What is a group? How are we to approach groups? In this article we review the development of theory about groups. We look at some different definitions of groups, and some of the key dimensions to bear in mind when thinking about them.
contents: introduction · the development of thinking about groups · defining ‘group’ · types of group · the benefits and dangers of groups · some key dimensions of groups [group interaction, group interdependence, group structure, group goals, group cohesiveness] · group development · conclusion · further reading and references · how to cite this article
Groups are a fundamental part of social life. As we will see they can be very small – just two people – or very large. They can be highly rewarding to their members and to society as a whole, but there are also significant problems and dangers with them. All this makes them an essential focus for research, exploration and action. In this piece I want to examine some of the key definitions of groups that have appeared, review central ways of categorizing groups, explore important dimensions of groups, and look briefly at the group in time.
Just how we define ‘group’ and the characteristics or ideas we use has been a matter of debate for many years. The significance of collectivities like families, friendship circles, and tribes and clans has been long recognized, but it is really only in the last century or so that groups were studied scientifically and theory developed (Mills 1967: 3). In the last decade of the nineteenth century, Émile Durkheim established just how wrapped up individual identity was with group membership, and Gustave Le Bon argued that people changed as they joined groupings such as crowds. Soon North American sociologists such as Charles Horton Cooley (1909) began to theorize groups more closely – and this was followed by others looking at particular aspects or types of group. Two well-known examples are Frederic Thrasher’s (1927) exploration of gang life and Elton Mayo’s (1933) research on the informal relationships between workers in teams. A further, critical, set of interventions came from Kurt Lewin (1948; 1951) who looked to the dynamic qualities of groups and established some important parameters with regard to the way they were to be studied.
As interest in group processes and group dynamics developed and accelerated (most particularly since the 1980s) the research base of the area strengthened. Not unexpectedly, the main arenas for the exploration of groups, and for building theory about them, have continued to be sociology, anthropology and social psychology – but they have been joined by contributions from biology, physics, management and organizational studies, and political science. As well as trying to make sense of human behaviour – why people join groups and what they get from them (both good and bad) – the study of groups has had a direct impact on practice in a number of areas of life. Perhaps the most obvious is work – and the contexts and practices of teams. But it has also acted as a spur to development in those fields of education, therapy, social care and social action that use groups to foster change.
As researchers turned to the systematic exploration of group life, different foci for attention emerged. Some social psychologists, for example, looked at the ways in which, for example, working in the presence of others tend to raise performance (Allport 1924). Others looked at different aspects of group process. Kurt Lewin (1948), for example, found that nearly all groups were based on interdependence among their members – and this applied whether the group was large or small, formally structured or loose, or focused on this activity or that. In a famous piece Lewin wrote, ‘it is not similarity or dissimilarity of individuals that constitutes a group, but interdependence of fate’ (op. cit.: 165). In other words, groups come about in a psychological sense because people realize they are ‘in the same boat’ (Brown 1988: 28). However, even more significant than this for group process, Lewin argued, is some interdependence in the goals of group members. To get something done it is often necessary to cooperate with others.
Interdependence has, thus, come to play a significant role in the way that many writers define group (e.g., Cartwright and Zander 1968), Others have stressed how people categorize themselves as members of something (Turner 1987) or share identity (Brown 1988) (see Exhibit 1). Others might look to communication and face-to-face encounters (Homans 1950), purpose (Mills 1967), structure and so on. As a starting point though, I found Forsyth’s (2006) definition the most helpful:
Hundreds of fish swimming together are called a school. A pack of foraging baboons is a troupe. A half dozen crows on a telephone line is a murder. A gam is a group of whales. But what is a collection of human beings called? A group. …. [C]ollections of people may seem unique, but each possesses that one critical element that defines a group: connections linking the individual members…. [M]embers are linked together in a web of interpersonal relationships. Thus, a group is defined as two or more individuals who are connected to one another by social relationships. Donelson R. Forsyth (2006: 2-3) [emphasis in original]
Subsequently, Forsyth has amended this definition to ‘two or more individuals who are connected to one another by and within social relationships’. Donelson R. Forsyth (2017: 3) [emphasis in original]
This definition has the merit of bringing together three elements: the number of individuals involved; connection, and relationship.
