Posts Tagged ‘Group Dynamics’

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.

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?

The Strength of Weak Ties

Groups come into existence when two or more individuals become linked in a relationship of some kind, where relationship implies interdependence and influence. These relationships, or “social ties,” vary considerably in terms of their durability, strength, and intensity. Two objects can be tied together in many ways–with threads, with ropes, string, chain, with plastic tiedowns, a steel weld–and so can group members.

Granovetter, in his classic 1973 analysis “The Strength of Weak Ties,” identifies a number of factors that influence the nature of these ties between group members: duration, emotional intensity, intimacy, and exchange, as well as directedness (reciprocal or one-directional) and valence (positive or negative). These factors generally combine to influence the overall strength of the relationship, where strong relationships are ones that generate (a) enduring, repeated, frequent interactions, (b) strong feelings of attachment and emotional contagion, (c) the exchange of personal information in copious quantities, and (d) interdependency. But, he cleverly notes that weak ties–once that typify the links between people who would describe themselves as “acquaintances” rather than “friends,” also substantially influence group dynamics.

First, weak ties are sources of new information. When individuals are linked through strong ties, they share the same experiences and alliances, and so their knowledge base is shared. If one individual is removed from such a tight-knit group, the impact is relatively negligible, in terms of information, because their knowledge was shared rather than unique. Weak ties, in contrast, connect individuals who hardly know each other, and also have less in common. In consequence, they provide more varied types of information, which Granovetter illustrates with example of job search. He discovered that many people who are seeking employment learn of positions not from their close friends, but from acquaintances. Their close friends can only tell them about jobs they are already aware of, whereas acquaintances know about jobs they had not discovered on their own.

Second, weak ties join groups together. Individuals are members of many different groups, which are joined together by weak rather than strong ties. For example, A, B, C, and D may be all very good friends, but A may also be acquainted with X–who is good friends with Y and Z. The weak tie between A and X links together the two groups of A-D and X-Z.

Barabasi, in his book Linked, provides some backstory to Granovetter’s publication. Granovetter, it seems, submitted his strength-in-weak-ties for publication while he was still a graduate student at Harvard. Granovetter had developed the idea after listening to a lecture by Harrison White, who did early work on social networks. Inspired, Granovetter carried out a field work in Newton, Massachusetts, where he discovered that most people seeking jobs learned about positions from acquaintances rather than friends. But when he sent the paper to American Sociological Review for review and possible publication in August of 1969, he got less than favorable evaluations: one reviewer said it should not be published for an “endless series of reasons” (Barabasi, 2003, p. 42). Granovetter, after recovering from the sting of rejection, recouped and rewrote, and submitted a revised paper to the American Journal of Sociology–where it was published in 1973. Google indicates this paper has been cited 19,134 times!

Bion’s Theory of Assumptive Cultures

December 17, 2011 2 comments

Group psychotherapists often discuss the work of W. R. Bion, who offered up a host of insights into groups and their processes in his writings, but particularly in his book Experiences in Groups, which was published by Tavistock in 1959 but then circulated much more widely in 1961 (when printed by Basic Books).  Bion was a classically trained psychoanalyst, who with his colleague John Rickman used groups as part of treatment program carried out during World War II at a Northfield Military Hospital. The treatment they implemented there was radical for times, but includes the basic principles found in most group-level approaches to change—flattened status structures, development of a therapeutic milieu, focus on the group and its dynamics (the “here and now” perspective) rather than on events external to the group, and the development of trust and openness.

Those experiences in the group apparently puzzled Bion considerably, and he spent a number of years reconciling those experiences with his formal training with (and psychoanalysis by) Melanie Klein.  The result was his creative theory of assumptive cultures.  Like many organizational theorists Bion believed that a group members embrace a set of shared beliefs that functions in ways that are similar to the functions of “culture” in a society—defining correct behavior, establishing rituals, organizing status structures, and so on.  But Bion uniquely suggested that groups shift from one culture to another rapidly—perhaps instantaneously—and that these shifts betray the fundamental irrationality of individuals when in groups. His key terms include:

Group mentality: “the unanimous expression of the will of the group, contributed to by the individual in ways of which he is unaware, influencing him disagreeably whenever he thinks or behaves in a manner at variance with the basic assumptions” (p. 65).

