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Research on group work

This is an extract from Heron, J., Dimensions of Facilitator Style, Human Potential Research Project, University of Surrey, 1977.

There are several varieties of research data that may be helpful to F (the group facilitator) in clarifying what she is about and in determining future style. So-called hard empirical data are fairly low in the list for obvious reasons, which are mentioned briefly below. All the following types of research are interdependent.

(a) Conceptual research: clarifying what we mean by salient terms in the public discourse of group work, and what the presuppositions and implications of their use and application are. Such terms include: education, training, research, therapy, learning, person, other person, innovation, growth, experiential, emotion, and many others.

(b) Ethical research: clarifying the ethical presuppositions and implications of facilitation and developing them as practical precepts for any kind of work as F. The concern here is with getting clear about values and norms and what their implications are for F’s formulations of her objectives for her group work. (Heron,1972).

Both these types of philosophical research are fundamental. Cognitive work at the very general level of meanings as in (a) and at the level of the general practical presuppositions of human intention and decision as in (b) may save a lot of confusion and misplaced effort in other domains of research. Suppose we ask in (a) “What does it mean to do research on persons, for persons to research persons?”; and suppose we ask in (b) “What are the ethical presuppositions of persons researching persons, and what do these presuppositions imply for the type of research?”. Then we are launched on the pursuit of new research paradigms (see Heron, 1972; Rowan, 1976).

(c) Phenomenal mapping: this is the first type of phenomenological mapping. Socially and experientially sensitive observer-participants seek to notice, analyze and describe the basic types of intrapersonal and interpersonal experiences and phenomena that occur in group work. This is qualitative empirical research: identifying the basic phenomenal categories that do justice to what is going on, in its finer shades as well as its more obvious shades. All quantitative research rests on and takes for granted qualitative categories of this sort, often picking them up without refinement from the linguistic and cultural conventions of the day. Much more qualitative research needs to be done on the phenomena, in order to overcome the unnoticed restrictive effects of culturally determined semantic constructs that act as a protective buffer to reality (Pearce, 1974).

This kind of phenomenological mapping, in which a person as both a cognitive and affective being is fully open to and interacting with the world, bringing out hitherto neglected or culturally suppressed aspects of our experience, can be done solo or by a peer group, and can be processed and refined through an existential research or experiential research cycle (Rowan, 1976). It is archetypal, radical empiricism. (Spiegelberg, 1960; Heron, 1970). This paper is an example, as also its predecessor on the Six Categories.

Such mapping is selective and relative. It is in principle selective, since it is impossible, for example, to exhaust all the relational properties of any phenomena. It may be intentionally selective. Thus the present paper is value-selective: it does not map degenerate or corrupt types of F style. Only a certain area or aspect of the phenomenal field may be explored. Such mapping is relative, when seeking to overcome the restrictive influences of prevailing semantic constructs, since the phenomena occur within the given culture and are described within its language and the generally accepted meanings of its terms. So revised maps are still relative to a given state of culture and language.

(d) Possibilia mapping: this is the second type of phenomenological mapping. The first in (c) above is concerned with phenomena that actually do occur. This is concerned with phenomena that could occur, with empirical possibilities and options, with the undeveloped or latent or about-to-emerge potential of the actual phenomena. Any given situation, it can be argued, delimits a range of possible outcomes and a sub-range of more probable outcomes. It is surely good for F to have some grasp of the possibilities open to her as a basis for creating and developing her future style. Of course what for one F is a personal map of actual phenomena may be for another F a personal map of possible phenomena. Hence which of the two aspects of phenomenological mapping applies to any given person is a function of the experience of that person. Possibilia mapping, again, even at its most radical will still be relative to the perspectives of a given culture and language. It is practised as futurology when applied on a macro scale.

Phenomenological mapping research in its two aspects is open to F in two ways. She can take into account other people’s findings. She can also engage in it herself: firstly, noticing without limiting preconceptions (a) what is actually going on in the group and (b) what possibilities are implicit in what is going on; and secondly, at a later stage formally analyzing and describing the content of many such noticings.

