Authority and roles

Social Dreaming is carried out within a Matrix. Usually the chairs are arranged in a snow flake pattern reflecting a Matrix, or arranged in a way which is not the circle of chairs one is familiar with in studies of group behaviour. In this pattern one has one’s own space and can relate easily to the Matrix as a whole, but one may not be able to see everyone. People choose seats as they wish. The chairs are arranged by the Consultants before the session and efforts are made to set the chairs carefully and preserve a symmetry.

Social dreaming sessions begin with a statement of the task by a Consultant, if that is felt to be needed. The Task that we have been working to in Australia is “To share dreams, associations to the dreams, and make connections between the dreams.” A Conference, or Program, will also have a primary task, which a Consultant is likely to mention, and that the dreaming is taking place within this container. For example, at Soapy Bore our primary task was “To explore the Heart of Dreaming”, and that was the container for our dreaming, and associations, and connections.

While there are Consultants to the Matrix the Consultants main role is to set the chairs up prior to the session, state the task at the beginning,  stick to the task, keep time boundaries and concentrate on the connections between dreams within the session, or with dreams from previous sessions. The Consultants may offer associations to the dreams, but that is seen as mainly the responsibility of the members1. Consultants don’t normally share their dreams, but dreams are no respecters of roles, and sometimes the work of the Matrix may be enhanced through sharing their dreams if they seem linked to emerging themes in the Matrix.

There is an absence of hierarchy in the Matrix of the kind often found in work organisations, and in Social Dreaming Conferences there is a promotion of a model of management which is managing oneself in multiple roles. The leadership is vested in the Matrix and people take up their own authority for offering dreams, associations and connections. The authority vested in the Consultants derives from the particular tasks they have not from an organisational hierarchy.

The spirit of the Matrix is one of shared space and equality, in exploration, wonder, and a making of shared meaning. The notion of wonder is at the heart of the discipline of socio-analysis and it leads to a different form of authority from the usual hierarchical model which is rooted in anxiety, or the need to control anxiety. (See “Spirit and Community leading to Sangha”  for a fuller description.)

Peter Hetrelezis has developed a concept which helps elucidate a model of authority which seems to fit with the experience of Social Dreaming. Peter calls this “Authority for Meaning”, and he writes that “Social Dreaming is in part a vehicle for truth inherent in the connection between individual and group”. Authority for Meaning is generated through sharing dreams, associations, and connections in a group. The “authority” is social in origin, and while individuals give expression to authority for meaning, its evolution is the property of the group. If the group has a particular task, “authority for meaning” is generated within that container. In the case of the Soapy Bore Conference the primary task was “To explore the Heart of Dreaming”.

The concept points to the reciprocal, and engaging, nature of authority; authority for meaning being constantly created as individuals share dreams, associations, and connections within the context of their task.

Perhaps an image from a dream in a Social Dreaming Matrix may help to make this clearer. The image was of a jigsaw puzzle, and associations to that image included how the pieces of the jigsaw join together to make a picture, or to make a meaning, while individual pieces on their own are likely to be “meaningless”.

The analogy can be drawn with individual dreamers in a Matrix, sharing dreams, associations, and connections – together in the way they join, link etc., they are making meaning for that group, and the process is creating authority for meaning. To do this requires giving up belief in the omnipotence of one’s own bit of the puzzle, and allowing the “penetration” of other dreams, associations, and connections, as well as allowing oneself to “penetrate” in the same way, or “join” in some ways may be a better word”.

Social Dreaming in part grew out of the Tavistock Group Relations tradition with its Task of studying group behaviour2. While it is difficult to generalize it is probably true to say that the implicit model of authority that is used is reflected in Anton Obholzer’s definition (Obholzer, 1994):

“Authority refers to the right to make an ultimate decision, and in an organisation it refers to the right to make decisions which are binding on others”.

This definition with its nuances of hierarchy, linearity and control is in marked contrast with the ideas of authority mentioned above deriving from the Social Dreaming experience.

My hypothesis is that the absence or flattening of hierarchy in the Social Dreaming Matrix, the emphasis on “Authority for Meaning”, and in a Social Dreaming Conference the management of self in multiple roles, offers a different paradigm to the Group Relations model of authority, and over time may erode the hierarchy, linearity and control models.

In Australia we planned and observed early experiences of integrating Social Dreaming within Group Relations Conferences.  This occurred in 1993 and 1994.

In 1993 the Australian Institute of Social Analysis, AISA, sponsored an International Group Relations and Scientific Conference on the theme Exploring Global Social DynamicsIt was the third International Event sponsored by organizations working in the Bion - Tavistock tradition, the previous ones having been at Keble College, Oxford (1988), and Spa, Belgium (1990).

The Conference Primary Task was:

To explore, identify and interpret the global relatedness of conference   cipants using the experience of their own and others national identities and aspirations, as framed by the Bion/Tavistock tradition.’

The Conference took place at Erskine House, Lorne, Victoria, 14 – 19  August, 19933.

The possibility of exploration and experiences generated by managing oneself in multiple roles formed a major part of the thinking in the design of this third International Event and my hypothesis is that these ideas would not have been possible without the experience of social dreaming and Social Dreaming Conferences, in particular the Spa conference in Belgium in 1990.

