The Collective in Psychology (2022)

Revised May 26, 2004
Is there a collective dimension of the mind? I'm notspeaking of Jung'sconcept of "collective unconscious," which refers to the inheriteddimensions, perhaps better called "instinct." Rather, what of therelationships of mind to larger groups, not just in telepathy with oneother person, but to some not altogether minor degree with groups andlarger collective affiliations. We hear of terms like "mass psychology"and "group mind"-- what about these observations? A recent issueof the journal, "What is Enlightenment" addresses this topic, forexample. Here are some further observations which I wrote about five orsix years ago and posted on this website in 2002:

The nature of mindin psychology has tended to be addressed in terms of individuals, butthereneeds to be an increased sensitivity to the subtle power of the groupandthe wider culture. Beyond the psychoanalytic theories of "objectrelations"and "bonding," which tend to address more one-to-one feelings, we needto recognize the sense of belonging to a nuclear and then extendedfamily,to a nursery school or kindergarten class, a club, a church, andwideningcircles from that. The patterns described in sociology have realinfluenceon the individual.

The collective inpsychologycan operate chaotically and powerfully, such as in mob psychology, ormoresubtly 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 maturein 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." (Iwonderif this is in part a problem of translation from the Swiss German.)Jungwas 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 misleadingterm he used, "race," which back before Hitler made the term especiallyproblematic, referred to the human species and how it evolved. So thiscollective unconscious involved the many elements of instinct and theirassociated correlates in the psychology of imagination that were sharedby all of humanity–i.e., the "archetypes."

Nor am I referring towhatthe British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion meant by the group mind,althoughit comes a little closer. From what I can gather, Bion's idea suggesteda psychic connection on a group level, which may or may not be valid.

The Range ofCollectives

What I'll be addressing,though,is that other more obvious sense of "we-ness" that we all feel, more orless, 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 the1960sBroadwaymusical, Fiddler on the Roof, when the cast sang the song, "Tradition!"describing the roles of the different family members–The Papa, TheMama,The Son, The Daughter.)

As society became morecomplex,vocational groups emerged, the guilds, and then other specializedclasses.With the growth of communications technologies, such as through writingand early postal messengers or travelers, groups of people with sharedinterests could be distributed over a wider area, such as theintellectualsof medieval Europe. As communications expanded, people could begin toidentifywith groups that were in less immediate personal contact, so thatwithina region or even a nation there could be "fans" of this or that moviestar,band, artist, comedian. Politics became a more collective sociologicalphenomenon and democracy became possible.

In the second half ofthe20th Century, groups that had previously been somewhat "marginalized,"in part because they couldn't gain access to mass communications, wereable to shift this balance as access became easier. Mimeograph, fax,telephone,and similar simple technologies empowered groups to communicate amongthemselves,and this helped them to organize, hold conferences, demonstrations,circulatenewsletters, etc. This collective phenomenon gave rise to more ofa sense of identity among women, gays and lesbians, various racial orethnicminorities, and other political groups.

The phenomena ofjournals,newsletters, telephones, the mail, and national and internationalconferencesled to a more active involvement with hobbies, academic interests,sub-specialties,and such–especially those that were a bit unusual. The point here isthatsome interests are fairly common and therefore one can findplaying-partnersor associates easily within one's local range of activity; otherinterestsare more specialized and rare, and a much wider area that includes manymore people must be "covered" in order to find the relatively smallnumberwho share that interest.

With the entrance oftheinternet into human culture, this process has expanded even further, sothat for the first time in history, people with rather rare conditionsor interests are able to find each other and communicate about theircommonconcerns.

So, collectives may beorganizedaccording to a wide range of criteria, such as the following:

religion politics vocation sex and gender
hobbies academic fields race andethnicity languages
industries sports political factions professions
sciences organizations large unions economic class
...and so forth..

Living Collectives

I think it might stretchourminds in an interesting fashion if we considered that large collectivesof 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 wayanalogousto how cells in a body both affect and are affected by the whole body'schanges.

A collective is a groupofpeople who are active in an endeavor, and whose activity has gainedenoughmomentum so that if a number of key people leave or die, the activitywillcontinue. Collectives have some kind of symbolic meaning so that theyevokea sense of allegiance. There is a desire to promote and continue thetradition.Some features which tend to sooner or later become part of a collectiveis a history (written or oral), a sense of boundary and identity andsomesense of its value, importance, or destiny. There's almost always acertaindegree of organization, and usually some modality forintercommunicationamong its members.

There are manyactivitieswhich constitute an individual's endeavor, or a family, or group'sidentityand aspirations. But there's a certain point in the time, size, andvitalityof a growing group when it transforms from an aggregate of individualsinto a more complex system. In evolutionary biology, there areone-celledanimals and organisms which are essentially just a mass of individualsclustered together, and then there are animals in which the cells havedifferentiated and the whole operates to the benefit of all.

