Remembering Ralph Stacey

The following is a longer obituary of Ralph Stacey which was commissioned by Group-analytic Contexts, and which I share here with their permission. It turns in particular on his relationship with the group analytic community, but some of his key ideas about complexity may be relevant for people working in other contexts.

Obituary Ralph Stacey 10/9/42 – 4/9/21

Ralph Stacey, economist, group analyst, Professor of Management at the University of Hertfordshire (UH) for 30 years, and much loved husband, partner, father, grandfather and colleague, died in September this year a few days short of his 79th birthday. His death was sudden and shocking, although for many years previously he had experienced quite chronic ill health. Physically frailer than some in their late 70s, Ralph was nonetheless intellectually robust right till the end. As an internationally renowned academic who developed pioneering ideas about the importance of the complexity sciences for understanding social life, and as someone who could speak without notes, and without PowerPoint slides for as long as required, exiting before his faculties declined had always been important to him. He was granted his wish.

Ralph was a great raconteur, and used to tell stories about his past in a highly self-deprecating and amusing way. He was rarely the hero of his own narrative. One tale he told about his own therapy as part of his training as a group analyst is quite instructive to understand the man. After five years or so he considered leaving the group to bring to a temporary end his therapeutic journey as patient. In response his conductor told him that she thought he still had experience to bring: Ralph, you are not yet fully part of the group. Ralph later recounted this episode as a light bulb moment for him. Indeed, he didn’t feel fully part of the group, and nor did he want to be. He was quite content to be an insider and an outsider, both at the same time. This paradoxical position pervades his thinking, and his experience as a gay, white South African who lived most of his life in the UK, as a critical management scholar who worked in an orthodox Business School, and an as eminent scholar lauding the importance of groups who was himself both shy and retiring, as a person committed to staying in relation, who on occasion could be fantastically stubborn and unmoving. To borrow Norbert Elias’s thinking, Ralph’s position in the social network as insider/outsider was pivotal in producing a canon of work which is still highly influential.


Born into a lower middle class family in Johannesburg, Ralph excelled at school, winning a scholarship to study at Witwatersrand University. Later he won the MacBride scholarship to study at the LSE where he finished his MA and then later his PhD in economics, which he completed in 1967. The research topic was the development of econometric models intended to predict patterns of industrial development in South Africa. It was during his PhD that Ralph first came across mathematical equations that he was later to see used in the mathematics of complexity, which caught his attention so many years later.

Ralph then had a conventional career as planner and strategist in British Steel, in the construction company John Laing, and briefly as an analyst for a financial services firm. In another of his stories about this last position, Ralph recounted how confused and nervous he was about being able to offer predictions to traders about what would happen in the markets that day. He would travel into work devouring the financial pages of the press in the hope that his summary of trends would be novel and interesting to those who looked to him for advice. He was conscious that he was more often wrong than right in his predictions, but that this didn’t seem to matter to anyone. He felt he gained more insight from a much older trader who, rather than studying the markets, paid attention to the waves of joy and despair that swept through the traders on a minute by minute basis as they created the market conditions, and at the same time market conditions created the flux of their feeling states. Trading was as much a game to be played as a system to be analysed, and this was to prove a lasting insight for him.

With a daily and profound experience of impostor syndrome, Stacey was grateful to be made redundant within a year. After a period tyring to write novels, he applied to the local university, which was then Hatfield Polytechnic, to teach economics. Ralph taught strategy in a conventional way on the MBA there, but based on his own experience of the disconnect between having plans and strategies on the one hand, yet experiencing the unexpected and the unwanted on the other, he also engaged with his older, executive students by asking them what they thought they were actually doing at work. Student stories often comprised less of the models, tools and techniques of management, and more of the infighting, rivalry, joys and desperations of trying to get things done with other people. This was another example of Ralph’s ability to take his own experience seriously, and in doing so, to model how others could do so. The MBA at Hatfield Poly, later UH, also involved the Tavistock Institute in the development of the course, which was Ralph’s first exposure to psychoanalytic theories. He later attended the Leicester Conference and began to weave together his growing interest in complexity theory with insights into the thinking, feeling states of human beings trying to achieve things together.