(e) Intentional interaction research: the researcher is also a subject in the field to be studied and the subjects are invited to co-operate in the research task. The research is intentional in two senses: the mutuality, openness and overlap of researcher-subject roles is an intended part of the project; and the research is an active trying out, through interaction, of some plan, programme for change, hypothesis about human behaviour. This type of research includes action research, intervention research, experiential research (Heron 1971) dialectical research in John Rowan’s analysis (Rowan, 1976). Any growth group is at least a tacit interaction research group. [This kind of research is what I now call co-operative inquiry – JH]

Phenomenological mapping and intentional interaction research are complementary: the former is concerned with noticing, the latter with trying out. But they can overlap and be applied to each other. Thus interaction researchers may try out a programme of phenomenal mapping (e.g. check out someone else’s mapping); and phenomenal mappers may notice carefully what is going on when they are trying some other kind of programme out.

(f) Evaluation research: most of the research so far done on growth groups/experiential learning groups has been of this kind. Before and/or after measures are used, with control groups or comparable training groups: measures include interviews, rating scales, questionnaires, self-reports, observations. Most of the studies are concerned with the effectiveness of the groups: what sort of change in participants is produced by the group experience, whether this is intended or unintended change (as evidenced by stated objectives prior to the group); whether the group experiences produces on-the-job or organizational change; the effects of facilitator style on participant outcomes; whether significant degrees and amounts of psychological distress are produced by groups; and so on (Smith, 1976).

This kind of research is valuable, and some of the data can be useful to F in pregroup structuring, in avoiding certain pitfalls, in shaping up her style. But if this is the only kind of research data that F takes account of, or if this is the only kind of research that F is interested in doing, then it can be restrictive.

There is a sociological trap and also a psychological trap in this kind of research. The sociological trap is that when the researcher becomes very preoccupied with effective outcomes in other people, she may, wittingly or unwittingly, become an agent of questionable social control and manipulation. The psychological trap is that such preoccupation can be construed as a displacement of unacknowledged anxiety about her own effectiveness or lack of it.

Furthermore, the research method can involve alienation, lack of openness and mutuality between researcher and subjects, and this is at odds with the underlying primary values of many growth groups. An aspect of this is that the criteria of effective outcomes are invariably not generated by the subjects themselves, but unilaterally by the researchers: this tends to undermine another primary value of growth groups – that of self-determination, self-direction and therefore of self-assessment (plus co-operative or peer assessment).

Intentional interaction research is much more consonant with the values of growth groups, in my view, and will, I believe, become the research paradigm of the future – backed up by phenomenological mapping, ethical research and conceptual research. Evaluation research will no doubt continue to have an important place, but a more subordinate one.

Researcher preoccupations with outcomes does perhaps merit further discussion. I have suggested that this can be construed as a displacement of unacknowledged anxiety about researcher effectiveness in some areas of practice. If the researcher is also an F, then we can have a situation where F is always researching outcomes in postgroup populations and may never be facing the inadequacies as F that compulsively drive this kind of research behaviour. Perhaps the simple and obvious inadequacy is that F never invites members to do three interrelated things:

There is another aspect to the preoccupation with effectiveness. It over emphasizes the purely instrumental value of the group experience: its value as a means to producing some state of being other than itself (such as post-group change). But personal and interpersonal experiences are primarily ends-in-themselves, are primarily intrinsically valuable (or disvaluable). Indeed, any group experience that is primarily or exclusively of instrumental value, a means to some end beyond itself, is bound to be alienating, inauthentic, subpersonal. If the group experience is intrinsically valuable for members then this is an important part of its justification for all who are truly persons. Indeed, if a group experience had no effective outcomes (had no instrumental value) but was judged by the participants to have been of high intrinsic value, then this could be for persons a sufficient justification.

An experience is intrinsically valuable, in my philosophy, if it is satisfying through fulfilling excellently some distinctively personal capacity – for meaning and insight, for free and informed choice, for feeling – in relation with other persons, directly or indirectly (e.g. as when listening to recorded music). I also hold that intrinsically valuable experiences, because of their high inherent reward content, are likely to be of significant instrumental value in sustaining present levels of personal growth, or in inaugurating new areas of personal growth (likely to be but not inevitably because what a person chooses to do with a group experience has to be taken into account – a point I discuss below). Thus in the most obviously instrumentally oriented group work, as in specific skills training – and thinking from the instrumental rather than the intrinsic point of view – priority needs to be given to forms of training that offer deeply satisfying personal experience.