Numbers: When people talk about groups they often are describing collectivities with two members (a dyad) or three members (a triad). For example, a work team or study group will often comprise two or three people. However, groups can be very large collectivities of people such a crowd or religious congregation or gathering. As might be expected, there are differences in some aspects of behaviour between small and larger groupings (see below), yet there remain significant commonalities.
Connection. Most definitions of ‘group’ highlight the presence of a link between members. This goes beyond some surface similarity such as height or eye colour. In groups we expect members to be connected in some meaningful way (Forsyth 2017: 4). As Forsyth (op. cit.) puts it, ‘A family is a group because the members are connected, not just by blood but also by social and emotional relationships’.
Relationship. We also must recognize that the relations linking members of groups are not of one type.
In families, for example, the relationships are based on kinship, but in the workplace, they are based on task-related interdependencies. In some groups, members are friends, but in others, the members are linked by common interests or experiences. Nor are the relationships linking members equally strong or enduring. Some relationships, like the links between members of a family or a clique of close friends, are tenacious, for they have developed over time and are based on a long history of mutual influence and exchange. In others, the ties between members may be so fragile that they are easily severed. Each individual member of the group does not need to be linked to every other person in the group… In some cases, such as groups based on ethnicity, race, or gender, the connection linking members may be more psychological than interpersonal. But no matter what the nature of the relations, a group exists when some type of bond links the members to one another and to the group itself (Forsyth 2017: 4-5).
Exhibit 1: Some definitions of a group
Conceiving of a group as a dynamic whole should include a definition of group that is based on interdependence of the members (or better, the subparts of the group). Kurt Lewin (1951: 146)
We mean by a group a number of persons who communicate with one another often over a span of time, and who are few enough so that each person is able to communicate with all the others, not at second-hand, through other people, but face-to-face. George Homans (1950: 1)
To put it simply they are units composed of two or more persons who come into contact for a purpose and who consider the contact meaningful. Theodore M. Mills (1967: 2)
A group is a collection of individuals who have relations to one another that make them interdependent to some significant degree. As so defined, the term group refers to a class of social entities having in common the property of interdependence among their constituent members. Dorwin Cartwright and Alvin Zander (1968: 46)
Descriptively speaking, a psychological group is defined as one that is psychologically significant for the members, to which they relate themselves subjectively for social comparison and the acquisition of norms and values, … that they privately accept membership in, and which influences their attitudes and behaviour. John C Turner (1987: 1-2)
A group exists when two or more people define themselves as members of it and when its existence is recognized by at least one other. Rupert Brown (1988: 2-3)
In part differences in definition occur because writers often select those things that are of special importance in their work and then posit ‘these as the criteria for group existence’ (Benson 2001: 5). This said, it is possible, as Jarlath F. Benson has done, to identify a list of attributes:
• A set of people engage in frequent interactions
• They identify with one another.
• They are defined by others as a group.
• They share beliefs, values, and norms about areas of common interest.
• They define themselves as a group.
• They come together to work on common tasks and for agreed purposes (Benson 2009: 4)
From this she suggests that groups are intended and organic. They are not some random experience and as a result they have three crucial characteristics:
• There are parts
• There is relationship between the parts
• There is an organizing principle (op. cit.).
To this we might also add, as both John C. Turner (1987) and Rupert Brown (1989) have pointed out, groups are not just systems or entities in their own right but exist in relation to other groups.
There are various ways of classifying groups, for example in terms of their purpose or structure, but two sets of categories have retained their usefulness for both practitioners and researchers. They involve the distinctions between: primary and secondary groups; and planned and emergent groups.
Primary and secondary groups
Charles Horton Cooley (1909) established the distinction between ‘primary groups’ and ‘nucleated groups’ (now better known as secondary groups):
Primary groups are clusters of people like families or close friendship circles where there is close, face-to-face and intimate interaction. There is also often a high level of interdependence between members. Primary groups are also the key means of socialization in society, the main place where attitudes, values and orientations are developed and sustained.
Secondary groups are those in which members are rarely, if ever, all in direct contact. They are often large and usually formally organized. Trades unions and membership organizations such as the National Trust are examples of these. They are an important place for socialization, but secondary to primary groups.
This distinction remains helpful – especially when thinking about what environments are significant when considering socialization (the process of learning about how to become members of society through internalizing social norms and values; and by learning through performing our different social roles). The distinction helps to explain the limited impact of schooling in important areas of social life (teachers rarely work in direct way with primary groups) and of some of the potential of informal educators and social pedagogues (who tend to work with both secondary and primary groups – sometimes with families, often with close friendship circles).
