I felt like I was there

I felt like I was there

Working with the digital archives of the Leicester Conference, a post by Karen Kiss.

This post by Karen Kiss, an archive student working with the Born Digital material, explores the Tavistock Institute’s archives on its annual Leicester conference, highlighting the importance of the reports and feedback written about the event and the ethical considerations linked to working with them.

The archives blog has explored many of the fascinating documents the Tavistock Institute and its archival collection has to offer. However, there is a group of documents that we have not yet had the opportunity to explore in such detail. In the first part of the processing the Institute’s digital archives we had the chance to study the documents linked of the Leicester Conference. 

They provide a snapshot into the different years of the Institute’s annual, signature event. Leicester attracts professionals from around the globe to learn about group relations. It is not a traditional conference; rather than lectures, members attend study groups where they explore the subconscious and conscious dynamics affecting their interactions. These are led by consultants, observing and interpreting the behaviour of members, evoked by the unusual setting of the groups. With the assistance of the consultant, the members reflect on their interactions and attitudes towards each other, trying to peel off the layers of subconscious assumptions influencing their behaviour as a group.

The most insightful documents produced during this process were the reports written by the directors and other staff, alongside with feedback sent by members who attended the conference. They provide a detailed insight into the processing and experiences of the conference. 

These documents are not only interesting for researchers who want to learn about the recent history of the Leicester conference per se, but for anyone interested in how groups interact and how they are shaped by their historical environment. They provide rich, detailed, almost ethnographical accounts of the Conferences. Unfortunately, due to their often intimate nature, they also bring many ethical complications. We had to be particularly careful in deciding which documents would be sent to the collection of the Wellcome Library. This meant, that regretfully we had to detain many of the feedback documents from the members, as they revealed too much personal information about their writers. However, at least for the duration of this post, I want to shed some light on the collection in its entirety. I want to highlight its valuable aspects alongside the ethical concerns it embodies, with the hope, that this article can start a conversation that will someday lead to the whole collection to be shared with future researchers.

The documents

The documents discussed here can be grouped into two categories.First, the reports are written by the directors of the conferences and other stuff, such as the directors of the sub-conferences and administrators. These texts contain some practical accounts, such as the reflections on the organisational process, for instance, issues surrounding hiring staff or the accommodation. These documents effectively illustrate how the conference has changed over the years. However, the most exciting features discussed in the reports are the themes of the

Why are they useful?

What makes these archives particularly unique for researchers focusing on group relations, is that they provide a detailed insight into how the conference was experienced by both the organisers and members and how their interactions were shaped by the events occurring at the time. Mannie Sher directed Leicester many times and wrote some of the reports I worked with. He explained to me that during the conferences, they aim to understand and reflect on how the ‘outside world’, affects group relations. He argues that despite the participants being rather isolated throughout the two-week duration of the event, they still bring their reflections of outside occurrences, which often resurface in their interactions, attitudes and even dreams. 

The documents not only describe what happened, but they do so in a rich, and personal manner, giving ethnographic depth to the documents. As the conference itself is focused on encouraging members to reflect on the experiences of their interactions with each other, the feedback also often contains rather personal and deeply reflective ‘phenomenological’ comments. 

Coming from an anthropological background, these reflections reminded me of the ethnographic case studies. While I have not attended the conferences myself, the various reflections by the organisers and participants painted an in-depth and detailed picture, almost as if I was there with them. I ‘experienced’ the event through their subjective and varying perspectives. By reading more and more of the feedbacks, often referring to other members or organisers, I was slowly able to uncover relations between the participants. I often saw the two (or more) sides of interactions and events and how these were interpreted by the different parties.

The anecdotal, ethnographic nature of these documents, can be well illustrated with one particular example — the effect of the outbreak of Iraq war on the Leicester members and their interactions. As Mannie highlighted, the uncertainty created in the unusual setting of the conference is one of the driving forces for uncovering the often subconscious attitudes and behaviours developing in the groups. However, in this case, this was further highlighted by the events occurring outside the conference. 

The war was linked to several of the themes appearing in both the director’s reports and in the members’ reflections. There was a heightened feeling of uncertainty. People in the groups connected their loss of control in the conference setting to a general, global sense of unease. They complained about the world becoming increasingly unpredictable. This also put a strain on their interactions, I read about many conflicts amongst the members themselves and with the staff in the documents. 

Another theme was the mistrust in authority. It is not unheard of that the members criticise or turn against the consultants leading the study groups. The consultants often to put them in challenging and uncomfortable situations and also provide interpretations of their behaviour to inspire the exploration of their subconscious. However, in this period, figures such as Tony Blair and George Bush were linked to fantasies on challenging the consultants’ authority and competence. They appeared in dreams, and members expressed their unhappiness towards the consultants through hostility towards the politicians. In addition, questions around religion became particularly sensitive. The documents detail how members often struggled to discuss this topic; they felt uncomfortable and were worried that focusing on the issue would bring conflict within the groups. This led to many members to avoid this topic more than usual.

Ethical Issues

Working with documents featuring subjective and personal information was not only fascinating but also brought its own difficulties. I had to consider the ethical issues related to the documents and reflect on my role both as an anthropologist turned archivist, as well as an archivist working with digital data. Being rather recent, mostly from the early 2000s and often quite personal, we needed special care and consideration to decide which documents could be sent to the Wellcome Library. We were able to send reports written by the directors and other members of the staff, as these texts were conscious of hiding the members’ identity on whose behaviour they reflected on. However, we had to make the difficult decision of detaining most of the members’ feedback to protect the writers’ identity at this point. This was a tough choice to make, as the interactions of the reports and the feedback create a particularly insightful view into the experiences of Leicester.

As an anthropology student, I worked with a similarly personal and intimate reflection, which I could use in my own paper. However, in the case of the archives, the comments were not disclosed to me as a researcher, but to other trusted parties. When I worked with transcripts, I had the chance to alter the text slightly and to avoid using names and to protect the identity of my participants. At the beginning of the process, we hoped that we could find a similar solution, as we worked with digital Word documents. We were hoping that deleting the names and other identifiable features from the letters would still allow us to use the fascinating materials without endangering the identity of their creators. However, we had to recognise that despite the digitalised form of the documents, they still had to be treated like paper archives. It would be unimaginable to scratch out or cover some parts of the materials in paper forms. We accepted that despite being digital, our archives should also be taken as they are, without any alterations of the content, which meant we could not share them with the public at this point.

Despite the collection being currently ‘incomplete’, I hope that with the passing of time, the detained documents can be reunited with the rest of the archives. When the writers’ identities are not going to be endangered by the files anymore, they could become an insightful and unique resource for future researchers. 

Karen Kiss biography

I am an anthropologist, specialising in material and visual culture. I like to learn about objects, both material and digital and how they reflect social relations and memory. This is the aspect I enjoyed most about the Tavistock Archives, they provided a snapshot into the recent history of the Institute. My favourite collections were the documents of the Leicester Conferences and the files on the Institute’s research, as they provided an insight into what social issues captured the imagination of people at the time they were created.

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