The bases of our practice

Being an NGO by default is expected to mean “an antiauthoritarian civil society organisation” (for the d/evolution of the term, see Stateva, 2009, pp. 205-207). However, our main mode of operation is categorised (by registration) as “a developmental activity in the areas of social sciences and the humanities”. This is not just a formality as we believe that complex matters like resistance and building an alternative reality based on justice, care and solidarity, should be approached with rigour and there is a lot of science to it.

Our particular focus is on the concept of a grid. It builds on previously existing concepts and phenomena related to group dynamics and facilitation, such as network, space, matrix, movement etc. but explicitly focuses on the power aspects of the world in which we exist. Instead of wishfully denying that “such a bad thing” as power exists, we take power as the basis of what constitutes our view of the world in which we live together. From this viewpoint, we target the development of the key skills for navigation in power dynamics and complexity - leadership and authority.

From this perspective power is always present between people and even animals. It is the power imbalances that constitute a problem: oppression, violence, exploitation. Precisely because of acknowledging, exploring, working with and mobilising power dynamics, the grid is a galvanised network, a reflective space that learns from conscious and unconscious processes beneath-the-surface, a matrix that gives birth to ideas, new initiatives, new entities and the charger, shaker and mover of a given movement as an unfolding and emergent political phenomenon.

Below is an overview of the scientific basis of where does the grid stands scientifically; how it links with the world as a field of power dynamics (and how genuine social scientists therefore can not but be activists and vice versa); why this requires individuals and groups to develop soft skills; and why we focus precisely on leadership and authority as key to making a change.

The concept of a Grid

We build on Mary Douglas (1970) grid/group analysis, the concept and design of a referent organisation (Trist, 1968) and the understanding of the grid as unconscious dynamics in the work of Wilfred Bion (1977). While the grid/group analysis is well established in anthropology and sociology to explore ideology in communities (Caulkins, 1999), the very idea and concept of the grid itself as a power field is poorly explored, developed and deployed methodologically.

Elaborating the concept of a grid to upgrade existing notions in sociology, anthropology, political science and organisational studies introduces dimensions of power, the workings of the unconscious at the microlevels in groups as well as the role of skillful facilitation. Facilitation, as we shall see below, is essential to build up a more potent model of collaboration and mutual ignition of individuals, groups, communities and movements. As a competence it derives from leadership and authority, and distributes power through well established methodologies and techniques of practical applications.

The theoretical heritage we build upon

The Orion Grid is conceived and its concept is tested at the Tavistock Institute for Human Relations. This is the home of the so-called Tavistock tradition which derives from object relations theory - also known as the British tradition in psychoanalysis. The Tavistock Clinic develops psychoanalytic/psychotherapeutic work, mainly stemming from the work of Melanie Klein and her followers. Within this perspective, the goal of psychoanalysis is primarily developmental, with curative effects but they are not the focus of the work. Indeed the framework is not grounded within conventional understandings of mental health and illness. It is rather enhancing one’s understanding of themselves as an intersubjective being that is the goal of the practice. The Tavistock Institute develops the social science aspects and the group relations theory and methodology (GR), based on the work of the Kleinian psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion - the originator also of the group psychotherapy. The GR is a strictly non-clinical practice though. It is best known for the group relations conferences - experiential learning laboratories of temporary “organisations” dedicated to the study of themselves and their workings thus leading participants to often tacit knowledge, understanding and skills of navigating in the complexity of and between groups. Technically, we base our work on a critical reading of Bion’s seminal paper Experience in Groups. The Tavistock tradition was highly influential in Bulgaria in the 1990’s processes of democratisation has part of our team are proficiently trained and have more than 20 years of experience with this paradigm.

This paradigm has also led to, and was fertilised by, major developments in understanding the development of democracy - for example, the work on democracy of Kurt Lewin, in particular the elaboration of action research as a transformative and emancipatory methodology ; as well as Tavistock Publishers (with high impact, but no longer exists) publishing the work of Murray Bookchin who has also developed and used notions from group relations theory and methodology, the study group in particular (albeit with no official reference to such links).

