David Chirko, A.B. (chirkoart.ca)

Professional Affiliate Member &

Psychologically oriented researcher and author

Sudbury, Ontario, Canada

Book Review

Volkan, Vamik D. (2020). Large-Group Psychology: Racism, Societal Divisions, Narcissistic Leaders and Who We Are Now. Oxfordshire, UK: Phoenix Publishing House Ltd.

ISBN-13: 978-1-912691-65-4.  Paperback, 154 pages, 9”x6”x3/8”.  $24.95 amazon.com/$34.95 amazon.ca. 

Sequential chapter by chapter analysis

About the author

Vamik D. Volkan, MD, is a Turkish Cypriot born (1932-) American psychiatrist and psychoanalyst.  His numerous academic appointments and memberships, awards, and writings are inventoried here.

About the book

Volkan describes how, in August 2017, his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia was the scene of a large-group of motley white supremacists, resisting removal of a downtown Confederate General Robert E. Lee statue.  Few of them knew each other personally but shared similar racist beliefs.  One of them mowed down a throng in his car.  This galvanized Volkan to write this book.

Later, a preamble addressing the impact of large-group psychology2 on the individual asks, metaphorically, “Who are we now?”  Volkan relates this to his book’s subtitle’s themes, plus authoritarian governments, building walls, democratic and human rights, and propaganda.

Chapter One                                                                                                                                                                                     Personal motivations for studying large-group psychology.

After closing his clinical practice in 2000 Volkan continued consulting with, and supervising, younger psychoanalysts from other lands.  Although “not their therapist” (p. 2)”3, some would relate to him how their life experiences predisposed them to what psychological issues they approached or eschewed.  However, they seldom revealed to analysands or researchers their specific motives. 

There was always conflict between Turks and Greeks.  However, both volunteered in the British forces during World War II.  Therefore Volkan, Turkish, made peace with people from larger groups, like the Greeks.  He then depicts his childhood growing up in Cyprus and how this initiated his desire to become a psychoanalyst.  Volkan ventures beyond the couch with his skills and knowledge, delving world conflicts and traumas via fruitful dialogues he states are “…in its own right…formulations about …conscious and unconscious shared past and present historical/psychological experiences…within a large group” (p. xiv).  Further, that “A psychoanalyst can be effective, as Alexander Mitscherlich (1971) indicated, when he…learns to work as a member of an interdisciplinary team” (p. 10).  Volkan constructed said—the Centre for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction (CSMHI), in 1987–which included other mental health practitioners, former diplomats, and political scientists. 

Chapter Two                                                                                                                                                                                            Large-group psychology in its own right

Volkan touches on the contribution Sigmund Freud (1921) made to our understanding of group psychology.  Freud did not label a bevy of people as a group as he did a nation, race, religion, or professional institution.  Further, Freud thought, in the group the person experientially is open to suggestion and forgoes some of their individuality.  Later, other group analysts would explore this terrain, showing how anxiety could be socioculturally sculpted in the group psyche.

Next, described is large-group regression, a major defense mechanism whose primitive levels of functioning utilize avoidance, denial, introjection, projection, and splitting.  This causes traditional borders to psychologize, moving beyond the lowest common denominator to progression, when things hopefully stabilize.  People thus become cognizant of their protection, as the intrapsychic world and personality of the leader influences what the leaderthinks is bad or good.

Chapter Three

Large-group identity that develops in adulthood

Volkan avers that being a member of a large-group, such as an academic organization, financial institution, or sports team fandom does not change the essence of one’s childhood large-group identity.  However, their moral compass goes awry when they abandon values shared earlier with former friends in other large-groups embracing what is now available to them, like a religious cult or terrorist outfit with radical theological and/or jingoistic beliefs.  This making them, through regression, socially distinct. 

Chapter Four

Psychology of decision-making and political leader-follower relationships

Volkan examines the decision-making process in American political analysis, first viewed as a rational actor model– a purely logical enterprise.  It depends on contingent opportunities, but is oblivious to culture, norms, roles, replacing a leader and/or their minions.  Few psychoanalysts, apart from Leo Rangell (1971), studied decision-making as well as  inaugurating the anxiety-choice-decision-action psychoanalytic theoretical model, which described decision-making, per regression and fixation, in the ego.  Planned decisions are governed by memories of earlier trauma.  Consequently, defenses are ratified to preclude precarious unconscious impulses to surface.

Next, Volkan describes transactional leaders, who work within existing social and political systems, with no problem when there is little crisis.  On the other hand, the transformative leaders reconstruct the system and employ charisma, through a powerful parent image, influential in times of crisis.  They garner unwavering trust in their omniscience.  Two transformative subgroups are the reparative kind, achieving their purpose in large groups sans humiliating anyone, and the destructive kind, employing humiliation to combat their enemy.

Chapter Five

Political propaganda

Drever (1968) defined propaganda, generally, as “Organized efforts to induce certain attitudes in…people…by way of suggestion and…utilization of emotionally tinged words” (p. 226).  Volkan, correspondingly, defines it as manipulative communication from an authoritarian entity parlayed to its acolytes, foes, and those in the neutral camp, to advance an ideological agenda.

