Archive for the ‘History and Research Methods’ Category

The Physics of Groups: Spoof or Proof

SPSPLunchGroup dynamics is remarkably interdisciplinary.  Everyone, from political scientists who investigate policy making/planning groups (such as the famous JFK executive committee) to economists investigating choice in multi-player games, have joined social psychologists in the pursuit of knowledge about groups. We now have, for example, team science emerging as a new way of examining how task-focused groups with stable memberships work and experts in social network analysis applying the methods with renewed enthusiasm to groups (I say “renewed” since, after all, Moreno was pretty busy with SNA back in his day).

But I wasn’t ready for the physics of groups. Yes, the physics of groups. I wanted to see who had cited the classic 1969 Moscovici, Lage, and Naffrechoux paper, which found evidence of delayed influence of minority in a “reverse-Asch” situation. Cited by 295 other papers, I had a look at those published more recently–after 2008.  And the title that stood out on the second page of the list: “Social consensus through the influence of committed minorities” by Xie, Sreenivasan, Korniss, Zhang, Lim, and Szymanski published in Physical Review E, a journal of the American Physical Society. Physicists, it turns out, have decided that human groups are interesting systems, and that their theories of structure, change, and dynamics apply to collections of people as much as they do to collections of rocks, planets, or microscopic particles. And, because I have not kept up my subscription to Physica, International Journal of Modern Physics, and Review of Modern Physics, I was unaware of the strides being made by the real scientists. Mason, Conrey, and Smith (2007) called out “heads up” in their analysis of social influence as a multidirectional flow system of dynamic networks, but even their careful review of four separate models of such systems did not prepare me for the degree of theoretical interest exhibited by physicists in group processes.

The Xie et al.  paper does not present data that they collected examining opinion shifts. Rather, the work is theoretical, applying principles based on physical systems to interpersonal ones. Specifically, they apply the “two-opinion variant of the naming game (NG)” and test its fit using Erdos-Renyi random graphs. Apparently, earlier investigations by physicists of social influence (Professor Galam is mentioned frequently) found this model described hypothetical changes in attitudes in social networks well, but their work focused on adding “rigidity” to the model: the individual, who they label the “zealot” who is immune from influence.  Their abstract sounds like social psychology (“We show how the prevailing majority opinion in a population can be rapidly reversed by a small fraction of randomly distributed committed agents who consistently proselytize the opposing opinion and are immune to influence.”), even if the paper reads like Bibb Latane’s 1981 American Psychologist social impact theory paper on steroids.

Intrigued, I cast the Google Scholar net more widely, and uncovered an entire subfield of physics devoted to group-level processes. Fortunately, a very detailed paper by Castellano, Fortunato, and Lorento (2009)  provided a very comprehensive review of attempts to apply method and theory from physics to “collective phenomena emerging from the interactions of individuals as elementary unites in social structures” (p. 591). They examine such processes as “the dynamics of opinions,” “cultural dissemination,” “crowd dynamics,” “the emergence of hierarchies,” “social spreading phenomena,” and “what is becoming established as ‘human dynamics’. (p. 634).  I’ll quote a few sections, to give a flavor of the work:

  • p. 594:  Generally speaking, the drive toward order is provided by the tendency of interacting agents to become  more alike. This effect is often termed “social influence” in the social science literature (Festinger et al., 1950) and can be seen as a counterpart of ferromagnetic interaction in magnets. Couplings of antiferromagnetic type, i.e., pushing people to adopt a state different from the state of their neighbors, are also important in some cases and will be considered.
  • p. 596: Beyond its relevance as a physics model, the Ising ferromagnet can be seen as a simple model for opinion dynamics, with agents influenced by the state of the majority of their interacting partners. Consider a collection of N spins (agents) si that can assume two values ±1. Each spin is energetically pushed to be aligned with its nearest neighbors. The total energy is  H = – 1/2 sum (i, j) Si/Sj, where the sum runs on the pairs of nearest-neighbors spins.
  • p. 598:  The first opinion dynamics designed by a physicist was a model proposed by Weidlich 1971. The model is based on the probabilistic framework of sociodynamics, discussed in Sec. II.C. Later on, the Ising model made its first appearance in opinion dynamics Galam et al., 1982; Galam and Moscovici, 1991.
  • p. 624:  To study the collective motion of large groups of organisms, the concept of self-propelled particles SPP has been introduced Vicsek et al., 1995; Czirók and Vicsek, 1999, 2000. SPP are particles driven by an intrinsic force, produced by an energy depot that is internal to the particles, as occurs in real organisms.
  • p. 629: Dominance relationships seem to be determined by the outcome of fights between individuals. Laboratory experiments on various species hint at the existence of a positive feedback mechanism Hogeweg and Hesper, 1983; Chase et al., 1994; Theraulaz et al., 1995, according to which individuals who won more fights have an enhanced probability to win future fights as compared to those who were less successful winner or loser effects.

