The Association for Qualitative Research
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Object Relations

Ailean Mills makes the link between group dynamics theory, the unconscious and a World War I tank commander.

Qualitative researchers need to understand the unconscious. Quantitative researchers don’t do it, but an increasing number of social anthropologists, behavioural scientists and clinical psychologists do and are being employed to look at unconscious drivers for clients’ packaging, promotion and advertising — without even using groups to come up with their findings.

This issue revisits the unconscious, looking at Wilfrid Bion — a pioneer of group dynamic theory — and at how the study of groups can provide exceptionally fertile ground for getting under the surface of consumer communication. Since 1948 these theories have been employed extensively for management training, authority and leadership studies but their core understanding, on how being in a group makes us individuals behave, has perhaps been overlooked in its application to consumer psychology and market research.

Group-related topics

First, I’d like to introduce some group-related topics. Do any chime with your experiences?

High energy groups

There is a belief that those groups where people laugh and talk the whole time are best — but beware, because they may not be what they seem. We could be seduced into producing such groups by clients who slot the best clips into board presentations. How are we to know whether it’s our moderating skills that are at work, or if we are dealing with a group that is in defence mode, only appearing to engage with the subject matter?

The silent group

Much feared by young moderators but maybe they shouldn’t be so worried. We are probably all a little scared of the reflective pauses and delays that can emerge when respondents are summoning up material that’s difficult to articulate or sensitive to admit. How do we know when to wait and when to interrupt?

Reluctant respondents

Respondents are willing to turn up, but the recruitment industry is not encouraged to pursue those who are less keen, perhaps those uncomfortable with what group dynamics can mean. Result? You could be left with a group that tends to be less reality-focused than you may wish — plus a concern about representation of those consumers for whom focus group attendance would never be welcome.

Tyranny of the discussion guide

Probably not enough attention is paid to constructing questions and probes which are emotional as opposed to rational, when we should be thinking of both when we construct a guide. Respondents’ spontaneous fantasies about the brand and the company are likely to become obstructive to the group ‘flow’ if repressed. Do you feel you know enough to professionally counter a client’s tendency to insist on a ‘questionnaire’ style guide?

Groups are unique

A group is not just a collection of ‘egos’, in itself it creates its own behavioural and attitudinal ‘persona’. And don’t be deluded by these respondents confidently marching in to the viewing facility. Belonging to a group, be it for an hour or a lifetime, is one of the most important and complicated behaviours individuals ever perform. One reason for the runaway success of social networking groups is that they give you a sense of belonging but none of the visceral anxiety of existing cheek by jowl.

Group belonging is a way of fulfilling an ego ideal — the sense of oneself at one’s future best. Group affiliation also creates an acute anxiety of rejection and can prompt a regressive group action and a withdrawal. The current vogue for ‘process’ and ‘task’ focuses on the behavioural and rational aspects of group life, and assumes that group members are both aware of their thoughts and willing to share them. The psychoanalytic perspective shows that this definition of ‘process’ barely skims the surface. A systematic understanding of the forces that supplant the conscious processes in group functioning is required — collective projections of unconscious fantasies in which deep roles are taken by members.

The juggling act — to strike a balance between needs for independence and for belonging — is taking up a great deal of our respondents’ energies as they struggle to respond to our demands for personal revelation on brand and category, packaging or advertising.


Conventional wisdom says that groups should take 1.5/2 hours. Yet 90 minutes may just not be enough for ‘real work’ to be done — indeed it may be just enough time to avoid it. Look at the Continent, where in France groups can last up to six hours.

How are you feeling at the end of a group?

Well, it’s nice to be asked, but, actually this is a professional question. Sometimes, even though everything’s gone well, do you find that you just don’t feel good and learnt little from the evening? It just could be that the group was ‘inauthentic’ and playing a role rather than dealing with the issues you needed to address. And you are now baring the brunt of the collective feelings.


This is about wrestling with our own relationship with the unconscious. Comfortable, in the main, with the use of projective techniques, qualitative researchers may be less happy with other aspects of depth psychology.

They may also be uncomfortable with the psychoanalytic ‘truth’ that the group is being played out in the moderator him/herself, not in what the group members are saying. It is the moderator’s minute-byminute feelings, their transference, the group members’ projections on to them (not the techniques and projective brand games that we use to distance ourselves) that will reveal the material content of the consumer’s relationship with the category and the brand.

And so, in charges Wilfrid Bion, a World War I tank commander and a psychoanalytically trained WWII advisor, much acclaimed for his ability to cut desertion and distress in the forces. What has he got to do with the battlefield that is Leeds on a wet Tuesday evening in 2008? Well, he moderated groups and came up with ‘basic ‘as if’ assumption’ thinking.

