Working in and with groups: Cultural references

Maria Giovanna Garuti  Milano, Italia


  • This article explores the following factors and lines of thought:
  • From the classification of groups to the notion of system.
  • System as a psychical, political, and spiritual place.
  • The concept of boundaries and of play with boundaries.
  • The concept of primary task in the instituted and instituting system.
  • The idea of multiple plurality: the plural nature of the individual, the plural dimension of meeting or encounter, and systems as plural units.
  • The ethnographic and anthropological dimension of systems: myths, symbols,   metaphors, and language.


  • Nella comunicazione sono sviluppati i seguenti fattori:
  • Dalla classificazione dei gruppi alla nozione di sistema.
  • I sistemi come luogo psichico, politico e spirituale.
  • Il concetto di confini e di gioco con i confini.
  • Il concetto di obiettivo primario: sistema istituito e sistema istituente.
  • L'idea di pluralità, l'incontro come dimensione plurale, sistema come unità plurale.
  • Sistema come dimensione etnografica e antroplogica: miti, simboli, metafore e linguaggi.


  • Cette communication aborde les facteurs suivants:
  • De la classification des groupes à la notion de système.
  • Systèmes vus comme lieu psychique, politique et spirituel.
  • Le concept de limites et de jeu avec les limites.
  • Le concept d'objectif primaire.
  • Le système institué et système instituant.
  • L'idée de pluralité multiple.
  • L'individu vu comme pluralité, la rencontre vue comme dimension plurielle.
  • Le système comme unité plurielle.
  • Le système comme dimension ethnographique et anthropologique: mythes, symboles, métaphores et langages.


  • In dem Bericht werden folgende Faktoren behandelt:
  • Von der Klassifizierung der Gruppen bis zur Notion von Systemen.
  • Das System als psychischer, politischer und geistiger Ort.
  • Die Begriffe der Grenzen und des Spiels mit den Grenzen.
  • Der Begriff des Hauptziels.
  • Das eingeführte und das einführende System.
  • Die Idee der vielfachen Pluralität.
  • Individuum als Pluralität.
  • Die Begegnung als plurale Dimension.
  • Das System also plurale Einheit.
  • Das System als ethnographische und anthropologische Dimension: Mythen, Symbole, Metaphoren und Sprachen.

The notion of group relates directly to the concept of system that has been outlined in contributions from various disciplines.  Moreover, reference to the definition of a system makes it possible to meld descriptive requirements with the need for transversal reflection, taking up such specific characteristics and intrinsic connotations as psychological-cognitive and operative place-field (Lewin, 1951) and mutual interaction among the parts of a system.

Working with and within systems thus means observing, recognizing, interpreting, and helping to give meaning to processes and events that belong to a specific space-time, focusing on the following elements:

First of all, a place is defined by a boundary and a perception of that boundary.  These two factors make it possible to assign location to individuals and to their interactions.  The determination of boundaries enables us to locate ourselves and others as observers and participants, to define the place from which we are speaking and the direction towards which our speech is directed.

In this sense, boundary is a geographic, political, and psychic concept that creates separation while at the same time making transferal from one place to another possible.  It is a positioning of individual and collective identity and of that identity's potential for transformations and transactions.

Mentally and experientially, working with the dimension of boundary means moving from a view of border to one of opportunity.  The perspective shifts from that of immigration officer to that of "coyote."  This shift, in turn, requires a change in individual and collective imagination and the myths on which it is based.

The immigration officer checks data that are set and certain, demanding passports and issuing labels or qualities for the visitor, who remains a tourist.  The coyote is a guide who aids in transit, helping to overcome barriers that are not insurmountable.  Ulysses can travel to the ends of the earth; he is a nomad, a citizen of the world, not one who has been uprooted.

Setting borders, moreover, holds basic anxieties in check, thus allowing the establishment of identity or multiple identities.  Without limits (without skin, for example), there can be no sense of Self and hence no recognition of the Other.

Borders define location, make it possible to navigate in space and in time, and assure an element of elaboration and growth.  Growth is precisely what requires "expansion," the overcoming of limits to reach other spaces and locations.

Growth takes place through an inner journey.  It allows for pausing and starting out again, for abandonments and homecomings, as in the case of Ulysses.  Experience in groups, in the "here and now" of reflective and analytic work, means precisely this: staying in one place and traveling "inside"--within the Self through relations with the Other.

Becoming a group--organizing--thus means defining and institutionalizing borders, that is, collective representations of Selfness and Otherness, establishing the rules of closeness, distance, proximity, and conflict.  The psychological border and the political border are thus closely intertwined.  The former supports and completes the latter.

