Working with Groups: History at Northfield & Celebrating the work of Dr. Sigmund Foulkes

Gagandeep Singh
16 min readMar 30, 2024



This is the fourth blog devoted to “working with groups” as a part of a six-blog series. Given my experience across nearly two and a half decades of group dynamics, group relations, and process consulting in the form of behavioral labs, t-groups, and change management teams, I have been exploring and tracing the genealogy of ‘working with group’ and integrating this with my professional experience.

I would begin by reiterating that a key institution in India, that has immensely impacted me on working with groups is Sumedhas Academy for Human Context. My exposure to group dynamics and membership within Sumedhas as professional worker since 1998, was instrumental for committing to and investing into another institution devoted to ‘Group Relations’ — an area of work since 2004 both in India and in other parts of the world.

The blog series maybe useful to anyone who works with groups — as a change agent or a process consultant or as a part of a behavioral lab.

Part 1

The Quiz

To evoke or provoke you into reading this blog, and its antecedents in the series — here is a short quiz for you — if you get all five correct — you may even skip the blog.

a) Tom Peters, labelled as a management guru, wrote about ‘Management by Wandering About’ in 1985, and took inspiration from _______________ ‘s technique of walking around and discussing with stakeholders within the institution. (This is shown in the picture below question c). Who was this thinker?

b) The ‘Here and Now’ approach of working with groups is mostly associated with:

1) John Rickman and Wilfred Bion — who advocated this approach in groups as opposed to the traditional psychoanalytic approach of looking at individual history.

2) Pulin Garg — who advocated this approach as it is aligned to Indian philosophy of truth where the present moment becomes more important than the past or the future.

3) Triggant Burrow — who laid emphasis of working with the analysis of ‘immediate group in the immediate moment’ where the attention was devoted to unconscious processes of transference.

4) Jacob L Moreno — who rejected the focus on the individual as well as the preoccupation with ‘talk’ rather than ‘action’

c) The building as shown in the picture below was the first and a prototype self-reflective institution that within few years (between 1942 and 1945) gave birth to two great movements in group dynamics — group relations and group therapy.

d) Wilfred Bion, who pioneered work on Group Relations was in psychoanalysis with __________ between 1938 and 1939 before initiating his ground-breaking work with group dynamics in 1942–43. (Fill in the blanks) Hint — it laid the foundation of Bion’s work with Melanie Klein)

e) This man, considered to be the father of group psychotherapy, rejected psychoanalysis for several reasons (including an over focus on the individual) and stringently believed that ‘Encounter’ was more critical than ‘Transference’ when it came to cure and therapy. His approach also removed the Doctor as the final therapeutic agent, enabling each group member to become more effective in the treatment of others.

f) Who is considered to be the father or the founder of group psychotherapy?

(The answers emerge as you read the blog )


If Hollymoor hospital was based in India, the site would have become a shrine or a temple — and it would be mandatory for every aspiring behavioral worker to make a pilgrimage to this shrine. The site is located at Tessall Lane, Northfield in Birmingham, England.

This site witnessed the birth of two different ideologies of working with groups in form of two series of experiments. And all this happened in a span of few months — whew! These experiments were titles as Northfield Experiments.

Part 2

The First Northfield Experiment: Decoding the Sphinx

The first Northfield Experiment at Hollymoor hospital took place in the period between the winter of 1942 to 1943. Wilfred Bion and John Rickman anchored the experiment to understand group processes and concepts of leadership.

Wilfred Bion and John Rickman wrote two papers, viz ‘Intragroup tensions in therapy: their study as the task of the group’, and ‘The Leaderless group project’, describing their observations of the First Northfield Experiment. Eric Trist at Tavistock Institute in London, and who gets covered in the 6th blog, pointed out that their ideas were ‘no more than the first etchings for a theory’, and that no one has so far appeared to continue the work of decoding the sphinx.

The First Northfield Experiment at Hollymoor hospital was curtailed abruptly and did not establish any impact, but it identified core principles where therapeutic focus shifted from individual treatment to enabling group members to relate and assume responsibilities of recovery within a group. This was not an easy shift for it meant moving beyond the traditional therapist/patient relationship, and where the facilitator could now only reveal the dynamics of the group rather than be directive.

Bion and Rickman endorsed the ‘here and now’ way of working in the group to resolve intra-group dynamics — the group dynamics was seen by them as a more powerful and efficient way of working for it did not require the uncovering of past journeys, emotional experiences, etc. of the individual as a part of individual therapy.

However, my research reveals that Trigant Burrow was the original thinker for ‘here and now’ work — he spoke of the need to look at ‘immediate group in the immediate moment’ across the Atlantic — and that this happened fifteen years before Rickman and Bion. But I would admit that here and now sounds a lot sexier.

