Topic 1 From the individual to the collective: advantages of the group approach

When thinking about participation, perhaps the first image that comes to mind is that of a group of people debating or working as a group. Participation has an eminently group dimension. And it is that participation, as a social process that it is, is usually exercised and practiced in a group. This group dimension has multiple advantages both for the people who make up these groups and for the community as a whole.

This is especially important when we talk about people in situations of exclusion or social vulnerability, since group participation can provide people with support networks, a space for empowerment, and personal and social development.

Often, working with people affected by situations of exclusion or by certain specific problems (substance dependence, functional diversity, their own illness or that of a family member, etc.), an attempt is made to make the leap from the individual to the collective, that is, promote the participation of these people in group spaces where they can share and analyse their reality, finding a support network with which to better understand their own situation and that of the rest of the people in the group.

The participation of people in group processes entails a good number of associated advantages, both at a therapeutic level in the person’s own process, and in the social and community spheres.

Group work endows people with a so-called sense of community or belonging, a network of mutually supportive relationships that one can depend on. This aspect is fundamental since it gives people a sense of influence, integration and satisfaction of needs and a shared emotional connection.

Also, the dimension of group work contributes to the reinforcement and social recognition of the person, as well as helping to work on the person’s perception of control and self-efficacy.

Group development does not replace individual development; on the contrary, it accelerates it, enriches it and enhances it. Hence, even in group teaching, individual work is the foundation on which all change and learning is based. For this reason, any group technique must begin with individual work.

These advantages and potentialities of the group dimension could also be principles that guide our intervention. That people become active subjects of change and transformation (both of their own situation and that of their social context) is what Paulo Freire called “conscientization“.

Conscientization, according to Freire, is a process of cultural action through which women and men awaken to the reality of their sociocultural situation, move beyond the limitations and alienations to which they are subjected, and affirm themselves as conscious subjects and co-creators of their historical future (Freire, 1974).

The so-called support or self-help groups are a very interesting reference to group work. Although they are often self-regulated groups by the people who make them up, they can give us some clues and objectives as facilitators when working to promote participation in groups, especially when we do it with people in a situation of poverty or exclusion.

In self-help groups, people who suffer from the same problem or situation come together. They are circles of conversation that work in a self-determined way. The contents and the way of working are determined by the members themselves. They demand active and ongoing collaboration and require the desire to change something in their own situation, to exchange experiences with people who have similar problems. Members of self-help groups communicate at the level of being equally affected, and in them information, understanding and improvement of self-esteem are obtained. They promote the growth and self-realization of its members through sharing personal experiences and favouring communication, thus fostering emotional support and trust in each of the group members.

In this definition of mutual aid groups we find some of the keys to group participation that will be addressed later: equal dialogue, work around people’s centres of interest, social and emotional support from the group, awareness of one’s own situation, among others.