Home > Definitions and Types > The Moreland-Williams Debate: Are Dyads Groups?

The Moreland-Williams Debate: Are Dyads Groups?

Definitional clarity is something of an impossible dream in science. Key constructs and hypothetical variables require explicit definitions, yet in many cases more complex terms cannot be defined to the satisfaction of all interested parties (so-called “primitive” terms).

Even the most important word in the field of group dynamics–group–is difficult to define: at least, the field has yet to reach consensus on THE definition to use to define what is and what is not a group.

One particularly intriguing sub-argument within this definitional discussion is the debate about size, and the status of the two-person group–the dyad–within the concept of “group.” Whereas some, such as Moreland and Levine (2012) do not consider dyads to be groups, others (e.g., Forsyth, 2010, Williams, 2010) assume two people can be considered to be a group–albeit, a very small one.

Moreland and Levine point to a number of reasons why dyads do not belong in the larger category of group.

1. Dyads seem to be more ephemeral than larger groups. That is, they both form and dissolve more quickly.

2. Dyads are much more emotionally involving than larger groups. Certain phenomena that are important in dyads (e.g., love, sex, jealousy) are rarer in large groups, if they occur at all.

3. Some phenomena that occur in larger groups cannot occur in dyads, because dyads are too small. These phenomena include group socialization, majority/minority relations, and coalition formation.

4. Even when a phenomenon occurs in both dyads and larger groups, it may operate quite differently in each, and so it is mistaken to draw conclusions about one by studying the other.

Williams (2010) disagrees, and offers a number of reasons why dyads are best considered to be groups, but his core justification is that some of the most fascinating of group processes–social facilitation, inclusion/exclusion, and social loafing–occur in both dyads and groups. Yes: (Williams, 2010, p. 273):

dyads are special groups that show greater or lesser processes than their larger sized counterparts. And yes, sometimes group phenomena are unlikely or impossible in dyads. But by excluding dyads from our consideration of group research, we neglect a great deal of research that informs group processes and dynamics and, just as important, we undersell our vibrancy and impact on the field.

As William’s position implies, what matters most is the use of scientific methods to reliable, law-like generalizations about the behavior of individuals when with others. If the processes that occur in dyads are so unique that they require researchers develop theories specific to dyads, and test them only in dyads, then the “we don’t need no stinkin’ dyads” position (Moreland, 2010, p. 264) is reasonable. However, if basic laws of group processes apply to groups that range in size from 2 to many, and if these theories’ assumptions can be tested in groups that similarly range in size, then dyads are appropriate targets of investigation. Williams, who studies the impact of exclusion on interpersonal relations, also notes that rejecting dyads from the group family seems oddly exclusionary: if dyads aren’t groups, and they aren’t individuals, then who will study them? Is an entire field of dyadism needed?

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