So even the outcomes people should be asking many more questions about the group as an end-in-itself: was it dramatic, moving, profound, elegant, joyful, abounding with human excellences, insightful, aesthetic, loving, warm, rigorous, challenging, adventurous, and so on?

In short did those in the group have a richly rewarding human experience? Was the group, in and among, experienced as a significant celebration of the excellences of personhood? And if not, why not, and what was F about?

Such questions – and the research method relevant to them in what I have called phenomenal mapping above – are necessarily at the very centre of adequate evaluation of group work. They have priority over all questions of an instrumental kind. And they can only be answered by a purely personal judgment made by each participant about the quality of her experience of and in the group. A research culture that is afraid of the primacy of this kind of judgment is in a sad way indeed. For it puts values of human efficiency above values of human authenticity and thus reverses the priority that an adequate philosophy of persons would seem to require – that authenticity generates true effectiveness, and has prior value.

The first question for F in determining her style and planning her objectives is not “What can I do with members in the group to produce significant and effective postgroup change in them?” but rather “How can I enable the members and myself to have inherently valuable personal and interpersonal experience during the group?”. Answers to this latter question provide the overall framework that supports and legitimates answers to the former question. It may be that to be preoccupied with producing outcomes and measuring outcomes in others, is just a way of avoiding my anxieties about how I create an authentic, non-alienated, meaningful experience with them here and now in the group – quite apart from any question of outcomes. So this is the more personal version of the psychological trap thesis, a more technical version of which was given six paragraphs above.

And just in those very groups in which it is most relevant to be concerned with how to produce postgroup change – that is, in groups for the greatly disturbed and distressed – it is even more relevant to be concerned first with how to produce a very humanly satisfying experience within the group itself. Here again a deep anxiety about how to do the latter may be displaced into prolonged and premature preoccupation with how to do the former.

In experiential learning groups that are part of adult education, professional education, and personal growth programmes, if one of F’s objectives is to facilitate self-determination and self-development that carries over into group members’ postgroup living, personal and/or professional, then let F do just that: help members plan and monitor future change, that is, determine and manage their own outcomes, then let them get on with it. If F does not fulfil this responsibility to her objectives during the group, she will try to compensate by checking on outcomes after the group and so as external assessor undermine what is left of her half-fulfilled objectives for member self-determination.

On the other hand it can be a perfectly valid objective for F to provide simply an intrinsically worthwhile group experience, and to leave any question of transfer or outcomes to non-facilitated member self-determination. This is the purely recreational group – the group equivalent of dancing or going to the opera – but no doubt what recreates intrinsically, also and incidentally re-creates instrumentally. An enlightened culture would provide for just this kind of group experience. And what it provides can be researched by what John Rowan calls existential research (Rowan, 1976) and by what I have called phenomenal mapping (above).

The point I am making is that sooner or later, one way or the other, we have to acknowledge that a person qua person is responsible for managing and assessing her own outcomes, and that if as researcher I insist on being preoccupied with her outcomes, then I am using “research” to legitimate and cling to a paternalistic power base in the existing social order, which thereby exempts me from being present in a certain way with and for others. But such “research” will not have a great deal to do with a true science of persons by persons for and with persons.

There are some further points about change that merit attention. I can of course “change” people who are functioning below the level of full autonomous personhood by all kinds of subtle and not so subtle social pressures, manipulations and planned stimuli. And no doubt there is a case for managing and manoeuvering the distorted behaviour of the heavily distressed, unaware, compulsive individual toward the threshold of personal functioning where she can begin to choose awarely to change. And with such people it will no doubt be important to have research evidence on the effectiveness of such management. Where people cannot manage their own outcomes we need some evidence about what procedures seem to be effective in getting them to the point where they can start to do so. So externally run outcomes research is especially relevant where people are functioning at a sub-personal level and where their attendance at the group is therefore less than voluntary. But even here great caution should be taken, since the management of the research itself could prolong the very state of affairs which its evidence is seeking to ameliorate. As I have already said, the primary commitment of F here must be to create an inherently valuable and meaningful human experience within the group itself: all unilateral management by F and no reciprocal meaning would be self-defeating as a prolonged strategy – a management-meaning gradient would be a better strategy: the purpose of unilateral management is to increase the incidence in the group of reciprocally meaningful experiences, so that the former decreases as the latter increase. And as the latter increase within the group, members can progressively be invited to take over the management of postgroup or between session outcomes, and to participate in some manner in the research project.

