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The Spirit of the Groups: From Conflict to Generative Dialogue

Jerusalem, Israel, 20–25 August 2000


Trigant Burrow’s Eight Propositions of Group Analysis:

From Conflict to Cooperation

by Edi Gatti Pertegato and Giorgio Orghe Pertegato

Jerusalem, 22 August 2000



This presentation deals with "eight propositions" that represent the first theoretical framework of group analysis, set down by Trigant Burrow in 1928. At that time he had already practiced group analysis for ten years with his group of associate researchers, having done the first experiment in group analysis in 1918 (Gatti Pertegato, 1994, 1999). Even though some of Burrow’s concepts have been deeply analyzed in specific papers such as "The Basis of Group-Analysis" (1928a), we consider it worthwhile to discuss these "eight propositions" by virtue of their systematic, although rough, form and their topicality–particularly in relation to the unsolved and widespread problems of human conflict at every level, and with respect to the questioning of the concept of "normality," namely, of the systems of values, attitudes, and moods currently and unquestionably accepted as "normal" in society.

We would like to emphasize that our purpose is not to obscure or ignore Foulkes’s contribution. In accordance with the spirit of this congress, we aim to integrate Foulkes’s work with Burrow’s unknown or not yet acknowledged work. Yes, our ambition would be that of opening the way to a "generative dialogue" in order to relate Foulkes’s work to this historical matrix. This is only possible if we study Burrow’s work adequately and liberate it both from the thick cover put on it by the psychoanalytic orthodoxy of the time and from the many distortions it was subjected to when in recent years some concepts began to filter through and some historical accounts and analyses were made (Ackerman, 1964; Rosenbaum, 1986, 1992; Campos Avillar, 1990; Pigott, 1990). Moreover, we cannot but remark that more or less unconsciously, deep resistances toward Burrow’s thinking exist, and dealing with them is very difficult, although not impossible. As group analysts, we should not fear truth. We should be particularly involved in knowing our own history, whether personal or professional. Let’s briefly consider it.


Most of us think that group analysis had its inception in Exeter in 1939, when S. H. Foulkes gathered some patients into a group wishing to know what they would have to say to each other. We also know that the outcome of this experiment was so impressive that after the first session, Foulkes said to his wife: "A historical event has taken place in psychiatry today, but nobody knows about it" (Foulkes, 1964, p. 14).

Curiously and surprisingly enough, Burrow makes a sudden appearance. In fact, after having expressed the above-mentioned enthusiastic comment to his wife, Foulkes had this thought: "I remembered Trigant Burrow–nobody else did at the time" (Foulkes, 1964, p. 18).

Regarding this extraordinary event of applying psychoanalytic principles to a group of people, which implied the subversion not only of the deeply rooted praxis of the method of individual analysis, but also of the deterministic conception of the individual versus his/her social nature–something unimaginable and untouchable at the time–some queries may arise:

1. Was the group analysis method the result of an original idea of Foulkes?

2. If so, what were the circumstances leading up to this occurrence?

3. After having been influenced by some of Burrow’s papers, why did Foulkes allow about fifteen years to elapse before realizing his wish to put Burrow’s ideas into practice in his group of patients?

4. Why did Foulkes think of Burrow’s name in the context of such a great event?

For us, Burrow’s early group analytic formulations have been the object of a long-lasting research project that has led us to write extensively on this material. We especially focused on the relationship between Burrow’s and Foulkes’s thinking. However, this issue is out of place for the purpose of our presentation, and thus we will confine ourselves to the conclusion that we have drawn, which is rigorously grounded on documentary sources. Foulkes’s own attitude on this matter has been increasingly vague and elusive. It is evident, however, that he knew Burrow’s work quite well and that the group analysis method he developed was not created ex novo by him, but had its fundamental grounds in group analytic concepts developed by Burrow, to whom he never gave full credit (E. Gatti Pertegato & G. Pertegato, 1995).

Burrow considered group analysis as a development of psychoanalysis by the inclusion of social factors and its extension to groups, either as a therapeutic research tool or as a new and broader theoretical perspective derived from considering individuals to be inseparable from their social context. His early group analytic papers, running from 1924 to the early 1930’s, proved him to be the initiator of group analysis. Among unpublished letters and papers, a document detailing eight propositions stood out for us as providing the basic principles of group analysis. Let’s now examine this specific subject.


