What is happening to ‘Boundaries’, ‘Authority’ and ‘Containment’?

David Armstrong, in his 2012 Eric Miller Annual Memorial Lecture entitled ‘Terms of Engagement: Looking Backwards and Forwards at the Tavistock Enterprise‘, spoke about what seemed to him most disturbing and challenging within the wider social field in which all our engagements are currently framed:

Might this perhaps be the 21st century’s version of ‘spiritual drift ‘, now leading communities into forms of dissociation, a withdrawal of social bonds, no less destructive of human capacities, in which an  unconsciously sensed psychological disinheritance (denial of the deeper human roots of well being) is dealt with through projection into others, third world operatives, young rioters, benefit claimants, the casualties of institutional and societal ‘defensiveness’?

David was speaking of the effects of maladaptive responses to turbulence introduced by Fred Emery in his 1967 paper: “The Next Thirty Years: concepts, methods and anticipations” i.e. superficiality, fragmentation and dissociation.  Emery argued that this maladaptation arose in response to an over-complex environment, and enabled its complexity to be down-graded.  But at what cost to us all? David’s lecture concluded with a call for new kinds of engagement to meet the particular challenge of our times, saying:

I am not convinced  that the ‘consultant lens’ is the appropriate way to frame such an engagement. For there is no way in which one can stand apart from one’s own societal dynamic; it infects oneself no less than the organisationally structured defense system, Isabel identified, infected the nurses. One needs to find and/or to make a different mode of what James Krantz refers to as ‘collaborative conversation’.

Something of the nature of this complexity can be seen in a recent comment by James Krantz concerning consulting practice:

I have been struggling with the question of boundaries in practically every arena for the last several years and, in particular, the declining relevance of the construct in light of how the world seems to be evolving.  This, in contrast to the central role the idea plays in socio-technical theory and systems psychodynamics.  I have been thinking for quite a while now about what social defenses mean in the context of networks and loosely-bounded configurations, about how we think about strategies of containment, and what it all means for authority relations.

The current problematic state of the concepts of Boundary, Authority and Containment refers back to David’s summary of the Tavistock legacy from the 50’s: “Bion’s explorations of group mentality, Eric Trist’s socio-technical breakthrough, Fred Emery’s introduction of open system theory, Ken Rice’s development of the concept of primary task, and Elliott Jaques’ and Isabel Menzies’account of social systems as a defense against anxiety“.

So what is happening to these concepts?  What follows is a brief summary of the challenges facing each concept and links to related material.

Boundary and primary task

When dealing with complex systems, what constitutes the scope of a system (i.e. what components are included in its description) depends on the properties of interest to the observer.  The way these properties are understood by the observer then depends on the resolution with which the system’s components are described (i.e. how finely distinguished they are from each other), and on the way the states of the system can be distinguished (i.e. how alternative configurations of the relationships between components can be distinguished from each other at a given resolution).   Emergence of properties at some level of scope, resolution and state of a system has no necessary relation to the one or more  accountability hierarchies superimposed on the behavior of that system’s components (see Alex Ryan’s paper – Emergence is coupled to scope, not level). ‘Boundary’ is therefore derived from primary task, it being derived form the observer’s definition of properties-of-interest.

When we speak of ‘ownership’ we do not start from properties-of-interest, but from a definition of boundary of a system defined by those system components over which an accountability hierarchy has direct control under all circumstances.  We can usefully distinguish this direct control within a boundary from contractual control within a perimeter.  This perimeter will include systems ‘outside’ the boundaries of direct control, over which control can only be exercised under particular contingent circumstances. Both forms of control, however, are exercised by a socio-technical system i.e. a social system that has been given the authority to exercise them over particular system components.

So what is ‘a problem with boundaries’?  It is a problem with the relationship between the way ‘ownership’ and ‘properties-of-interest’ are defined, there being no necessary relationship between them.

