Locating unconscious "societal-collective" processes in psycho-social research

Hollway, Wendy (2013). Locating unconscious "societal-collective" processes in psycho-social research. Organisational and Social Dynamics, 13(1) pp. 22–40.


There have been many usages of the concept of unconscious in tandem with an entity larger than the individual: group, cultural, social, collective – to name the most familiar. All in different ways have been subject to criticism, yet perhaps there remains some sort of pressing need for a conceptualisation of unconscious processes that are meta-individual. The binary thinking that has characterised social science afflicts these debates. A similar dilemma affects psycho-social research, which draws on a psychoanalytic epistemology (dialogue of unconsciouses, transference-countertransference, unthought known, learning from experience, thoughts without a thinker) but is commonly deemed thereby to reduce its level of explanation to the individual and interpersonal. From the other (social) side of the binary, more recent accounts of societal or community-level affect flows appear to omit the workings and agency of minds in the circulation of (unconscious) resonances.

In this data analysis, I use the concepts of ‘scenic’ (‘a concrete interaction and the subjective scenic experience it both constitutes and is constituted by’ Bereswill 2010: 238), and ‘scenic understanding’ (‘a process by which researchers reflected on their affective and embodied of their data’ Redman et al 2010: 217) deriving from Alfred Lorenzer, German cultural analyst and psychoanalyst. He suggested that it was possible, through scenic understanding, to access a form of unsymbolised socio-cultural knowledge, a kind of societal-collective unconscious.

In this paper, the selected data extract is derived from psychoanalytic observation notes, generated as part of a funded psycho-social research project. Through this, and the reflections it provoked in Lynn Froggett and myself (Hollway and Froggett 2012), I explore ‘unthought known’ material emerging into symbolisation, generated by a friend of the participant visiting the home where the weekly observation takes place (recorded in observation notes). It shows societal issues of contemporary importance (racial, generational, class-based) manifesting in relational processes during the research encounter, when methods are adequate for noticing and reflecting on these. I ask is the idea of socio-cultural unconscious knowing useful in making sense of what is happening on the actual occasion represented in the data extract? How does this concept help psycho-social research to conceptualise the learning achieved through noticing and reflecting on researchers’ emotional responses?

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