Planned and emergent groups
Alongside discussion of primary and secondary groups, came the recognition that groups tend to fall into one of two broad categories:
Planned groups. Planned groups are specifically formed for some purpose – either by their members, or by some external individual, group or organization.
Emergent groups. Emergent groups come into being relatively spontaneously where people find themselves together in the same place, or where the same collection of people gradually come to know each other through conversation and interaction over a period of time. (Cartwright and Zander 1968).
As Forsyth (2006: 6) has put it ‘People found planned groups, but they often find emergent groups’. Sometimes writers use the terms ‘formed’ groups and ‘natural groups’ to describe the same broad distinction – but the term ‘natural’ is rather misleading. The development of natural groups might well involve some intention on the part of the actors.
More recently the distinction between formed and emergent groups has been further developed by asking whether the group is formed by internal or external forces. Thus, Arrow et. al (2000) have split planned groups into ‘concocted’ (planned by people and organizations outside the group) and ‘founded’ (planned by a person or people who are in the group). They also divided emergent groups into ‘circumstantial’ (unplanned and often temporary groups that develop when external forces bring people together e.g. people in a bus queue) and ‘self-organizing’ (where people gradually cooperate and engage with each other around some task or interest).
As can be seen from what we have already reviewed, groups offer people the opportunity to work together on joint projects and tasks – they allow people to develop more complex and larger-scale activities. We have also seen that groups can be:
• Significant sites of socialization and education – enabling people to develop a sense of identity and belonging, and to deepen knowledge, skills, and values and attitudes.
• Places where relationships can form and grow, and where people can find help and support.
• Settings where wisdom flourishes. As James Suriwiecki (2004) has argued, it is often the case that ‘the many are smarter than the few’.
However, there is a downside to all this. The socialization they offer might be highly constraining and oppressive for some of their members. They can also become environments that foster interpersonal conflict. Furthermore, the boundaries drawn around groups are part of a process of excluding certain people (sometimes to their detriment) and creating inter-group conflict. There is also evidence to show that groups can impact upon individuals in ways that warp their judgements and that lead to damaging decision making (what some commentators have talked about as ‘groupthink’).
For these reasons we need to be able to appreciate what is going on in groups – and to act where we can to make them more fulfilling and beneficial to their members and to society as a whole.
Those engaged in the systematic exploration of group processes and dynamics have used different ways of observing group behaviour and gaining insight into the experience of being part of groups. Some have tried for more of an ‘insider’ view using participant observation and conversation. Perhaps the best known example of this was William F. Whyte’s (1943) study of street corner society. Others have used more covert forms of observation, or looked to structured and overt observation and interviews. A classic example of the sort of scheme that has been used when looking at groups in more structured ways is Robert Freed Bales’ (1950) IPA system (Interaction Process Analysis) with its 12 different ways of coding group behaviour e.g. ‘shows solidarity’, ‘agrees’, ‘asks for opinion’ and so on.
All this research, and the contrasting orientations informing it, has generated different ideas about what to look out for in groups and, in particular, the forces impacting upon group processes and dynamics. I want to highlight five:
• Group interaction
• Group interdependence
• Group structure
• Group goals
• Group cohesion (and entitativity)
There are various ways of organizing and naming the significant qualities – but I have found this approach (taken from Donelson R. Forsyth 1990: 8-12; 2006: 10-16; 2016: 10-16) to be the most helpful way to start exploration.
Those involved with researching and working with groups have often come at interaction – the way in which people engage with and influence each other – from contrasting perspectives. As we have already seen, Bales (1950, 1999) looked at categorizing social interventions in terms of the ways in which they appear to impact on group process – and in particular the extent to which they looked to ‘getting on with the job’ or ‘having regard for others’ (Brown 1988: 19). This distinction has turned out to be one of the most enduring features of much that has been written about groupwork.
Task interaction can be seen as including ‘all group behaviour that is focussed principally on the group’s work, projects, plans and goals’ (Forsyth 2006: 10).
Relationship interaction (or socio-emotional interaction) is centred around the social and interpersonal aspects of group life.
