Group Analysis

The Importance of Foulke's Matrix Concept

by J. P. Roberts

Also published at the address:

Look also in:
A Psychotherapy Node:
The Matrix concept of S.H. Foulkes:

The future of the scientifically based psychotherapies depends on the development of increasingly refined models of the mind and mental process. This includes progress toward an understanding of the nature of the relationship between body and mind!

Freud was a model maker. He began his long journey of psychological exploration with the "Project for a scientific psychology". Thereafter his work included a search for a model of the mind from which the process of therapy could naturally flow.

Freud's models were the early, circa 1900, Topographical Model and the later, circa 1920, Structural Model. Both remain helpful maps of the mind for practising therapists. Freud's work has been amplified by the object relations school pioneered by the controversial Melanie Klein. In this development topography and structure give way to a world of internal objects which grows in wholeness integrity and richness with maturation. Freud's models lacked an interpersonal and social dimension. Our world of object relations begins in a dyadic relationship but is to a large extent constructed through social process. Its investigation remains incompletely socialised in psychoanalysis since it is here largely explored in a dyadic relationship.

The group goes beyond this and requires a transcendent model.

The concept of the "group matrix" can provide such a model.

This article presents a model of mind which emerges from the work of S H Foulkes, the founder of Group-Analysis. Group-Analytic theory and method was outlined in the International Journal of Group Psychotherapy two years ago, by Malcolm Pines and myself (Roberts & Pines, . I will not therefore talk about group-analysis at length today.

A reading of Foulkes' writing particularly on the matrix and its relationship to mind, leads to some rather startling conclusions.

Foulkes seems to suggest that mind does not exist within an individual and only comes into being through dialogue which develops in the various group matrices within which the individual is a nodal element. A group matrix is a network of communication and relationship developing in an ongoing human group including a therapy group. One such is the personal matrix - which is the network of Family/Friends/Acquaintances of which one is a part.

Foulkes in effect said that a body-bound mind does not exist and that mind is ultimately located in the dialogue which goes on between people.

Group-analytic theory has been slow to develop but, in the opinion of a number of my colleagues,

the concept of a group matrix lies, or at least will come to lie at its heart.

Definitions of Matrix

An early review of matrix concept was my own (Roberts 1982). The following is an abstract. I explored the meaning of the word matrix. It is derived from Latin, in which it meant first and foremost a pregnant animal or female animal. In later Latin it came to mean womb. A matrix was a place in which formation occurred but it can also mean a roll or register (Cortesao 1967). This additional meaning clearly includes the idea of something which unrolls or unfolds, displaying embedded information as it does so.

In English, matrix has had many meanings with a central theme running through the usage of the word. The following are the meanings found in the Oxford English Dictionary (1971): (numbers (8) and (9) are from other sources.

Matrices can thus be further understood by considering the following configurations.

  • A rough diamond in its embedding matrix

  • A handsome vase

  • An aquarium

  • A set of Russian dolls

  • A chess board

  • A jelly mould

It is possible to abstract from my definitions and these configurations some general properties of a matrix. A matrix is (1) female and often maternal. (2) often comprises a background or interstitial substance. (3) may be the womb or mould in which structured things are formed, contained or supported. These definitions and uses of the word matrix , I believe, show why Foulkes had a use for it in developing his thinking about groups. The matrix of a group has potential to be: mother to, as a formative place for and as a background to - the individual.

This provides a core element of theory in that the matrix becomes the medium or generative framework out of which the growth and change required by the therapeutic process emerges. In 1984 I likened this to an alchemical process transforming the self.

I have long thought that a more general application of the matrix idea can be linked to the heart of all creative activity from the emergence of virtual particles from the quantum vacuum through to the development of life and out of this the emergence of the human mind.

Creative living processes require a matrix for their foundation. The future of psychotherapy for me is to develop our understanding of this kind of process and finding ways of

1. Creating a matrix which is the optimal context for psychological change.

2. Enabling the processes of creativity to advance.

Psychotherapy I hope will increasingly recognise the needs of living processes and provide a matrix for growth, development and change. Such a matrix largely built from communication and symbolic behaviour, is intangible, and yet in my opinion in group-analysis, at least, the all important context of psychotherapeutic work.

Psychotherapy is intimately involved in living processes. I would like to identify two features of life.