Authority and open systems

The behaviour of an ‘open system’ depends on the properties of systems ‘outside’ its boundary as defined by its accountability hierarchy. Extending its control to a perimeter through the use of contract may enable the hierarchy to limit the effects on its behaviors arising from its openness. The definitions of ‘boundary’ and ‘perimeter’ are made with respect to an accountability hierarchy that has sovereignty not only over its owned and contracted system components, but also over the social system that exercises control over these components.  For this sovereignty to be effective, the  social system must conform to the hierarchy’s definition of primary task, evidenced by a system-of-meaning qua discursive practice1 that authorises those behaviours consistent with that definition.  This social system encounters an ‘edge’ when it encounters a system-of-meaning other to its own (i.e. in some sense alien), but with which it must work. Such ‘edges’ have the potential to require of the accountability hierarchy that it surrender some aspects of its sovereignty.Authority, then, is an effect of a relationship of obedience to that particular form of ‘thirdness’ constituted by the discursive practice which is anticipated to be performative from the perspective of the hierarchy.  It contrasts to the authority emerging from the demands of a particular situation that may require quite different properties to those anticipated by the hierarchy.

So what does this mean for authority relations?  It means that there are always two bases of authority – one rooted in the received ‘discursive practice’, the other in the nature of the properties demanded by the immediate situation.3 To the extent that there is a relationship between them, it is because of the way the individual holds them in relation to each other.4

Containment and group mentality

Bion understood the container-contained relation to be the means by which fears associated with beta-elements could be modified. Internalised as alpha-function, this container-contained relation manifested the ‘K-link’. Thus to ‘contain’ the other was to return meaning to the other for what the other experienced as ‘bizarre’, or anxiety-inducing.  This container-contained relation enabled unconscious processes to be given meaning in consciousness through a work of transformation, but it took place within the context of a ‘vertex’ – a way of organising meaning.5  And to the extent that this work of transformation did not take place amongst the members of a group, enabling the group to engage in a ‘work-group mentality’, the group became captive to ‘basic assumption mentality’. 

So how are we to think about strategies for containment?  The basis of the difference between the basic-assumption and work-group modes of functioning lies in the group’s relation to reality both in the sense of what-is-going-on (wigo), and also in the sense of an experienced psychic reality.  But Bion’s arbiter between different vertices organising meaning was a truth function operating within the individual.6   What if we accept the dilemmas inherent in the definition of system and authority, and assume that they must apply also to the consultant. As David points out above, what if the consultant cannot escape being implicated in the way these dilemmas are held?  We must assume that there is no necessary reason why the vertices within which consultant, client and others organise truth can be brought into alignment.  And to the extent that they can, we must address explicitly the interests being served in so doing.

Implications for engagement and social defenses against anxiety

It is this question of ‘in whose interests’ that brings us back to David’s challenge concerning the way we engage with the complexity around us.  We are situated within a socio-technical ecosystem, with the strategy of containment offered by any one sovereign entity within that ecosystem being at best partial.  Strategies of containment depend on the way a particular sovereign entity contains the individual.  So in understanding its organisation as a defense against anxiety for an individual taking up a role in its life, we are privileging its particular vertex qua way of organising meaning for that individual. But within an ecosystem, that entity is also taking up a role in the lives of others in its environment, putting its vertex into question. No surprise, therefore that those whose identities are being supported by the particular entity should prefer to reduce the complexity in its environment to fit their interests, rather than to accept the challenges which that environment presents to their own identifications.  Thus ‘social defense thinking’ allows us to think about the way a particular individual’s identity is supported by an existing organisation of meaning, but not to think about the relationship of that identity to those of other organisations of meaning within the larger ecosystem.7 Thus while ‘social defense thinking’ may enable us to consider how new possibilities may be emerging for how identities may be supported by “new images of social organization, with different rules, grammars, rituals, and practices reshaping the projective landscape of organizations”8, it does not tell us how the processes of identification may themselves be being changed through changing ‘terms of engagement’.

