Understanding Socioanalytic Methods and COVID-19

In these difficult times of COVID-19, I think a note on socioanalytic methods might be helpful. The flood of information, as well as anxieties, is on the surface of the virus spread – some critical and helpful; keeping us connected; some not; but can we also hold onto our minds and access what lies beneath?

Understanding Socioanalytic Methods and COVID-19

In these difficult times of COVID-19, I think a note on socioanalytic methods might be helpful. The flood of information, as well as anxieties, is on the surface of the virus spread – some critical and helpful; keeping us connected; some not; but can we also hold onto our minds and access what lies beneath?

Understanding Socioanalytic Methods and COVID-19

Psychoanalysis has been around for over a hundred years and many books have been written about its method with particular emphasis on the clinical encounter. But what about the methodology used in the exploration of unconscious processes in social groups and organisations (ie socioanalytic methodologies)?

While there are overlaps between socioanalytic investigations and other social science research methods, both psychoanalysis and socioanalysis are based in primarily ideographic and subjective frameworks. It can be argued that they involve the scientific study of subjectivity – individually and collectively (Long 2001).

Socioanalysis is the study of groups, organisations and society using a systems psychoanalytic framework. It “combines and synthesises methodologies and theories derived from psychoanalysis, group relations, social systems thinking, organisational behaviour, and social dreaming ” (Bain 1999; Long 2017). In simple terms, socioanalysis studies social groupings and phenomena by looking beneath the surface (and the obvious) to see the underlying dynamics and how these dynamics are interconnected.


A Philosophy of Science for Socioanalytic Study

The philosophy of science supporting socioanalytic study is different from traditional empiricist or positivist philosophies although some socioanalytic researchers may at times work also with these traditions. A primary philosophy of science supporting socioanalysis is that propounded by Charles Sanders Pierce, a late nineteenth-century philosopher who introduced the idea of “abductive logic” (Burch 2010; Long and Harney 2013). He conceived of scientific discovery as moving through stages of abductive, deductive and inductive logic. Abductive logic is involved in the early stages of hypothesis creation. At this stage, argument by metaphor leads to the creative development of what we call “working hypotheses” that can then be examined against new cases. This underlies the method of “negative case analysis” as practised in many sociological investigations (Patton 2001). Socioanalysis relies heavily on abductive logic. This may be due to its “youth” as a discipline, but it is also due to the nature of its subject – the unconscious dynamics of groups and organisations, where exploration of the unknown in systems is paramount.

A major research methodology in this discipline is the case study. The reasons for this include the complexity of concepts with non-linear causality; the use of narrative, qualitative, descriptive methods rather than experimental, quantitative methods; the use of action research which – because of the changing, systemic nature of organisations – utilises a social and political intervention alongside an exploratory method; and the use of abductive logic in the development of working hypotheses that aid in thinking through case material and organizational change. But within case studies, several different methods ranging from observation through social dreaming and drawings to work culture analyses have been used.

Connecting all these methods is their aim of “tapping into” the dynamic operation, following Long and Harney (2013), of what various authors now call the associative unconscious within and between social systems. The associative unconscious is – the unconscious at a systemic level. It refers to Bion’s notion of the “infinite” discussed latterly by Gordon Lawrence and stands in contrast to the individual repressed unconscious described by Freud. The associative unconscious covers all those associations available and potential within and amongst interacting social systems. It is a rich vein of golden insight into the underlying dynamics of the system. The totality of such associations is available to the system but not to any one individual. In Lacanian linguistic terms, the associative unconscious is that network of existing and potential signifiers that create the way the organisation or social system is experienced. And, somewhat like Hopper’s “social unconscious” it points beyond that network to “the existence and constraints of social-cultural and communications arrangements of which people are unaware or are denied” (Hopper 2003 p127), but, I add, become available through exploratory methods that use the association and amplification of free associations made in social contexts. More simply though, it is that network of thoughts, ideas and feelings that create the social system as it is and, more creatively, as it might become. The potentiality lies in what David Bohm (1981) calls the implicate order.

Numerous articles have appeared in scholarly journals such as Human Relations, Organisational and Social Dynamics, Organizational Studies, Journal of Management Development, Journal of Management Education, Social Psychiatry, Psychodynamic Practice, Socio-Analysis, and various journals of psychotherapy and group analysis amongst others, and books on specific methods have appeared. However, a book focused on a broad range of socioanalytic methods together with an underlying philosophy to link these methods is available. Socioanalytic Methods: Discovering the hidden in organisations and social systems edited by Susan Long and published by Karnac 2013 does just that.

Each of the methods discussed in the book accesses the associative unconscious in different ways. They help bring hidden dynamics to the surface for people to see how they influence, aid or inhibit their activities. Excitingly, they can show what we know at some level but have not yet been able to use. And, because the methods explore social systems, they can contribute to new collaborative endeavours for thinking the future.

Dr Susan Long
Director of Research & Scholarship, NIODA

24 March 2020

Understanding Socioanalytic Methods and COVID-19

ps Are you a leader or manager and would like to learn more about socioanalytic methods? Have a look at the NIODA Master of Leadership and Management (Organisation Dynamics) course.


for Understanding Socioanalytic Methods and COVID-19

Bain, A. (1999) On Socioanalysis in Socio-Analysis 1.1 pp. 1-17.

Bohm, D. (1980) Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London: Routledge.

Burch, R. (2010). Charles Sanders Peirce. In: E. N. Zalta (Ed.) The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Fall 2010 ed.). Retrieved July 2012, from

Hollway, W. and Jefferson, T. (2000) Doing Qualitative Research Differently: Free association, narrative and the interview. London: Sage Publications.

Hinshelwood, R. and Skogstad, W. (eds.) (2000) Observing Organisations. London: Routledge.

Hopper, E. (2003) The Social Unconscious: Selected Papers. UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Long, S.D. (2017) ‘The Socioanalytic Approach to Organisations’ Socioanalysis Vol 19

Long, S.D. and Harney, M. (2013) ‘The Associative Unconscious’ in S. Long, (ed) (2013) Socioanalytic Methods. Chapter 2.

Long, S.D. (2001) Working with Organizations: The Contribution of the Psychoanalytic Discourse. Organisational and Social Dynamics 2: pp. 174 – 198.

Mersky, R. (2011) Social Dreaming, Social Photo-Matrix, Role Biography and Social Dream Drawing: Structure, facilitation capacities and fundamental value to organizations. Paper given at the Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organisations. Melbourne, June 2011.

Patton, M.Q. (2001) Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods. USA: Sage Publications.

Understanding Socioanalytic Methods and COVID-19 by Dr Susan Long

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