Volkan adumbrates the history of propaganda, stemming from the Reformation’s devotees, who found the Vatican process of “propagating” its theology above and beyond theirs in Western Europe and later America.  Protestants thus viewed “propaganda” as a besmirchment.

The leader’s propaganda is activated by revivifying a specific trauma, collectivizing victimization in a larger group; augmenting camaraderie by revisiting earlier greatness; denigrating the “Other”–those one does not esteem or empathize with, who are different (Akhtar, 2009); and seeking revenge.

Chapter Six

Applying the tree model and large-group consultations

Volkan contends that the tree model, which entails roots–the psychopolitical assessment of the problems; trunk—psychopolitical dialogues; and branches—institution building; is totally operative in large groups, be they economic, legal, military, political, or social. 

Roots: The CSMHI employs its interdisciplinary team to study the culture and history of a country’s group(s), gathering data on the present conflict.  This all executed by historians who, even though not expert on the land under scrutiny, could put another slant on the material gathered, enhancing its understanding.  Clinicians introduce their perspicacity to the mental images of what transpires historically.  Everyone from those in government, media, academia, to taxi drivers are consulted.

Trunk: Several occasions per year, for four days straight, CSMHI assembles ten to fifteen members of opposing sides, like Greeks and Turks, allowing them to vent themselves emotionally, if need be, while engaged in their arguments.  The atmosphere would be incisive as the psychopolitical dialogues are usually efficacious.  This stretched out to two to three years in a series.

Branches: The information gleaned from deeper discernment in the dialogues now entails taking specific action on said, that will impact the larger group.  The CSMHI team precludes backsliding by institutionalizing the achieved advancement.  Clinicians at a populist level ratify models for cooperation and getting along. 

Earlier, my colleague, psychologist and architect Ben Hoffman, PhD—former Director, Conflict Resolution Program at The Carter Center, representing President Jimmy Carter, 2000 to 2003 (Buchal, 2013)—similarly referred to a (then 25 year old) procedure he termed the Standard ‘Classical’ Mediation Model (2013).  It is customized by the mediator, and corresponds to the dispute, oppugner and culture involved.  Carter’s Center supported the psychoanalytic approach to comprehending and resolving large-group conflict (Volkan, 2023).  In 1987 it formed The International Negotiation Network (INN).  INN includes politicians, Nobel laureates, the famous, plus conflict and peace resolution experts–like Volkan.   

  Chapter Seven
Cherry hospital: personal observations on racism

Volkan recounts doing his psychiatric residency, 1958 to 1961, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Following that he describes his experiences treating patients at Cherry Hospital, one of the first blacks-only mental hospitals in United States, located in Goldsboro, North Carolina.  He remarks that forensic psychiatrist John Lind then believed that blacks had a delusion of being white, having a “color complex,” because their psychological processes were thought to be less intricate than those found in the white psyche.  Adhering to Lind’s thesis, many authors explained how black children compared their complexion to white children; the more similar, the more meritorious, or so blacks thought and were led to believe.

The author expatiates on desegregation and what transpires when black persons were disallowed from associating with whites and the next day given the opportunity to socialize freely with them.  Therein the traumatized self must be examined.  This is accomplished later, lasting days or months through a psychoanalytic process called “therapeutic play.”  Such is not articulated by words or vocalized, but through the composing of poetry mirroring their conflicts, and has been shown effective (Chirko, 2023). 

Chapter Eight

Who are we now?

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the European Parliament’s Committee on Inquiry into Racism and Xenophobia vociferated its positions on race hatred.  They stated that the individual is vexed over the future, compounded by issues of impoverishment and unemployment.  Volkan opines this was simplistic because it failed to unearth deeper psychological issues.  He says that basic trust, which Erik Erikson (1985) spoke of, became blind trust.  Moreover, he wished to explore neo-racism–cultural differences within the same ethnicities.  This brings us to Volkan’s book’s quintessential proclamation:  “…the aggressive aspect of human nature and…killing of Others in the name of large-group identity remains the same” (p. 89). 

Volkan speaks of President Donald Trump’s construction of the wall guarding United States from Mexico as a protective “border,” making America “great”—like himself.  He indicates, sans sources, widespread support for the assertion Trump possesses a narcissistic personality (disorder), or NPD.  Further, that he craves omnipotence and (propagandistically) mortifies his challengers.  Michael D’Antonio (2016), wrote a biography of Trump, exposing the latter’s dearth of empathy.  Volkan, composing that book’s introduction, therein stated Trump, finding nefarious and upstanding elements on both sides of the Charlottesville ruckus, stimulated sociopolitical division.  Volkan said he was unprepared to do a Trump psychobiography, never having him on his couch (remember the Goldwater rule?).  However he, with others, did one on Richard Nixon, whom he never psychoanalyzed either. 

Chapter Nine

Persons with exaggerated narcissism

Outstanding in NPD is one always being “number one,” by collecting credit for “firsts” in what they accomplished. Growing up “special,” self-preservation is evident.  Such grandiosity in a leader, when challenged, brings about shame, fomenting antagonism to their sensitive self-esteem.  To assuage this they may exact extreme measures, using language for those who adulate them, as “fantastic,” and those who oppose them, as “fake.” 