This distinction has found its way into different aspects of practice – for example when thinking about leadership in groups (whether leaders focus on structure and task actions, or on the feelings and needs of the group members) (see, in particular, Hersey and Blanchard 1977). Thus actions can be categorized into whether they are concerned with task or maintenance (sometimes also described respectively as instrumental or expressive interventions) (Brown 1994: 71).
As Robert S Baron et. al. (2003: 139) have argued it is a basic feature of groups that group members’ outcomes often depend not only on their own actions, but also on the actions of others in the group. One member’s feelings, experiences and actions can come to be influenced in whole or in part by others. In all this it is also helpful to take up a distinction formulated by Morton Deutsch (1949) (one of Lewin’s graduate students) when looking at cooperation and competition in groups. He contrasted social interdependence – which exists when people share common goals and each person’s outcomes are affected by the actions of others – with social dependence where the ‘outcomes of one person are affected by the actions of a second person but not vice versa’ (Johnson and Johnson 2003: 94; 2016).
Most commentators on group process and group dynamics discuss group structure – but just what they include under this heading differs. Here we are going to follow Forsyth (2016) and define group structure as the ‘[n]orms, roles and stable patterns of relationship among the members of the group’.
Group size. An obvious but crucial consideration is the size of the group. Large groups function differently in a number of important respects to smaller groups. Size impacts on group communication, for example. In smaller groups a higher proportion of people are likely to participate – there is potential more time for each, and the smaller number of people involved means that speaking may not be as anxiety-making as in a large group. In addition, large groups are more likely to include people with a range of skills and this can allow for more specialization of labour. In addition, larger groups can also allow us to feel more anonymous. ‘As a result, we may exhibit less social responsibility…, which in turn will often lead to less task involvement and lower morale on the part of many group members as size increases’ (Baron 2003 et. al.: 7).
Group norms. Norms are basically rules of conduct that indicate what attitudes and behaviour might be expected or demanded in particular social situations and contexts. They are shared expectations of behaviour that set up what is desirable and appropriate in a particular setting or group. However, as soon as we talk about expected behaviour there is room for confusion. Here the norm is not referring to what is likely to occur, but what we think should occur. For example, we can expect a certain level of violence in town centres as the bars and clubs close, but most people would probably say that it shouldn’t be happening.
Socially established ‘and shared beliefs regarding what is normal, correct, true, moral and good generally have powerful effects on the thoughts and actions of group members’ (Baron et. al. 2003: 6). Group norms develop in groups often because they are necessary for the group to survive and/or to achieve its ends. Group life is dependent upon trust and a certain amount of loyalty, for example. Furthermore, as Baron et al have commented, norms provide codes of behaviour that render social life more predictable and efficient’ (op. cit.). They also act to reduce uncertainty in difficult situations. They provide a way forward for interaction.
Roles. The bundle of expectations and attributes linked to a social position can be seen as a role. In groups, people expect certain sorts of behaviour from those they see as the leader, for example. Various different ways of conceptualizing role have emerged in the study of groups e.g. ‘information giver’, ‘harmonizer’, ‘recorder’ and so on. Some of these schemes are helpful, some are not – but what cannot be disputed is the significance of role in groups. Different people play different roles – sometimes these are assigned (such as the in the membership of committees), sometimes they emerge through interaction. As Johnson and Johnson (2003: 24; 2016) have put it, ‘Roles define the formal structure of the group and differentiate one position from another’. Crucially, different social roles are often linked to different degrees of status and power within the group.
An obvious, but sometimes overlooked, factor in group processes and dynamics is the reason why the group exists. What does it do for its members? What is its object? How did it come to be created? As Alvin Zander (1985: 1-13) has shown, the form that a group takes is often heavily dependent on its purpose. Moreover, a group will often have several and possibly conflicting purposes which can then become expressed as tensions between members.
Group goals are ideals – they are the ends (the aims or the outcomes) sought by the group and its members. They entail some sort of joint vision (Johnson and Johnson 2003: 73; 2016). Without some commitment to the pursuit of common goals the group will not survive or be effective (Benson 2001: 66). Of great significance then is what might be called goal structure. Here a key distinction is between cooperative and competitive goal structures:
A co-operative goal structure develops when the individual goals of members are visible and similar… A competitive goal structure emerges where the individual goals of members are hidden or seen as different or opposed. (Benson 2001: 67)
Hidden agendas can be very destructive and lead to conflict in the group.