I know.  It seems like a spoof.  They mention in their analysis this caveat: “It is worth remarking that, even if we have done our best to mention relevant social science literature and highlight connections to it, the main focus of this work remains a description of the statistical physics approach to social dynamics.”  To me, that would be like me saying something like “we are going to discuss interplanetary motion and celestial dynamics. We will do our best to mention the work of astronomers, but we will probably just talk about conclusions we drew by standing outside in the back yard on a dark night. “

Participant Observation and Ethnography

February 17, 2012 Leave a comment

Participant observation — studying groups by actually joining them — has a long and distinguished history within the study of groups.  W. F. Whyte’s Street Corner Society is a classic, of course, but others include Festinger’s foray into an unusual, cult-like group discussed in When Prophecy Fails, Don Roy’s “Banana Time,” and Tobias Schneebaum’s Keep the River on Your Right.

Over the years, as the social science of groups has shifted in method and orientation, the world of ethnographic study has become increasing diverse, as researchers grapple with issues of objectivity, epistemology, and ethics.  Some modern ethnographers adhere, primarily, to the method’s original form–for they strive to describe the dynamics of cultural groups by taking part in those group’s activities.  Gary Alan Fine’s Morel Tales, for example, describes how mushroom hunters negotiate the fine line between supporting each other’s searches but also keeping their own best patches secret. Jennifer Lois’s (2003) Heroic Efforts discusses the five and a half years she spent as member of a mountain search and rescue squad, and her work yields wonderful insights into group-level emotions, the social processes that influence status allocations in groups that face danger, and the relationship between individual self-conceptions and group-level acceptance.  Sudhir Vankatesh’s (2008) Gang Leader for Day describe the four years Vankatesh spent with the Black Kings, a group of young men living in public housing in Chicago.  His analysis describes their world from within, for he never became part of the gang, but he was permitted to act as the gang’s leader for a day.  In the The Warcraft Civilization William Sims Bainbridge (2010) discusses the thousands of hours he spent at Maxrohn (a priest) and Catullus (a blood elf) in the online game world of WarCraft, and explains the complex dynamics of altruism, competition, and leisure in a virtual world.

Their work yields a particularly rich type of data: the actual words used by members in their discussions and conversations, impressions drawn from nonverbal expressions, information about the member’s appearance and location in relationship to each other, and the sequences of behaviors that unfold within the group over time.From their work we learn first hand about how a group manages its emotions when it must deal with a crisis, the way in which inner city gangs negotiate conflicts so that everyone’s economic interests are protected, and the development of a culture in an entirely virtual community of people who never meet face-to-face.  These ethnographers, true to the methods basic tenants, also organize their observations within a theoretical framework, drawing out conclusions that are relevant to such theories of interpersonal processes as edgework theory, status congruity theory, and social identity theory.  Their descriptions are subjective accounts of what transpired, but their subjectivity is minimized through attention to the record keeping, extensive training in observational procedures, and an extraordinary investment of time in the groups they are observing.

All these works can be considered ethnographic, but they avoid the drivel often found in many contemporary ethnographic writings. These researchers spend no time moaning about how unfair the world of science is, boasting of the supremacy of ethnography as the only legitimate method (for it admits its biases instead of denying them), or cloaking their conclusions with such opaque postmodern speak as “compositional studies,” “critical humanism,” “interpretive practice,” “testimonio and subalaternity,” and “emancipatory discourse” (all from titles in Denzin & Lincoln’s Handbook of Qualitative Research).  Instead, they describe as clearly as possible what they saw during their time within the groups.  Unlike some in the field of ethnography–who seem to be writing to impress themselves and to confuse the reader with useless verbiage and conceptual clutter–the best ethnographic researchers pursue the one goal we all share:  the explanation of the causes and consequence of interpersonal processes in groups.

