Friday, June 26, 2009



For some years now, at least in the industrialized West, groups have received rather a bad press. Football hooliganism, inner-city riots and protest demonstrations are frequently attributed to 'mob rule'; governments proclaim the virtues of individual enterprise and choice, and denigrate policies aimed at promoting social welfare and collective responsibility; newspaper editorials regularly blame industrial unrest on small groups of 'militants' coercing ordinary workers to take action against their wishes; collective bargaining is being replaced by private contract between employer and employee; the owner of a small business, battling against government bureaucracy, is championed, while a group of workers occupying a factory due for closure is ridiculed.

Within social psychology the picture is not much different. Even the most cursory survey of currently popular textbooks and the main scientific journals reveals that group processes receive very short shrift indeed compared to phenomena associated with dyadic or interpersonal relationships and - increasingly in recent years - individual cognitive processes (Steiner, 1974, 1986). Where group behavior is discussed, considerable emphasis is often given to its negative or socially undesirable aspects - deindividuation, prejudice, social loafing and groupthink' - rather than the more positive aspects of team spirit, intergroup cooperation, group productivity and collective problem-solving. Indeed, such is the concentration on the allegedly antisocial nature of groups that one commentator has been moved to suggest, only half-jokingly, that 'Humans would do better without groups' (Buys, 1978).

One of my intentions in writing this book is to contribute to a reversal of this cultural and scientific bias against groups. This correction is necessary, I believe, both scientifically and politically. First because, as I hope will become evident, groups are an inescapable part of human existence. Like them or not, they simply are not going to go away. People grow up in groups, sometimes called families; they work in groups, as engine crews, design teams or hunting parties; they learn in groups; they play in groups, in a multitude of team games; they make decisions in groups, whether these be government committees, village councils or courtroom juries; and, of course, they also fight in groups, as street gangs, revolutionary cadres and national armies. In short, human beings are 'group beings'. Thus, a social psychology which ignores or neglects the study of groups is unlikely to be of much assistance in helping to understand many important areas of human endeavor.

The second reason follows from the first. It seems to me that many of today's most pressing social problems involve groups of various kinds. The control of environmental pollution demands not only nationally agreed policies on waste disposal and gas emissions but international collaboration as well; the protection of children from abuse or neglect requires the collective diagnostic skills of medical and social work professionals as well as sensitive intervention work with the families concerned; the growing threat of racism may well need a greater awareness amongst different ethnic minorities of their common oppression and the development by them of political strategies to bring about long overdue social change; and, above all, the persistence of internation conflicts around the world in an age of nuclear weaponry urgently necessitates better methods of resolving or avoiding such conflicts and underlies the importance of finding ways to abandon the arms race. In all these examples we are concerned with people's behavior as group members, both towards those in their own group and to those belonging to other groups. It follows, then, that if social psychology is to make even the smallest contribution to the resolution of these problems it will come not from the insights derived from a psychology of the isolated individual but from the informed application of our knowledge of group processes.

Now a few words on how I have chosen to present this book. Let me straight away warn any readers looking for the exposit.ion of a single conceptual framework that they will be disappointed. I have been deliberately eclectic in the theoretical approaches I have espoused. This is for both intellectual and pedagogic reasons. Intellectual because I have come to the conclusion, after more than a dozen years of researching into and teaching group processes, that there is no one theory that can do justice to the complexities of intra- and intergroup behavior. To be sure, some theories are more useful than others - and in this book I have not hesitated to point up the weaknesses of those perspectives which seem theoretically ill-conceived or empirically unfounded - but ultimately it seems to me that for a half-decent explanation of most group phenomena of interest we need to draw on the strengths of two or three different theoretical models. This implies that for teaching purposes it is equally inappropriate to present every- thing from just one point of view. For while there are obvious gains in theoretical continuity and coherence from such a monopolist strategy, these are, to my mind, outweighed by the value of exposing students to a variety of competing explanations. A pluralist approach like this is more likely to encourage them to make the kind of critical choices of their own which, I believe, is a fundamental objective of the educative process.

If I have been eclectic in my choice of theories, I have been equally catholic in the range of empirical sources I have drawn on. In these pages will be found quantitative results from tightly controlled laboratory experiments and large-scale surveys, qualitative material from field interviews and participant observations, anecdotes from contemporary life and even the occasional literary allusion. Again, the pluralism is deliberate and is much influenced by the views of three of the founders of modern group psychology, Kurt Lewin, Muzafer Sherif and Henri Tajfel. Lewin was the originator of the phrase 'action research', a conception of scholarship in which theory and practice are inextricably linked. Theory, for Lewin, only had validity to the extent that it was effective in promoting social change: 'research which produces nothing but books will not suffice' (Lewin, 1948, p. 203). Sherif, too, was acutely conscious of the need to bridge the gap between academic research and social reality. As the creator of group psychology's most artificial - and yet deeply significant - laboratory- experiment (Sherif, 1936; see chapter 2), and as the inspirat;on behind some of its classic naturalistic studies (Sherif, 1966; see chapter 7), he remains the most successful exponent of the coordinated use of field and laboratory methods. Tajfel had slightly different concerns. Ever impatient with methodological orthodoxy (he once remarked to me that an over concern with methodology was like packing your bags for a journey you never make), he was particularly keen to stress the importance of locating individuals, and the research findings they produce, in their social and cultural context. Theory and research which did not take account of the social system in which people lived were, for Tajfel, 'experiments [conducted] in a vacuum' (Tajfel, 1972). It was these dialectical views of theory and practice, laboratory experiment and field study, social research and social context, which dictated my choice of the kind of empirical work to feature most prominently in this book.

