Robert Freed Bales, group observation and interaction processes

Picture: R. F. BalesRobert Freed Bales, group observation and interaction processes. R. F. Bales pioneered the development of systematic methods of group observation and measurement of interaction processes. In this brief article we survey his contribution.

contents : introduction · group observation and interaction processes · conclusion · references · how to cite this piece

Robert Freed Bales (1916-2004) was the Professor of Social Relations and Director of the Laboratory of Social Relations at the University of Harvard. His main research centred on interpersonal interaction in small groups. Influenced by the work of Kurt Lewin he hoped to document recurring patterns which could be used when forming and facilitating problem-solving groups.

Bales first entered the University of Oregon on a music scholarship – but was graduate and to receive an M.Sc in Sociology. He then went on to study for a PhD under Talcott Parsons at the University of Harvard – receiving his award in 1945 (Kagan et. al. 2006). Talcott Parsons invited Robert Freed ales to join the new Department of Social Relations – where he stayed until his retirement in 1986 (op. cit.). A memorial minute from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University records:

He was trusted and admired by colleagues in each discipline. They and his students regarded him with deep affection. Freed was one of few faculty members in Social Relations who had moral authority derived from his colleagues’ recognition that he placed the welfare of the department above personal motives. (2005 quoted by Kagan et. al. 2006)

As Kahan et. al. (2005) comment his work was widely recognized. He received the Distinguished Career Award of the American Association of Specialists in Group Work in 1982, the Cooley-Mead Award of the American Sociological Association in 1983, and the Distinguished Teaching Award of the American Psychological Foundation in 1984.

Group observation and interaction processes

Bales pioneered the development of systematic methods of group observation and measurement of interaction processes. His first coding system was Interactive Process Analysis (IPA) (which was used to classify group behaviour into that which was task-oriented and that which was relationship-oriented) (Bales 1950).

The system was revised in 1970 in the SYMLOG system (Systematic Multiple Level Observation of Groups). It was based on the assumption that three fundamental dimensions structure interactions in groups:

Dominance/submission. Is this member active, outgoing, and talkative – or passive, quiet and introverted?

Friendliness/unfriendliness. Is this member warm, open and positive – or negative and irritable?

Acceptance of authority/non-acceptance of authority. Is this member analytical, and task-oriented – or emotional, untraditional and (possibly) resentful. (Forsyth 2006: 41)


Bales’ work exerted considerable influence on the study of group psychology in the second half of the twentieth century


Bales, Robert Freed (1950) Interaction Process Analysis: A Method for the Study of Small Groups. Cambridge, Mass. : Addison-Wesley.

Bales, Robert Freed (1970) Personality and interpersonal behavior. New York, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Bales, Robert Freed (1999) Social Interaction Systems: Theory and Measurement. New Brunswick, N.J. ; London : Transaction.

Bales, Robert F. and Stephen P. Cohen with the assistance of Stephen A. Williamson (1979) SYMLOG : a system for the multiple level observation of groups. New York : Free Press ; London : Collier Macmillan.

Hare, A. Paul Edgar F. Borgatta and Robert F. Bales. (eds.) (1955) Small groups : studies in social interaction. New York : Alfred A. Knops.

Kagan, Jerome et. al. (2006) ‘Robert Freed Bales. Faculty of Arts and Sciences – Memorial Minute’, Harvard University Gazette. [ Accessed December 1, 2008].

Parsons, Talcott and Robert F Bales in collaboration with Philip E Slater, Morris Zeldich and James Olds (1956) Family Socialization and Interaction Process. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.


Syracuse University: Peter Blanck interviews Professor Robert Freed Bales about his career developing practical methods of observation under adverse conditions in the field.


How to cite this piece: Smith, Mark K. (2008) ‘Robert Freed Bales, group observation and interaction processes’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date]

© Mark K Smith 2008