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A group is a collection of individuals with some degree of interdependence and some element of common or shared identity. Most often, membership in a group involves face-to-face interaction with other members, although such interaction is not a necessary component of a group. (For example, Internet “groups,” which do not involve face-to-face interaction, are becoming increasingly important in the twenty-first century.) Scholarly interest in groups began with sociology’s birth. German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies (1855–1936) made an early contribution when he developed the influential concepts of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft to depict two different types of groups related to different kinds of economic and social structures. Gesellschaft refers to instrumentally-based groups or communities in which social relations are formal and little consensus exists. Gemeinschaft refers to small communities in which social interactions are based on friendship or kinship.
The importance of groups and community were also a focus of the French sociologist Émile Durkheim’s (1858–1917) writings. For example, in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1915), Durkheim discussed the significance of religion for one’s sense of belonging. Religion might take different forms in different societies, but all religions stress the importance of social control and cohesion of the group. In this way, the rituals associated with religion serve as visible evidence of the power of the community as they are enacted in a group and for the group.
The American social psychologists Charles H. Cooley (1864–1929) and George H. Mead (1863–1931) both frequently addressed the central importance of groups, especially small groups, and made important contributions to the construction of a framework for understanding symbolic interaction. Cooley, for example, developed the idea of primary groups, that is, groups that are important in intimate interaction. Mead’s theoretical conceptualizations in Mind, Self, and Society (1934), including the centrality of groups and the importance of role-taking, were influential in the development of the field of group dynamics.
The German sociologist Georg Simmel (1858–1918) detailed many concepts and perspectives that have preoccupied group theorists since the early twentieth century. His discussion of conflict and exchange framed issues in terms of a dynamic. Simmel argued that exchange was pervasive and that what might at first appear to be purely individual acts are actually influenced by others. To use one of his examples, a teacher teaches, but this involves an exchange with students in part because the teacher considers the students as an audience. People are not isolated agents, acting on their own; rather they act in response to groups.
The study of groups and their structure is sometimes termed group dynamics or group processes. While there are many areas of study within group dynamics, some of the most important are group identity, status, cooperation and competition, exchange, justice, and legitimation.
The intensity of identity as a group member varies according to the members’ common fate. If membership within a particular group seems to predict important outcomes, group identity may be strong. For example, minorities are likely to feel a strong identity as minority group members because it is evident that their categorization both comes from and creates common experiences.
Collectivities can have elements of common fate, but members may not have group identification and as a result are not usually considered groups. For example, Karl Marx (1818–1883) clearly delineated class interests based upon the means of production; membership in a class was fundamental to life chances. The bourgeoisie controlled the means of production, while the proletariat did not. However, at times, members of those groups may not conceive of themselves as sharing commonalities; in fact, as Marx argued, although members of the proletariat had powerful class interests uniting them, they often lacked the critical recognition of membership in this group. This lack of recognition served the purposes of the bourgeoisie and was an important means of control and power.
Group identity can also be created solely through common experiences, even where no categorization preceded the experience. Experiences such as surviving a hurricane or cancer, for example, can create a powerful group identity among the survivors. Research, especially in the social identity tradition, also indicates that, under some conditions, the slightest form of categorization can function as a type of group identity—strong enough to create in-group favoritism. Research in the area of social identity theory, which developed within European social psychology, emphasizes how individual cognition and group identities are related.
Status is usually defined as a position in a social network. Importantly, status involves status beliefs, beliefs about the social worth of the individuals who occupy positions within a network such that a person who occupies one position is “better than” a person who occupies another position (Sewell 1992). Early status studies examined the concept of leadership and different forms of group rules that corresponded to different political processes (such as democratic rules versus autocratic rules). In the 1950s, attention turned more to the internal dynamics of groups. The social psychologist Robert Bales (1916–2004) and his associates developed interaction process analysis (IPA), a categorization technique that, in different forms, shaped much of group analysis. In particular, these researchers were interested in how the behavior of one group member conditioned the behavior of others. This idea that status was relative to the group was a central insight and formed the impetus for thinking about characteristics once viewed as fixed (such as sex or ethnicity) as varying in intensity and salience depending upon context.
One of the most developed research programs in the analysis of status is expectations state theory. The theory has several subsets; one of these is status characteristics theory, which concerns how status generates and then sustains inequality of power and prestige within groups. It is posited that this process, called the burden of proof process, is so strong that unless some event or some information intervenes, it organizes interaction consistent with prior evaluations of the status characteristics. In other words, the cultural stereotyping associated with status characteristics are reproduced in different settings and within different groups. Dissolving status hierarchies is difficult because there are layers of group interactions that support and uphold the status quo. However, under some conditions, hierarchies can be dissolved; particularly noteworthy are a series of applied studies in school settings (Cohen 1993).
