On the concept of “institutional container: an introduction

The subject of this monographic issue was inspired by an hypothesis which the three authors of one of its papers had shared from their own work: that the real object of the so-called “supervisions” within healthcare and social institutions is not so much the clinical case, or the quality of the provided service, or the staff support, but rather the institutional container. In my view this discourse could apply to all social organisations, even those from the private and commercial sector, where other methods – such as organisational consultancy, executive coaching etc. – might be assimilated to supervision as a way to “take care of the container”.
The concept of an “institutional container” is not a new one, even though from a quick survey of the literature it seems that it did not undergo a deep inquiry, except in sociological studies and in  applications to groups. Furthermore, when mentioned it is generally conceived as a “thing” or a frame, with relatively little attention to its functions and particularly to its relationship with the “content”. Paraphrasing Winnicott[1], I would suggest that there is not such a thing as a “container”, separated from a linkage to the content. In the meaning used in the following articles this concept is seen more as a dynamic process than a structure, and its origins go back to Bion’s studies on the mind’s function of containing emotions in early relationships and in the development of thought; other contributions from the psychoanalytic field are the concepts of “holding” (Winnicott, 1965), “deposit” and “encuadre” (Pichon-Rivière, 1960; Bleger, 1967), “institution as a defence” (Jaques, 1955; Menzies, 1961), and “institution-in-the-mind” (Armstrong, 1997).
The psychological function of containment and the related model of container/contained relationship (♀↔♂) are explored in the following articles starting from Bion’s insights in Learning from Experience (Bion, 1962), where he traces the containment process back to the early relationships between the mother and the infant. As Obholzer suggests (1996), these relationships imply processes of projective and introjective identification, which in favourable conditions promote for the infant the experience of being “contained” by the mother, helping the creation of his/her inner world and the development of the capacity for thinking. The Bion (1962) concept of container and contained are crucial at this stage of development…. The baby experiences a state of distress or ill-being while not being clear what the problem is – merely the fact that there is a problem. The mother recognizes that the baby has a problem without being clear what it is – she does, however, by and large have a greater capacity to embark on the process of dealing with the problem and working towards a joint resolution of the difficulty. In this model the mother is the container, the distress the contained. Obholzer points out how Bion’s dynamic and relational model of containment might be usefully applied to the social sphere and that organisations can also work effectively as containers, stemming anxieties and developing a capacity for thinking, building strategies, and above all acknowledging and managing problems. Things obviously can also go wrong, and just as it may occur to mothers,  organisations as well might appear as containers unable to contain, which therefore are likely to suffer damages, or to become “echo chambers” for anxieties, thus making problems worse further (Obholzer, 1996; Perini, 2007). Then also Bion’s different models of container/contained relationship can serve as a key for interpreting organisational processes: generally one can assume that symbiosis – which is not always necessarily constructive – acts as a paradigm for behaviours based on co-operation, partnership, alliance (but also for those of collusion, cohesiveness, and narcissistic seduction), while a parasitic relationship would rather belong to organisational behaviours of aggression, predatoriness, exploitation and persecution (but also to not necessarily destructive elements, like commercial competition). On another hand, commensalism turns to be, especially in Italy, as the prevailing culture within the public sector, where the fragmentation of processes, together with a weak leadership and the coexistence of wide autonomy and poor controls, foster a detachment between rulers and ruled (or doctors and patients), between different areas of an organisation, between technique and administration, where each one pursuits his own advantage in a climate of  “live and let live”, and of indifference for whatever might affect one’s neighbour or the system as a whole. In his already mentioned paper, Obholzer then focuses on a containing function carried on by the leadership and the management, a function