Reflecting on group relations
In April 2010, I attended the Leicester Conference: Authority Role Organisation for the first time, as a member. Five months later, in September 2010, I attended another Group Relations conference: this time, however, I was working as a consultant at the Group Relations conference in Vilnius, Lithuania. It is now almost time for Leicester 2011, which provides me with an opportunity, a year on, to give a personal account of how these experiences have impacted on my work as a researcher.
As a researcher and evaluator, on a day-to-day basis I work with colleagues to produce useful information and knowledge. One of the questions that kept popping up in my mind during conferences was: what does this all mean for my role as a researcher and how does group relations fit within a research enquiry?
One of the most direct impacts of group relations for me has been a heightened awareness of what constitutes ‘evidence’ and ‘data’ in the process of knowledge production. Being able to directly experience how groups form and function, has enabled me to pay more attention to all the unspoken factors that play a powerful part in shaping decision-making and that may hinder the ability of different groups to relate to each other. Because left unvoiced and ignored, our ability to deal with, and manage, difference decreases. The factors I allude to refer to things like stereotypes and assumptions that we make about the ‘other’ –be it assumptions about race, ethnicity, culture or age - all of which impact on the dynamics between groups and on their ability to function well within a system. Within only a few days of a conference of this kind, all the things that can occur within organisations and systems begin to unfold: one can experience the process of lack of trust, breakdown of communications, discrimination, competition and how much of this is impacted by the perceptions we have of others.
In this sense, “evidence” is not only what can be measured or counted. But also, it is about being able to bring to the surface those social and cultural factors that shape peoples’ understanding of, and interactions with, each other. Having been able to directly experience the inherent dilemmas that arise when people need to work together on a task, in my work as a researcher I find myself being more sensitive to the context within which the work I do is situated, paying more attention to what is not being
. So, for example, what is the impact of the presence of white, male, police officers in projects that aim to engage young Muslims? What kinds of projections do differences bring with them and how does this help or inhibit effective collaboration between different groups within a system? Being able to highlight some of these questions can help make better sense of the challenges that communities and their leaders face.
The other thing I have taken with me from my group relations experience, has been some key questions which in many ways relate to the production of knowledge: within and between groups, where does the power seem to lie? How is it being exercised? What is the relationship between those who have influence and those who have less of it and what can it say about how a programme or a project is being delivered? I have found these questions to be particularly useful when undertaking observation activities as part of fieldwork that I have carried out: the questions often relate to the power and access to resources that sometimes exists between groups.
Overall, what I can say about group relations is that it has enabled me to acquire a wider set of tools to use when carrying out research. These tools enable the acquisition of additional levels of data that can be used to reflect back to the client what they may not be aware of and make them more informed or critical about the research on which they base their own decision-making.
The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations