Research on group work
This is an extract from Heron, J., Dimensions of
Facilitator Style, Human Potential Research Project, University of
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
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
(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
(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
- To plan to introduce relevant change after the group in one or
more domains of living.
- To devise during and apply after the group simple
self-monitoring techniques to monitor whether such change is being
introduced and to what degree.
- To plan to be accountable to self and others at a follow up
meeting to share.
- The kind and degree of change or lack of it as evidenced by
the monitoring reports.
- The relevance of the planned change and whether new
directions are called for.
- The adequacy of the self-monitoring methods and whether
these need changing. The group experience itself thus launches
an action or experiential research cycle in which responsibility
for assessing effective outcomes is laicized, is delegated to
group members, becomes part of the co-operative effort in
intentional interaction research.
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
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
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
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
- She may decide to inaugurate significant personal change in her
life on the basis of some experience acquired in the group, even
though the group was incompetently facilitated and at a low level of
- She may decide not to use the group experience as a basis for
any personal change, even though F was excellent, the group of high
quality and full of change potential. She may decide this because
she is not ready to change in ways the group indicated, or because
although she is ready she is fully extended in sustaining other and
previously acquired modes of change, or because she has rational
reservations about the desirability or relevance of the change
potential, or for many other possible reasons that make sense to her
as an autonomous human.
- She may decide to use the group experience to sustain kinds of
change previously acquired, to consolidate and maintain what was
already achieved before the group began. This is invisible gain, the
obviation of what otherwise might have been a backward slide.
- She may decide to store the change potential, to file it away as
an acknowledged and valid possibility; then actualize it one, two,
three or ten years later. Or similarly she may choose to experience
the change potential as a seed that has a long latency period before
- She may decide to experience the group purely as an
end-in-itself, as an experience of being here now, as a celebration
of the immediate -the change being the ability to do just that at
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
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
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