The Here and Now experience allowed the individual to explore the impact of his or her behavior on the group and modify relationships and relatedness in real time. These were soldiers who had lost their confidence, their sense of mission and belonging, and who had to assume leadership, and recover to fight the war again.

Something to mull over:

As per Tom Harrison in his book ‘Bion, Rickman, Foulkes and the Northfield Experiments’, before the experiment, John Rickman had an extensive list of publications, and comparatively, Wilfred Bion had written just one paper on the ‘war of nerves’.

Bion in this paper argued that ‘psychological warfare is aimed at the infantile phantasy of the opponent — aiming to separate individuals from one another in a miasma of fear. To succeed in the psychological field of combat, aggression had to be directed outwards towards the enemy, and supportive feelings maintained amongst one’s own forces.

In this paper, he speaks of the close ties of the small group as well as the training of managing fear / anxiety while recognizing the role of ‘aims and purpose’

The First Northfield Experiment had a premature demise (it lasted for only six weeks) as the macro-environment of the hospital did not take well to the initiatives — both intellectual and action based by the group of soldiers. Critics of Bion often point out the anomaly between self-empowered working groups and the complexity of a larger system that deters this shift.

However, the First Northfield Experiment unleashed a movement, and across the globe to the notion of Group Relations — significant number of thinkers joined Bion in this respect. The idea of a basic-assumptions group (as a simultaneous unconscious group dynamic that attacks the work-group evolved — in addition to the three basic-assumption group dynamics or patterns stated by Bion, three more got added in the practice of group relations. The last one — Basic Assumption Purity and Pollution was offered by Gourango Chattopadhyay from India. Gourango has been a tremendous influence on me and many others.

Part 3

The Second Northfield Experiment

It was the second experiment — and which was anchored by Sigmund Foulkes, Tom Main, Laurence Bradbury and Harold Bridger, a group of thinkers who were only partially aware of their predecessors’ foray into group dynamics, and who brought in different tactics as well as a different ideology.

Sigmund Foulkes was initially quite the ‘enemy alien’ who came to United Kingdom in 1933 after having served with the German Army in World War I. He had a strong German accent and was not easily understood by his peers. Although he was awarded the rank of a Major, he was quite the outsider to the senior group of military psychiatrists and even resented by many.

While Rickman and Bion tended to be on the Kleinian side, Foulkes was more influenced by Freud, and interestingly by the works of Kurt Goldstein and Norbert Elias. Over the next many years, Foulkes overcame all resistance and obstacles and received admiration from all his critics.

I would like to emphasize on the influence of Goldstein and Elias — for this set of influences seeded the growth of a new way of looking at group dynamics. You can skip the next two paragraphs if you are familiar with Systems Thinking and Sociology.

Goldstein was a neurologist who integrated a Gestaltian view of phenomenology into his work on nervous systems — stating that the larger systemic context had to be examined and explored before one looks at a change in a smaller group or sub-system. The larger system — when disturbed at local level, would was to restore the original equilibrium. Thus any shift would imply working with at the holistic level and the creation of a new equilibrium. Most readers would recognize this as a part of systems thinking — where the individual is a part of the larger system, and quite analogous to the neurological cell in conjunction with others and that it cannot work on its own.

Norbert Elias on the other hand was a sociologist and was seeking a bridge between psychology and sociology theory — where laws and socialization has brought in stability but also has curtailed individual freedom — these are internalized and have impacted how aggression and fears are coped up with. Elias was resonating with Goldstein with his intent to look at the forces operating in the whole of society / community rather than examining parts in isolation.

For the Culture Vultures & Literature Snoots!

Foulkes refers to a play by Gorki — ‘The Lower Depths’ which featured a group of people without a leader to explore group dynamics. The other literary read that you may like to sample is ‘Six Characters in Search of the Author’ — a play by Pirandello. I remember the latter being talked about by my mother a lot.

Before we go back to the second Northfield Experiment, I must also highlight that Foulkes had experimented with group therapy before arriving at Northfield — he had taken a position of a therapist in Exeter and worked with 50 individuals over two years — where carefully chosen single sex groups of six to ten individuals met every week for ninety minutes. It was here Foulkes discovered that allowing individual patients to talk in a free-flowing manner allowed insights into looking at a group as single organism — and that there was a phenomena of group unconscious at work.

Back to the Northfield Experiments …

To begin with, Foulkes & Company ensured that the whole hospital including the Commanding Officer had to be a part of the enterprise. The intent remained the same — that the men had to assume responsibility for their actions rather than blaming everyone and everything.

