Friday, July 6, 2007

Groupwork and Community Building



The Group as an Energy Field, a Field of Interaction

Every group is electric. Every group is a field of energy, even if the energy is weak. So-called 'empty space' is never empty! It is actually filled with feelings and perceptions! - with suspicion and expectations. What is the energy like in a given group? What is the nature of the psychic space between and among a given group? Reserved, curious, adventurous? Any group, of whatever kind, size or variety, has both tone and voltage. It has a tone: it is, by virtue of its interactions, aggressive, mild, accepting, exclusive, freely moving, rigid and constricting, boring, adventurous, playful, fearful, warm, curious, etc., etc. Whatever the atmosphere is, that's the nature, the feeling-tone of the group's energy. Some groups, as alluded to above, are static-y, dissonant, untogether, members out-to-lunch. Other groups have a high degree of interaction, coherence, resonance. Groups have a voltage level: some very weak, others high voltage due to powerful resistances and/or direction flow. What creates the charge, what dampens the flow, what excites the current?

Group energy dynamics are often much more interesting than a given problem being addressed! Any group, like any live being, has a tone quality and an electric charge, weak or strong. The average energy field functioning of many if not most groups is like a 'scrambling effect' rather than a reinforcing effect as the groups struggle to solve their conundrums. This is part of what could be called the group 'beta-field' in which personalities and styles typically clash and collide. Playful/happy/productive aspects are often called group synergy. Such a group energy is in the direction of the group 'alpha-field' of mutual reinforcement and alignment and fertile harmony. In any case, a group's atmosphere is crucial to its success in whatever it undertakes. A group can become dysfunctional, can meander aimlessly, and explore excitedly, can have a direction, can be seized with a mission. There is always a guiding tone in a group whether created by default, an official mandate, a leader, a conflict, an engaging interest, and/or an immanent or transcendent principle (e .g., the mission of environmental or social justice).

Some Common Types of Groups ("forms of sociation"):

irrelevancy (side by side but complete separation, no connectivity, parallel but no contact)
mere collection or mere spatial or geographic proximity
simple affiliation (simply being a member of a class or group)
chaos + and chaos -
domination by a powerful person or in-group
hierarchical or bureaucratic organization (often with hidden sub-cultures)
a sports team
Amerind or tribal ceremonial circles
true community and solidarity

The Possibility of a Learning Community

The essence, task and challenge of a class in a classroom in a traditional course, with authority located in the teacher and the text (representing the subject or discipline) is to convert that scene and setting into a truly voluntary and energetic learning association. Having a common objective guarantees nothing. Individual competition is the norm in our society. Sometimes the attainment of real teamwork is the highest achievement of a group. Sometimes genuine community. Usually a host of conflicting demands preclude this, but it can happen in an atmosphere of trust, respect and openness. Sometimes the catalyst is simple sharing - sharing what is personally meaningful. Sometimes rounds of self-disclosure, particularly of one's own vulnerability or weakness, provides the essential link or bond that creates a certain unmistakable comraderie. Sometimes a series of exercises designed to develop cooperation, as a felt sensation, helps. Sometimes deliberate community-building intentions and techniques change the atmosphere from everybody-for-themselves to a group consciousness. Sometimes only conflict and crisis provide the threshold for the group to transform into something special. Sometimes the commitment to each other only arises out of shared difficulties and collisions in a prolonged effort toward a collective goal. There is no magic recipe. Sometimes it's a galvanizing event, the pressure of an outside circumstance, that forges a true community.
By far the most common way groups are held together, other than operating in some authoritative structure (like an institution or business or governmental or service agency), is that of domination. By force of personality or talent one person dominates the activity of the group and creates its agenda, with members either docile or complicit. The greatest challenge for such a group is for the members to become truly equal, self governing and fully participating.

One useful model for intensive groupwork is M. Scott Peck's four stages of community-building: (See esp. his The Different Drum Chapter V)
1. pseudo-community - the mores that obtain in an officially constituted or organized group; surface pleasantries and interactions
2. chaos - the struggle for power and influence latent in any group
3. emptiness - the paralysis and despair of a group at the end of its tether
4. true community - a group that has gone through vulnerability to acceptance

A SHORT BIBLIOGRAPHY on group dynamics, groupwork and community:

Willard Bion, Experiences in Groups (The Tavistock Model)
Martin Buber, I and Thou
Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power
*Jack Gibb, Trust (A New Vision of Human Relationships...)
*Robert Grudin, On Dialogue
**William Isaacs, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together
R. D. Laing, Self and Others
Harrison Owen, Spirit: Transformation and Development in Organizations
and his Open Space Technology
Parker Palmer, The Company of Strangers
**M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum (Community Making and Peace)
and his, A World Waiting To Be Born (Civility Rediscoverd)
Georg Simmel, Sociology [Kurt Wolff, editor]
Jean Vanier, Community and Growth