With personal growth groups, however, there is a presumption that members are already functioning to some significant extent as autonomous persons. At the personal level – as distinct from the subpersonal level – change is primarily a function of choosing to change, of deciding to change. Any crude model of outcomes research here that sees the group experience as input and postgroup attitude and behaviour as output, and that overlooks the personal decisions of group members about whether to adopt the group experience as a basis for some postgroup change, is running a quasi-mechanistic and deterministic, rather than a self-deterministic approach to research on persons.

The point which so many researchers in the field seem to miss is that persons can make many different sorts of choices about what they do with a group experience, and that these choices are not necessarily any reflection on the excellence of the group or its potential as a basis for post group change. Here are just a few of the obvious possibilities for a person who has just completed a group experience:

The issue is not what groups do to persons. It is what persons choose to do with groups. Persons choose outcomes, they don’t have outcomes mechanically produced in them. They can choose big outcomes from little events, and little outcomes from big events, as well as big outcomes from big events and little outcomes from little events. Because of a person’s active intentionality in giving meaning to and choosing outcomes from experience, and because this is a matter of self-determination, we cannot in principle predict what groups will do to persons who are persons. And to maintain a research culture that supposes that we can is to maintain a subpersonal research culture, is to continue by the procedures adopted to suggest to human beings that they are less than fully human.

Researchers thus have a prior educational responsibility. The sort of research they do is, because of their privilege and prestige in society, educationally pervasive and influential in suggesting models of human nature and behaviour – and to such influence the human being is vulnerable in the move from the socialized status of childhood to the autonomous status of adult personhood. A research climate that is preoccupied with negative outcomes from experiential learning groups is educationally subversive of people moving toward greater personal autonomy. The preoccupation tends to be self-fulfilling and to cause the deficit it is looking for, and so to infect the move toward greater autonomy with redundant institutionalized anxiety.

A classic example of this is the Yalom and Lieberman study (1971) which subverted a fundamental basis of a personal approach to group experience by assigning students to ten different sorts of groups on a random basis, and then posting notices of possible emotional dangers of group work. Persons, however, should make a free and well informed choice of which group to go to, on the basis of an aware assessment of their own needs and capabilities, and should be encouraged to choose what to do with the experience rather than have suggested to them that they may get mechanically undone. The researchers here, in order to do an ostensibly competent and responsible traditional kind of evaluation research, actually engaged (presumably without even being aware of it) in a manipulation of people at a subpersonal level.

We need, I believe, to move away from a crude evaluation research model that sees the group as a process that, willy nilly, has effects on its human products – where given that the process is of this or that kind then the product will inevitably be affected in this or that way. It holds that the group process, and particularly F, is “responsible” for whether postgroup change occurs. We need a research model that honours the truth that each member is responsible for whether in her postgroup change occurs, and is responsible moreover for determining whether such change has occurred.

Researcher Fs, who feel it is their responsibility as Fs to find out what has happened to people who have been in their groups, must surely have failed to honour, by attitude and F method, their group members as self-determining persons.

If I interact with a friend over a period, perhaps sharing with her some skills that she judges will be helpful to her, I do not then consider it is my responsibility to do a follow up study and see whether there have been with her effective outcomes of our friendship interaction. (It may be a further expression of my friendship that I am interested in how she is getting on with what I have shared with her but that is another matter). I honour the fact that as a friend she may or may not make use of what I have shared with her, and that whether she does so or not is a reflection more on how she exercises her autonomy, than on my competence in sharing my skills. Is there not a case for saying that human friendship is exemplary of F-group member interaction?

References (for the whole paper)

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