depending on their personal story and on the resulting capacity to face anxiety from a sufficiently mature stance (a “depressive” position, in Klein’s and Bion’s terms), instead of falling into a defensive paranoid setup. The underlying assumption of this aspect of psychoanalytic theory is that you cannot “contain”, in Bion’s sense, the inevitable disturbances associated with an authority-cum-leadership role, unless you yourself have not only been “contained” in your own development, but also that you have identified with your “container” and by a process of introjective identification made the process a part of your inner life. This facility is then available to you as a psychic tool when you are called on, in turn, to act as a container as part of your authority and leadership role. (ibid.) It is worthwhile noticing how the essential aspects of this idea of containment are a relational dimension (the two-ways relationship between container and contained) and a “good enough” communication , like the one that according to Winnicott takes place within the mother/infant nursing couple. What Bion and Winnicott have in common here is the emphasis on the existence of a contact and an attuned communication. If therefore the core qualities of the container/contained relationship – and by extension the crucial function of the institutional container – are the capacity to listen, to accept, and to answer in a reflective manner, the risk of an exchange impaired by not-listening and not-communicating, may affect not only the mother-infant relationship, but also the organisational life and the workplace; here actually a very common problem – for both leaders and followers, carers and patients – is how often people happen to be or feel unheeded or unrecognized. Maybe the whole sphere of institutional communication should take in these points of reflection and question not only about digital communicational models of text/message or transmitting/receiving poles, but also about more “analogic” issues like attuning, listening, identification, empathy and sense-making. A system’s capacity to “contain” institutional anxieties and problems however only partly depends on leaders and managers’ personal qualities and life stories, while largely on their organizational roles and situations. “Some organizations – as Obholzer points out – are certainly more than others able to support and contain their managers, which has a positive impact on the organization as a whole”. The function of the institutional container can be studied both from a clinical perspective, and from a cultural point of view, in the light of its varying lexical meaning – as the term “containing” fluctuates between constraining and holding, and according to the prevalence of a maternal or paternal affective code (Fornari, 1976). Concerning this maternal dimension, from which the container draws its peculiar capacities for understanding and caring, although widely explored by many theoretic studies of the group or institution as a symbolic equivalent of the mother, it seems nowadays less and less recognizable: as a matter of fact, modern organizations appear interpreting rather a role of “stepmother institution”, indifferent or neglecting towards their members, if not one of archaic mother, possessive, abusive, and sometimes even infanticidal. On another hand, it may also occur for an organization to be unable to act as a container having been abandoned by parental functions, or deprived of the normative role of authority, due to a deserting or clearly unreliable leadership. This may then result in the organization being at the mercy of fraternal rivalry self-destructive processes, real fratricidal wars which originate from diverting inwards those aggressive drives which the “primal herd” cannot any longer direct to the father, which now appears to be too distant or too weak to be attacked without undermining the system’s safety and security. Such polarity between paternal Vs maternal code however may keep in the shade a crucial component of the containing function, that Bion, while describing the mother-infant (and analyst-analysand) relationship, called “rêverie[2] – a point which would not seem having nurtured a definite line of research in organizational studies. The concept of rêverie may well apply to a reflection about the institutional container if one assumes that such container, besides its more obvious containing function, also carries on a crucial transforming, say “metabolic”, function, similar to what alpha function represents for thinking processes. Integrating both functions allows us to put forward the construct of a transforming container, aimed to elaborate the emotional toxic elements which pollute both the individual mind and the institutional field. The concept of a transforming containment – which echoes Bass and Avolio’s idea of transformational