In the decade following the origin of group analysis, during which the group analysis method was practiced in many group settings while undergoing continuous evolution, Trigant Burrow published a number of basic papers on group analysis. Examples include "Social Images Versus Reality" (1924), "The Laboratory Method in Psychoanalysis" (1926), "The Group Method of Analysis" (1927), and so on. At this point, he attempted to establish a theoretical framework for group analysis by setting down what he called "eight propositions." They are articulately sketched out in the form of an eight-point outline, followed by extensive comments, in an unpublished paper called "The Elements of Group Analysis" (1928b), consulted at Yale University Library in New Haven, Connecticut (USA).

Burrow’s introduction of these "propositions" is intriguing in that he lets us know how he came to discover them.

It will perhaps assist an understanding of the principle and method and the purpose of group analysis if we should begin by setting down several basic propositions such as have been empirically determined as the result of an experimental procedure in which individuals and group of individuals have sought to observe with accuracy and with the absence of bias the supposedly unbiased and too often inaccurate reactions and interactions of these self-same individuals and these self-same groups. (Burrow, 1928b, p. 1)

Group analysis then, was "empirically determined" and evolved as the result of a group "experimental procedure." The evolution of this "laboratory method" took place through the years on a continuous path, proceeding by trial and error; it involved many forms of groups–small and large and an experimental community–where the emphasis was on the immediate observation of feelings and motivations, that is, on "here and now" interactions (Gatti Pertegato, 1999).

Here are the items of the propositions, among which there stands out first his basic concept of social neurosis:

Proposition One: The neurosis is not a disease of the individual but of society at large.

Thus "the neurosis of society is primary; the neurosis of the individual, secondary" to that of the environment (Ackerman, 1974), or to that of a not "good-enough environment," as Winnicott would say some decades later. On what is Burrow’s provocative statement based?

In the second proposition we find the principle of the interaction between individual and society– namely, the interiorization of "social images," that is, of those social attitudes, moods, and values that clash (contrastano) with the individual’s authentic "reality." We also meet the concept of social mirroring, where the transpersonal process is at work. Social images alienate individuals from themselves and from their fellows by inducing conflict, opposition, and prevarication to the detriment of cooperation:

Proposition two: The nature of the mental disorder with which civilized society is afflicted is the universal substitution of social images for reality or the individual’s preoccupation at all times with the appearance of himself and others, as it is mutually reflected socially, in place of the natural interfunctioning of the elements of the species or individuals of the race in biological interests that subserve common concerted ends.

Here the natural interrelational processes between people and the pursuing of "common concerted ends" are replaced by "images" imbued with concern about one’s appearance and self-interest, and this attitude cannot but lead to conflict. But how does this replacement take place? What is the underlying process?

In the third proposition, Burrow posits the transgenerational process through which dissociation in the individual is induced:

Proposition three: The condition of society is one in which the individual, both single and collective, is completely helpless . . . . The incentive to this artificial shift of interest from the actuality of coordinated function to the dissociated preoccupation with his own image or appearance is begotten in the early infancy of each of us. Being a racially prevalent image-mode, it is directly transmitted to the offspring by the mother.[Our italics] In the fourth proposition, he explains how the transgenerational process works in terms of the interrelational dynamics that give rise to dissociation, both individual and social: Proposition four: The mechanism of this racial dissociation, as transmitted from generation to generation, is to be seen in detail in the reaction of the individual mother (parent or guardian) with respect to the particular child. The mother would have a "good" child as she automatically assumes in response to the suggestion to be "good" which she as an infant received from her mother [our italics]. Her child must learn to capture this autonomous intimation of a good and bad–of a good to be rewarded and of a bad to be disapproved–and acquire a sense of advantage to himself that is early made inseparable from this implied "good" pertaining to certain social aspects of his behavior as contrasted with an implied "bad" that early comes to be associated with the image of himself thus artificially imbued in him. [italics in original]

The fifth proposition deals with the nature of the transgenerational process, that is, of the mother’s response to her own mother which she transmits to the child:

Proposition five: This image does not arise as a rational concept but as a purely suggestive, emotional response on the part of the individual to a suggestive, emotional reaction existing socially. The sphere of the response as of the stimulus is confined then solely to the mood-life of the organism: it is the automatic response of a mood-image of personal advantage on the part of the child to the automatically imbued image of personal advantage on the part of the mother. There is therefore no rational or controlled process of thought involved and no rational or controlled mental process can possibly gain access to it." [our italics]

Through transpersonal and transgenerational processes, social images arouse such an extensive social collusion that it prevents any stimulus toward change from arising, either individually and socially:

