Group Dynamics Research Paper

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The study of groups and their structure has variously been termed group dynamics, small groups, and group processes. The sociological and the psychological interests in groups coincided in the early development of sociology and psychology and still coincide. The close relationship between the psychological and sociological investigations of groups is one of the important characteristics of this area of study. In fact, this interdisciplinarity, which existed at the beginning of its development, has continued, is still one of its most distinctive characteristics, and has further developed to include economics and political science.

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Groups, their organizations, and their processes were important foci of many of the early sociologists. In an influential book, Small Groups, edited by A. P. Paul Hare, Edgar F. Borgatta, and Robert F. Bales (1965), the editors pay allegiance to the early theorists Émile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, Charles B. Cooley, and George H. Mead. In particular, the editors emphasize Durkheim’s generic interest in group organization and his theoretical ideas of division of labor, which can be translated easily into role differentiation and stratification within groups. Both Cooley and Mead are important ancestors for the specific framework of symbolic interaction and frequently addressed the central importance of groups, especially small groups. Cooley, for example, developed and elaborated the idea of primary groups. Mead’s (1934) theoretical conceptualizations in Mind, Self, and Society were important for developing concepts central to the development of group dynamics. Such concepts involved the centrality of groups and the importance of role-taking. Within these discussions, Mead used the example of a ball game

in which the attitudes of a set of individuals are involved in a cooperative response in which the different roles involve each other. In so far as a man takes the attitude of one individual in the group, he must take it in its relationship to the action of the other members of the groups; and if he is fully to adjust himself, he would have to take the attitudes of all involved in the process. (P. 163)

Simmel ([1907] 1971) wrote about many of the concepts and perspectives that have preoccupied group theorists for the 100 years since he detailed them. His discussions of conflict and exchange framed issues in the form of dynamic. For example, he argued that exchange was pervasive in human life:

Most relationships among men can be considered under the category of exchange. Exchange is the purest and most concentrated form of all human interactions in which serious interests are at stake. Many actions which at first glance appear to consist of mere unilateral process in fact involve reciprocal effects. The speaker before an audience, the teacher before a class, the journalists writing to his public—each appears to be the sole source of influence in such situations, whereas each of them is really acting in response to demands and directions that emanate from apparently passive, ineffectual groups. (P. 43)

What are group processes or group dynamics? What makes this line of investigation unique and distinct from other investigations? First, as indicated by the discussions of early theorists, the group is the unit of analysis (or in later work, one important unit of analysis). Second, in part because of the area’s early alliance with psychology, it has traditionally accepted and developed laboratory studies, although experimental research has not been exclusively employed.

While it is impossible to be exhaustive, I summarize and discuss areas that seem to define the area by virtue of their continued attention by researchers. In particular, I focus on status, cooperation and competition, exchange, justice, and legitimation. I provide an assessment of trajectories of research and suggest particular questions or approaches that appear particularly promising.

Status and Status Effects

Status is one of the most important concepts in the discipline of sociology. In fact, much of sociology can be conceptualized as questioning what constitutes status and the effect of status. Status is usually defined as a position in a social network. Importantly, these statuses involve status beliefs, beliefs about the social worth of the individuals who occupy these statuses, such as the belief that a person who occupies one position is “better than” a person who occupies another position (see Sewell 1992).

Early studies in status tended to examine leadership. While these studies sometimes examined individual “styles” of leadership, most studies focused on general types of leadership approaches. A well-known study by Kurt Lewin, Ronald Lippitt, and Ralph White (1939) involved an experimental investigation of three different kinds of leadership: autocratic, democratic, and laissezfaire. The groups consisted of 10- and 11-year-old boys in after-school groups, and all the leaders were adults. On the basis of their experiment, the researchers found evidence that the democratic group resulted in more “we-ness” and group goals and less scapegoating compared with the autocratic group. Interestingly, autocratic groups spent more of their time working than did the democratic groups, who in turn spent more time working than did the laissez-faire groups. However, when the autocratic leader left the room, the boys stopped working, while the boys in the other groups continued working.