Group culture: “the structure which the group achieves at any given moment, the occupations it pursues, and the organization it adopts” (p. 55).

Work group culture: relatively standard, “normal,” group structures, designed to facilitate the attainment of group goals and also satisfy group members’ needs.

Basic assumptive culture: The tendency for the group to structure itself, spontaneously, “guarding itself” from certain one of the basic fears, or conflicts, that groups illicit in their individual members. These basic fears are “fight-flight,” “dependency,” and “pairing”.

Valency: “Freud turns to discussion of something that crops up under a variety of names, such as ‘suggestion’, ‘imitation,’ ‘prestige of leaders’, ‘contagion’. I have used ‘valency’ partly because I would avoid the meanings that already adhere to the terms I have listed, partly because the term ‘valency,’ as used in physics to denote the power of combination of atoms, carries with it the greatest penumbra of suggestiveness useful for my purpose. But it I mean the capacity of the individual for instantaneous combination with other individuals in an established pattern of behavior–the basic assumptions” (p. 175).

When in the working group culture members are focused on the group’s task and its issues, they communicate with each other openly and honestly, and they react rationally rather than emotionally. But when something within the situation arouses individuals fears and anxiety (often, fears and anxieties they do not even recognize at the conscious level) then the working group culture gives way to one of the basic assumptive cultures.

  • Dependency culture: The group seems to be excessively dependent on the leader or on the group itself. Members may complain of being neglected, misunderstood, or criticized; they may compete like frivolous siblings for a mother’s attention; they may idealize the group and its leaders; or they may become passively compliant, even sullen, in response to the leader’s requests. The group may not express their needs overtly, but at an unconscious level they are disappointed that the leader is not an all-knowing sage who can magically fulfill all their needs.
  • Fight/flight culture: the group feels threatened either by an internal source–such as a clearly dissatisfied group member or an intervention by the therapist that is rejected by a client—or by an external source—such as the existence of other groups that seem superior or alternatives for their members or their leader. The group may feel it must have a powerful leader who will lead them to victory against their enemies, or guide their retreat to safety. These unrecognized anxieties trigger considerable conflict within the group, as some members of the group challenge the leader’s authority, others take sides as subgroups form to support or rebel against the leader, and some withdraw. A stubbornly quiet, low-energy group may be one that is resisting the leader, or retreating from the work that must be done.
  • Pairing assumption: the group’s focus shifts from the group-as-a-whole to one (or more) dyadic pairs within the group. During this phase the group members may find themselves discussing romantic expectations and fantasies, speculating about sexual alliances between the group’s members, and struggling to create an idea or insight that will resolve their anxieties.

Bion’s analysis is dense with insights about groups and their dynamics.  A selective sample follows:

p. 168: “The individual is a group animal at war, both with the group and with those aspects of his personality that constitute his ‘groupishness.’

p. 169: “No individual, however isolated in time and space, should be regarded as outside a group or lacking in active manifestations of group psychology.

p. 170: “A group acting on basic assumption would need neither organization nor a capacity for co-operation. The counterpart of co-operation in the basic-assumption group is valency–a spontaneous, unconscious function of the gregarious quality in the personality of man.

p. 171: “Le Bon described the leader as one under whom a collection of human beings instinctively place themselves, accepting his authority as their chief; the leader must fit in with the group in his personal qualities and must himself be held by a strong faith in order to awaken the group’s faith. His view of the leader as one who must fit in with the group in his personal qualities is compatible with my view that any leader is ignored by the group when his behavior or characteristics fall outside the limits set by the prevalent basic assumption.

p. 172: “In work-group activity time is intrinsic: in basic assumption activity it has no place. Basic-assumption group functions are active before ever a group comes together in a room, and continue after the group has dispersed. There is neither development nor decay in basic-assumption functions, and in this respect they differ totally from those of the work group.”

p. 175: “I do not in the least believe that there is a reduction of intellectual ability in the group, nor yet that ‘great decisions in the realm of thought and momentous discoveries and solutions of problems are only possible to an individual working in solitude’ (McDougall, 1920).