Our methodological cornerstones

We are located scientifically within the critical paradigm. Unlike positivist and interpretivist frameworks, without excluding elements of those, according to Garrick (2000), critical research has the benefit and is valuable with its ontological view that the social order comprises power dynamics that put pressure on those disempowered (including nature and the environment). Within this framework, these are the intersubjective, political and economic processes that shape consciousness and consequently behaviour; the understandings of the world are in a dialectical relationship between these factors and the individual, and are located within ideological frameworks.

Consequently, the way to study the social world is by acknowledging that knowledge and understanding are socially situated and constructed, the “truths” are a manifestation of power relations (like structural and systemic inequalities), while “facts” are representative of the discrete sub-systems under observation. The underlying interests in critical research therefore are: to bring about change, to empower and emancipate, to challenge the status quo by ensuring and utilising as equal as possible participation of the various stakeholders and their perspectives, the tensions and struggles between them and so on. Therefore, any research within this paradigm inevitably acknowledges that research by default also changes the system under investigation and should involve purposefully introducing change and studying this change (and any unintended impacts) as they unfold.

Hence, the research we practice is participatory action research. Reason and Bradbury (2008:1) claim that ‘action research is about working towards practical outcomes and also about creating new forms of understanding, since action without reflection is blind, just as theory without action is meaningless’. It is offering a dual approach to both ‘understanding’ and the ‘promotion of change’. According to Rapoport (1970:1) it is a merger of academic social science with experience considering ‘both the practical concerns of people in immediate problematic situations and the goals of social science by joint collaboration’. As put by Carr and Kemmis (1986), improvement is central as the approach endeavours to achieve both an improved understanding of a practice and situation, which leads to the improvement/ revision. Collaboration between researchers and practitioners (activists in our case) is seen as central to the action research process (Whyte, 1991). The participation of “users” and local communities is highly embedded through ‘a participatory process concerned with developing practical knowing in the pursuit of worthwhile human purposes [...] brings together action and reflection, theory and practice, in participation with others, in the pursuit of practical solutions to issues of pressing concern to people.’ (Reason & Bradbury, 2008:4).

Leadership and authority as key competences

In destabilising the conventional notions of power, we built also on cutting-edge work in social and political thought where a sharp distinction is made between power, violence (Gewalt), force, coercion, etc. For they have become entangled in the modern world which has led to the corruption and actual misuse of the phenomenon of power (Cf. this review of Arendt’s work on these concepts, or the seminal works of Benjamin and Derrida). Linked to that is recovering the status of authority as a political function, by clarifying what actually authority is supposed to be and to mean.

Authority is often misinterpreted or misused in the sense of those who hold the power, which leads to the rejection of authority by activists (and anarchists in particular). In social and political thought and methodology, it is precisely the opposite - the ability to have power by virtue of knowledge (see this basic introduction to Foucault on knowledge as power), and to be able to give it up and share it.

Authority is a soft skill to the extent to which “to have an authority” also means to be able to connect with one’s voice and to speak and act from there - which is crucial in grassroots groups, organisations and movements. The participatory approach in mainstream politics has largely been abused by involving in decision making disadvantaged groups and people who have internalised the oppressive discourse and sentiments. This has led to widespread tokenism, to using their membership in political parties, events and structures to legitimise the status quo and, worse, right-wing policies (see this excellent research by a UWE team).

Here is a brief vignette, with the consent of the person, an excerpt from a recent conversation with one of “our people” - “T”. (male, an organiser of a movement for direct democracy, their 30s) talks online to M. (female, consultant, in her 40s):

T: Have you seen the classics?

M: Yes, I know it. Terrific.


M: There was also a not bad remake.

T: "Prejudice always obscures the truth." 12 angry man

M: Yes, this is one of the problems with general assemblies. Because this practice [of conscripting on duty jury members among random citizens] is precisely [a citizen assembly]. You are selected through randomisation and you have no right to decline, and your employer is obliged to give you paid leave for duty service.

T: What is one of the problems?

M: The prejudices. Not counting also the group dynamics.