Western history, both in thought and action, is shaped by two ways of experiencing the border; both ways run through that history.  One is based on the idea or the myth of privation, while the other rests on the myth of plenty, of endowment, and of conviviality.  In the first instance, need is the foundation of a cohabitation rooted in the dearth of goods and in the necessity for checking intraspecies violence and aggressiveness.  In the second case, cohabitation is founded on love, raising children, attraction towards the other, and the desire for recognition through the exchange of gifts (Mauss, 1950).

Obviously, the first type of representation of the social bond gives rise to constraints or protective barriers erected against one another.  Tolerance is the preferred aspect of living together, as it determines spaces that are not to be invaded.  The State as political entity becomes the guarantor of these checks, as described in Hobbes' Leviathan.

A social bond of the second type is less dependent on laws outside the collectivity.  The community is able to regulate itself and to establish bonds of affiliation that turn tolerance into compassion, fondness, and empathy.  Instances of community, nation, and State do not coincide.  Rather, they come together more loosely in a variety of reciprocal referrals and differentiated functions.

In the first outlook, the individual psychic system is a total ego, egocentric, armored, aggressive, and reactive.  In the second context, the ego is plural, helpful, hopeful, and constructive.  Interpreting self and the world in an Aristotelian or a Hobbesian sense means building and enacting fundamentally different systems of belonging, based on defense and guilt, rather than on openness and uncertainty.

Setting a boundary also means determining and acknowledging a primary task or primary objective as an instituting element of the institution system, in terms of which one reconsiders and reorganizes multiple, individual instances and objectives.  The primary task defines the vital space of the system, serves as a container of pluralities, and is the primary convention enabling the actors to co-exist in order to undertake a personal journey towards an encounter with the Other in its multiple meanings.  In metaphorical terms, this is a passage from desideration to consideration.

A look at the Latin etymology of the two words reveals that desire is condemned to frustration or, worse, to envy, precisely because it is projected around the stars (de sidera), that is, onto the impossible or unreachable.  Considering (cum sidera), on the other hand, means dwelling with the stars, regaining one's own points of reference in the territory of the possible and uncertain encounter with the Other (Fusini, 1995).

Clearly, among other things, this entails the forsaking of infinity in order to reposition oneself among the finite and its possibilities.

Reflection on the significance of boundary, as a border and as a frontier, and of its possible articulations is of special relevance at this end-of-the-millenium, precisely because all the clear dividing lines (from those of States to those of ideologies) have been breached.  The situation that presents itself is a stew of chaotic and contradictory passions.  A great open space of uncertainty lies before us, yet it offers vast transformative and generative opportunities as well.  In part, these are available through "group work," where new frontiers are to be found, new encampments and new collectives can be founded, and a new space and a new time can be inaugurated.

Achieving a systemic vision means dwelling in plurality.  The system is plus by definition, even when it refers to the system of the individual.  In Latin, plus denotes precisely the idea of plural, that which is "beyond one."  In this fashion, the collective meanings of individual action can be traced.  In the system's game of mirrors, each of us gains a sense of Others and of the whole.  Each speaks for herself, but also represents something in someone's name, regardless of whether this representation is conscious or not.

Each speaks from his own locus and in his own logos also expresses, and at the same time constructs, the loci, the logoi, and the emotions of the institutions to which he belongs.  Social bonds can always be read as language games in which each player, according to rules, makes moves that in turn keep up and transform the game itself (Lyotard, 1979).  As Wittgenstein pointed out, it is not given to us to be outside of language.  Each of us is thus part of her own personal "language," but also of a family language, an institutional language, an ethnic language, and a religious language--each of these arising from the multiple memberships that she bears and transforms in her encounters.

In this perspective, each is also in the system as a plural individual who encounters plural Others, thus giving rise to a new plural unit.

Language and the narrations that are told by means of it are fundamental elements in the anthropological environment that connotes every system and constitutes the environment in which language participates.  Every system has and creates its founding myths.  In every system, stories are narrated and handed down.  Briefly put, every system is a metaphor or a series of metaphors, each chasing after the next.

The life of a system is structured around intellectual, technical, and social events that can reorganize closeness and distance in one space or another.  Interpersonal spaces grow, shrink, and change, shifting the intensity of affection and involving new images of sensing and consenting in one's own evolutionary process.  The anthropological space of a system is thus material and virtual.  It is the space of meanings (Popper, 1972).

The group, groups in general, and institutions are mental representations linked by systems of communication.  Working in groups and with groups in an anthropological-linguistic perspective means fostering recognition of the meanings of the social structure and of the power of each member as a node in that system.  It also means playing host to the emergence of moves designed to throw the system off balance, out of position, or onto new ground.



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iii 2016
v 1999