The fact that I have chosen to eschew theoretical and methodological singularity does not mean that there are no unifying themes running through the book. The most general of these is an assumption that dynamics within groups and dynamics between groups are closely related. For three decades after the war the study of 'group dynamics' was synonymous with the analysis of the inner workings of the small group. Indeed, most of the major texts with these two words in their titles confine themselves precisely to that domain (e.g. Cartwright and Zander, 1969; Shaw, 1976). In the past decade there has been a growing recognition of the significance of relations between groups in shaping people's behavior (e.g. Turner and Giles, 1981; Worchel and Austin, 1985). However, as yet, there have been few concerted attempts to integrate these two areas of study (notable exceptions are Sherif and Sherif's, 1969, classic text and the monograph by Turner et al., 1987). Another of my aims, therefore, has been to demonstrate the connections between intra- and intergroup processes. Although in any one chapter there will be more emphasis on one aspect than the other, the close link between them is the dominant message of the book.

Subsumed within this general argument are three other recurring themes. The first is the idea that groups are a source of social identity for people. It has long been recognized that our group memberships contribute in a major way to our sense of who we are and of our place in the world. Indeed, this idea was central to the thinking of some of the earliest social psychologists (e.g. Mead, 1934). However, despite its early prominence, the concept of identity featured only sporadically in the work of those interested in groups (e.g. Lewin, 1948) and only recently has it been restored to its proper place at the heart of the study of group process (Tajfel, 1978a, 1982a; Turner et al. 1987). Most of these developments have been concerned with the implications of identity processes for intergroup behavior in analyses of social conflict and prejudice. However, as I hope to show several traditional topics in the study of group dynamics - e.g. deindividuation, group structure, social influence - may also be illuminated by an understanding of the role of social identification in group behavior.

The second theme is the distinction between task and socio-emotional orientations. This is a widely held distinction between those aspects of group life which have to do with task performance and the achievement of group goals, and those which concern people's relationships with one another. The distinction originated in the pioneering work of Bales (1950), who believed that these two orientations were fundamental and opposed facets of all group processes. According to Bales, people in groups are basically concerned with achieving some task; to do this successfully they need to be sensitive to other group members' needs and motives; such interpersonal concern detracts from getting on with the job at hand and so there is a resurgence of task activity; and so it goes on. As we shall see, this basic distinction crops up in various different guises in the study of leadership, social influence and group productivity. It is thus a useful second theme with which to integrate research on groups.

The third theme is the importance of social comparison processes. Dominating the literature on small groups after the war was Festinger's (1954) theory of social comparisons. In this theory it was proposed that other people serve as vital reference points for the evaluation of our abilities and the validation of our opinions. This simple idea has been used extensively to analyze and understand a wide range of phenomena - for example, group formation and cohesion, status relations within groups, conformity and polarization in group decision-making. In recent years the importance of comparisons at the intergroup level has also come to be recognized, particularly in relation to the causes of relative deprivation and the maintenance of social identity (Runciman, 1966; Tajfel and Turner, 1979). Thus, the idea of social comparison is one of the crucial links in demonstrating the relatedness of intra- and intergroup behavior.

In chapter 1, I begin with the concept of the 'group' as it has developed in social psychology, and go on to establish the importance of groups as an aspect of identity and analyze behavior in the crowd, one of the most elementary forms of group. In chapter 2 some elementary group processes are considered. The most central of these is the tension between task and socio-emotional orientations. Other processes considered in this chapter are the consequences of joining a group, the effects of different forms of interdependence and the acquisition and development of group norms. These group processes take place within an organized framework or group structure. The nature of that structure and its implications for group members are examined in chapter 3. Groups can be structured around roles, communication channels and, above all, by status. The existence of status differences and their origin in and maintenance through social comparisons occupies most of the chapter. High status is sometimes formalized into positions of leadership, and that topic is also treated in chapter 3. In chapter 4, the discussion turns to processes of social influence in groups - the means by which uniformity in the group is attained or, alternatively, changes in group norms are brought about. Both majority and minority influence are examined. In chapter 5, I consider the age-old question of whether it is better to work alone or with others. Several areas of individual versus group productivity are reviewed and the adequacy of current theories of group performance is assessed. A closely related topic, also considered in chapter 5, is group decision-making.

In these four chapters the spotlight is mainly on the interior of the group, although intergroup factors are never completely absent. In chapter 6 the emphasis shifts towards people's behavior towards members of groups other than their own when the origins of inter-group prejudice and social discontent are discussed. Some of the more individualistic accounts of these phenomena are criticized. An alternative explanation for intergroup conflict and harmony is put forward in chapter 7, one which stresses the importance of objective relationships between groups. The effects of such positive and negative inter-dependencies on intergroup attitudes and in-group cohesion are described. Ways of bringing groups into contact with one another, which are likely to reduce prejudice and discrimination, are also assessed. In the final chapter the focus remains on intergroup behavior as I consider research which suggests that simply belonging to a group is enough to cause intergroup discrimination. One explanation for this finding is in terms of the cognitive process of categorization. From this basic process, the explanation for a number of other judgmental biases emerges. In a final section I return to the notion of social identity with which the book began. A central idea here is the importance for individuals of being able to see their group as positively distinct from other groups. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the implications of the pursuit of distinctiveness for groups in situations of status inequality. (April 22, 2008)

No comments:

Post a Comment