The Origins of the Scientific Study of Groups

December 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Jaap van Ginneken (2007), in his book Mass Movements in Darwinist, Freudian, and Marxist Perspective, reviews with extraordinary care the first scholarly studies of mobs, groups, and crowds.   He wonders why, over the years, one person–Gustave Le Bon–was given so much credit for having “discovered” the crowd and the group, even though (a) crowds were described in elaborate detail by other other scholars and writers in the years preceding Le Bon’s work and (b) other social scientists published work dealing with mobs and crows before Le Bon did.

Many writers, responding in part to the changes they observed in many Western societies–shifts from monarchy based governments to democracies, movements of the populace from towns and villages to the cities, increases in nationalism and declines in provincialism–speculated about the unique influences of crowds and mobs on members’ psychological states. de Maupassant, for example, in Sur l’eau (On the Water), quotes the ever quotable Lord Chesterfield who in the 1740s (in his Letters to his son, Philip Stanhope), remarked:

This will ever be the case ; every numerous assembly is mob, let the individuals who compose it be what they will. Mere reason and good sense is never to be talked to a mob: their passions, their sentiments, their senses, and their seeming interests, are alone to be applied to. Understanding they have collectively none ; but they have ears and eyes, which must be flattered and seduced; and this  can only be done by eloquence, tuneful periods, graceful action, and all the various parts of oratory.

de Maupassant then writes how easily one can become submerged in a crowd of spectators, with the result that he is stripped of his humanity, his reason, and his individuality (pages 160-164).

The same phenomenon, a surprising one, is produced each time a large number of men are gathered together. All these persons, side by side, distinct from each other, of different minds, intelligences, passions, education, beliefs, and prejudices, become suddenly, by the sole fact of their being assembled together, a special being, endowed with a new soul, a new manner of thinking in common, which is the unanalysable resultant of the average of these individual opinions.

It is a crowd, and that crowd is a person, one vast collective individual, as distinct from any other mob, as one man is distinct from any other man. A popular saying asserts that “the mob does not reason.” Now why does not the mob reason, since each particular individual in the crowd does reason? Why should a crowd do spontaneously, what none of the units of the crowd would have done? Why has a crowd irresistible impulses, ferocious wills, stupid enthusiasms that nothing can arrest, and, carried away by these thoughtless impulses, why does it commit acts, that none of the individuals composing it would commit

A stranger utters a cry, and behold! a sort of frenzy takes possession of all, and all, with the same impulse, which no one tries to resist, carried away by the same thought, which instantaneously becomes common to all, notwithstanding different castes, opinions, beliefs, and customs, will fall upon a man, murder him, drown him, without a motive, almost without a pretext, whereas each one of them, had he been
alone, would have precipitated himself, at the risk of his life, to save the man he is now killing.

And in the evening, each one on returning home, will ask himself what passion or what madness had seized him, and thrown his nature and his temperament out of its ordinary groove; how he could have given way to this savage impulse? The fact is, he had ceased to be a man, to become one of a crowd. His personal will had become blended with the common will, as a drop of water is blended with and lost in a river. His personality had disappeared, had become an infinitesimal particle of one vast and strange personality, that of the crowd. The panics which take hold of an army, the storms of opinion which carry away an entire nation, the frenzy of dervish dances, are striking examples of this identical phenomenon.

In short, it is not more surprising to see an agglomeration of individuals make one whole, than to see molecules, that are placed near each other form one body.

Nor was de Maupassant the only writer to wax intently on the topic of mobs and crowds: Dickens, Balzac, Scott, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Hugo, Manzoni, Poe and Zola all wrote of the power of crowds, the need to merge oneself in a collective, the capacity of large aggregates of individuals to act in unusual ways, and the contagion of emotion within groups. Indeed, Plato, in The Republic, worries about basing any system of government on the will of the general populace and the New Testament discusses the insensitivity of the mob to Christ’s condemnation by the Romans and his subsequent execution. Descriptions of the change a crowd can wrought are not novel.