He began to write prolifically about complexity and organisations and at the same time undertook training as a group analyst, and the combination of the two led him to found a group-based doctorate at UH. The programme attracted two students, Doug Griffin and Patricia Shaw and the trio developed an intense friendship and discussion about the relevance of the complexity sciences for theories of human organising, which perspective they termed complex responsive processes of relating, which I now explore in relation to group analytic theory.

Stacey and the IGA

Ralph may be known to members of the group analytic community because of his intellectual contribution to the discipline in the form of articles, talks and seminars he gave at the IGA in the late 90s and early 2000s. The principal ideas of complex responsive processes of relating were also forged in relationships with key figures he met there, and in intense discussions, including with his supervisor during his own training, Farhad Dalal. It was Dalal who introduced Ralph to the work of Norbert Elias, whose process sociology Ralph found highly influential. Ralph ceased practicing clinically in 2004, not that long after qualifying in 1998, having also served as the first external examiner of the new Turvey qualifying course, co-directed by Jane Campbell and Sylvia Hutchison. As a consequence of his training at the IGA, Ralph introduced the experiential group as a key component of the psychodynamic professional doctorate, which he founded with Griffin and Shaw in 2000 and is still thriving.  In the early years the Doctor of Management programme (DMan) was run in cooperation with the IGA, and some of the faculty were colleague group analysts.

Stacey’s book Complexity and Group Processes: a radically social understanding of individuals (2003) is the most extended expression of Ralph’s relationship with group analytic thinking, what he values in it, and what he critiqued. In the book Stacey continues to develop his thinking about complex responsive processes of relating (Stacey et al., 2000, and he does so making distinctions with group analytic theory. The perspective is an attempt to wed some key insights from the complexity sciences interpreted by analogy, with social theory and philosophy. It draws in particular on Elias’ process sociology and pragmatic philosophy, most notably the theory of mind, self and society set out by GH Mead. In some ways the perspective offers some quite simple claims but which have radical implications if pursued systematically, and Stacey sets these out in the book as a challenge to group analytic thinking.

There isn’t space in this obituary to do full justice to the distinctions Stacey makes, but briefly and to take four foundational tenets of his perspective: firstly, complex responsive processes holds to the idea of the paradox of forming and being formed. That is to say, in addressing what is known as the structure/agency debate in sociology Stacey maintains a paradoxical position that local human interaction forms wider patterns of relating, habitus or culture, that we recognise in society, while at the same time the habitus constrains our interaction. This is an insight derived from complex adaptive systems models, and is also found in the philosophy of Hegel, which is taken up in both Mead and Elias’ work. Next is the assumption that human bodies create nothing outside of their interaction with each other, no systems or wholes, which are taken for granted in more orthodox accounts of society. Patterns of relating simply lead to further patterns which are articulated as narrative themes organising the experience of being together. Stacey, then cleaves to Mead and Elias’ argument that we are social through and through: I and we are two sides of the same coin. And lastly, human interdependence creates power relations, power being a quality of all relationships.

I now explore the implications of this key characteristics of complex responsive processes for Stacey’s critique of Foulkes and Freud in the 2003 volume.

Stacey offers the idea of paradox as a counter to the dualisms inherent in much orthodox thinking about the relationship between individual and group, which are often presented as a choice between two poles, resolved in a figure/ground formulation taking first one, then the other position. For Stacey the sequential both/and formulation loses the generative power of paradox and implies a god’s eye view. It is presumed that we can choose first one pole, then the other. Second, his argument that human interaction creates nothing outside of itself, no system or whole, is a profound challenge, for example, to the notion of a group matrix as an explanation of causality. There are no ‘levels’ of engagement in complex responsive processes of relating, nothing above or below, nothing outside the group or inside it. Thirdly, by pursuing the idea that we are radically social, Stacey points to the inconsistencies in Foulkes’ work, where sometimes he seems to privilege the individual, and sometimes the group, where Freud always privileges the individual. Stacey takes the social nature of the self seriously in proposing no ‘inside’ and no ‘outside’ of the self, objecting to the idea that there is a mind inside an individual which creates representations of a world outside, one of the key tenets of object relations theory. He goes on to problematise the idea of the spatial characteristics of many psychoanalytic terms, such as projection and transference along with the idea of the individual unconscious. He prefers instead temporal explanations which try to describe processes in flux and change. Lastly, for Stacey, following Elias, power relations determine the quality and extent of our involvement in groups. Guilt and shame are the inevitable consequences of a socialisation process predicated on inclusion and exclusion from groups. Stacey thought that power is under-theorised in the account of relationships in Foulkes’ work.

