By Yael Doron

The Social Unconscious

First posted 16/3/2017

The concept of the ‘unconscious‘ constitutes one of the cornerstones of psychoanalytic theory. According to the Language of Psychoanalysis by Laplanche and Pontalis (2011: 381): “If one wished to summarize the Freudian discovery in one word, it would undoubtedly be that of the unconscious”. Although Foulkes (1948), the founder of Group Analysis, was a Freudian psychoanalyst, he introduced the concept of the Social Unconscious in order to stress the importance of sociality and socialization in the life of persons and groups. In the context of field theory (Lewin, 1951), the social unconscious came to include notions of relationality, transpersonality, transgenerationality, and collectivity (Hopper & Weinberg, 2015). Moreover, as Foulkes shifted from the “collective mind” to the “foundation matrix” and the “dynamic matrix”, the theory of group analysis began to function as a bridge between sociology and contemporary psychoanalysis (Hopper, 2009), and the conceptualization of the social unconscious became central to the basic theory of group analysis (Hopper, 2011).

Historically the theory and concept of the social unconscious can be traced to the work of Marx, Weber and Durkheim, as well as to many other sociologists and social psychologists in Europe and the United States. The Foulkesian concept of the social unconscious is both similar to and different from Jung’s concept of “collective unconscious”, Pichon-Riviere “co-unconscious” and also to Moreno’s “inter-personal unconscious” (Hopper and Weinberg, 2011). Foulkes used the concept of the social unconscious in reference both to the internalized social world of which people were unaware and to the properties of the external social world of which people were unaware. Unfortunately, he did not elaborate his conceptualization of the social unconscious, define it systematically, or explain how he used the concept in clinical work (Hopper and Weinberg, 2011; Doron, 2014).
As a sociologist and psychoanalyst as well as a group analyst, Hopper often discussed the concept in detail with Foulkes. On the basis of these discussions Hopper (1996)  eventually defined the concept of the social unconscious in terms of “… the existence and constraints of social, cultural and communicational arrangements of which people are unaware; unaware, in so far as these arrangements are not perceived (not known), and if perceived not acknowledged (denied), and if acknowledged, not taken as problematic (“given”), and if taken as problematic, not considered with an optimal degree of detachment and objectivity” (Hopper, 2001: 10).

Based on Foulkes’ writings, Dalal (1998) described two possible views regarding the social unconscious: according to the orthodox view, the social unconscious is not conscious, because it is automatic, just like walking or driving; A more radical view is that the social unconscious is part of our personal matrix, created when the social penetrates into the individual. According to this view, the social unconscious is the structure, the container, or the very ‘bones’ of the psyche.

The concept of the social unconscious has been defined as a part of the individual unconscious, located inside it, but has also been defined as a property of society itself (Hopper, 2001). Weinberg offered an intersubjective definition that positions the social unconscious in a transitional space: ‘The Social Unconscious is the co-constructed shared unconscious of members of a particular social system such as community, society, nation or culture’ (Weinberg, 2008: 150).

For various reasons, social trauma is of particular importance in the formation of the social unconscious of societies and other social systems such as organizations (Hopper, 2012). This is extremely visible in societies which we call Soldiers Matrix (Friedman, 2015). It is important to consider collective defenses against shared anxieties that have been caused by social trauma, such as secrecy and normative taciturnity (Hopper, 2003). I wish to consider another collective defense.

Weinberg (2009) emphasizes that when aiming to reveal the social unconscious of a particular social system it is especially important to consider the anxieties, fantasies, myths and collective memories, as well as chosen traumas and chosen glories (Volkan, 2001) that are typical of it.    I would like to argue that in addition to that, the contents of the Social Unconscious are composed of at least one other building block: “Mental Black Holes” (Doron, 2016).

In astronomy, a “Black Hole” is a region of space-time exhibiting such a strong gravitational pull that no particle can escape from it, not even light. Since black holes do not emit light, they cannot be observed and their existence can only be deduced from phenomena caused by their presence. In a similar way, the Mental Black Holes can’t be seen directly, but we could learn about them through their effect of distorted relationships patterns between the members of the group (Friedman, 2013). The Mental Black Holes represent materials that we reject and deny as a society, in processes that involve guilt and shame.  They raise intense, existential emotions related to annihilation, separation and death anxieties (Hopper, 2005), unconscious needs to excel, the fear of being expelled from society or being ridiculed and so on.  The attitude of Israeli government and people towards the Nakba is an example to Mental Black Holes in the Israeli Social Unconscious.


Dalal, F. (1998). Taking the Group Seriously: Towards a Post-Foulkesian Group            Analytic Theory. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Doron, Y. (2014). The Israeli social unconscious as revealed to me during the GASI International Summer School in Serbia. Group Analysis, 47: 128-141.

Doron, Y. (2016) The ‘Black Hole’ in the Social Unconscious: A Collective Defense against Shared Fears of Annihilation. In: R. Friedman and Y. Doron (Eds.) Group Analysis in the Land of Milk and Honey. London: Karnac (in press).

Foulkes, S.H. (1948). Introduction to Group Analytic Psychotherapy. London: Karnac.

Friedman, R. (2013). Overcoming shame through dreamtelling. International Journal    of Counseling and Psychotherapy, 10-11: 39-44.

Friedman, R. (2015). Soldiers matrix. Group Analysis, 48: 239-257.

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Hopper, E. (2005). Encapsulation as a Defence against the Fear of Annihilation. Appendix II. In: Traumatic Experience in the Unconscious Life of Groups: The            Fourth Basic Assumption: Incohesion: Aggregation/Massification or (ba)    I:A/M. London: Jessica Kingsley publishers Ltd.

Hopper, E. (2009). Building bridges between psychoanalysis and group analysis in theory and clinical practice. Group Analysis, 42: 406-425.

Hopper, E. (2011). Forword. In: E. Hopper, & H. Weinberg (Eds). The Social Unconscious in Persons, Groups, and Societies. Volume 1: Mainly Theory (p. xvii). London: Karnac. Laplanche, J. and Pontalis, J. B. (2011). Language of psychoanalysis. Tel Aviv: Bookworm.

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Hopper, E., & Weinberg, H. (Eds.) (2015).The Social Unconscious in Persons, Groups, and Societies. Volume 2: Mainly Foundation Matrices. London: Karnac.

Lewin, K. (1951). Field Theory in Social Science. Selected Theoretical Papers. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

Volkan, V.D. (2001). Transgenerational transmissions and chosen traumas: An aspect of large-group identity. Group Analysis, 34: 79-97.

Weinberg, H. (2008). The social unconscious. Dialogues (‘Sihot’), 22: 149-159. (In        Hebrew).

Weinberg, H. (2009). The Israeli social unconscious. Collection (‘Mikbatz’), 14: 11-28. (In Hebrew).