Think of the typical Irish wake — they’re acting as if they have something to celebrate, but someone’s just died. What’s going on? Or the focus group of pet food owners who never mention excreta when talking about dog food, as if this does not have any bearing on category or brand choice. Or the young focus group on vodka which acts as if they are in perpetual party mode, creatively avoiding the deeper reasons for the need for alcohol.

Bion would describe such groups as being in ‘basic assumption’ modes — in flight from reality. While this may be culturally sanctioned, in the case of the Irish wake, or socially endorsed, in the case of the pet food group, both situations would confound and frustrate a researcher trying to gain depth insight on feelings in either situation.

Groups handle emotional situations ‘as if’ something else is going on. Moderators need to gain an understanding of both the ‘as if’ and the reality. And this is not easy. The group is hypnotically seductive.

A group psychoanalytical perspective

More of the theory later but Bion, the psychoanalytically trained group moderator, might answer some of the questions posed this way:

He’d offer a reminder of unconscious processes and our need to gain more understanding (any hope of mastery would be hubris). Building ‘depth’ thinking in to the initial proposal may be one way forward. Working out separations between rational/emotional questions and techniques with which to analyse the gaps between claimed and actual behaviour may be another. We need to offer clients some guidance as to when and why we accept/reject consumer comment.

He’d provide a perspective about what is invested in us as moderator-leader within a group setting by respondents and the weight carried by the role. The pressure to “keep everyone talking and involved” can lead to a role that is less than optimal — father/mother/ best friend/child, that takes the group further away, rather than nearer, to any state of reality-testing — however good it may look from behind the screen.

He might suggest the idea that if we are to have viewing facilities then we should use them to our analytic advantage. As in systemic family therapy, we can use a second ‘moderator’ behind the screen and outside the cut and thrust of interviewing, who can objectively look at what the ‘group’ is about and what it may or may not be avoiding. And he might recommend moderator training to develop professional detachment and interpretive skills — how to stand back.

And perhaps he’d offer the thought that when the moderators use ‘splitting’ polarising language (“tell me what is positive and what is negative”, “can you help me separate x from y”, etc.) he/she, rather than gaining insight, might be aiding a flight from reality in the respondents and hindering their ability to access deeper less conscious material on the subject of the study.

He might offer a reflection on recruitment and group structure. There is now a widely accepted assumption that the fantasy of the group-as-mother is strongest when members first join or create the group. When faced with unfamiliar settings and people, group members’ behaviours towards each other tend to be driven by transference. Individuals must make some assumptions about who the others are. This extends to how the group will function and what role the leader will play — and the only source of information which they have is past experience.

Impact of the unconscious

The one thread running all through these topics is the impact of the unconscious. Indeed, academics now believe that up to 95% of decision-making, human action and reaction emanate from it. Qualitative research differentiates itself from quantitative research largely by its promise to understand ‘depth’ material. Its very antecedents are a direct line from Sigmund Freud through to Ernest Dichter, with the Tavistock Clinic, the high altar of psychoanalytical thinking, undertaking focus groups for commercial clients (Unilever among them) in the 1950s.

It may seem commonplace to us that products act as a symbol of self-actualization and self-fulfilment, but we should remember that qualitative research’s central authority rests with the ‘understanding’ of the unconscious.

The era when qualitative fought for recognition and understanding beside quantitative research seems to be over, the time for qualitative research to sharpen, explain and develop its practice is here.

Bion laid out the considerable challenges for any moderator in setting up a ‘work group’. And if, as is most likely, you have a ‘basic assumption’ group, it is probably better to understand what that assumption is and how you can understand the dynamics behind it, and the results that may ensue.

In some ways, it is ‘easy’ to take a focus group. Hardly surprising, then, that there are many examples of clients attempting it themselves. The obedience, absence of real conflict and affability of the majority of focus groups are often not remarked upon.

‘Easy groups’ may give relief to the junior researcher and become an accepted convention for the senior researcher. But they can lead to complacency and an industry whose key demonstrable skill is replicable by clients and management consultants alike.

The ‘good group’ is not talkative, obedient, conflictridden, or difficult. It is a group whose moderator can properly stand back with the skills to reflect upon “what really was going on this evening.”

The three group ‘as ifs’

Bion postulates that the ‘need to belong’ produces an unconscious group attitude in which every member plays a part. The group can be for 30 minutes or three months. The overt purpose of the meeting may be therapy, file-keeping, a coaching workshop or a focus group — the phenomenon will be the same.

He suggested that groups behaved as if there was an unspoken assumption. Whenever the group is working it can behave as if a basic assumption is held in common by all the members and this will directly influence its activity.

This basic assumption could colour, influence and suffuse any rational work which the group attempted to do. In effect, when it regresses and resorts to these Kleinian processes, it is weakened in its ability to achieve a developmental contact with reality. The more it attempts to separate the good and bad, idealizing the good and attacking the bad, the more individuals are resorting to their earliest relationship with part objects.