Bales (1950) and researchers at Harvard developed different kinds of analyses to map behaviors within the group. Interaction process analysis (IPA), described in 1950, was then an innovative technique and still shapes many group investigations. In its original form, it consisted of 12 categorizations of behavior. These categorizations separated out behaviors into positive and negative social emotional behavior and neutral task behaviors. So, for example, asking for opinions, disagreeing, and giving suggestions were coded, depending on their specific context. In particular, Bales and his colleagues were interested in the kind of interaction that occurred and how the particular behaviors of one group member conditioned the behaviors of another. These studies provided important evidence that status was relative to the group (Borgatta and Bales 1953), a central insight for group dynamics. This insight was critical for most of social psychology because it was the beginning of the powerful idea that while people might possess the same characteristics from one setting to another, these characteristics did not have the same salience in different settings. Such an idea took many years to develop but took root in new thinking about characteristics such as sex (or gender) and ethnicity.

Many sociologists have suggested that status significance is acquired through resources. In an analysis of one process through which nominal characteristics, such as race and sex categories, might acquire status-value and status beliefs, Cecilia Ridgeway (1991) developed and then tested aspects of status construction theory (Ridgeway and Erickson 2000; Ridgeway et al. 1998). This theory posits one mechanism through which a characteristic previously not status-valued might acquire such value. According to the theory, members differ in the level of material resources they possess—they differ on an unordered nominal characteristic, and resources are correlated with the “state” or category of the characteristic (Ridgeway 1991, 1997).

Status has been examined from a number of different perspectives. One of the most developed research programs, in many ways a direct descendant from Bales’s research in group processes, is expectation states theory. The theory has several subsets. One portion of the theory, status characteristics theory, is concerned with how status characteristics generate and then sustain inequalities of power and prestige within groups. (Summary statements of the theory involved in this process can be found in Berger, Conner, and Fisek 1974; Berger, Wagner, and Zelditch 1992; Berger et al. 1977; Correll and Ridgeway 2003; Humphreys and Berger 1981.)

There are two types of status characteristics that have different properties. Specific status characteristics are those associated with a specific ability, such as the ability to score soccer goals or the ability to do accounting. These characteristics consist of two or more “states” that correspond to an expectation or assessment of how the individual will perform in the completion of a task. A diffuse status characteristic is a characteristic that also possesses at least two states of differential evaluation. However, associated with each state, not only are there associated specific performance expectations, but there are also associated general performance expectations “without limit as to scope” (Webster and Foschi 1988).

If individuals are within a task group and all are motivated to succeed on that task, status characteristics that differentiate among the group members are activated in the first step of a status organizing process, the burden-ofproof process. Unless some other characteristic or event intervenes, the status characteristics organize interactions such that those who are higher in social status receive higher amounts of power and prestige than those lower in status. The burden of proof rests on a demonstration that the status should NOT be used. The process proceeds in several steps; importantly, while the process might be conscious, it can be unconscious as well.

Much of the recent expectation states theory in general and status characteristics theory in particular has been explicated and elaborated through graph-theoretic models (see, e.g., Berger et al. 1977, 1998; Webster and Hysom 1998). These models serve to depict how different characteristics within the group and outside the group structure expectations and subsequent behavior.

Because of the burden-of-proof process, status can serve to organize the interactions within a group and help legitimate power use (or the lack of power use). The acceptable use of power can make a group function relatively smoothly and can generate an acceptance of inequality. Additionally, however, power use can generate negative sentiment and interrupt the process through which power use translates to status (see Lovaglia and Houser 1996; Lovaglia et al. 2005; Walker et al. 2000; Willer, Troyer, and Lovaglia 2001).

