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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, http://video.nytimes.com/video/2007/03/30/multimedia/1194817121411/gang-capital-of-america.html

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.


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