Emotional states of groups

The next time you conduct a group, look for the three distinct emotional states that they may display and the three basic assumptions that can, as a consequence, be deduced. Check out which of the basic assumptions will be evidenced at any one time, although they can change or persist throughout the constitution of the particular group.


Dependency is when a group behaves as if “it met in order to be sustained by a leader on whom it depends for nourishment, material and spiritual, and protection” (Bion, 1968). Consequently its members behave as if they are inadequate and immature, knowing nothing and having nothing to contribute. Simultaneously, they act as if the leader is omnipotent and omniscient, and may idealize him/her as some sort of god.

Result: Such a group may ‘never know’ or draw in the moderator again and again, unable to discuss the subject independently. The moderator may feel ‘inflated’.


Pairing is when a group behaves ‘as if’ the members have met so that two people can pair off and create a new and as yet unborn leader to deliver them from their anxieties and fears. Bion, again characterized this basic assumption as a defence mechanism of the group.

Result: This prevents the group from coming into contact with reality by keeping it a closed system. Instead, it uses its energy to defend itself from its own internal fears and anxieties and consequently neither develops nor achieves any effective output. This may be highly common in marketing and research groups, where, often led by two voices, hope, optimism and planning flow, often unchallenged.

Fight or flight

Fight or flight assumes that: “the group has met to fight something or to run away from it. It is prepared to do either indifferently” (Bion, 1968). If a group is preoccupied with this basic assumption, it will ignore all other activities or, failing this, attempt to suppress or run away from them.

Result: The group is often characterized by a mild paranoia. Those convened to discuss a ‘problem’ can often be characterised by this trait, as if there is only one problem and /or one solution, and the hard work of integrating the two aspects cannot be done.

So, can Bion help us today? With increasing pressure on moderators to perform in viewing facilities demonstrably mustering ‘tangible insights’ from alert and often seasoned consumers, should we, as he suggests, face up more squarely to the reality of group dynamics and their unconscious components?

It would mean flagging up ‘working with the unconscious’ to our clients and the part that our skills and credentials play in such fine interpretation. But it could also mean that professional disengagement is seen as deserving equal merit as performance and street credibility.

Take me to your leader

Given his war background, Wilfrid Bion had the unedifying task of identifying why some soldiers would follow their leaders ‘to hell and back’ while others would ‘turn and run’. The answer was how the group operated and the projections the group held about its leader.

The Object Relations School

Bion knew a bit about groups from personal experience. A ‘half-caste’ outsider, by dint of his Anglo-Indian birth, an insider from his elitist Etonian public school education and a practising psychoanalyst of the Kleinian ‘object relations’ school, he developed, in his seminal papers published between 1943 and 1952, a complete theory of groups.

Central to Melanie Klein’s (founder of object relations) theory is the concept of projective identification and how adult behaviour can regress to infantile mechanisms. This traces a proto-mental system to a time when a baby relates to his mother and the world as ‘objects’, through the first year putting these objects together but, under stress and anxiety, tending to ‘split’ them to part object relationships that can be ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

To protect him/herself from fears, an adult resorts to infantile regressions so that a splitting of both the object and the ego can occur, together with projective identification, denial and idealisation and denigration.

Object relations theory holds particular resonance for those of us in the field of brand consumer connections who are trying to understand why a brand ‘object’ fulfils certain desires (‘needs’ are less common) for certain people at certain times. All items of status or nurture will tend to satisfy a ‘split off’ aspect of a personality.

Theory into practice

In 1948 Bion started ‘taking’ groups at the Tavistock Clinic, aiming to make what was unconscious conscious. “I take advantage of this position to establish no rules of procedure and to put forward no agenda.” (Bion 1968:77)

He observed that groups seemed intent on avoiding the work that had brought them together and wondered why. He referred to these diversions as ‘basic assumption’ activity. The casual observer may believe that the group is working smoothly, even efficiently, yet in reality the group has lost its ability to interact with the outside world, to test its ideas against the evidence and to act rationally.


Bion, W.R., (1968)
Experiences in Groups and Other Papers, Tavistock: London

Bion W.R., (1987)
Second Thoughts, Karnac, London

Klein, M., (1956/1986)
A Study of Envy and Gratitude, Juliet Mitchell (ed.), The Selected Writings of Melanie Klein, Free Press, New York

Further reading

Ashbach C./ Schermer V.L., (1987)
Object Relations, the Self, and the Group, Routledge, London

De Board S., (1978)
The Psychoanalysis of Organizations, Routledge, London

Gabriel Y., (1999)
Organizations in Depth, Sage, London

Merciai S., (1997)
Bion’s Legacy to Groups, Karnac, London

Schwarzkopf S. , (June 2005)
They do it with Mirrors: Advertising and British Cold War Consumer Politics, Contemporary British History Vol. 19 no.2 pp133-150


Ailean Mills
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2008