Over one-third of the 72 participants in the Conference had consultant, director, convenor, and presenter roles at different times. All of us were in member roles during most of the Events. For example, as Director of the Conference, I was in this role at the Opening and Closing Plenaries, during Directorate staff meetings which were held each day to consider our experience of managing multiple roles, and very occasionally in dealing with member queries. Another role I had was Director of the Interactive Systems Event. But for most of the Conference I was in a member role: in the Social Dreaming Matrix, Dialogues, Global Event, and Prospection Event.  This is in marked contrast to the usual Group Relations Conference where the Director is normally in the roles of Director or Consultant, but almost never member. (For a fuller description of this Conference see Bain, 1999).

Krantz (1993) has characterized this model of Conference learning as ‘The Military model of bureaucratic hierarchy’. In this usual Conference model the Director, Consultant Staff, and Members have clearly delineated roles, and the Staff pay particular attention to the transference and counter transference feelings which are evoked between members and staff. At Lorne there was no Director, or Staff, in the usual sense, and the management of the Conference was dependent on all participants taking up their authority appropriately for task, i.e. managing themselves in multiple roles, and allowing an evolving consciousness for task to develop. In this sense the Conference was held in the mind systemically.

The learning about the management of self in multiple roles was taken into the design of the group relations conference at Lorne in 1994, which was the first time social dreaming was integrated with a “standard” conference of this kind – “standard” in the sense of having the usual events such as Study groups, Institutional Event, Application groups and it not being international in scope

The integration of Social Dreaming within Group Relations Conferences was successfully pioneered by the Australian Institute of Socio-Analysis.

The integration has continued in Conferences sponsored by Group Relations Australia directed by Dr. Susan Long. In 2008 Susan directed a Group Relations Conference “Intergenerational Dynamics in the Workplace: Age Generations and the Future”. The Conference  was held at Erskine Beach Resort, Lorne, Victoria 13th-17th October 2008. 

Susan writes :”This was the first full residential working conference held by Group Relations Australia. It included a social dreaming matrix each morning. The host/consultant was Rose Redding Mersky from USA. The design of the conference included atraining group of 7 members. As part of their program they worked with Rose so that each  session had one or two members of the training group acting also as host/consultants. They met with her as a group prior to the first matrix and each pair then reviewed the session they had been host/consultants with Rose after it took place. All staff and members attended the SD Matrix.”

Susan has also supervised at RMIT the first PhD thesis on Social Dreaming in Australia. The thesis was written by Julia Hailes on “Spontaneity in Social Dreaming”.

Social Dreaming has also been used in Group Relations Conferences in India that Gouranga Chattopadhyay has directed, and in Peru through Conferences directed by Monica Velarde. But my impression is that for the most part the two methodologies have been separated into different Conferences;  Social Dreaming Conferences will be run as will Group Relations Conferences.

The hypothesis I have is that the two methodologies are based in two different paradigms of authority, and that this is sensed and unconsciously feared by group relations practitioners.


1 The reason for consultants not sharing their dreams is that it allows them more space to hold the members dreams in mind. and  make connections. While this remains the main task  consultants have  started to coffer their dreams over the last couple of years, in in-person Matrices, and Online Matrices, and this has been found helpful in  the work of the Matrix.

2 The Tavistock study of groups can be said to have begun with Wilfred Bion’s pioneering studies of small group behaviour after the Second World War at the Tavistock Clinic, and resulting in the seminal “Experiences in Groups”. This tradition continued with the first Tavistock / Leicester Conference in 1957, which continues now on an annual basis to this day, attracting participants from all over the world. Next year’s will be the 65th Conference. This model of experiential study of group behaviour has been taken up throughout Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Peru, Israel, India, South Africa, and in the last couple of years in China.

3 There were seven Events including Social Dreaming. There were four Social Dreaming Matrices each with two Consultants, and the Social Dreaming Program was co-directed by Gordon Lawrence and Suzanne Ross. The Conference Directorate comprised Alastair Bain (Australia), Siv Boalt – Boethius (Sweden), Lawrence Gould (U.S.), Gordon Lawrence (U.K.), Susan Long (Australia), Allan Souter (Australia), and Kathy White (U.S.). There were 72 participants from 11 countries: Australia, United Kingdom, Eire, United States, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, India, Israel, Germany, and Norway.


Bain, A. “On Being Frozen in in Time” in Group Relations, Management and Organization. Eds. French R. and Vince R. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Bain, A. 'Sources of Authority: The Double Threads of Anxiety and Wonder' in Dare to Think the Unthought Known, p.38 Ed. Ajeet N. Mathur, Aivoairut Oy, Finland. March 2006 ,A Festschrift in honour of Gouranga Chattopadhyay.

Krantz, J. ‘On the Future of Group Relations Work” in Changing Group Relations, Proceedings of the 9th Scientific Meeting of the A.K.Rice Institute, Washington, 1993, DC: A. K. Rice Institute.

Obholzer A. "Authority, Power and Leadership: contributions from group relations training" in The Unconscious at Work: Individual and Organizational Stress in the Human Services; edited by Obholzer, A; and Roberts, VZ; Routledge; London, 1994. pp39-47. p.39.