Theories of Group
By David A. Thompson, BAS, MATL
involved in groups and their communication methods have been around
as long as there have been groups! However, serious study of group
dynamics, as a topic of research, is something that has occurred
mostly in the last fifty years. Writing down what has happened in
group dynamics in the last century began after WW2, and has
progressively become more refined by researchers.
As we look at
the theories that govern the study of groups, we can visualize an
ocean with several ships on it. This ocean represents the general
theories of group dynamics.
individual ships are the special theories such as pragmatic,
value-shift. These special theories
or groups with a specific purpose, may be revised, changed or
adjusted according to new research.
general theories are always there, underlying every special theory
of how a group works. The general theories of Emergence and
Symbolic Convergence represent dynamics that are in all groups,
regardless of the special model the group may be using. These
theories have been validated by the work of Ernest Borman*, who has
recorded over 400 case studies in his group dynamics classes.
theories come about through the study of groups in history to find
patterns of group behavior. The behavior is observed, analyzed,
written down and then tested. When the observed behaviors become
actual social theory, they are really statements of the general
tendencies of groups. Because social theory is not absolutely
scientific, they are not like a law. They are theories of what will
happen in most groups.
The Emergent Model
general theory that Borman has come up with is the Emergent Model.
Emergence is the description of the way in which decisions manifest
themselves in a group. To take off from the above analogy, emergence
is like looking for a ship (a leader, or a decision of the group) in
the fog. You are looking into the fog for the ship that you know is
there. But it’s not there. Maybe it’s there. Yes there’s
something there! Then you see a slight outline, and then, there it
is; a ship. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact point in time you
first saw it, but it has emerged.
In the small
group, all of the social and emotional decisions seem to arrive this
way. And it is the leadership of the group, especially, that comes
about by emergence. This is important to realize: that leadership
in a small group will arrive this way, because if a group does not
recognize emergent leadership, it will really struggle. So, the
“emergent model describes the dynamic process by which the
tendencies described in group process arrive at conscious thresholds
and become known to the group.” (Dr. Katz, 10/11/94)
5 Things that Emerge
describes five tendencies in a group that emerge:
Tendency to develop
group norms, such as accepted ways to address each other or ways
of talking that are acceptable or not. Once group norms are set,
members are expected to conform;
specialization. Generally a member will emerge to a particular
role, such as “the organizer” or “the timekeeper;”
Tendency to form
status roles. The more fun and/or difficult the task, the
higher the status, such as the levels of status in the book “Animal
Tendency for the group
to develop its own “culture”, complete with symbols and
Tendency to form
shared fantasies (an invented story that may not be true, but
serves to make other members of the group “dream” about new ideas
or deeper thoughts) , good or bad , possibly started by one member
and added to by others, to emerge as the group’s shared fantasy.
Fantasies, in particular, may not be of much consequence, but layer
upon layer, they become a strong builder of cohesion (they stick
together) in the group.
Cohesion of the Group
is the key concept of the
emergent Model. It is the single most critical dynamic in a group,
and there is a strong correlation between cohesiveness and the
quality of the group’s experience and the quality of its progress.
Borman says that the cohesiveness is the extent to which members of
the group are willing to make the needs and goals of the group their
own. Other research has found that the more cohesive the group, the
more freedom they had to disagree with one another. Because of the
cohesiveness, or sense of belonging, it gave them the freedom to
disagree without devastating reprisal.
The Assembly Effect
effect is the key to cohesion of the group in its early stages. The assembly
effect is the interaction of the different personalities of group
members and how each personality is affected by another. As a group
forms, the level of compatibility of different personalities becomes
crucial to the group. If each member realizes their strengths, and
yet knows and accepts another member’s strengths and weaknesses,
those symmetrical relationships become compatible.