Forsyth (2006: 13) makes the point that ‘Groups are not merely sets of aggregated, independent individuals; instead they are unified social entities. Groups cannot be reduced down to the level of the individual without losing information about the group unit, as a whole’. The notion of group cohesion – the forces or bonds that bind individuals to the collectivity – is fundamental to an appreciation of groups. In some groups the power of the bonds, the feelings that group members have for each other and the extent to which they are prepared to cooperate to achieve their goals will be slight. In others these may be seen as strong. Here the word ‘seen’ is significant – for it may well be that a group is not experienced by its members as particularly co-operative, for example, but they, and those looking on, may believe it to be a social entity, a whole.
There is a growing literature around ‘group entitativity’ – the degree to which something appears to be a unified entity. Another way of thinking about this is as the ‘groupness’ of the people you might be observing in a particular situation (Brown 1999). It was Donald T. Campbell (1958) who first used the term entitativity. He argued that when groups become real they possess the characteristics of entities (Forsyth 2006: 15). Campbell based his analysis on explorations into how the mind works when deciding when something is to be approached as a whole (a gestalt or something that cannot be described as the sum of its parts) or ‘a random collection of unrelated elements’ (Forsyth 2006: 15). When looking at people together in particular places (what he calls the ‘aggregate’) Campbell concluded that we depend on three main cues to make judgements about entitativity:
• Common fate – the extent to which individuals in the ‘aggregate’ seem to experience the same, or interrelated outcomes.
• Similarity – the extent to which the individuals display the same behaviours or resemble one another.
• Proximity – the distance among individuals in the ‘aggregate’ (or group). (described in Forsyth 2016: 16)
We might look, thus, at people seated around a table in a café or bar – we look at the extent to which they join in things together e.g. laughing, discussing; whether they acting in a similar way or have something in common e.g. in the way they dress, the things they have with them; and how closely they are sitting together.
Groups change over time. There is a real sense in which they are living things. They emerge, they exist, and they die. This phenomenon has led to the formulation of a wide range of theoretical models concerning developmental processes. Most commentators assume that groups go through a number of phases or stages if they exist for an extended period. It is clear, for example, that people tend to want to know something about the other members; have to develop a degree of interdependence in order that the group or team may achieve its tasks and be satisfying to its members; and has to learn at some level to deal with conflict if it is to survive. The most influential model of the developmental process – certainly in terms of its impact upon texts aimed at practitioners – has been that of Bruce W. Tuckman (1965). While there are various differences concerning the number of stages and their names – many have adopted a version of Tuckman’s model – forming, storming, norming and performing.
He was later to add a fifth stage – adjourning (Tuckman and Jensen 1977) [all discussed at length in Bruce W. Tuckman – forming, storming norming and performing in groups].
From this brief overview we can see the significance of groups and why it may be important to intervene in them – both to strengthen their potential as sites of mutual aid and communal well-being, and to help them become more fulfilling to their individual members. They are a fundamental part of human experience and play a crucial role both in terms of shaping and influencing individual lives and society itself.
Humans are small group beings. We always have been and we always will be. The ubiquitousness of groups and the inevitability of being in them makes groups one of the most important factors in our lives. As the effectiveness of our groups goes, so goes the quality of our lives.
To ensure that groups are effective, members must be extremely competent in using small group skills. Humans are not born with these skills; they must be developed. (Johnson and Johnson 2003: 579; 581)
Those skills – and the attitudes, orientations and ideas associated with them – are learnt, predominantly, through experiencing group life. They can also be enhanced by the intervention of skilled leaders and facilitators – but that is another story [see working with groups].
Forsyth, Donelson R. (2016). Group Dynamics 6e. Boston MA.: Centage. Pretty much the standard textbook on groups, it has gone from strength to strength through its four editions.
Johnson, D.W. and Johnson, F.P. (2016). Joining Together: Group Theory and Group Skills 12e. New York: Pearson. Still the best starting point for an exploration of groupwork practice. It begins by providing an overview of group dynamics and experiential learning and then looks at key dimensions of group experience and the role of the leader/facilitator.
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How to cite this article: Smith, Mark K. (2008, 2018). ‘What is a group?’, the encyclopaedia of informal education. [www.infed.org/mobi/what-is-a-group/. Retrieved: insert date].
© Mark K Smith 2005, 2008, 2018