[Postscript: The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research (edited by Denzin & Lincoln) runs to 1200 pages, with 45 chapters devoted to the "post-positivistic, hermeneutical approaches" to qualitiative research. The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research in Psychology (edited by Willig and Stainton-Roger) runs is a meager 600+ pages with some 30 odd (and I mean, odd) chapters.  Some of these chapters--the ones that avoid using terms such as "methodolatry," "recontextualizing," "Foucultian analysis," and "refunctioning"--offer some reasonable ideas on how to conduct ethnographic studies. ]

Nobody Studies Groups Anymore

When Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was asked about the level of gang activity in his city, he explained “I’m not a sociologist or an anthropologist, so I can’t share with you the root causes of gang violence that you see in urban areas” (Sims, 2007).  He did not include “social psychologist” on his list of experts on gangs, because social psychologists don’t study gangs—in fact, social psychologists don’t even study groups anymore.  That is why Lee Ross, Mark Lepper, and Andrew Ward (2010), in their chapter on history in the Handbook of Social Psychology concluded (a) the study of groups used to be called “group dynamics” and (b) “there is still a relative paucity of work on groups per se” (2010, p. 4).

Their pronouncement leaves me wondering why I still subscribe to the APA/EPF journal Group Dynamics. I’m also wondering why, within the field of social psychology, there is a journal that focuses on relationships (Personal Relationships, impact factor .81), a journal that focuses on social cognition (Social Cognition, impact factor 1.75), one that examines social influence (Social Influence, impact factor .75), one that examines the self (Self and Identity, impact factor 1.06), and three that examine group-level processes (Group Dynamics, Impact factor .89, Small Group Research, impact factor 1.15, and Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, Impact factor 1.37).And why isn’t the 2010 Encyclopedia of Group Processes & Intergroup Relations edited by John M. Levine and Michael A. Hogg skinnier, instead of weighing in at 6 pounds, 2 volume, 998 pages, with over 300 entries?  And why is the 6th edition of group dynamics 730 pages long?

But Ross, Lepper, and Ward’s verdict is one that has been bandied about ever since the great Ivan Steiner asked “Whatever happened to the group in social psychology?” in his cleverly titled Journal of Experimental Social Psychology paper in 1974. He lamented the golden age of group dynamics–the 1950s–with its studies of communication networks, leadership, group decision-making, and performance in groups. (Hard as it may seem to believe today, Leon Festinger’s 1955 Annual Review chapter was titled Social Psychology and Group Processes.)

Steiner’s dismal outlook has been repeated by many commentators in the intervening years. Gwen Wittenbaum and Richard Moreland (2008), themselves researchers who study groups, admit the field is nearly static. Richard Hackman and Nancy Katz (2010, p. 1208) explain “small group research has migrated to the periphery of the field”. Brooke Harrington and Gary Alan Fine (2000) similarly conclude that researchers in social psychology, both in the sociological and psychological traditions, “express little interest in small groups as an organizing principle of social life” (p. 313).

Yet, others express a more Panglossian perspective on groups.  John Levine and Richard Moreland, in 1998, hope that “research on small groups is experiencing a renaissance within social psychology” (p. 448). In that same year Dominic Abrams and Michael Hogg wrote that “research in group and intergroup processes is being published at a disproportionately accelerating rate compared with the increase in social psychology as a whole” (p. 7). Which is it?

One reason for this diversity in opinions regarding the health of groups research is ambiguity about the definition of a group. Levine and Moreland (2012), for example, don’t think dyads are groups, and so they exclude any studies using paradigms that involve two interacting individuals from their analyses. Never mind that the study might be testing some theoretical perspective pertaining to such group-level processes as social comparison, power, leadership, communication, and so on–dyads aren’t groups. In consequence,if  you study diffusion of responsibility, negotiation, social facilitation, and one-to-one communication processes you aren’t studying group dynamics. (Kipling Williams (2010), by the way, takes a different perspective, in part because he considers his work on ostracism–which often involves one person rejecting another person–to be groups research. He probably also thought his studies of social loafing, which tested hypotheses about groups with two people working to contribute to a shared resource, to be groups research.)