An example that
comes to mind is that on a Navy warship, every sailor has been
trained in fire fighting. They all know how to use a fire hose and
nozzle to put out both ash and oil type fires. In the event of an
on board fire, that has been started after an explosion, depending
on how many lives were lost, maybe one of the cooks or a navigator
will have to use this basic knowledge to help save his ship and
himself. The group that knows each other’s job and can fill in for
one another may very well have opportunity to save their ship. This
group strength may be overlooked in a task oriented small group
where cohesiveness has not emerged through the social development of
the group. Without this, a member may say something stupid like “I
don’t get paid to think” or “that’s not my job…”
of the assembly effect is that of homogeneity and
heterogeneity of its members. For some tasks, or if time is
very short to complete the project, it helps to have the group
homogenous: that is, they think alike, they have similar values and
expectations. However, if a group’s need is to be creative and, in
the end com up with a better product, then it helps if they have a
diversity of interests, personality, and expectations to come up
with a better product (heterogeneous)
that the best groups are heterogeneous when it comes to a need for
low-process, and free-wheeling brainstorming in the beginning
planning stages. But there is a need then for high procedural types
within the group to complete the project. In the area of
expectation of achievement, it is virtually invaluable to have
similar values. So, an ideal group will have homogeneous values,
heterogeneous task skills and a blended midrange of procedural
values. This is really a heterogeneous group that appreciates
The exchange theory
theory also affects cohesion of the group as the general tendencies emerge.
The exchange effect begins as soon as a group is formed, but it
takes a while for members to come up with a cost-benefit exchange
analysis for themselves in the group. So the effect will not play a
big part in the group dynamics until about midlife of the group. In
a group, each member will mentally tabulate the rewards and costs to
themselves in the areas of material things, social rewards,
prestige, esteem, accomplishment of the job and recognition. If the
plusses are more than the minuses, then the member will stay and add
to the cohesiveness of teamwork and the group. If the negatives are
greater than the positives, then the member will either become a
point of non-cohesion in the group or will leave. If the member
leaves, then, by the assembly effect, the group will still struggle
with cohesion because the whole new order of assembly will then
So it is
important to understand how things emerge in the group and its
cohesion is affected by such dynamics as the makeup of the assembly
and how members view their exchange benefits for being in the
group. The emergent model is one of the basic models of group
dynamics that is true to all groups in some way.
general theory of group dynamics that Borman describes is the
symbolic Convergence Theory. It runs parallel with Emergence theory
in that it happens at the same time emergence is happening. Borman
describes this theory as the one in which people are story tellers
who share fantasies. As group members talk together and members
find they have an experience in common, they begin to chime in and
add to the story. This is called chaining or sharing and the
more of it that happens within a group, the more cohesiveness there
is in the group.
In the process
of multiple fantasies, a group begins to form its own culture and
its own symbols. That forming is called symbolic convergence.
As layer upon layer of shared fantasies are formed, cohesiveness is
created, internal communication is generated, roles begin to emerge,
and group norms are established to converge into a whole culture.
We can look at
the general theories of emergence and symbolic convergence as a
running parallel like railroad tracks. They operate simultaneously
and provide a foundation for social theory on group dynamics. On
those railroad tracks are little boxcars that have been constructed
for specific purposes. These boxcars are like the three special
theories. They each have been constructed for a different purpose,
such as the pragmatic, relational and value shift models.
describes these special or artistic theories, as a plan to form the
group in a specific way to bring about a specific purpose. Unlike
General Theories, these can be changed or molded at any time in
order to bring about the main purpose of the group. The three
models then, pragmatic, relational and value shift, are artistic
theory as described by Borman.
Theory was formed as a way to get a group to complete a task. It
was used in groups formed in the early fifties in businesses. As
Reiman summarizes in his book describing the 1950s, the “Lonely
Crowd,” the population moved after WW2 up to about 1963, from a
rural society to an urban society. Working well in a group became an
important value at the time. Previously the dominant America valued
independence and the ability to work alone.
The emphasis of
the pragmatic model is the
SMCR method of analyzing group dynamics as developed by Wilbur
Schramm. That’s the Sender encodes a Message through
a Channel, which is then recorded by a Receiver.