Dissolving status hierarchies involves more than just a reversal of the burden-of-proof process. Once a status hierarchy is created at an initial point in time, the deference granted at time one serves to reinforce subsequent power differentials. Because of this, initial differences become more and more entrenched. Consequently, it seems that interventions must either occur early in the group interaction or serve to severely contradict the expectations generated by other characteristics. Most researchers who have investigated this have considered how the addition of certain kinds of characteristics can serve to “dampen” or even eliminate the effects. Some research has investigated decreasing the effects of diffuse status through adding performance information (or specific status characteristics) that contradicts the evaluation associated with the diffuse status characteristics. Such investigations include those of Pugh and Wahrman (1983) and Wagner, Ford, and Ford (1986) for sex and Freese and Cohen (1973) for age. One important caveat to this research (and an implication from the graph theory) is that characteristics that equate actors do not contribute to the formation of expectations and to the subsequent observable power and prestige (Martin and Sell 1985; Webster 1977). Consequently, if both actors have equally high (or low) specific status characteristics and they are differentiated by a diffuse status characteristic, only the diffuse status characteristic organizes their interaction.

Another approach was suggested by Fisek in 1991 and then expanded and tested by Goar and Sell (2005). This approach emphasizes how changing the nature of the task might change the inequalities generated in the group: specifically, if the group task involves different abilities that are inconsistent with each other, group participation tends to equalize.

A long-term research and application program associated with expectation states theories was initiated and developed by Elizabeth Cohen and her colleagues (see Cohen 1982, 1993; Cohen and Roper 1972). These studies developed intervention strategies to reduce the participation differences between minority and majority children. Additionally, the strategies were applied to other kinds of labeling, including reading ability (Tammivaara 1982).

The investigation of inequality within groups and how it relates to status remains an important area within the group dynamics area. Early studies stressed descriptions of groups, while later studies investigated possible ways in which status hierarchies might be modified or disrupted. One of the most exciting and promising areas of investigations is that of studies that examine different groups, how these groups are nested, and how status differences translated from one group to others. For example, Lovaglia et al. (1998) developed a formulation that assesses how status differences created in a group translate to individuallevel performances on standardized tests.


Closely related to the issues of status are issues of legitimation. Legitimation is the process through which a principle or set of rules is adhered to, deferred to, or supported even in the absence of obvious incentives to do so. These principles may or may not be written, and they can refer to persons, positions, and acts. This process is often taken for granted in the establishment and maintenance of social structure.

Max Weber, although not often discussed in terms of small-groups analysis, was important for initial conceptualizations of power (and subsequently exchange) and types of authority. He conceptualized three types of authority: charismatic, traditional, and legal rational (Weber [1924] 1978). Traditional authority is based on time-honored traditions, and charismatic authority is legitimated based on personal qualities of the leader. Legal rational authority, a characteristic of the modern bureaucracy, stresses universal rules, calculability, and efficiency.

Early studies on leadership (mentioned above) can be considered part of legitimation studies (see Burke 2003). In the context of leadership, an important study by Evan and Zelditch (1961) specifically tested some aspects of Weber’s formulation and was one of the first experimental studies that created a bureaucracy in the laboratory. They investigated authorization as a source of legitimation and tried to separate the legal and rational components of Weber’s theory of bureaucratic authority, finding that the source of legitimation was more important than the competency of the authority when it came to eliciting compliance.

Dornbusch and Scott (1975) elaborated a theory of authority, based on Weberian concepts of power, authority, and legitimacy. Different dimensions defined authority. One dimension refers to the norms that underlie the power relationship. Dornbusch and Scott (1975) refer to this dimension as either validity, collective support for a normative order, or propriety, individual belief in the fairness of norms. A second dimension refers to the sources of legitimacy. The power structure becomes legitimated through authorization, endorsement, or both. The third dimension of authority refers to its formal or informal character.

Expanding, modifying, and further developing these formulations, Bell, Walker, and Willer (2000), Zelditch and Walker (1984), Walker, Rogers, and Zelditch (2002), and Zelditch (2001) argued that theories concerned with the emergence of legitimacy must deal not only with types (validity and propriety) and sources (authorization and endorsement) but also with multiple objects such as acts, persons, and positions. For example, Thomas, Walker, and Zelditch (1986) found that collective approval can override personal approval.

