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- Studies in Gestalt Therapy
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Tel: email: mgc mgc. Field Theory and Group Process. As we have previously commented in Topics [Vol.
Reflections on field theory - Elements UK
Though much Gestalt therapy is done in a group setting, very little has been written about a theory of groups based on up-to-date Gestalt therapy principles and practice. And yet the historical relationship between Gestalt ideas and the development of group theory is strong see below , and the three main parent theories upon which our practice is based - field theory, dialogic existentialism and phenomenology all have much that would contribute to the development of a comprehensive Gestalt account of group life.
Developing such an account has long been an aim of both Peter Philippson and myself. In this piece I would like to make a contribution by talking about how field theory might form the basis for a group theory.
In particular, I am going to use field theory as a way of characterising group processes in the context of an ongoing therapy group. I believe that field theory provides us with a useful way of understanding and using group process in therapeutic and other settings.
In what follows I am mainly relying on the accounts of field theory given by Malcolm Parlett , Gary Yontef  and Peter Philippson . Using field theory and Gestalt ideas as a way of underpinning our understanding of groups is not a new idea. Much of the theory and research into small groups carried out by social psychologists originated in the work of Kurt Lewin. Lewin originally trained in Berlin with, amongst others, the Gestalt psychologists Wertheimer and Kohler.
Though Lewin died tragically early in , he effectively started the systematic study of group processes which was the foundation for modern group therapy. Less well-known amongst Gestalt therapists is the connection between another major school of group therapy and Gestalt ideas.
Foulkes, the founder of the group analytic movement, was a student of Kurt Goldstein and Adelmar Gelb. It is, superficially, easy to see why field theory might form a sound basis for our understanding of group processes is simple.
Its emphasis is precisely on process, relationship, activity, and the dynamic forces of the field that we experience in groups. These seem to be precisely the kind of explanatory ideas which might help us to capture the complex and ever-changing social interactions which characterise group life.
Field Theory Malcom Parlett - Terrigal Gestalt Institute
However, much of the hard work of developing a 'Gestalt theory of groups' remains to be done. Five Principles. One of the problems with talking about field theory is that we are still struggling to understand and formulate it. Gary Yontef wrote as recently as , "I know of no discussion of field theory in the Gestalt therapy literature that I consider clear, cogent, comprehensive, systematic and comprehensive" [op cit p.
In his seminal article, 'Reflections on Field Theory', Malcolm Parlett lists five principles which characterise a field theoretical way of thinking [Parlett ], and I will use these to provide the framework of the present discussion. They are:.
Studies in Gestalt Therapy
The Principle of Organization. The Principle of Contemporaneity. The Principle of Singularity. The Principle of Changing Process. The Principle of Possible Relevance. I will take each of these principles in turn, and see what understanding and guidance they offer us in the context of group therapy. Drawing on a definition of Kurt Lewin, Parlett characterises this principle as saying that "meaning derives from the total situation, the totality of co-existing facts" [Parlett, ibid , p. Before seeing how this principle applies to groups, I want to take a little time to explain it as best I can.
Parts and Wholes. The principle states that if we want to understand 'find and make' the meaning of a particular part of the world, we need to place it in the context of a wider whole of which it is itself a part. The more comprehensive this wider picture, the more fully and in depth we understand the fragment we are studying. For a simple example take the first word I used in the penultimate paragraph: 'drawing'.
This has several different meanings in English, but the context, in this case the sentence in which I placed it, removes any ambiguity and tells us which sense I am currently using. We could go further and say that the isolated word has no meaning. In Wittgenstein's dictum, 'meaning is use', and we can only understand this or any word as a part of a more fundamental unit of meaning, a sentence. Individual word-meanings make sense only as part of a wider linguistic field. Parlett refers in his statement of the principle to the context as 'the total situation'.
It is therefore relevant to ask how far do we have to go in our quest for ever-deepening contexts and meaning? That sentence is part of a paragraph, section, article, and so on. Each of these units is in turn a part of some larger whole which gives it further meaning, and so each context we locate for it is in its turn further contextualised. Pursuing this thought, we could plausibly argue anthropologists have that in order to understand this one sentence fully, you must possess a vast amount of cultural and linguistic knowledge which form the 'total context' of the sentence's use.
Malcolm parlett field theory pdf
Does this principle therefore entail that we cannot understand anything until we have understood everything? In one sense, the answer is yes. Fritz Perls hinted at this when he wrote, paradoxically, that in order to understand Gestalt Therapy the reader needed to have the Gestaltist mentality; but in order to acquire the mentality he must first understand the book.