Le Bon not only fails to acknowledge previous literary analyses of crowds in his classic text on the subject, but he also makes no mention of researchers in the emerging social sciences whose made many of the same points he does in his analysis.  van Ginneken suggests that the similarity of Le Bon’s work with the previously published papers by Scipio Sighele of Italy and Henry Fournial of France is very substantial; so substantial that these early crowd researchers engaged in a running debate about who deserved recognition as the “father” of the study of crowds.  From van Ginneken (p. 37): “Sighele was outraged by what he saw as a flagrant plagiarism: first on the part of Fournial, and then on the part of Le Bon.”

van Ginneken concludes that Le Bon was no original thinker, and that many modern depictions of him as a “hero” who opened the way to the scientific study of groups and crowds are mistaken, at best, or deliberate deceptions designed to lay claim to others ideas, at worst.  He does note, however, that Le Bon was a masterful popularizer (he uses the word “vulgarizer”), and in consequence it was Le Bon who influenced the politicians, researchers, and theorists of the 2oth century by presenting contemporary ideas about social behavior in accessible ways.

Group Development

Nearly every theorist who has wondered about some aspect of groups and their dynamics has also speculated about regularities in the way groups change time. Indeed, the issue of groups changing over time is so central to the study of groups that Cartwright and Zander (1968, p. 7) defined group dynamics to be the scientific study of groups and “the laws of their de­velopment.”

For example, Parsons, Bales, and Shils (1953) hypothesized that all social organizations must adapt to their environment (Adaptation), develop and enact methods for attaining their group’s goals (Goal Attainment), structure and regularize intermember relations (Integration), and satisfy each members need to feel connected to and not rejected by the group (Latent Pattern Maintenance). Bales (1970), in extending this model to groups, suggested most groups deal with these functions sequentially, moving from Adaptation to Goals Attainment to Integration and then to Latent Pattern Maintenance.  Hare (2009) later suggested LAIG as the order, identified subphases and shifts from a task focus to a relationship (socioemotional) focus. Schutz (1958) suggested groups meet individual members’ needs to give and to receive inclusion (I), control (C), and affection (A), but that from the outset groups repeatedly cycle through intervals where interaction focuses on I, C, and A, in turn, until the group reaches its conclusion, where the sequence shifts to A, then C, and lastly I.  Other theoriests, such as Arrow (1997), Bennis and Shepard (1956), Braaten (1975), Brabender and Fallon (2009) Burnand(1990), Heinen and Jacobson (1976), Hill and Gruner (1973), Karterud (1989), Kuypers, Davies, and Glaser (1986), Lacoursiere (1980), Mabry (1975), MacKenzie (1994), Maples (1988), Sarri and Galinsky (1974), Stock and Thelen (1958) Tuckman (1965; see, too, Tuckman & Jensen (1977), and Wheelan (1994), offer theoretical models of group development that describe regularities that often emerge across groups in a variety of contexts.

Model of Group Development

A. Paul Hare's L-A-I-G model of group development, with subphases.

Most of the theories that consider the changes that occur in groups over time use the word development to describe this change, but only rarely consider the implicit connotations that this term carries.  New groups—ones that have just formed—are different from experienced groups. The committee meeting for the first time will act in ways that are very different from its interaction patterns of its 10th meeting, the team playing its first game of the season will not perform in the same way it will on its last game, and partygoers at 2AM act very differently than they did at the party’s start at 8PM.  But have these groups developed or merely changed. Development implies maturation, or the progressive and predictable emergence of a set of typical qualities in living organisms over time. Biologically, development (or epigenesis) is the result of the interaction of both nature and nurture: the organism’s genotype determines, to a large extent, how it will change as it moves through its life course, but the actual qualities it exhibits—its phenotype—is the result of the interaction of the genotype and the organism’s environment. Group development, as a form of social and psychological development, assumes that a group becomes more “mature” over time, suggesting that it will become better organized, or more effective, or more able to meet members’ needs. Yet, just as a child is considered to be “healthy” and “normal” even though he or she has not reached maturity, the developing group is also considered to be normal across the entire lifespan of the group. Even during the group’s initial formative stage members should gain psychologically and interpersonally from the experience. The successfully developing group is one that is able to profit at each of its development milestones, but in some cases the course of development may result in a dysfunctional group. Although time is thought to result in a gradual emerging of potential within a group (or in a person), development is contextually dependent. The concept of development also suggests that, at some point, the organism is no longer progressing with the passage of time, and is in fact deteriorating—at some point the group is no longer developing but aging. In some cases the changes that take place in groups may be better described as “unraveling” or “unfolding” rather than “developing.”