Read (1974) created leaders with different sources of support: election, appointment by expert external authority; appointment by nonexpert external authority; and usurpation by a self-appointed leader. The study pointed out an important aspect of legitimation: What is given or the “status quo” is usually not questioned until something unusual occurs that calls into question the existing arrangements. Read concludes, “The leader selection process may establish a relationship between group members and the agent of selection which remains unexpressed until the leader places unusual demands upon group members” (p. 202). Subjects chose to retain the elected leader more than they did the expert appointed leader even though the expert leader had more task influence. This suggests a complex relationship between source of authority and influence, even in small informal groups.

Questioning the status quo was also a focus for research on revolutionary coalitions. Such coalitions were called revolutionary because they existed to “overthrow” some given arrangement within the group or organization (Lawler 1975; Webster and Smith 1978). Research in this area also suggested that endorsement was a particularly powerful source of authority. When the leader was responsible for a payment scheme that vastly underpaid some members, the disadvantaged were likely to revolt against the leader (Lawler and Thompson 1978). And in further demonstration of the importance of endorsement, Sell and Martin (1983) and Martin and Sell (1986) found that such a revolution could occur even if a legitimate authority had specifically prohibited the act.

In face-to-face group situations, it is often the case that influence and legitimacy are intertwined. (For a discussion of these concepts and how they are similar and different, see Lovaglia et al. 2005.) Berger et al. (1998) consider specifically the emergence and consequences of the legitimation (and delegitimation) of power and prestige orders. They describe legitimation as a social process that mediates the relationship between social actors and social structures. It is also a multilevel process. “Referential belief structures” or commonly held socially validated beliefs exist on a cultural level and can then be imported into a local setting, such as a task setting. The theory of reward expectations connects to this process by describing the relationship between performance and reward expectations that are based on the valued status characteristics. Rewards are then allocated to valued status positions in line with referential belief structures.

Another theory that addresses how legitimation can be transported from one arena to another is the theory of structural ritualization (Knottnerus 1997). The theory details how ritualized social practices can be reproduced, even in the absence of incentives and even when their reproduction may not be beneficial to the group (see Knottnerus 1997; Knottnerus and Van de Poel-Knottnerus 1999; Sell et al. 2000). Such a theory helps explain paradoxical behaviors, such as how those subjected to coercive practices eventually come to adopt and then support these same practices.

Legitimation concerns began with studies of individuals, specifically leaders, and their support from other group members. A particularly critical development within this area is the recognition and then elaboration of how different groups and organization can be “nested” and consequently how legitimation in one area can be imported into other areas. A particularly promising area for further investigation is how the sources and origins of legitimation can determine the stability of a group or organization, the potential development and dissolution of routines (see Johansson and Sell 2004), and the sudden development of crisis. In this regard, however, there must be further investigation of time. Even though the term group dynamics refers to change and time, strangely, “most research on groups neglects the role of time” (Arrow et al. 2005).

Much of what legitimation addresses relates to ideas of justice and fairness. Historically, the areas seem to have developed somewhat independently, with legitimation issues more often studied and applied in more “macrosociological” contexts, while justice and equity was more often studied in dyads or microsociological contexts. Recently, however, the two areas seem to be integrating.


Within psychology there is a large literature related to issues of interpersonal justice. This literature aims to answer how individuals might make assessments of justice regarding their own and others’ benefits (see, e.g., Adams 1965; Homans 1974; Walster, Walster, and Berscheid 1978). As Hegtvedt and Markovsky (1995) point out, sociological contributions to justice theorizing and research sought to extend justice decisions beyond the individual. Only by going beyond the individual can we begin to see the dynamics involved in the relative infrequence of revolution, for example (see Moore 1978).

One of the most important steps in this sociological focus was the status-value theory of distributive justice (Berger et al. 1972, 1985). The importance of a referential structure was developed and highlighted in these formulations. Such a structure is the general belief about how the social characteristics of generalized others correspond to social rewards. This structure is important for the judgment of actors about their local or immediate situation. So, for example, when professors assess whether their immediate situation is fair, the referential structure of “professor” is activated, and then a comparison between “what should be” and “what is” occurs. When there is congruence, the situation is evaluated as just.

Jasso (1980, 1988, 2001) developed a series of theoretical arguments and resulting models that use the insight of the referential structure. Her mathematical models allow estimates of the degree of felt injustice, and she argues that they can be extended to a wide variety of group-level phenomena, including such disparate acts as robbery and playing games of chance.