There are two
values in the Pragmatic model, fidelity of transmission and
fidelity of transmission, the question is “how much is getting
through?” If there is a lot of external noise such as a stereo
playing, the noise can be reduced in order to get a higher level
of fidelity. Internal noises, such as anger, hunger, or even the
temperature of a room can also hinder fidelity of transmission. To
the degree that you can decrease internal noise, you can increase
fidelity of transmission. Intrinsic noise, where there is false
message, or an overload of information, will also cause a decrease
in fidelity. Another way to increase fidelity is to increase
redundancy by repeating messages or by finding several ways to give
the same message. Or, if you use multiple channels to convey the
message, it will more likely get through.
value in the Pragmatic model is that of efficiency. Efficiency
concerns itself with the use of energy resources and time. The goal
is to send more messages, more rapidly and with less energy
expended. If we give an erroneous message, it sometimes takes
longer to correct it than it would have taken to just be clear the
The Relational Theories
theories came about as a reaction to the pragmatic model. It was
articulated as a humanistic revolt against materialism. The
adolescents of the 1950s reacted against materialism and their
parents’ generation. Even though most were still using the
pragmatic, task-related model, it came into conflict with the human
Galbraith, in “The New Industrial State” describes this period
of time as one in which there were giant corporate structures and
government structures that functioned by means of small group
The revolt took
form in sensitivity groups just as
Carl Rogers’ Beheld Group in Maine. These groups generally met
in peaceful settings to help the participant “explore himself” or
“find himself.” It was the time of the hippie communes and could be
described as dramatistic, non-manipulative, focusing on self
disclosure, trust and self growth. Efficiency was a negative thing
to a small group using the relational model, if the price was to
ignore human need.
was a transitional period. It is called Relational I.
There was a debate over business versus the fine arts, natural
sciences versus social sciences and Pragmatic versus Relational.
The issue was over which type of group was the best way for groups
to function. The Pragmatic model was still in widespread use and
those who were using it began to feel as if they were missing
something, and sought out the Rogers, Earhart and Esselin kinds of
groups. They took some of those relational values back to the
corporations and sought to learn about self growth and personal
enhancement. They wanted to be humanistic, sensitive socially,
employed and homeowners!
Relational II Theory
is actually what has developed today into the body of material
called Interpersonal Communication. This is where the best
of the Pragmatic model and the best of the Relational model were
combined to overcome the excesses of Relation I and the
insensitivity of the Pragmatic.
Value Shift Theory
special theory of group dynamics is the Value Shift style.
This style is very different from the Pragmatic and Relational
because its purpose is to use the group to bring individual members
to the point of adjusting their individual values to match the
values of the group. It seeks to “convert the unconverted” and to
“sustain the committed.”
Toffler, in “Future Shock” summarizes this period of time, from
1975 to present, as a time of many and rapid societal changes. The
Value Shift model does not focus on fidelity of transmission,
but is really interested only in the best way to change values of
individuals to the values of the group. An example of this would be
the groups that form around cults, and some religious groups.
So, to return
to the “big picture” of the ships on the ocean, I’ve discussed the
general theories of emergence and symbolic conversion, and noted its
foundational place in the study of small group dynamics. I’ve
summarized the three primary special theories of Pragmatic,
Relational and Value shift: the ships on the ocean that have been
constructed for special (historical) purposes.
This is really
only a summary of the high point of the theories of small group
dynamics. If I were to go through each of these principles, and
tell you how I’ve seen those things happen in the many small groups
that I have been a part of, you’d be tired of it before I was
finished. There are some of those models that I have seen in
action, but I previously had thought they were indicative of
abnormal group behavior, rather than normal group behavior. In that
sense, this study has made it easier to understand how to work
within groups such as the classroom, student organizations, church,
academic departments and youth groups. You will find that there is
something valuable about being able to anticipate the direction of
the group’s action, that helps to focus on the goal, and not get
caught up in the ups and downs of group communication.
Ernest G. (1975). Discussion and Group Methods. Second Edition.
New York: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc.