Today I would like to introduce the concept of The Social Unconscious.
This is a concept that unknowingly permeates the interactions whenever a group of people interact together. To better illustrate the social unconscious in action, I would share a story from a group of reservist soldiers. A group that only comes together for limited periods of time, to behave in a manner that is quite unlike their everyday lives.
What is the social unconscious?
The social unconscious is, at its essence, the common experience that is shared by a group of people. In the words of S.H. Foulkes (1964), group psychoanalyst and the founder of the Institute of Group Analysis, “It is the common shared ground which ultimately determines the meaning and significance of all events and upon which all communications and interpretations, verbal and non-verbal rest.” It consists of the everyday relationships as well as the shared anxieties, fantasies, defences, myths and memories that are shared by every member of the group. The feelings and reactions of each person is influenced by the other members of the group. While the individual may be conscious of the shared stories or history held by the group, they are largely unaware of the influences that the group has on them.
In other words, each person is influenced on how they should think, feel and act by the other members of the group, while remaining unaware that they have been influenced by the group. Hence, The Social Unconscious.
Illustration of the social unconscious
To illustrate this concept, I would like to share a story from a group of reservist soldiers. A reservist soldier is a soldier who at an earlier part of his life served for 2 years as a full-time soldier as part of a conscript army. He then leaves full-time service in the army and returned to the civilian world to become a civilian. He is largely a civilian other than the 2 weeks out of the year when he is required to refresh his military skills and serve the army or when war breaks out.
In this context, some members of this group of soldiers received news that one of their men had taken seriously ill, a stroke to be precise, and became a shadow of his formal self. That man was medically unfit to join these soldiers on their final training, a culmination of his 12 years of service and the end of service for all the soldiers in that unit.
What they remembered about their brother-in-arms was the image of a strong soldier capable of carrying heavy loads over undulating terrain on multiple back to back missions. This same man was literally struck down by a stroke and reduced to a person who needed help with activities of daily living.
His friends who knew kept it a secret. His officer who knew did not speak about it, yet neatly laid out that man’s end of service medals during the stand down ceremony, as if the man would miraculously appear to collect them. His medals were laid out, but his name was not read out, save for a footnote on the nominal roll beside his name which simply said ‘Deferred’.
Only on the final hours before the soldiers officially ended their service and permanently transitioned back to being a civilian was the truth revealed. It was almost as if only after handing everything military back to the army which signified a transition to civilian life, did the soldiers feel comfortable to ask about the guy who deferred.
Perhaps, it was the transition back to civilian world that enabled the social unconscious of military life to be broken. Where perhaps there was an emphasis was on strength, striving for one’s best, and pushing ahead despite the circumstances. Yet, these ideals which are part of the culture are now irreconcilable as there is a medical limit on how much their friend can push ahead, even if he wanted to.
As the army is trained for war, where casualties are inevitable, perhaps the social unconscious dictates that the soldiers are to push on even if some of the men are down. Where grief and mourning are reserved for the quieter times of peace after the end of a mission.
Unable to make meaning that their friend has suffered an early stroke and lost his agency, the group engaged in repression as a defence mechanism against what they cannot process, only to allow the processing of collective grief after their day or military duties are done.
Food for thought
As I conclude this story, I cannot help but notice that I have also been influenced by the social unconscious inherent within military culture. The story started off by first referring to these individuals as soldiers, then brothers in arms, and finally friends. Perhaps like the group described in the story, this too represents a parallel process of transition from military personnel to civilian.
While this story is unique to this group of people, I wonder if it can spark us on a journey to contemplate on what might be in the social unconscious of our lives.
Questions such as-
What would our social unconscious look like?
How are we influenced by our social unconscious?