A second reason for the differences in conclusions about the state of group dynamics as a field is ambiguity about what processes qualify as group processes and which ones should be excluded from consideration in the general category of groups and their dynamics. Wittenbaum and Moreland (2008), for example, include five basic topics when they offer up their comprehensive review of the state of groups research: group composition, group structure, group performance, conflict in groups, and the ecology. They also add, grudgingly, intergroup processes, but exclude others: affiliation, aggression in groups, collective behavior (e.g., crowds, gangs, etc.), conformity, contagion, crowding, family dynamics, group formation, group development, group-based identity, groups and therapeutic change, inclusion/exclusion, justice, leadership, negotiation, obedience, ostracism, perceptions of groups (entitativity), power, social comparison, social identity, social network analysis, status and hierarchy, and teams. Some of these topics may not fall squarely into the realm of group research, but all explore processes that are relevant to understanding the behavior of individuals when in groups.

The conclusion “interest in studying social processes within small groups has diminished over time” (Wittenbaum & Moreland, 2008, p. 187) is only reasonable when the list of topics has been whittled down to the most basic (and, arguably, most boring). A more generous interpretation of the field’s rightful domain of interests yields a far more positive conclusion. For example, Georginia Randsley de Moura, Tirza Leader, Joseph Pelletier, and Dominic Abrams (2008) reviewed 90,827 articles pertaining to social psychological topics published between 1935 to 2007 in over 60 journals. They discovered that a healthy percentage of those papers, 16.5%–about 15,000–pertained to groups. When they examined publication rates over time, they found evidence of a linear increase over that time period, with a particularly dramatic increase from the 1990s onward attributable, in part, to the increased integration of groups with studies of social cognition. This increase was particularly pronounced when they focused on the leading journals within the field of social psychology. They went back, through the preceding 10 years, and located the 10 articles from each year with the highest impact as measured by Total Cites from Thomson’s ISI Web of Knowledge. Of the 881 top-ranked articles, fully 35.2% pertained to a group-level topic (which they defined, fairly conservatively, as pertaining to intergroup relations; intergroup relations, social identity, stereotyping, stereotype threat, social influence, entitativity, group performance, group decision making or productivity, social dilemmas, leadership, structure or ecology of groups, power in groups, and conflict in groups). Although Randsley de Moura, Leader, Pelletier, and Abrams live on the same planet as Wittenbaum and Moreland, they conclude “The progress of group processes and intergroup relations based research is steady and sure, both in terms of quantity and impact” (p. 591).

A final reason for the pronounced differences in opinions regarding the state of the field of group dynamics is the interdisciplinary interest in groups. No one discipline holds the exclusive rights to the study of groups. Scientists in such fields as anthropology, communication studies, education, engineering, fields devoted to mental health, political science, sociology, sports and recreation, the legal profession, and, of course, business, all study groups. When the work of scientists in these fields is recognized, then the actual level of interest in group-level processes can be more full appreciated (Hackman & Katz, 2010; Sanna & Parks, 1997). Consider, for example, the study of teams–which, by the way, are groups. A search of the phrase social cognition yields a healthy 226,000 hits in Google Scholar. Search for the word team, in contrast, generates 3,730,000.

In conclusion, it is not clear that the study of groups is, or even ever was, moribund. The exact opposite may, in fact, be the case. Even though Ross and his colleagues offer up a bleak assessment of the study of groups, they do not mention the findings reported by F. D. Richard, Charles Bond, and Juli Stokes-Zoota in their 2003 meta-analysis of meta-analyses in social psychology. When they examined 100s of prior meta-analytic studies of various social psychological processes, they discovered that the average effect size in those studies was .21, a low to moderately strong effect. But, when they looked more closely across topics, they discovered that some relationships were particularly paltry, whereas others were more robust. Studies of the relationship between personality and behavior, for example, are often considered relatively unsubstantial by social psychologists, but as personality psychologists have maintained all along they were consistently stronger (r = .22) than the relationships documented in studies of influence (r = .12), attribution (r = .14), and expectancies (r = .16). And what one area of study has yielded the strongest support for predicted relationships between the variables specified in its theories? Leading the way, across all 18 topics identified by Richard and his colleagues: The scientific study of groups and their dynamics, with mean r of .32.