Legitimation and Justice
Related to issues of status are issues of legitimation, the process through which a principle or set of rules is adhered to even in the absence of incentives. There have been studies of differing sources and processes of legitimation, and particularly promising is research concerning how the granting of power within groups is affected by and reinforced by referential belief structures, or socially validated beliefs at the cultural level that are imported into the local setting.
Other research has addressed how conflict between different sources of legitimation might affect interactions and the establishment or disruption of norms and routines. There is a large literature that aims to answer how individuals make assessments of justice based on their own and others’ benefits. The sociological contribution to justice is the extension of the justice concept beyond the specific individual. Referential belief structures, for example, serve as an external comparison by which to judge the fairness of local settings.
The social aspects of exchanges are central to the study of groups. Some of the early sociological formulations were patterned after economic models, while others were patterned after behavioral psychology. Sociologist Richard Emerson (d. 1982), relying on behavioral models as a foundation, developed a conceptual framework that viewed the exchange, rather than individual actors, as the unit of analysis. This formulation took the power-dependency relationship among actors or groups as the determining factor in dictating interaction. For a given relationship, the more powerful the actor (whether that actor is an individual or a group), the less dependent the actor. According to Emerson, this power dependency leads to a continual “balancing,” so that the actor who has the most power uses it (because it is to that actor’s advantage to do so), but such use of power leads to some loss of power. This shift in power leads to balancing or sets of strategies by which actors try to retain their power. Theories developed after this initial formulation sometimes refuted the idea that power was lost. This seems to be especially true in settings in which the social network provides some actors with particularly advantageous positions.
Work on coercive power indicates that in small groups (and perhaps in large groups as well), coercive power (in the sense of punishing others) is a risky strategy because it can decrease the possibilities of future exchanges. Of course, the risk to the coercer is related to the alternatives present for the coerced. Relatedly, the conflict spiral, a theory about bargaining processes, predicts that unequal power, even without punishment, can produce negative emotion.
Cooperation and Competition
One of the longest traditions in the study of groups is the investigation of cooperation and competition. The form and type of incentives that encourage or discourage competition have been extensively examined. These incentives might be material rewards, such as money, or social rewards, such as honor or friendship. Even when the incentives are structured so that all might be better off cooperating, cooperation does not always obtain. This is because even in simple settings, coordination can be problematic.
Social dilemmas, settings in which individual and group incentives conflict in some way, are prominent research areas because they are pervasive in many different aspects of life. Such dilemmas range from the small and intimate (e.g., how to maintain a clean house), to the large and relatively anonymous (e.g., how to maintain biodiversity). Many solutions to social dilemmas involve changing the incentives and thereby changing the structure. These might involve punishments for not cooperating or rewards for cooperating.
Other solutions have focused upon social factors arising from group interaction. Two powerful such factors are group identity and trust. If, for example, one actor trusts another to cooperate and then acts on this basis, the dilemma can sometimes be solved. Group identity, as mentioned, can arise from cooperation. Once born, group identity can also lead to cooperation.
- Berger, Joseph, Morris Zelditch Jr., Bo Anderson, and Bernard P. Cohen. 1972. Structural Aspects of Distributive Justice: A
- Status Value Formulation. In Sociological Theories in Progress, 2, eds. Joseph Berger, Morris Zelditch Jr., and Bo Anderson, 119–146. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Cohen, Elizabeth. 1993. From Theory to Practice: The Development of an Applied Research Program. In Theoretical Research Programs: Studies in the Growth of Theory, eds. Joseph Berger and Morris Zelditch Jr., 385–415. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Durkheim, Émile.  1965. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York: Free Press.
- Lovaglia, Michael J., Elizabeth A. Mannix, Charles D. Samuelson, et al. 2005. Conflict, Power, and Status in Groups. In Theories of Small Groups: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, eds. Marshall Scott Poole and Andrea B. Hollingshead, 139–184. Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage.
- Mead, George Herbert. 1934. Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Molm, Linda D., Nobuyuki Takahashi, and Gretchen Peterson. Risk and Trust in Social Exchange: An Experimental Test of a Classical Proposition. American Journal of Sociology 105: 1396–1427.
- Sewell, William H., Jr. 1992. A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency, and Transformation. American Journal of Sociology 98
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- Simmel, Georg.  1971. On Individuality and Social Forms: Selected Writings. Ed. Donald N. Levine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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