(1) There is a case to be argued that life inhabits a tiny domain located at the interface between order and disorder.


Living processes require both freedom and containment.

(2) Although we live; very many humans entirely lack an intuitive understanding of life and life's processes. For instance cases of hysterical paralysis and anaesthesia indicate that our intuitive models of mind and body are wildly inaccurate. Sufferers from these conditions have no implicit anatomical knowledge at all.

It seems to me one of the great mysteries of life is that although we all live it, a sympathetic understanding of the most subtle and delicate of living processes is beyond the majority of us. This is most evident when dealing with mental processes. Here are delicately posed, infinitely complex processes all too often treated with unexpected and at times shocking clumsiness by physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists and others. Accurate empathy, non-possessive warmth, unconditional positive regard and congruence are rare natural attributes and yet I am sure that no psychotherapist or doctor should lack these.

In the last few months a remarkable new contribution to the Group-Analytic literature has been published. "The Anti-Group" by Morris Nitsun (1996). This is an honest and scholarly appraisal of the strengths and shortcomings of group-analysis to date. Nitsun, like myself sees the 'matrix' concept as central to group-analytic theory and practice. In his training and development as a group analyst he became aware of:

(1) a lack of coherent metapsychology,

(2) an enormous optimism invested in a group process, (a misplaced optimism he thinks.)

(3) unacknowledged by Foulkes the destructive and sadistic elements of human individual and group behaviour.

He finds in his group experiences an ever present overt, or covert antigroup which needs

exposing and analysing and which may eventually be transformed in the lifetime of the group. The anti group is a movement in every group which opposes the development of a living matrix and the insights into living processes which would follow from the group reaching a collective maturity.

Nitsun points us towards the dialectic between Foulke's unjustified optimism and Bion's all pervading pessimism.

Why does this destructiveness emerge? Why do we resist knowing life and knowing our bodies? Why do we appear to hate life so much? One answer is - because of the "death instinct". Another, and perhaps related, is that we hate life because it is ephemeral and close to death!

Models of mind are the guidelines of practice. If we are to presume to participate in the healing of minds we absolutely need a good working model of the mind in order not to be monumentally harmful. In my opinion this model must give emphasis to the complexity and vulnerability of living processes. Without such a model we are like the engineer who uses a "Birmingham (England) screwdriver" to mend a computer.

In conclusion: the existence and continuity of life requires containment to prevent disorderly dissolution without unleashing on it excessive control, meddling, intrusion and interference. Your average human psychotherapist can rarely encompass fully the complexity of his or her task and also resist knowing what is best for his or her client.

Donald Liddell, my most helpful teacher, told the story of a young doctor joining an older partner in General Practice. The older partner said, "in medicine my son you must go into partnership with mother nature - and you should be the silent partner."

I have endeavoured to follow this advice. I believe therefore that the emergent matrix of a mature group-analytic group ("mother nature" in an unusual guise) is an essential therapeutic aide, in acheiving the goal of enabling/facilitating sustainable transformation of damaged psyches.


Ongoing group-analysis is more a state of mind held by the conductor and later the group

members, than a technique for doing something.

Matrices are not malignant or benign. Like a chessboard they are neutral.

A major task of the group-analyst is maintenance/facilitation aimed against the antigroup!

The matrix is the stage - the actors will be driven by their internal worlds and

(subject to Freudian or Kleinian rules) and the play will takes its course within the constraints

provided by the stage.


  • Cortesao, E.L. (1967), this reference is lost and being researched.
  • Foulkes, S.H. (1973) The Group as Matrix of the Individuals Mental Life, In L.R. Wolberg & E.K. Schwartz (eds). Group Therapy (pp. 211-220). New York: Intercontinental Medical Book Corporation. (Reprinted in S.H. Foulkes, Selected Papers, Psychoanalysis and Group-analysis, edited by Foulkes, E.T. London: Karnac Books, 1990.
  • Roberts, J.P. (1982) Foulkes Concept of the Matrix. Group Analysis XV/2. 111-126.
  • Roberts, J.P. (1987) The Self and the Group Matrix, an unpublished paper presented at the Oxford International Group-Analytic Symposium. (It has never been submitted for publication.)
  • Roberts, J. & Pines, M. (1992) Group-Analytic Psychotherapy, International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, Vol. 42, 4, pp 469-494.