Abrams, D., & Hogg, M. A. (1998). Prospects for research in group processes and intergroup relations. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 1(1), 7-20.

Festinger, L. (1955). Social psychology and group processes. Annual Review of Psychology, 6, 187-216.

Hackman, J. R., & Katz, N. (2010). Group behavior and performance. In S. T. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (Vol. 2, 5th ed., pp. 1208-1251). Wiley: Hoboken, New Jersey.

Harrington, B., & Fine, G. A. (2000). Opening the “black box”: Small groups and twenty-first-century sociology. Social Psychology Quarterly, 63(4), 312-323.

Levine, J. M., & Moreland, R. L. (1998). Small groups. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (Vol. 2, 4th ed., pp.415-469). McGraw-Hill: New York.

Randsley de Moura, G., Leader, T., Pelletier, J., & Abrams, D. (2008). Prospects for group processes and intergroup relations research: A review of 70 years’ progress. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 11, 575-596.

Richard, F. D., Bond Jr., C. F., & Stokes-Zoota, J. (2003). One hundred years of social psychology quantitatively described. Review of General Psychology, 7(4), 331-363.

Ross, L., Lepper, M., & Ward, A. (2010). History of social psychology: Insights, challenges, and contributions to theory and application. In S. T. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (Vol. 1, 5th ed., pp. 3-50). Wiley: Hoboken, New Jersey.

Sanna, L. J., & Parks, C. D. (1997). Group research trends in social and organizational psychology: Whatever happened to intragroup research? Psychological Science, 8(4), 261-267.

Sims, C. (Interviewer). (2007). The coalition builder: Antonio Villaraigosa (Chap. 2: Gang capital of America).  New York Times,

Steiner, I. D. (1974). Whatever happened to the group in social psychology? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 10(1), 94-108.

Williams, K. D. (2010). Dyads can be groups (and often are). Small Group Research, 41(2), 268-274.

Wittenbaum, G. M., & Moreland, R. L. (2008). Small-group research in social psychology: Topics and trends over time. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(1), 187-203.

This essay also appeared in Dialogue, 2012.


Effect Sizes and Groups

People have been studying social behavior and personality for a long, long time. Although many suggest that Triplett’s 1898 study marks the start of the scientific investigation of interpersonal processes, in all likelihood the field’s roots reach even further back in time (Stroebe, 2012). In any case, in the last 100 years researchers have conducted thousands of studies of social behavior, which–taken individually–may shed only a pinpoint of light on an intriguing social psychological questions, but when synthesized support more general, sweeping conclusions.

Reviews of previous work generally come in two flavors: narrative and quantitative. When writing a narrative review, the researcher examines previous research carefully and draws general conclusions about the strength of the relationships among the variables that have been investigated. When writing a meta-analytic review, in contrast, the researcher combines the results of previous research statistically to determine, quantitatively, the strength of the relationships under study. Although the size of the samples and the number of studies analyzed influence these estimates of relationship, those that fall between .1 and .2 are considered small, from .2 to .5 moderate, and those above .5 large.

When Richard, Bond, and Stokes-Zoota (2003) examined 100s of prior meta-analytic studies of various social psychological processes, they discovered that the average effect size in those studies was .21, a low to moderately strong effect. But, when they looked more closely across topics, they discovered that some relationships were particularly paltry, whereas others were more robust. Studies the relationship between personality and behavior, for example, are often considered relatively unsubstantial by social psychologists, yet they were consistently stronger (r = .22) than the relationships documented in studies of influence (r = .12), attribution (r = .14), and expectancies (r = .16). And what one area of study had yielded the strongest support for predicted relationships between the variables specified in its theories? Leading the way, across all 18 topics identified by Richard, Bond, and Stokes-Zoota (2003), was the scientific study of groups and their dynamics, with mean r of .32.