Interrogating the Social Unconscious

This post was contributed by Ceren Yalcin, an Intern at the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research (BISR).

The idea of the ‘unconscious’ is undoubtedly at the heart of psychoanalytic thinking.  Unconscious conflict, unconscious desire, unconscious mind, unconscious fantasy, unconscious thought – just to name a few derivatives of the term that can be found in Freud, Klein, Winnicott and other influential psychoanalytic thinkers. Most of these terms refer to the individual psyche, alluding to the existence of ideas that are ‘hidden’ from conscious knowledge but that nonetheless have force and motion (Frosh, 2012). What one barely hears is the term social unconscious.  As a person interested in both psychoanalysis and social theory, I was quite excited to hear about the study afternoon that wore the title “Interrogating the Social Unconscious “. The workshop was held on 25 October 2013 and was part of a series of events around the same topic organised by the Sociology, Psychoanalysis and Psychosocial Study Group, together with the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research. (If you, have missed the first event, like me, you can listen to the podcast).

So, what is the social unconscious ? And if there is the social unconscious does it mean that it is opposed to the individual unconscious? I was hoping to get some answers from the two eminent speakers that were invited to the workshop: Earl Hopper, a psychoanalyst and group analyst and Christopher Scanlon, a consultant psychotherapist and group analyst. To my disappointment, the two speakers had no intentions to provide us with ready-made answers. Instead, we were formed into small groups and got to discuss the concept ourselves. This, of course, was the idea behind the workshop. It gave us participants the chance to get our teeth into questioning, discussing and critiquing the readings we were given a few weeks prior to the event. Topics discussed in my seminar group centred on the question of how categories of the social such as class, culture and ethnicity might inform the unconscious, and most importantly to me as a training psychotherapist, why the social was often bracketed out in psychoanalytic training.

The question that has most intrigued me was concerned with the extent to which the concept of the social unconscious was developed as a rhetorical response to psychoanalysis. Weinberg (2007, p. 309) writes: “The idea of the social unconscious assumes that some specific hidden myths and motives guide the behaviour of a certain society or culture. It also assumes that a large group or society might use some shared defences. In the same manner that unconscious forces drive an individual without knowing it, a group, an organization or the entire society can act upon unconscious forces too”. I find this working definition of the social unconscious quite helpful as it shows the complexity of the unconscious mind. What I don’t like about it is the binary opposition it assumes between the social and the individual. The term ‘social unconscious’ suggests that there is an individual unconscious that is freed from societal, historical and cultural dynamics. I would agree with Dalal (2001, p. 554) who asserts that ‘the unconscious is constituted by the social at every level’. Earl Hopper’s (2001, p.10) definition sheds a different light onto the term: “The concept of the Social Unconscious refers to the existence and constraints of social, cultural and communicational arrangements of which people are unaware. Unaware, in so far as these arrangements are not perceived (not ‘known’), and if perceived not acknowledged (‘denied’), and if acknowledged, not taken as problematic (‘given’), and if taken as problematic, not considered with an optimal degree of detachment and objectivity.” What Hopper makes clear is that the social unconscious does not merely refer to the social aspects of individual unconscious. It is also not the same as the superego, or the Lacanian symbolic order. It is about shared fantasies, repressed memories, traumas and anxieties of a given group. Indeed, Earl Hopper made an insightful comment that afternoon on the fact that many participants were late to the study seminar so that we had to start 15 minutes later than planned. He asked what it was in the group’s social unconscious that had led many of its members come late. Was it the fact that the event, unlike the previous one, required a ticket? Or that the participants were made to work in groups themselves rather than being lectured? These questions give me an idea on what the term ‘social unconscious’ seeks to capture. The answers to the questions remain difficult though – but we might find out in the next event of this series!


Dalal, F. (2001) ‘The Social Unconscious: A Post-Foulkesian Perspective’, Group Analysis 34(4): 539–55.

Frosh, S. (2012). A brief Introduction of Psychoanalytic Theory. New York: Palgrave McMillan.

Hopper, E. (2001) ‘The Social Unconscious: Theoretical Considerations’, Group Analysis 34(1): 9–27.

Weinberg, H. (2007). So what is this social unconscious anyway? Group Analysis, 40(3), 307-322.


2 thoughts on “Interrogating the Social Unconscious

  1. The topic is extremely important because the unconscious evaluation of real social constellations can induce psychosis and schizophrnia, and nobody knows, why they got it. Probably due to the offender, victim and savior relationship (drama triangle). Interesting also for companies dealing with social projects.

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