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"Insanity in individuals is something rare—but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule."

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

There are as many ways of conceptualising group culture as there are ways of describing individual personality. Let's start at the useful distinction between formal and informal groups.

Formal and Informal Groups




Formal groups include staff groups in organisations and professional sports teams. Someone has determined that a Task needs to be done, which requires some kind of organisational System, made up of various job Roles, for which Individuals are recruited.

The Task is what matters, and everything else—particularly the Individuals and the Roles they occupy—may be changed.



This is rather like the distinction between professional catering and domestic cooking. In the restaurant the chef decides on the menu, and then buys in the ingredients accordingly.

At home you ask, "What shall we have to eat?" and decide on the basis of whatever you happen to have available. (Which is why I never use any of our dozens of recipe books...)

Informal groups work the other way round. A group of Individuals meet: if they form a group, then they will informally allocate Roles among themselves depending on individual preferences, and occasionally on talents. This collection of roles makes a System possible, and so occasionally they may undertake a Task together, such as organising a trip, or a night out or a party. It is the preferences of the Individuals which are paramount: if they are not getting anything out of their group membership, they may well drop away. Tasks are incidental.

In the real world, of course, many formal groups have an informal dimension. As they work together, the members develop relationships, and modify their work roles to suit themselves and other members of the group. Sometimes, the strength of their bonds can actually threaten or undermine the formal system of the organisation (particularly if the task of the organisation is dangerous—consider group loyalties in the police force, for example). Such groups become—for better or for worse—"communities of practice" in Wenger's (1998) phrase

In teaching, the initial constitution of a course is formal. It is the Task—the aims and objectives of the course— which dominates. But as class groups develop, they acquire informal features, which may come to dominate (particularly if the members were not very motivated about the course in the first place). The teacher, of course, represents the formal system, and the issue of how much he or she can or ought to get involved informally is debatable: it could undermine the formal role or perhaps enhance it. From his point of view, he will want to engage the informal culture to support the formal, task culture.

Task and Maintenance Needs

The distinction between task — what the group was set up to do — and maintenance — keeping the group going in order to do it, is such a traditional one that I have not been able to trace its origins. Clearly, formal groups emphasise task, and informal ones prioritise maintenance. As the diagram illustrates, some of the time these elements overlap; the development of "team spirit" amongst a group engaged in competitive sport may be a maintenance function, but it is important to task performance. They can, however, pull in opposite directions.

At that point, the maintenance aspects may well coalesce into a hidden agenda, perhaps at the individual level, as someone tries to "get one up" on another member, or even "get back at them" for a slight; or perhaps at a sub-group level as in the case of intolerant (or even tolerant) behaviour towards members of an "out-group", particularly sex- or ethnicity- or disability-based. There may even be an institutional hidden agenda;

I recently attended an evening class on web development (yes, I know, it was interesting but it hasn't had much effect on practice!) The sessions were three hours long. On the first session the instructor spent—I timed her—forty minutes on a health and safety induction, including a fifteen-minute specially-made video which might have suited school-leavers. Come to think of it, some of them might have felt patronised...

There was clearly no connection between either the needs of the group, or the realities of the hazards we might encounter, but the instructor was contractually obliged to "teach" it, she explained. At a wider level than the class group, there was an agenda of anxiety leading to backside-covering (politely).

The interaction between the two—or more—cultures of the group are explored by Wilfred Bion. He is not the world's easiest writer, and his psychoanalytic (Kleinian) approach does not make him any easier, but at the risk of offending purists, we can mine his ideas for practical models which are relevant to the classroom. And—I might add—I am sufficiently pragmatic to say that we can safely abandon the rest as self-indulgent emperor's tailoring.

Bion's Basic Assumption Theory

Bion postulates that groups operate simultaneously at a number of levels:

  • the Work Group: this is the manifest level of the group's performance, and readily understood by group members. Most of the other stuff about groups on this site is about Work-group level performance.
  • the Basic Assumption (or "ba") group, of which more below, and
  • the Proto-Mental system of the group: this seems to be a sort of "where do flies go in the winter-time?" idea. Bion seems to think it is necessary to account in some way for the basic assumption energy which is not being used in the active basic assumption. So he dumps it in the PMS. It does make some sense: it is necessary to have traces of the other basic assumptions to sustain the active one: there is a degree of dependence in fight leadership, for example, but in general we can leave it out of account.

The Basic Assumption group process is about the group acting as if the members had made the basic and shared assumption that the group had met to do one of the following primitive things:

According to Bion, the prevalent Basic Assumption provides the emotional energy for everything which happens in the group, and it has a fundamental influence on the norms and roles of the group.

  • When it is tamed or harnessed in the interests of Work-Group activity, it is referred to as "mature" or "sophisticated", and it helps the group along.
  • When it runs counter to the Work-Group activity, it saps and diverts energy from task performance and accounts for the group going its own way regardless — as if it were stuck in a rut or tram-line which steers the group irrespective of the wishes of the members.

Back to practice: dealing with basic assumption Dependence is the stock in trade of the teacher.

BION W R (1961) Experiences in Groups London; Tavistock

Go here for an outline of Bion's work

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This is an archived copy of Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching [On-line: UK] Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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