Proposition six: This social image and its mood-confederacy into which the mother impanels the child, represents by virtue of its secret transmission from individual to individual and from generation to generation nothing less than a social collusion of universal extent [our italics]. It is this mood-collusion involving society as a whole, and through which all of society has come to feel with an unquestioned mood-conviction that his highest advantage or good lies in its complete complicity with the social mood-image, that precludes the slightest incentive to remedy or correction anywhere in the feeling or mood-conviction of the individual, either single or collective. [italics in original]

The seventh proposition calls our attention to the reason that any overcoming of this social collusion is impeded:

Proposition seven: In this circumstance in which the species of man as a whole is involved in a mood-dissociation which is felt in all parts of it as something good and desirable and which is nowhere suspected (except theoretically and in no way touching the mood involved) as being pathological and extraneous to the essential organism of man, it is obvious no remedy or desire to alter the existing condition can anywhere arise within any part or throughout all the parts of this general mood-involvement in an image of good or private advantage [our italics]

Yet even if the situation seems hopeless, the social collusion in this system of mood-images of private advantage may be replaced by a social consensus based on the authentic inherent trends toward interrelatedness and interfunctioning in "common concerted common ends":

Proposition eight: Such a universal involvement in a social collusion based upon private images could only be replaced by a social consensus resting upon organic feeling or thought as a functional actuality. But the will to emotion that exists everywhere will, of course, everywhere resist the organic behest of man’s inherent function as a concerted race. The situation, then, would seem hopeless. And from every point of view it undoubtedly is hopeless. But fortunately in the light of an organic group thesis the "point of view" of man, individual and collective, is not of significance. His point of view itself is part of the dissociative system of mood-images in which he is involved and necessarily arises from it. What then? [our italics]


These propositions are followed by further reflection and deepening (about 30 pages), from which we may synthesize the following statements.

1) The mother is in possession of a code of behavior that it is in her greatest interest to convey to the child, and the result is that the child’s interest, feelings and "wholly spontaneous gesture toward the object" is suddenly checked because it is bad. Consequently, "gradually the objects of the child’s universe, every impulse of the child’s life comes to be measured in the light of this implied code." This is not a healthy gesture, as it is "under restriction, dominated by fear, subject to a division" (12).

2) If this is true of the normal individual, it is also true of society: "If the condition of the individual is one of physiological disharmony, the condition of society, made of individuals, . . . also represents an unharmonious society," because of the "replacement of the spontaneous behavior of the organism" by "a completely sophisticated and self-defensive ‘I.’" This could be Winnicott speaking of his concepts of "true and false self." The consequence is a society "representing an illusory and quite arbitrary ‘I,’" that is, people actuated by an individual and social dissociation (13). The way is inevitably paved toward conflict, both individual and social.

Burrow’s view of conflict thus differs from that of Freud in that Burrow's view has a social connotation. According to Freud, the essential cause of neurotic disorders is conflict between instinctual drives and social prohibitions; according to Burrow, "the essential conflict derives from the encroachment of the objectivating, acquisitive functions of conscious mentation upon the primary affective sphere of existence" (H. Syz, 1961). In his psychoanalytic papers, he postulated the principle of the infant’s "primary identification" with the mother as the biological matrix of later developments, in the direction of neurosis as well as in that of constructive societal coordination and spontaneous personality integration. He called this phase the "preconscious mode," anticipating Bion’s concept of the "protomental system."

Finally, he saw the conflict enacted "also in the accepted codes and conventions of the so-called normal social living" (H. Syz, 1961), because of the substitution of false social images for the individual’s true reality, both single and collective, and stated that this individual’s dissociation was secondary to that of society at large.

Accordingly, the purpose of group analysis was the analysis by the group of "social images"–that is, of the "social neurosis"–as they occurred in the here-and-now of the group interchange, where the group as a whole was considered a cross-section of society in general.

In short, Burrow’s altered perspective deals with the attempt to bridge "the enormous gap existing between our intrinsic feelings and the social expression we give them" (S. Burnshaw, 1984). He opened the way to the discovery of unhealthy processes such as the misuse of "symbols that represent conduct" rather than natural processes "that are conduct" as well as "concepts, values and procedures that tend toward constructive relatedness and creative growth in individual and group," where "the individual was considered as an integrated part, in feeling and action, of the community as a whole" (H. Syz, 1961).