leadership (Bass & Avolio, 1994) – looks very close to Hinshelwood’s description of institutional protective systems against anxiety, based on more evolved and “mature” defences, which can embank primitive anxieties without harming neither the Ego of the individual nor the task of the organization or its governance; but in particular it draws on Meltzer’s studies on what he called the “toilet-breast”, that peculiar function of the mother’s mind which enables her to accept and detoxify the child’s bad feelings, a sort of “psychic faeces”. (Meltzer, 1967) This transforming function of the container, when applied to the institutional sphere, drives the psychoanalytic reflection on organizations far beyond the classical anxiety/defence paradigm, as it relates the protection from anxiety to its thinkability, and this in turn to the conscious and unconscious organizational culture. As a system aimed to process provisional mental products, concrete thoughts, primitive and toxic social anxieties, the institutional container appears as a device which can return them in a tolerable, metabolized form (in other words, thinkable), so that they can be used for communication and action. Transformed institutional anxiety may be first of all put into words (and this is already a way to mitigate it), than given a sense, and at this point – like with countertransference experienced during a therapy – employed as a compass for behaviour and decision-making. From this perspective we could see the institutional container as a sort of “waste to energy plant”, whose task would be recycling social waste (Bauman, 2004), dross from “working processes” or the institution’s toxic garbage, transforming them as a result into salvages or sources of energy, useful for the life of the system.  For all what has been discussed up to this point, an institutional container, while constantly oscillating between its different functions – holding (Winnicott, 1965), containment (Bion, 1962), recycling (Meltzer, 1967) and sense-making (Weick, 1995) – cannot be conceived just as a structure (like the Ego in Freud’s second topology), nor just as a process (as underlined by Ogden, 2004), but rather as a “transformational system” integrating structures and processes for an aim at the same time strategic and evolutionary, which could be summarized by the term of organizational learning[3]. To conclude this introduction, we must anyway admit that current organizations are enormously different from the ones that Bion had known: the factory, the hospital, the church and the army themselves radically changed, while the supremacy of the network, the absence of a definite centre or boundary, and a relatedness based on virtuality or weak bonds, took over by now most of the traditional paradigms (Abadi, 2003). These considerations make us necessarily rethink and review the concept of institutional container in the light of such deep social and cultural changes. In a networked civilization do institutional containers still exist or are by now mere empty spaces and disposable objects? And if they still exist, what has changed in the idea of a container and its functions? A network, with its wide or close meshes and knots, may be considered a kind of container? Could we talk about an “open”, permeable, flexible container? How could it be distinguished from a leaky, damaged container? And a “leak” is just an harmful breach in the container, or is a way for the network to challenge traditional rigid, armoured containers, providing increased degrees of freedom – the same dilemma concerning the significance of WikiLeaks and whatever may slip out through the net’s meshes? These questions drag other questions: if rigid containers are no longer viable, then are we getting new containers (institutions) which adapt themselves to contents, in a plastic mode like a plaster cast, or in an elastic mode like a support stocking? Or, instead, would the network turn into a “pressure container”, bridling the content and forcing it to take a form shaped by its mesh? And all this flexibility in the container/contained relationship, rather than promoting a free reflective space to take in and elaborate chaotic social emotions, would not run the risk of privileging a function of simple adaptation, of the contained to the container or the container to the contained? And I wonder whether, in the end, this hypothetical fourth type, “adaptive”, of ♀↔♂ relationship – besides the symbiotic, the commensal, and the parasitic – might in last analysis encourage a growing conformism in social relations, in organizational behaviours and, in general, in the way of thinking. The global network, since not long ago a supposed utopia of  freedom and equality, could then possibly lead us to the “one and only container” and a social life reduced to the opportunity of “howling with wolves”[4]?