Foulkes perhaps recognized why the first experiments under Bion and Rickman failed — he is said to have stated — “Whilst in the group we are not in the army”. While Bion had challenged the hospital culture — deeming it to be a retreat from life for recuperation and where the individual health was a priority — the hospital authorities fought back. It was a clash of cultures where Bion has neglected the military authorities.

While recognizing the large system model, Foulkes brought in interesting shifts as captured by the table below (this is based on a paper titled “How Foulkesian was Bion?” written by Robert Hinshelwood in number 32 of 1999 edition of the journal of Group Analysis):

Firstly, the new model had two group activities — (a) group therapy which becomes verbal and expression centic, and (b) morale-oriented activity group — where groups owned a series of tasks that are realistic and pragmatic.

The morale oriented activity groups were not run by psychiatrists but by instructors and the social relations were geared around realistic tasks including a social club. Harold Bridger (to whom I attribute the dual primary task group relations model), as a mathematics teacher was keen to look at a ‘social field’ when it came to realistic tasks.

My late friend Atul Sapre had always insisted on looking at the Bridger model of conferences for a more concise understanding of the clash between activity groups and verbal groups — it is indeed a pity that neither of us could gain an experience of this.

Secondly, Foulkes believed that the group therapists must invest considerable time in being aware of their feelings and its impact on the group, and was keen that the group therapists sat in each other’s groups. This was very different from Bion’s and GRC insistence of one consultant per small study group or RAAG.

Thirdly, the Goldstein emphasis on neural networks came into Foulkes group analysis, where he encouraged the process of ‘free expression’ / ‘free flowing discussions’ and sought to explore how the individual was connected to the larger matrix. This was seen as the first level of analysis in group analysis.

So I was to sum up my understanding the two Northfield Experiments — the contrasts between the Bionian approach and Foulkes approaches are quite evident in my mind, even though the two experiments shared a common idea — “explore the group as a unit of analysis’ — as covered in my first blog.

a) While Bion saw the group phenomenon as a field of forces, Foulkes saw the group as a matrix and the focus being on the individual within the matrix.

b) Bion looked at non-therapeutic dimensions of working in groups while Foulkes had a clear stance on therapeutic interests for the individual and the group.

c) Bion’s focus in the first experiments was to create a sense of belonging and self-authoring and quite akin to a military culture, Foulkes looked at self-expressive communication and a caring culture.

Foulkes, after the second experiment, went on to become a very significant thinker on group psychotherapy and one of his legacies is the method and philosophy titled ‘GROUP ANALYSIS’. I would invite you to read up on GASi or the group analytic society — an institution which has sustained and evolved his approach. (

Part 4

Tracing the Foulkesian Impact on Sumedhian Process Work

All of my six blogs have been written with an intent to understand how working in groups have been experimented with and researched in the west and how these principles and axioms have influenced the Sumedhian approach to working in groups. It is my personal bias that Sumedhas as an institution has not invested sufficient energies and research on such influences.

Pulin Garg from ISABS, was seen, by many as the ‘founding father’ of process work in India — his designs, ideas, and axioms have been incorporated into the Sumedhian approach to working with groups. I have continually maintained that Pulin’s writings — voluminous and insightful as these are, have been silent on the influences. For example, it has been a mystery to me that in my journey as a group facilitator, Dean, and Executive Director in Sumedhas, I have never heard my colleagues speak of Foulkes, nor recognize the immense work that he has pioneered in group therapy.

In October of 2017, I was invited to speak of Foulkesian influence on Process-work within Sumedhas, and the following capture the essence of my sensing. I must state that I am not a certified professional with Group Analysis but here are some thoughts that I have had over the last couple of decades:

The Question: Is Sumedhian Process work therapeutic in its intent?

The community of Sumedhas is quite fragmented on the therapeutic aspect of working in groups and this question has raised heated debates in the institutional events that I have been a part of. As opposed to therapy in groups — process-work spaces in Sumedhas are largely 1 week or 2 weeklong behavioral labs and quite often there are members who claim that any therapeutic impact is a welcome side-effect.

However, it is also a fact that many members come to choose a longer journey within Sumedhas by attending a series of labs. They talk about healing and therapy with the resolution of deeply held traumas and inner conflicts over months and years. I would raise my hand and state that the series of labs have been extremely healing for me.