Other Related Musings

  1. Nearly all experts on groups assume that the changes groups manifest over time are relatively predictable. Groups do not change in unpredictable, random ways, but rather they exhibit regularities in their structure and interactions the longer their duration. The theories of development vary when describing the expected sequence of these changes, using such terms as stages, phases, cycles and even life courses of development. These terms of often used interchangeably, even though they vary somewhat in the meaning and implications. If a group passes through stages, then development proceeds.  Phases, in contrast, implies a lack of clarity in the movement from one stage to the next, and admits to the possibility of recurring phases. A life cycle suggests that groups may return, repeatedly, to earlier points in group history, and work through repeatedly issues and experiences.
  2. A life-course approach suggests that the more flowing, gradual, continuous process of change may be difficult to identify if one examines just one time period within a group.  Most theorists admit group development may be discontinuous, constant, rapid, or slow, but they do not discuss in detail issues of continuity and discontinuity.  Doe groups develop in a smooth, even flow, like a tree or stream flowing, or more stage/phase like, even transformative, as the group shifts from one form to another?  In a related vein, do groups have sensitive periods, critical period in their development?  Are there better times, than others, for a group to reach particular goals or to make progress towards greater maturity and functionality?
  3. Nearly all theories of development posit a work stage, but “work”—that is, a stage when members are dealing well with one another, making decisions rationally, and expending maximal effort in the direction of the group’s tasks—can occur at all stage in the group’s development.  Even during the group’s initial formative stage, the group members are working—albeit, on the task of exchanging information and developing relationships.
  4. What causes the change? External events? Some internal event, unique interaction. Abrupt, unexpected, planned, orchestrated by leader, inevitable unfolding. Or is group development akin to biological develop, in that groups, by their nature, follow patterns of change in all but the most unusual of environmental contexts?
  5. Developmental approaches offer descriptive accounts of the typical progression of the typical group by asking what is changing in the group and when do this change typically take place.  But only rarely to these theories explain why these patterns emerge.  One of the best known theories of group development, Tuckman’s (1965) rhymical model of forming-storming-norming-performing (and adjourning) offers little in the way of explanation of why these stages occur and why in this sequence.
  6. Theorists have used a variety of terms to describe the way groups development, including Change is multilevel and multidimensional; multilevel because it occurs within the individual members, within the pairs of association that link members to one another and to the group’s therapist, and within the group as a whole and multidimensional because it involves changes in affect, cognition, behavior.   But what is the relationship between the group-level change and adaption and the individual level change?
  7. Some aspects of change over time that occurs in groups have not been examined, directly, in extant theories of development.  For example, it may be that groups become increasingly real over time—entitative—to the point that they exist independently of the individual members (in a sense) and become increasingly influential.  Also, do groups get more rational over time…through continuous, guided, careful communication groups increase members’ integration/understanding/uncovering of unrecognized (unconscious) motives, emotions, and anxieties needs with rational, explicit, socially acceptable motives, emotions, and needs (primary process thinking and secondary process thinking).  Also, groups develop a shared history (transactive memory) that grows longer and more detailed over time. Applying life history theory of evolution to groups, one could argue that the occurrence, duration, and experience of key events in a group lifetime are shaped by group’s key consensual goal—maximize efficiency, productivity, and members’ satisfaction—to produce progress towards that essential goal.
  8. What are the common domains of change? What characteristics, qualities, and processes within the group the undergo change over time:  Norms, roles, conflict, communication, task focus, leadership, attraction, cohesion, etc….