T: It precisely shows the outcome of a group debate. Flips around deeply rooted attitudes...

M: Yes - as well as what the challenges are. I will even watch it again tonight.

T: reasoning. And by rational thinking.

M: Well, this is one in 1000. Was. Especially in the times when people did not have clarity [about prejudices, bias and stereotypes].

T: Exactly - it depends on the level of activisation and organisation of the conscious individuals.

M: And having a critical mass of them.

T: The key is to have authority and the right to voice/vote.

M: Well, authority can be learned by virtue of taking responsibility. When you know that the life of someone depends on you and you have not become institutionalised yet [T: thumb up], (because this is the problem with the professionals) [T: thumb up], want it or not, you find a way to connect with your voice and become an authority.

By accepting power as a matter of life and as something that cannot be removed but has to be worked with, not only authority but also leadership and followership require special attention. Bion’s early work was based on completely rejecting leadership and authority in group settings. His method derives from “the leaderless group” and working with the anxiety that the leaderlessness invokes in groups. He distinguished between a work group (group focused on a working task) and basic assumption groups (groups which have a second agenda of serving the emotional and irrational needs of its members). He found that a leaderless group inevitably drifts away from the work task into modes such as fight/flight, pairing and dependency.

The task of the group facilitator then becomes not to lead but to work with and to work through (to name and help to understand, and resolve) the obstacles for the group to focus on the task at hand. This led to the elaboration of study groups of various sizes. Their only work task is to study themselves as a group internally and externally. We base our reflective and experiential learning groups on this approach to foster skills for facilitation - most of “our people'' are well trained as moderators, but what they lack and are frustrated with is precisely the tendency of leaderless groups to collapse, to be disrupted or to drift (Cf. this blog post for how this links with activism and possible ways of building pure democracy).

The idea that leadership, authority and other soft skills for navigation in power dynamics and complexity are not inborn qualities but can be learned and have to be made accessible to everyone gains further impetus after WW2. Kurt Lewin is one of the first to start elaborating on the concept of democratic leadership for the purposes of optimising results in organisational design. After he moved to Europe to head efforts of the Tavistock Institute to recover the post-war economy, this model has been linked to action research in the coal industry - the researchers found that groups with distributed leadership (as democratic leadership is reformulated more recently) are most flourishing in all respects.

These are groups in which power, authority, the right to speak, to participate and to control resources are distributed evenly: hence leadership is defined as any "activities tied to the core work of the organization that are designed by organizational members to influence the motivation, knowledge, affect, or practices of other organizational members." Thus a leader is anyone who engages in these activities based on tasks, not position. As this definition implies, there is within an organisation a group of people who are influenced by these leadership activities: these are the followers. Importantly, the role of a leader or follower is dynamic, and a person might be a follower in one situation but not in another (the so-called “matrix” type of organisation as opposed to the traditional hierarchical model). Additionally, followers are not passive recipients of these influences and followers may influence the leaders as well - there is no leader without followers. Hence people should learn not only how to be good leaders, but how to be good followers. Thus, in group relations theory and methodology (as well as in organisational psychology) the highest standard of leadership, the most effective and just model, is that of democratic/distributed leadership and has become the core meaning of the term “leader”.

In the work of The Orion Grid the acquisition of competences for change such as leadership and authority in this paradigm is possible by a combination of some degree of educational activities (lectures, publications), combined with:

  • experience in study groups (leaderless groups whose work task is the study of their own evolution and dynamics) - what we call reflexive groups;

  • one-on-one sessions as conversations - this practice is originally called role-analysis by analogy with psycho-analysis but the focus is on social role rather than the psyche (it has more recently deteriorated into a practice marketed as coaching).

We practice all these approaches as well as the more recent technique of shadowing - joining in the action field either as observant participant or as a participant observer side by side with the learner (the wiki is not bad, actually). The purpose is supporting them to understand what is going on in the field beneath-the-surface, i.e. at the levels of power dynamics.

This approach allows us high-intensity, low-key, light-touch powerful interventions that allow for a greater impact and accelerated change in the field.