Abadi, S. (2003). Between the frontier and the network: Notes for a metapsychology of freedom. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 84:221-2.

Armstrong, D. (1997) “The ‘organization-in-the-mind’: reflections on the relation of psychoanalysis to work with institutions”. Free Associations, vol.7, 41: 1-14; and in Organization in the Mind: Psychoanalysis, Group Relations and Organizational Consultancy. London: Karnac, 2005.

Argyris, C. e Schön, D. A. (1978). Organizational learning: A theory of action perspective. Reading: Addison Wesley.

Bass, B.M. – Avolio, B.J. (1994) Improving Organizational Effectiveness Through Transformational Leadership. Thousand Oaks, Ca., Sage Publ.

Bauman, Z. (2004). Wasted Lives – Modernity and its Outcast. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bion, W. R. (1962) Learning from experience. London: Heinemann.

Bleger, E. (1967). “Psicoanàlisis del encuadre psicoanalìtico”. Rev. de Psicoanálisis, XXIV, 2: 241-258.

Fornari, F. (1976). Simbolo e codice: Dal processo psicoanalitico all’analisi istituzionale. [Symbol and Code. From psychoanalytic process to institutional analysis]. Milano: Feltrinelli.

Gaburri, E. – Ambrosiano, L. (2003) Ululare con i lupi: Conformismo e rêverie. [Howling with Wolves – Conformism and Rêverie]. Torino: Bollati Boringhieri.

Hinshelwood, R.D. (1995) “Lo spazio riflessivo. Il gruppo come contenitore di psicosi”. [The reflective space. The Group as a container of psychosis] In A.Correale, C.Neri e S.Contorni (a cura di) Fattori terapeutici nei gruppi e nelle istituzioni. Quaderni di Koinos, n°2, pp. 29-37. Roma: Borla.

Jaques, E. (1955) “Social systems as defense against persecutory and depressive anxiety”. In M. Klein, P. Heimann, R. Money-Kyrle (eds.), New directions in psychoanalysis. London: Tavistock Publications.

Meltzer, D. (1967) The Psychoanalytic Process. London: Heinemann.

Menzies, I.E.P. (1961) “The functioning of social systems as a defence  against anxiety: A report on a study of the Nursing Service of a General Hospital”; in: E.Trist – H.Murray (eds) The Social Engagement of Social Science: A Tavistock Approach. Vol.1: The Socio-Psychological Perspective. London: Free Association, 1990.

Obholzer, A. (1996) “Psychoanalytic contributions to authority and leadership issues”, The Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 1996, 17 (6).

Ogden, T.H. (2004) “On holding and containing, being and dreaming”, Int. J. Psychoanal., 85(6), 1349-1364.

Perini, M. (2007) L’organizzazione nascosta. [The Hidden Organization]. Milano: Franco Angeli.

Pichon-Rivière, E. – Bleger, J. – Liberman, D. – Rolla, E. (1960) “Técnica de los grupos operativos”, in Acta Neuropsiquiatrica Argentina, 1960; and in El proceso grupal. Nueva Visión, Matheu, Buenos Aires, 1971.

Weick, K.E. (1995) Sensemaking in Organizations. London: Sage.

Winnicott, D.W. (1964) “Further thoughts on babies as persons”. In The child, the family, and the outside world (pp. 85-92). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. (Original work published 1947).

Winnicott, D.W. (1965). The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment. New York: International Universities Press.


1) Winnicott, in dealing with the baby as a person, writes: “I once risked the remark ‘There is no such thing as a baby’, meaning that that if you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone.  A baby cannot exist alone but is essentially part of a relationship.”. (Winnicott, 1964)

2) According to Bion (Learning from Experience, 1962) rêverie means a mental state of the mother which is “open to the reception of any ‘objects’ from the loved object and is therefore capable of reception of the infant’s projective identifications…” (Bion, 1962); but this “maternal” capacity to receive projections is combined with the capacity to “contain” them, namely to hold projections inside instead of re-sending them back with anxiety, hate or rejection, and then to decipher and return them, providing a sense which can relieve from anxiety and confusion. Such working-through process (somehow similar to the dream work), which the mother carries on by identifying with her child and letting herself be transported by memory and imagination, enables her to help the child to make sense of the emotional and affective contents that he/she had projected into her, in the same way as the analyst helping the patient to give his/her projections a meaning. In this sense rêverie is a factor of the alpha-function, the adult mind’s function which, in Bion’s view, allows concrete sensorial impressions and unlaboured emotional experiences (so-called “beta-elements”) to be transformed into images and mental models which can be used for thinking, dreaming, remembering or doing intellectual work.

3) cfr. Argyris’ concept of a “learning organization”. (Argyris & Schön 1978)

4) Cfr. Gaburri e Ambrosiano. (2003)