The Influence of Group Analysis on the axioms of Sumedhian Process Work:

a) Group Analysis is built around the central principle that human beings are fundamentally social beings and our lives are linked and interwoven with others in complex ways. Any understanding of ‘Self’ can only be explored in a group context — especially lasting change can happen in a carefully formed and diverse group.

b) The group-as-a-whole is like a matrix or a hypothetical web of communications and relationships — and that the group matrix has two concurrent dimensions — a foundation group matrix that is created by past familiar and cultural experiences and a dynamic group matrix that keeps evolving. (The Goldstein Impact)

c) Expression or free flowing expression — of shared feelings and experiences in an intense and supportive group allows for deeper insights on patterns. The conductor or facilitator also participates in this process.

d) Individuals within the group can only see themselves through the eyes of the others and therefore working with transference and counter-transference at a group level become significant.

e) Deep lasting change can occur when the group allows for sharing of traumatic life experiences in a nurturing environment. Most Sumedhians would agree with the need to create a nurturing space — and this becomes the rife argument for those of us who are influenced by Group Relations and Bion.

f) The consultant is called the ‘Conductor’ — who has to work at four levels of group analysis or four domains.

a. At the most visible or conscious level, the conductor is like a ‘convenor’ who is responsible for building trust by containment. He or she listens, observes, and participates and help translate from ‘latent to manifest’.

b. He or she works at the second level of exploring transferences. Some of this is triggered with the processes of ‘benign mirroring’. In this process the conductor becomes the ‘therapist’ offering reflections and interpretations. Transferences are explored in multiple ways — transference to the conductor, transference to other member(s) of the group, transference to the group as a whole, and emergent complex patterns.

c. The third level of exploration is on the theme of projections and projective identification where the conductor also becomes the Group Member in addition to the other roles — offering spontaneous and direct interpretations of the unconscious elements that the group ends up embodying on the behalf of the individual.

d. The fourth level of exploration is that of deep primordial / archaic level — where the conductor has to promote group construction of metaphors and allegories that enable the group to access this level.

In my experience of Sumedhas, the first, second, and fourth level of explorations within the group have been often referred to and worked with. For example working with transference is an essential building block within Sumedhas (my paper on becoming a member within Sumedhas in 2001 was on the myriad network of transferences and counter-transferences within — though it was really badly written and worked with).

To work with the fourth level of exploration within the group — and this is extremely difficult to write about — but I sense that practitioners in Sumedhas including Raghu Ananthanarayanan, Sushanta Banerjee and V Kartikeyan have integrated yogic meditation, active dreaming, and of course social dreaming.

g) Where Sumedhians may wish to stress more on a Foulkesian principle is that the Conductor has to actively demolish the latent / unconscious transference of being the all-powerful and all-knowing parent / guru. The unconscious setting of the Sumedhian facilitator as the omniscient and omnipotent parent / guru is often defended as another Indic process of knowing and linked to the Guru Shishya approach.

While I have nothing against the Guru-Shishya tradition — it is an interesting dyadic relationship and structure — I have strong convictions that this dyadic structure is disruptive for the group.

I do feel that a significant part of Sumedhian process-work focused on reparation and forgiveness is influenced by Group Analysis and Foulkes — the role of the Conductor is significantly complex and demanding.

In my reading of Foulkes, the phrase that comes most alive is that of ‘transforming an infantile leader-centeredness to a democratic group-centeredness’ becomes key to the group.


This blog speaks of the tremendous impact of S H Foulkes on group analysis and group dynamics. It succeeds the third blog where I speak of the impact of Yalom. While it has been written in my head months ago — it took me a significant effort to complete it. There has been a resistance to write about Foulkes.

I would love to hear your thoughts and reflections.

If you have liked reading this longish blog, the fifth blog of the series is on the work of Jacob L Moreno. My philosophy of process-work is heavily influenced by Moreno’s work. I would also incorporate the work of Augustus Boal in the fifth blog.

My last blog of the series would look at the work of Eric Trist and Socio Technical Systems and its influences on Lean Thinking and Change Management.

An appeal:

As you may have guessed, I am planning to write an ‘open-source e-book’ on working with groups / group dynamics. I will make it available for a price of coffee. I am hoping that people will buy the book and the proceeds of the sale would be transferred to some of the institutions that I am a member of — Sumedhas and Group Relations India. The intent is to create cashflows that can sponsor people into these learning and therapeutic spaces offered by Sumedhas and Group Relations. Both Sumedhas and GRI are not-for-profit organizations.

What do you say to this idea?


1. Bion, Rickman, Foulkes, and the Northfield Experiments — Advancing on a Different Front by Tom Harrison

2. “How Foulkesian was Bion?” written by Robert Hinshelwood in number 32 of 1999 edition of the journal of Group Analysis



Gagandeep Singh

I work in the realm of Organization Development and focus on transformation, alignment and culture. I am doing my doctoral research on hybrid social enterprises