So how are we to think about the implications for engagement?  For Freud, the alignment of ideal and vertex was a secondary identification built on the foundational identifications of primary process.  But Freud added a third identification that was an identification to a symptom “based upon the possibility or desire of putting oneself in the same situation [as another]”.9 This third identification offers a way out of the individual’s dependence on a sovereign enclave of ideals in considering their relation to the ‘other’ – a relation that may or may not be transformative if pursued, depending on how that ‘otherness’ is worked with. This way out moves the individual from trying to ‘do what’s right’ for the other to at least ‘doing no harm’ to the other’s environment, and beyond that to the possibility of creating value in the other’s environment, some part of which can benefit the organisation – from a one-sided working under sovereign norms to a multi-sided problematising of the role of sovereignty itself in the lives of others. The terms of engagement that this third identification implies are those of continuous innovation in relation to that which is particularly valued by the other – a privileging of an ethic of engagement with the ‘otherness’ of the other and of the forms of organisation that support this.10

[1] ‘Discursive Practice’ is a reference to Foucault’s understanding of the relationship between Power and Knowledge, in which the power arises from obedience to particular forms of knowledge. A discursive practice is defined by the relationships between four things:

  • The objects about which it speaks
  • The concepts through which it thinks about and operates on its objects
  • The ‘enunciative modalities‘ in which speaking is recognised as being authoritative, and
  • The unifying ‘strategies‘ or ‘themes‘ through which the discursive practice is kept ‘whole’ (described by Kuhn in terms of what renders science ‘normal’.)

The relationship of this discursive practice to any given speech act is therefore one of ‘thirdness’, ‘thirdness’ being a way of understanding how a speech act is itself rendered performative.
[2] This distinction between boundary-perimeter-edge is therefore relative to a sovereign accountability hierarchy.
[3] This is the distinction between the two meanings of ‘auctoritas’ in by what authority are we to follow – authority by recognition of ownership, and by recognition of origination.
[4] This is the tension between mission and ethics – what is owed to the accountability hierarchy versus what is owed to the situation.
[5] Bion placed the contact barrier between the unconscious (aka the pre-conscious/protomental) and the conscious, with the container-contained alpha-functioning progressively transforming the relation to the unconscious (See Bion’s Learning from Experience p17ff). This understanding of the contact-barrier differed from Freud’s, for whom the neuronal contact barriers distributed quantities of affect generated by experiencing (whether endogenous or exogenous) through a process of complexification with their entangled qualities.  The distinction Freud made in his Project was between the pre-conscious and the radically unconscious, and was between the complexification of thing-presentation in the -complex and word-presentation in the -system. It is this more complex reading of the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious that is taken up by Lacan. For more on this, see Bion, Lacan and the thing-in-itself
[6] I draw here on the paper by French and Simpson in Human Relations on The ‘work group’: Redressing the balance in Bion’s Experiences in Groups; and on Grotstein’s A Beam of Intense Darkness in speaking of the importance of the quest for truth in Bion.
[7] One way of understanding power therefore (in the sense of power corrupting) is this ability to defer and/or repress consideration of other organisations of meaning, in which demands from the environment are assumed to be organised in a way that is symmetric to its own organisation (for example, see asymmetric demand on this).
[8] I quote from James Krantz writing about Social Defenses and 21st Century Organizations, in which he speaks about how “the wellsprings of psychotic anxiety in organizations are being intensified by the rapid breakdown of containing structures in both the social and organizational worlds”.
[9] I enlarge on this in Freud’s third identification and in distinguishing the Kleinian object and the Lacanian symptom.
[10] Some of the practices that flow from this within ecosystems are ‘asymmetric leadership’, the pursuit of ‘multi-sided demands’, ‘edge-driven’ ways of working, and ‘triple-loop’ learning processes.  Some of the evidence for their emergence is to be found in “The Twitter Revolution: how the internet has changed us“.

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