exists within each of us”(p.235), that is, through the “analysis of the group by the group,” a process Burrow introduced. He states that “it is the images of common interchange sponsored by the social medium that represent the material to be analyzed.” (Burrow, 1928b p. 6); but he calls our attention to the fact that “the social medium is represented quite as completely in the single individual as in a group of individuals, precisely as the instinctive group principle of man is embodied  as fully  in the single individual as in the group.” (p. 6) 

However, Burrow warns that it’s not an easy task, as social images exert a powerful influence, being felt “as something good and desirable” and are not suspected “as  pathological and extraneous to the essential organism of man” (Burrow, 1928c; E. Gatti Pertegato, G.O. Pertegato, 2006, p. 130)

In conclusion, although they exert an unconscious deep appeal, Burrow (1924) points out that “vicarious images, however much they enjoy the protection of social convention, are still vicarious images. However general their acceptance by the current and institutionalized mind they are none the less impediments to consciousness and growth.” (p. 235, our italics).  In fact, group analytic experience shows that these images clash with the individual and community’s reality.  There is a sort of expropriation of one’s authentic nature at the root of dissatisfaction, discontent, conflict and pseudo-normality, which give rise to social neuroses and mental disorders. The object of Group Analysis, then, is “to enable the individual to express himself as he is – as he himself thinks and feels when utterly divorced from and unsupported by this social image of himself.” (Burrow, 1928a,.  In other words, Group Analysis affords the means to free one’s own creativity by the restoration of the “individual’s unity” and of the “natural inter-functioning” between human beings.



Ackerman N. (1964), “Foreword”, in Burrow T. (1964), The Preconscious Foundations of Human Experience, ed. W. Galt, New York, Basic Books.

Burrow T. (1924) “Social Images versus Reality”, The Journal of Abnormal Psychology and Social Psychology, vol. XIX, 3: 198-206; translated in Burrow T.(2009).

Burrow T. (1926) “The Laboratory Method in Psychoanalysis: its Inception and Development”,  American Journal of Psychiatry, vol.5, 3: 345-355; translated in  Burrow T.(2009).

Burrow T. (1928a), “The Basis of Group Analysis, or the Analysis of the Reactions of Normal and Neurotic Individuals”, The British Journal of Medical Psychology, vol.8: 198-206; translated in  Burrow T.(2009).

Burrow T. (1928b), “Elements of Group Analysis”. Unpublished. Manuscript Department Yale University Library, New Haven (CT), USA .

Burrow T. (1928c) “The Autonomy of the ‘I’ from the Standpoint of Group Analysis”, Psyche, vol.VIII, 3: 1-16; translated in  Burrow T.(2009).

Burrow T. (1937) The Biology of Human Conflict. An Anatomy of Behavior Individual and Social, New York : The Macmillan Co.

Burrow T. (1949) The Neurosis of Man: An Introduction to a Science of Human Behavior, London : Routledge and Kegan Paul; New York : Harcourt, Brace and Co.

Burrow T. (2009) Dalla Psicoanalisi alla fondazione della gruppoanalisi, eds. E.Gatti Pertegato, G.O. Pertegato, IPOC Press, Milano, 2009. (From Psychoanalysis to the Foundation of Group Analysis)

Freud S. (1915) ““Reflections on war and death”, Opere, Boringhieri, Torino , quoted in Burrow T. (1949).

Gatti Pertegato E. (1999) “Trigant Burrow and Unearthing he Origin of Group Analysis”, Group Analysis, vol.32: 269-284.

Gatti Pertegato E. (2009a) “Trigant Burrow’s research on individual and social conflict”, Presentation of August 26th, 2009 at the 17th Congress of International Association for Group Psychotherapy. Rome , 26-29 August 2009.

Gatti Pertegato E. (2009b) “Riscrittura della storia della gruppoanalisi. E la teoria?” - I Parte - “La lunga e sofferta elaborazione della gruppoanalisi”, Riv. It. di Gruppoanalisi, vol. XXIII, n. 1-2: 81-100. (“Rewriting of Group Analysis' History. And its theory?” Part I - “The Long and Suffered Elaboration of Group Analysis”).

Gatti Pertegato E., Pertegato G.O. (2006) “La scoperta della prima struttura teorica della gruppoanalisi: le Otto Proposizioni di Burrow e la natura sociale dell’individuo, del conflitto e della psicopatologia”, Riv. It. di Gruppoanalisi, vol. XX, n. 3. (“The Discovery of the First Theoretical Structure of Group-Analysis - Burrow’s Eight Propositions and the Social Nature of the Individual, of Conflict and Psychopathology”)

Gilden L. (1999), “Trigant Burrow’s Group Analysis”, Group Analysis, vol. 32, 2: 255-265.

Shields C. (1937) Foreword, in Burrow T. (1937) The Biology of Human Conflict.