In Praise of Large Groups*

by John Bernard Harris

[Biodata will be found by clicking here]


I like large groups.  Worse, I think I'm addicted to them.

How did I get addicted?  Well, I find being with between 40 and 150 people, preferably in an unstructured setting, very exciting.  I learn lots about myself, about power and leadership, about communication and decision-making, about how smaller sub-groups relate in the large group context.

The problem with much group work theory and practical knowledge is that it relates to small, closed groups.  I myself have written lots about such groups and their on-going processes.  My friend Peter Philippson has pointed out [1] that because of this bias, we tend to think of groups in certain ways.  On this paradigm a group

- ideally has between 6 and 15 members;

- consists of people who are physically close together;

- often meets in a setting isolated from the rest of the world;

- has things arranged so everyone can witness everything (e.g. in a circle);

- makes a sharp distinction between members (in-people) and non-members (outsiders);

- has members who openly acknowledge and value their co-membership;

- has a shared task on which all work (even if the task is to study group process in an unstructured way);

- should ideally "develop" certain characteristics, such as group cohesion, intimacy, etc;

- does not exist when it is not in session;

and so on.

Our recognition that this very particular and normative way of thinking of groups does not reflect the vast majority of social settings in real life, came with our participation in the un(pre)structured large groups called (by Steve Potter) "The Street".  The Street has a time and space boundary, and usually incorporates a review.

Within these boundaries participants are free to interact or not, as they wish.  They may stay on their own, or join with others; they may play or be serious; they may be disturbed or excited by the lack of structure.  Often they will do all these things.

What is obvious is that such groups more closely reflect everyday life in the way that, within the context, personal and social boundaries are constantly forming and re-forming, and changing their nature in an unpredictable fashion.  There is constant interaction and, even when people are choosing not to participate in some way, this is part of the process.  To describe this we need a broader definition of "group process" which is based on the possibility of interaction between people. A group is any collection of people who are aware of the possibility of interaction and communication.

My interest in large groups, both structured and unstructured, has had a practical value.  It is particularly useful in the context of work in and with teams and organisations.  Until recently I was a manager of a staff of about 50 people who I regarded as a group; albeit one whose membership was spatially dispersed, heterogeneous in many respects, and subject to a degree of change.  My interaction with them has been aimed at helping them to recognise and value the possibilities of their "groupness" - defined as "options for inter-group communication".  I have organised section meetings which most, though not all, attended (and that ws part of the process), and done Street-type exercises with them as a large group.  Such work helps them to appreciate their own creative potentialities, though it may take a little getting used to.  Small groups, with their often blinkered vision of themselves, do not always achieve this.

So that's how I became addicted to large groups.  When, as occasionally happens, such a group achieves a sense of its power and possibilities, it gives me a real buzz.  Nothing else will do.

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* Originally published in Groupvine magazine Vol. 2, No. 2 of Winter 1992-93.

[1]  In Chapter 10 of Gestalt: Working With Groups, available from Manchester Gestalt Centre, 7 Norman Road, Manchester M14 5LF.


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John Bernard Harris M.A., C.Q.S.W.,is a former social work manager, and an experienced group worker and trainer. He has been involved with Gestalt therapy since 1980, and is an Associate Training and Supervising Member of the Gestalt Psychotherapy and Training Institute. John is also the founder of MGC Associates, and has a special interest in working with teams and organisations. His special interest is in team-building.

John writes extensively, and is author of Gestalt: An Idiosyncratic Introduction, Working with Anger in Therapy, co-author (with Peter Philippson) of Gestalt: Working with Groups and co-editor (with Peter Philippson) of Topics in Gestalt Therapy, all published by, and available from, Manchester Gestalt Centre. [].