Last words

Psychoanalysts need extra data on large-group identity conflicts to have a more profound voice in world issues.  Moreover, it would be beneficent for world leaders to immerse themselves in its study for cultivation of peace.

Addendum: COVID-19, psychoanalysis, and large-group psychology

Technological and socioeconomic modifications are anticipated post-epidemic, affecting large-group psychology.

Conclusions

Vamik Volkan’s Turkish upbringing and childhood was molded by his experiences in relating to Greeks in Cyprus.  Traumas and conflicts in large-groups fascinated him.

Freud thought groups could expunge individuality.  Group regression is a variegated, major defense mechanism, creating protective psychological borders, wherein progression is realized through stabilization.

Volkan explains that being part of larger groups in childhood does not waver, but can shift extremely, if one embarks on a revolutionary political or religious awakening later.

The rational actor model in political decision-making was criticized for its excessive ratiocination, unlike Leo Rangell’s individual approach, which involved planning, through the effects of previous traumas.

Volkan found a leader’s propaganda to be a powerful, surreptitious weapon in promoting an (authoritarian) ideology to create social and political division.  This, executed by: revisiting social trauma, claiming larger group victimization, identifying the enemy “Other,” then humiliating and defeating them–part of their schema.

Volkan’s tree model, employed to negotiate in groups, was proven to be realizable.  Because of its interdisciplinary structure, voices from various fields and cultures were consulted, annexing more depth in discussions.

Treating at blacks-only Cherry mental hospital, Volkan learned about unfair, racist stereotyping perpetuated by psychiatrists.  His use of therapeutic play, showed how poetry was successfully utilized, enabling patients to demonstrate conflict.

Collectively, Western identity has been uprooted due to a paucity of trust originating in intraspecific racism, not just because of poverty and unavailability of work.  Politicians polarize this via their propagandistic argot.  Some argued Trump’s position concerning the wall ratified self-preservation, while others believed it a divisive stricture.  Who we are now?  We are more authoritarian.

Narcissism is crucial in sculpting the charisma and subsequent success of certain leaders, who are desperate to be exalted.

Study of large-group psychology should be mandatory in psychoanalytic teaching.

Notes

1Vulcan”– originally a volcanic power, was the Roman god of fire (Jones, 1982, p. 268).  In Turkish, translated “Vulkan” and “Volkan,” the surname of the author here, is the Turkish word for volcano. 

2The words “Large-Group Psychology,” in the moniker of Volkan’s book, may conjure the concept of social psychology.  The difference between any kind of social psychology and group psychology is elucidated by Tajfel (1980), who said social psychology is “A branch of psychology…defined as the scientific study of human social behavior.  In order to test its theories and hypotheses…endeavours to use…laboratory experimentation and…controlled research in ‘natural surroundings’” (p. 581-582), and Bernstein (1980), who averred that group psychology is “The branch of social psychology concerned with the behavior of an individual when exposed to the influence of a group of which he is a member….  The subject is also known as group dynamics….” (p. 272). 

3Volkan would not be the training analyst psychoanalyzing them, but the “supervising” analyst, overseeing their first attempts at psychoanalyzing patients (see Akhtar, 2009, p. 289). 

References

Akhtar, Salman. (2009). Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. London, UK: Karnac Books Ltd.

Bernstein, Marion. (1980). In Alan Bullock & Oliver Stallybrass (Eds.), The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought. London, UK: Fontana Books.

Buchal, Martina. (2013, August 4). Ben Hoffman Interview [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9hExNDPrvw

Chirko, David. (2023). The Use of Poetry in Group Psychotherapy. The Group Psychologist. https://evidencebasedgrouptherapy.org/gp_articles/the-use-of-poetry-in-group-psychotherapy/ 

D’Antonio, Michael. (2016). The Truth About Trump. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Drever, James. (1968). A Dictionary of Psychology. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books Ltd.

Erikson, Erik Homburger. (1985). Childhood and Society. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Freud, Sigmund. (1921, 1965). Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. New York, NY: Bantam Books, Inc.

Hoffman, Ben. (2013). Peaceweaving Shamanistic insights into mediating the transformation of power. Dacre, ON: The Canadian International Institute of Applied Negotiation. https://www.amazon.ca/Peaceweaving-Shamanistic-Insights-Mediating- Transformation/dp/0986490733

Jones, Arthur A. (1982). Illustrated Dictionary of World Religions. Exeter, UK: The Religious Education Press.

Mitscherlich, Alexander. (1971). Psychoanalysis and aggression of large groups. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 52: 161-167.

Rangell, Leo. (1971). The decision-making process: A contribution from psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 26: 425-452.

Tajfel, Henri. (1980). In Alan Bullock & Oliver Stallybrass (Eds.), The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought. London, UK: Fontana Books.

Volkan, Vamik D. Remembering Jimmy Carter and his Contribution to the Role of Psychoanalysis in World Affairs. American Journal of Psychoanalysis 83, 131–151 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1057/s11231-023-09404-y

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