Ralph certainly didn’t reject group analytic thinking. Rather, he was profoundly influenced by it and pursued some of Foulkes’ more radical insights more consistently to give a social and processual account of therapy which keeps thinking, feeling human bodies in view. In the pragmatic tradition, Ralph avoided abstractions if he could keep experience to the fore. For all the stir that Stacey’s ideas caused at the time, the group analytic community still invited him to give the prestigious annual Foulkes lecture in 2005, where he set out his ideas again, although in a much less critical manner.

Stacey as group analytic practitioner

I mentioned earlier the DMan programme, an experiential doctorate which he founded with Griffin and Shaw at UH in 2000. It is unique in drawing on group analytic theory as key research method and practice and has now been running for over 20 years and has just seen its 72nd doctoral completion. It is directed by me along with my colleagues Professor Emma Crewe, Dr Kiran Chauhan, Professor Karen Norman, Professor Nick Sarra, and Dr Karina Solsø Iversen. Residentially based, the programme comprises the usual range of seminars, talks and student presentations, but integral to the research method is an experiential group at the start of each day, and small group learning sets where students read and critique each other’s work, focusing as well on their own functioning as groups. In the tradition of group analysis, students on the DMan research community are invited to reflect on their own participation in the group and to note the ebb and flow of themes organising the experience of being together, which they are then invited to link back to their lives in organisations. I reflect on the principle differences between group analytic method and the way we take the up on the programme here (Mowles, 2017). The encouragement of reflection and reflexivity is counter-cultural in todays’ business schools which are far more comfortable with instrumental and rational ways of knowing. In this respect the programme and its methods are one of Ralph’s greatest and most lasting legacies. Directing and then supervising on the doctoral programme was also the aspect of his work which he said gave him the most pride, watching the graduates be congratulated on their achievements by the Vice Chancellor of UH in the magnificent setting of St Alban’s cathedral.

It was in the context of the experiential group that I had the privilege of encountering Ralph as group practitioner. The DMan tries to deflate the role of the conductor and the meetings are run ostensibly without one. That is to say, that of course the faculty have privileged roles in the meeting, but no one is designated as conductor. With his history as founder and academic reputation Ralph had gravitas in the group, which he was able to deploy wisely. His participation had a unique quality. When I think about Ralph and his involvement in those meetings I am reminded of a passage in Mead which speaks to the role of great leaders in society:

‘Persons of great mind and great character have strikingly changed the communities to which they have responded. We call them leaders, as such, but they are simply carrying to the nth power this change in the community by the individual who makes himself a part of it, who belongs to it. The great characters have been those who, by being what they were in the community, made the community a different one.’ Mead,1934 : 216.

I think what Mead is getting at here is the paradox of self and other, I and we, which I have been pointing to throughout this short obituary, and which I claim pervaded Ralph’s thinking. As a group analyst Ralph had a unique ability to say something about his own experience in a timely manner which brought members of the research community into a different relationship with themselves, with each other, and with him. Somehow he was both present and not present, uniquely Ralph, but at the same time saying something universal about experience which was helpful to everyone.

Ralph would be the last person who would want me to idealize him. He didn’t always get it right as a founder faculty member, particularly if he felt that the values upon which the programme had been founded were under threat of being compromised. He could be quick to anger, and although, as I have mentioned above, he could always turn this intense feeling into useful material for the group, sometimes this was too late to undo the damage that it might have done to relationships. By all accounts the early years of the DMan programme were turbulent, some of which I encountered myself as a student in 2004. Ralph was capable of taking a very well argued and forceful position, and then some months later, retracting it and arguing in a more nuanced way, much to his interlocutors’ frustration. He was always a very intense friend and colleague and equally capable of great humour and levity.