It was Burrow’s basic finding that there is a "common feeling continuum," a "common substrate of feeling and reaction" (Burrow, 1926) that unites human beings–that cooperation is primary with respect to the "manifold symptoms of conflict and division," but that the vicarious "images" sponsored by "the social reaction-average arbitrarily called ‘normality’" tend to obscure it, to the detriment of the solidarity of individuals with their fellows. And this is still presently under our eyes in the conflict, hate, and wars that afflict nations, groups, and individuals throughout the world.


We think that knowing the truth about the history of group analysis is of great importance, not only because–as M. Rosenbaum stated at the 1992 IAGP Montreal Congress with regard to the search for a theoretical framework in the field of group psychotherapy–Burrow "has very much to say to help us in such a search," but also because history is not something static to be confined to the past: it is an indispensable element in understanding the present and projecting the future. And just like our patients, if we don’t know our own history, we are unconsciously compelled to repeat it at a personal, professional, and institutional level. Finally, to ignore our own matrix is an anti-group analytic attitude, I would say, not only a sin of omission, but also a deadly sin against ourselves and science.

There is plenty of evidence that behind Foulkes there was Burrow’s conceptual and methodological structure so that "Burrow’s point of arrival represented Foulkes’ starting-point," and to use Abse’s words (1990), "the beginning of group analysis in the United States found in him (Foulkes) a transatlantic answer" (E. Gatti Pertegato, G. Pertegato, 1995). In the same way, we may say that behind Burrow there was Freud’s interpersonal intuitions, intuitions that he himself let drop (D. Napolitani, 1987; Pigott, 1990). We may conclude with Pigott that whatever direction Burrow’s researches took during the 1930’s, he "is one of the rare authors who have conceptualized a real group psychoanalysis" (p. 70; [italics in original], and that he paved the way for much that is still waiting to be studied and developed. Perhaps, like Burrow, one must dare.



Abse, {1990)

Ackerman, N. W. (1964). Foreword. In T. Burrow, Preconscious Foundation of Human Experience, edited by W. E. Galt. New York: Basic Books.

Burnshaw, S. (1984) Introduction. In T. Burrow, Toward Social Sanity and Human Survival, edited by A. Galt. New York: Horizon Press.

Burrow, T. (1924). Social Images Versus Reality. The Journal of Abnormal Psychology and Social Psychology, 19(3), 230–235.

Burrow, T. (1926). The Laboratory Method in Psychoanalysis: Its Inception and Development. American Journal of Psychiatry, 5, 345–55.

Burrow, T. (1927). The Group Method of Analysis. The Psychoanalytic Review, 14, 268–280.

Burrow, T. (1928a). The Basis of Group-Analysis or the Analysis of the Reactions of Normal and Neurotic Individuals. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 8, 198–206.

Burrow, T. (1928b). The Elements of Group Analysis. Unpublished paper, T. Burrow, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library, New Haven.

Campos Avillar, J. (1990). Un prototipo di modello gruppale per la psicoanalisi: dal "Gruppo a Due" fino ai gruppi di due più n personel. In M. G. Pauletta (Ed.), Modelli psicoanalitici del gruppo. Milan: Guerini and Associati.

Foulkes, S. H. (1964). Therapeutic London group analysis. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Gatti Pertegato, E. (1994). Trigant Burrow tra Freud e Foulkes: la Fondazione della Gruppoanalisi e Trasformazioni Epistemologiche della Psicoanalisi. Rivista Italiana di Gruppoanalisi 9(3–4), 7–44.

Gatti Pertegato, E. (1999). Trigant Burrow and Unearthing the Origin of Group Analysis. Group Analysis 32(2), 269–284.

Gatti Pertegato, E., and Pertegato, G. (1995. Rimozione di Trigant Burrow nell’opera di S. H. Foulkes. Rivista Italiana di Gruppoanalisi 10(2), 101–121.

Napolitani, D. (1987). Individualità e Gruppalità. Torino: Boringhieri.

Pigott, C. (1990). Introduction à la psychanalyse goupale. Paris: Editions Apsygée.

Rosenbaum, M. (1986). A Pioneer Revisited. Group Analysis (19), 167–75.

Rosenbaum, M. (1992). Trigant Burrow–A Seminal Thinker. Lifwynn Correspondence, 2(2), 9–13.

Syz, H. (1961). Problems of Perspective Against the Background of Trigant Burrow’s Group-Analytic Researches. International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, (11), 143–165.

Winnicott D. W. (1960). The distortion of the ego in terms of true and false self. In emotional development and facilitating environment . London: Hogarth Press.

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