Appropriate scales of anxiety – on the frail operation of a therapeutic technique

by Tarek Cheniti, recent DPhil in Science and Technology Studies

Signe Vikkelsø, who gave last week’s STS seminar, is interested in the specific question of how unconscious phenomena become surfaced and materialised. She generally situates herself in a phenomenological research tradition which considers that research methods used generate (or ‘enact’) their objects.

Signe Vikkelso

Signe Vikkelsø

This has led her to consider psychologist Wilfred Bion’s experiments of group therapy (a method called ‘the Experience Group’) as a potentially useful way to study the rise of a phenomenon – in this case, the mental state of anxiety – as a result of certain types of group interactions and interpretations. To do so, Vikkelsø suggests looking at the socio-technical makeup of Bion’s psychoanalytical groups, as well as the risks and associations which are deployed in order to produce and manage the state of being anxious.

Vikkelsø describes Bion’s therapeutic technique as one that balances the expectations of participants with the actual role of the group analyst. The analyst’s role and objective in running the group are deliberately made ambiguous to participants in order to elicit different responses. Thus, participants develop ways of managing the tensions and uncertainties resulting from this ambiguity. Vikkelsø suggests that this therapeutic format is best understood as a scaling problem, because it involves shifting degrees of leadership, anxiety and optimism. In other words, through the notion of scale we come to understand the Experience Group as an improvised, disharmonious and mutable entity that seeks to control the intangible phenomenon of mental anxiety.

In practice, the Experience Group involves a one-hour discussion among eight to ten individuals who are seated in a circle. The analyst, or group taker, refrains from taking up a direct leadership position and instead pays attention to the way other participants express dissatisfaction with the absence of a leader and the ways in which they question the motives and organisation of the group. On the basis of that response the group taker engages in a discussion in which he tries to interpret the assumptions of the different participants, making them aware of the very tensions that are being studied. The group thus fluctuates between its main task – studying tensions in group situations – and the participants’ own ways of projecting their individual emotional responses onto the group.

Vikkelsø noted that this psychoanalytical technique has been notorious but was abandoned over time with analysts choosing less intense and emotionally exhausting versions. Thus, more appropriate ways of scaling anxiety can be found in two other forms of group analysis: the Tavistock Large Group (which scales up the production of anxiety by offering an expanded arrangement for applying Bion’s technique) and the Median Group (which scales anxiety down by focussing on the development of a ‘democratic dialogue’ among very few participants).

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