Collectives canthereforevary in numbers and intensity of emotional involvement, and can existatseveral levels simultaneously. For example, I feel an involvement withthe general challenge of health care in the population, includingeducationand prevention, economic issues, etc.; and with the medical profession;and with psychiatry as a specialty; and with the imperiled endeavor ofpsychotherapy within that changing specialty; and with a specialinterestin the more active and creative forms of therapy, the arts therapies,etc.,and with psychodrama and drama therapy in particular. Furthermore, myallegianceto certain specific groups has fluctuated and will continue to do so asmy own interests and social connections evolve.

Collectives might bethoughtof as social meta-organisms, if that could be a plausible term, and assuch, they might be viewed as having a kind of birth or transformationfrom mere groups that can gather and disperse to a kind of group thatcansustain its own momentum. I think this is the essential quality.

When a group can loseitsleaders and new leaders arise, when the ideal or image, the complex ofconcerns and beliefs of the group thicken to the point of having itsownculture, then group dynamics shift qualitatively into a more complexformof social psychology that might be then called "collective dynamics."

And yet, althoughcollectivescan have a longer life span than the activity or involvements of theinitial,or even second generation of group members, they may pass away,dissolve,decline, or be transformed into a group with a different character andtask. 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 importantaspectof the concept of collective is that these entities develop their ownmyths,not just unconscious assumptions, but symbolic gestalts which serve avarietyof needs. In turn, the mythic influences of the collective canprofoundlyinfluence the participating individual's most basic emotional-imaginaldynamics. Thus, this concept can help to illuminate many of theprinciplesof cross-cultural psychology, and in our emerging "global village," anyadequate psychology must include these perspectives as integralelements.

Already people are moreactivelyinvolved in numbers of roles that are far greater than a few hundredyearsin the past--Gergen (1990) has called this condition "the saturatedself."One way to cope with this diffusing tendency of the "postmodern"conditionis to more consciously recognize it, and to respect the power of thecollectiveto draw upon the sense of loyalty, to make demands upon theindividual'stime and money. One implication is that it will be necessary to makemorevigorous efforts at diagnosing and prioritizing personal goals.

What might it mean,then,to consider that we are parts of intangible "organisms" with differentsorts of non-material boundaries than our own? Could this awareness ofour social creaturehood also extend to our spiritual nature? I find aturnof phrase I heard most intriguing: What if instead of thinking ofourselvesas physical beings who have spiritual experiences we open to thepossibilitythat we are spiritual beings having a physical experience? (SeePaperon "Our Social Beingness")

Here's a relatedexample:A quasi-mythic feeling has grown along with a more ecological concept:The "Gaia" hypothesis. Put forth in the late 1970s by James Lovelock,henoted that the biosphere is so rich in self-regulating mechanisms thatby every criterion of what constitutes a living organism, Mother Earth,in the name of the Greek earth goddess, "Gaia", qualifies as a living"being."

Implications

The main point ofconsideringthe nature of the collective in human affairs is that it sharpens ourattentionto socio-cultural influences. Much of psychology and psychotherapy isstilltoo concerned with the individual. Problems are viewed as being theproductsof past history in the family, school, or neighborhood. While this issomewhatvalid, we need to balance that tendency by giving more weight to theinfluenceof not just "peer-pressure," but the more subtle but, as I noted, inaggregate,powerful dynamics of larger collectives. What would "they"think?What am I "supposed" to do?

Collectives are to asurprisingdegree the sources of norms, values, and especially allegiances andidentities.The individual's sense of self is to some significant degree tied upwith"being" [insert here name of affiliated broader collective].

One corollary is that adegreeof insight and psychic liberation can occur as people become moresharplyaware of what their various identifications are and beyond this, thenatureof identification itself as a psycho-social dynamic. Indeed, theBuddhistphilosophy is for some far more of a way of working psychologicallythanas a "religion" per se, in that it emphasizes attention given toidentificationand the potentials engendered consciously dis-identifying with thecollective..

Another implication isthatwe view our history as a process of successive openings to humility, toreducing egocentricity and ethno-centricity and species-centricity,whichcorrelate with the discoveries of Freud, Darwin, and even Copernicus.Inother words, what if our individuality is not the end-all of life, butrather we begin to view ourselves also as a living component of manygreatersystems? There are current intellectual trends critiquing theindividualismof our modern age and inviting us to open again to our capacity forcommunityand ecological responsibility. Considering the reality of collectivesmaybe a component in this shift of paradigm.
A Pitfall:
One of the issues that came up for me on reading the recent issue ofWhat is Enlightenment is this: The theme of group mind should notalways be viewed as coming up with more positive, advanced, loving,humane insights. I think it is equally possible for groups to generatean in-group, "we are sooo right on" false sense of confidence that itcan in turn lead to great evil. I believe the dynamics that gave riseto the "March of Folly" that Barbara Tuchman writes about in her book(with that phrase as its title) involves such internally reinforcingforms of "groupthink." So group mind as a phenomenon should notbe given any mystically authoritative status or accorded blindfaith. I do think group mind can be creative, but this still mustbe run through our critical faculties, because sometimes it is theoutsider, the heretic, the rebel, who offers the greatest actualinsight, the thinking beyond the habitual paradigm, and the greatestcreative promise.

This paper also relatestoother papers on this website, such as "Our SocialBeing-Ness"


For responses, email meat adam@blatner.com

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