And writers such as Ken Wilber who would subscribe to the principle of organisation argue that the Cosmos actually consists of a hierarchy of 'holons' - wholes and parts stretching to infinity in both directions . Electrons are parts of atoms are part of molecules The more we apprehend this structure, according to Wilber, the more we appreciate how the universe actually consists of fields within fields within fields And the more we approach an understanding of 'how things are' in the universe.
In another sense, the answer is no. If the Cosmos is infinite, we will never, by definition, be able to appreciate it in its entirety. Never mind: we will have to manage with the partial, and relative knowledge scratched up by our feeble and imperfect intellects. Yet all the time we are seeking to increase its depth and breadth by understanding how wholes and parts, contexts and fields, interrelate. Applying the principle to groups. Parlett's principle is formulated as an epistemological one, about the meaning of events in the field.
So: 'no facts statements about group life can be understood in isolation from other facts'. But behind it, as the last section has indicated, is a more fundamental ontological principle about the actual nature of the field, its mode of existence.
The principle tells us, in effect, that no events in the group field are in fact and reality isolated from other events.
Though these two ideas are plainly connected, they should be considered separately. Looking at ontology first: what field theory says is that all field phenomena are 'of' the field, actually constituted by the field and its complex structures and dynamics.
Yontef defines a field as: "A totality of mutually influencing forces that together form a unified interactive whole. There is nothing which occurs in the group which is not part of this field. This includes the actions, interactions, feelings and fantasies of individual group members - all that we include as part of the group process.
And remember that the group field is part of a wider field, which is part of a still wider one It is because of this assertion that the thesis on meaning follows from the ontological one. If everything is 'of the field', then it does not make much sense to try to know and understand it as if this were not the case.
So our epistemology and our 'research methodology' - our ways of trying to interrogate the therapy group situation and understand the phenomena of its process - need to reflect this. We need, in effect, to treat people as the relational selves they actually are. This means seeing individual group members not as separate people who happen to interact in the group setting this would be a systems approach but as parts of the same field who actually co-create and co-sustain each other and the ongoing group process [Philippson ].
Sidney Coleman, Quantum Mechanics in Your Face 
Please note that field theory does not deny individualism or the existence of relative degrees of separateness and isolation between people. Confluence and isolation are, in field terms, polar opposites which define each other. And in each of us we find instinctive tendencies both towards 'partness' confluence or community with the greater wholes we are parts of and 'wholeness' separateness and individuality.
Indeed, we could without undue distortion characterise group life as the ongoing struggle to balance these two urges to connect with, and to differentiate from, others. So the principle of organisation as an epistemological thesis says: we cannot fully understand what any particular 'happening' in a therapy group signifies unless we relate it to the overall field - in effect, contextualise it.
And a different context field perspective offers us a altered meaning for the experiences or events, however slight the change is. Since there are always different ways in which we can 'frame' the actions, there are always multiple meanings available.
The more contexts, the richer deeper or broader is our 'interpretation' or understanding. The principle offers, in effect, a theory of the meaning of group behaviour and group process. The Group Environment. When we talk of context, we are always talking about a number of different field conditions which contribute in different ways to the 'actualisation' of group life in a particular 'here and now' form.
Put more simply, what happens in a particular session of a particular ongoing therapy group depends on a myriad factors, including the group culture, current world events, group member's individual histories, their memories of what happened in the previous session, and so on. In this I considered the group as oriented in space and time. I distinguished four contexts, or zones:. In field theory, this is what is 'real', our primary therapeutic focus.
Reflections: Field Theory and Transcendent Experiences
A few of the relevant field factors which constitute the group process are: the physical conditions of the group room, group member's current feelings and desires, individual contact styles, contact patterns between individuals pairs and sub-groups , energy levels and so on. This includes group member's current lives outside the group and between sessions, the location of the group room, events in the world which may be impacting on the group in some way in the electronic age, spatial distance is irrelevant.
This includes their memories of what has happened, and also fantasies and stories about the past. All these zones are part of the total group context in space and time.
What happens in group sessions zone i will be affected by what is happening or has happened in any of the others insofar as it impinges on 'here and now' - the particular goings-on in this particular group on this particular day. For further discussion see principle 2 below.
Putting the Contexts to Work. Let me illustrate this with a simple example from a group.
Suppose that a group member, Susan, is feeling irritated in the group. Another group member, Mark, makes a remark to her about her being late for the session, and she 'flares up' at him.
What are the contexts which contribute to and shape Susan's 'here and now' expression of anger to Mark?