Concluding thoughts

It is rare to come across someone to whom one can genuinely apply the adjective brilliant. Whatever Ralph turned his hand to, whether it be mathematical formulae that he mastered for his PhD in macroeconomics, or Freud’s theories, or philosophical ideas, he excelled at. He was recognised globally for his extensive and ground-breaking writing, turning out 12 books and many articles, including a 500 page text book which is now in its 7th edition (Stacey and Mowles, 2016). His death provoked many moving tributes from people who had encountered him, or his ideas. His thinking also had a huge impact on many people’s lives because of the radical nature of his insights, which in the end point to the contingent nature of our experience and our decentred place in the world. At heart Ralph’s writings are a profound reflection on humility.

Ralph was intensely interested in human affairs, and the flux and flow of relationships, whether it be experienced in a therapy group, in the politics of the Academy, or even in the allotment society which he joined when he partially retired. He was a faculty member on the DMan until his 75th birthday, for another ten years after he handed over to me. Right to the end, and with the illness that went on to kill him, Ralph wrote me this from hospital about the dynamics of hospital life:

‘…Sometimes a kind of hysterical group contagion spreads with a number all trying to leave and nurses trying to cope with the chaos. As you know I can’t help interfering so I became a kind of group therapist talking some down gently and telling others to shut up and stay in bed. Foulkes was right. Put the sick together and they heal themselves.  I think the nurses came to regard me as a sick honorary nurse.’

Ralph was never so engaged as when everyone was ‘kicking off’. When they did so in any group he was in, Ralph’s face would always take on a mien of interest and engagement. He couldn’t help but be immersed in the game of human life, and yet be deeply wise and humane about it at the same time.

For all the time I have known him Ralph anticipated his own demise with equanimity stating that he had enjoyed a good life, had achieved much more than he had ever expected as a child of lower middle class parents in S Africa. And his ability to engage with his own life to the full gave people he came into contact with much fuller access to their own lives. This was Ralph’s rare ability and his genius.

Ralph’s long term partner John died unexpectedly earlier this year. He leaves his ex-wife Kath, his sons Paul and Adrian and their partners Maurizia and Tass, and three grandchildren Jessica, Leon and Felix.


Mead , G.H . (1934 ) Mind, Self and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviourist , Chicago, IL : Chicago University Press .

Mowles, C. (2017) Group analytic methods beyond the clinical setting – working with researcher-managers, Group Analysis, vol. 50, 2: pp. 217-236.

Stacey, R., Griffin, D. & Shaw, P. (2000) Complexity and Management: fad or radical challenge to systems thinking, London: Routledge.

Stacey, R.D. and Mowles, C. (2016) Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics: the Challenge of Complexity to Ways of Thinking about Organizations, London: Pearson Education, 7th Edition.

Stacey, R.D (2003) Complexity and Group Processes: a radically social understanding of individuals, London: Routledge.

4 thoughts on “Remembering Ralph Stacey

  1. Pingback: Ralph Stacey 10/9/1942 – 4/9/2021 - The Cynefin Co

  2. bob cannell

    Beautiful heartfelt memory of a friend. Thank you. His style of operating, as you describe it, makes me think of the taoist concept of ‘wu wei’, doing without acting. By being present, the group dynamics change because of your presence. Not because you try lead the group to a promised goal.

  3. Liberty Nolasco

    I am saddened by this a bit old but fresh-as-it-came-to-me news today while looking for complete citation details of his book in 2000. I am a Filipino based in the Philippines, and let it be known to his community that his work has inspired me to focus on complexity studies early in 2000s. It was very difficult to build literature on complexity around then, especially for Public Administration and Governance, and I was and would always be truly grateful for the publication of his work. That is all I know about this man. But for the sheer vision impressed in his work, I know, he was a great person. Rest in peace!


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