By Göran Ahlin

The Group-analytic Group Matrix Concept

First posted 30/11/2016

When the German-born, Jewish psychoanalyst and psychiatrist S.H. Foulkes in 1940 in England brought his analytic patients into groups for treatment reasons, he reportedly became intrigued and enthusiastic about all that which emerged in the group dynamics, over and beyond his original expectations from what he had learnt in psychoanalysis in Germany and in his new country England. He may have borrowed the term Group Analysis, GA, from Trigant Burrow – although he did not state that – and named the therapy he and his followers developed as Group-Analytic Psychotherapy. He became an ardent spokesman for therapy in groups and begun a lifelong exploration of the nature of personal change in groups, what he later, among other things, called ego-training in action.

During the following years, after WW2, the group-analytic frame of reference was developed by dr S.H.F. (as he referred to himself in writings) and his followers (de Maré, Pines, Skynner, Brown, Hearst, Hopper, and Cortecáo among others) primary as a treatment model the central concepts and meta-theory of which emerged subsequently. For the first, and soon central concept, describing the not conscious motivations and the driving forces under and behind the group dynamics in the GA therapeutic group, Foulkes et al. choose the Latin word Matrix.

Its connotations are manifold: mother; pregnant female animal; mould – for pouring molten material into for shaping sculptures and things; frame for arranging lead- types in precomputer printing methods; way of organizing in mathematics; guide in designing. (Roberts 1982) The aim for defining the Group Matrix, GAM, was clearly to label, for the Group-as-awhole, on its unconscious level, a corresponding key concept to the psychoanalytic concepts about individual and interpersonal dynamics, in drive theories as well as in ego-psychology and object relations theories. Since the group has no physical body of its own, but, during face-to-face meetings, an assembly of member bodies and minds, its collective driving forces presupposed what in General Systems Theory is attributed to the Group-as-a-whole “something different and beyond the mere sum of its component parts” (Bateson ). Something new and in its parts different is claimed to emerge, when persons relate to each other as members of a group. The GAM is then defined as “the hypothetical web of communications and relationships of a given group” and further as “the common shared ground which ultimately determines meaning and significance of all events and upon which all communications and interpretations, verbal and non-verbal, rest” (Foulkes 1964)

According to Foulkes the Group Matrix is to be considered intra-psychically as well as in the group-as-a-whole, in contact and interaction in between the two locations. Foulkes described it having two aspects: one Foundation Group Matrix created by past familiar, cultural, social and lingual experiences and one Dynamic Group Matrix emerging through the interactions and the relationships growing during the group process. Originally S.H.F. made no clear differentiation between GAM in psychic inner worlds and in the Group-as-a-whole. The interactions were labelled transpersonal, meaning (restlessly) passing through and soaking everybody present – also through the leader, although this is more unclear in S.H.F.’s texts. Depending on the extent of restless-ness attributed to the transpersonal interactions one may consider individuality as in fact non-existing, which is what Foulkes himself feared he had “discovered”, using the metaphor of “radiation” in order to clarify his use of the adjective 2 transpersonal (Foulkes, 1973). But, using an alternate metaphor of “diffusion over cell membranes in living humans and animals”, one may, again, see individual minds as formed and restricted by transpersonal processes over time – and yet partly separate and different from others: i.e. individuality still existing (Ahlin, 1985).

S.H. Foulkes was a well-educated psychoanalyst from Frankfurt and Vienna, focussing the earlier versions of Freudian ego- and drive-theory concepts. But he was also influenced by the Frankfurt School of social philosophy and Norbert Elias, the great Sociologist, was among those forming the group-analytic frame of reference. He was during his long professional life influenced also by other frames of thought and therapy e.g. General Systems Theory. The width of Foulkes thinking, moving between ego-psychology and social psychology, has been called in one end “Traditional Foulkes” and in the other “Radical Foulkes”, respectively, by Farhad Dalal (1998). Dalal is among those developing group-analytic theory further (e.g. Dalal, Nitzun, Blackwell), emphasizing power relationships and destructive aspects of the dynamic matrix as well, more than Foulkes himself did.

GAM is a major instrument for group-analytic therapists in their work with therapeutic group dynamics. Through participant observation, introspection and reflection over transferences and counter-transferences the group conductor is often very much helped by formulating observations – for him/herself in the first hand – of the actual GAM. Such formulations will help the therapist as conductor and form basis and support for grasping content of shared not conscious dynamic levels, also allowing for explicit interventions in the here-and-now, or later on. GAM has also been used on median sized* and large therapeutic* groups, and on groups in organizations and outside therapy – logically so since it is a construct, which might both be extended and applied differently – but with less explanation value and helpfulness due to the different qualities, communication and relating patterns of such groups when compared to small group analytic groups. The Group Analytic Matrix concept was originally formulated, and has its greatest value, in relation to small group analytic groups.

GAM can also be of great importance in research concerning group processes in group psychotherapy (Ahlin 1996). Since GAM, as Foulkes reminds us, is a construct dealing with unconscious levels of interaction, it cannot be directly seen, measured and observed, but must instead be researched through the actual behaviours and manifest interactions of on-going group meetings. The unconscious incentives can be thought to determine manifest behaviour via what I have proposed to be called determinants (idem). Eight such determinants have been defined which can be objects of study in process research about what happens in group therapy sessions from moment to moment and between sessions. (Ahlin, idem) This kind of qualitative research project is of crucial importance to further development of psychotherapy in groups.

The Group- Analytic Matrix concept, especially the Foundation Matrix aspect, was by Foulkes considered the prerequisite for the fact that strangers, meeting in groups, can be able to start relating to and communicating with each other. If they can… When they can… Or cannot. In an era of increasing streams of migration, refugees and social mobility this is nothing given, although of primary concern for a great number of reasons. The more analysed the more complicated the (personal and collective) Foundation Matrix appears. This has been one of the reasons in later years for alternate focus on the Social Unconscious* which is nowadays sometimes a more used concept, although the two are not identical in content and meaning. The Social Unconscious appears under separate article in this dictionary.

  • (Items with separate text elsewhere in the dictionary are marked by * here). 3


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17. Hopper, E., (2001) The Social Unconscious: Theoretical Considerations. Group Analysis. Vol. 34(1) pp. 9 – 27.

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