Markovsky (1985) developed a multilevel justice theory that highlighted the importance of the type of comparison, and the empirical results from differing comparisons. Specifically, he demonstrated that increased group identification could change actors’ targets of comparison and therefore assessment of justice from interpersonal to group.

As mentioned, many of the sociological concerns with justice seem linked with legitimation and the question of authority. Hegtvedt and Johnson (2000) and Hegtvedt and Clay-Warner (2004) make the connection explicit. In particular, the literature makes it clear that different norms can be more or less valued or supported, depending on the way in which the norms were developed. Much of this idea relates to the referential comparison and the strength of different types of authority.


As Simmel ([1907] 1971) noted,

Exchange is not merely the addition of the two processes of giving and receiving. It is, rather, something new. Exchange constitutes a third process, something that emerges when each of those two processes is simultaneously the cause and the effect of the other. (P. 57)

Group dynamic investigations of exchange emerged in the 1950s in both sociology and psychology. Homans (1950, 1958, 1961) adapted behavioral or operant learning tenets to describe behavior among individuals and, in doing so, gave homage to Simmel and his insight into human behavior. He presented human exchanges as involving rewards and costs and said that people responded to these in ways in which benefits outweighed costs. Blau’s (1964) work on interactions in bureaucracies indicated that people compete for scarce resources and trade different social commodities (such as advice).

In psychology, Thibaut and Kelley (1959) developed their theory of social power, which involved the idea that the amount of power one individual or group possesses is determined, in part, by the alternatives present. Thus individuals gauged whether to engage in exchanges on the basis of the value of the exchange itself and whether alternatives were available.

Emerson’s (1962, 1964, 1972) formulation of power dependence theory in social relations took these previous conceptualizations and developed an overarching theory. It specified a relational aspect to power that placed the exchange relation as central. Power was inversely related to dependence: For a given exchange relation, the more powerful an individual or group, the less dependent it was on the relation. Furthermore, Emerson’s theory posited a continual balancing mechanism in exchange relations. If people had power, they used it because it gave them an advantage. But if power was used, it was (incrementally) lost. This shift of power leads to continual balancing. In tests and extensions of the theory, Cook and Emerson (1978) demonstrated that power was a function of relative dependence. Empirical tests of the formulation supported this balancing notion (see, e.g., Cook et al. 1983), but other developments in the area questioned it (Willer 1987).

Further distinctions in different kinds of exchange emerged in work that followed. Specifically, Molm distinguished two types of exchange that had different properties. Negotiated exchange involves bargaining and negotiation and then agreement on the terms of the exchange. In contrast, reciprocal exchange does not involve negotiation but instead consists of individual acts performed for an other or others without knowledge about a future reciprocation. (For these distinctions, see Molm 1990, 1997a.) Given equivalent costs and benefits, reciprocal exchanges generate more trust and affect than do negotiated exchanges (Molm, Takahashi, and Peterson 2000). Part of the reason for this is that, at least under some conditions, risk generates trust (see also Kollock 1994).

Molm (1994, 1997a, 1997b) investigated coercive power in these nonnegotiated exchanges as well. Coercive power (in the sense of punishing others) is seen by participants as intentional and most likely to be used when an actor has little reward power. This is probably the case because coercion is risky and can decrease the possibilities of future beneficial exchanges. (We can see such coercive power use in examples of terrorism.) So, even though punishment can be an effective strategy if it is consistently and contingently applied, actors use it relatively infrequently.

While there are differences between negotiated and reciprocal exchanges, there are similarities as well. One important similarity rests with the negative emotion that can be generated with power use. For example, the conflict spiral, a theory about bargaining processes, documents that unequal power, even without punishment, can produce negative emotion (Lawler 1986; Lawler, Ford, and Blegen 1988).

Much of the research on negotiated exchange has countered part of Emerson’s power dependence theory claims. While most of this research has supported the statement that “to have power is to use it,” not all research has supported the second part of this, “to use it is to lose it.” Much of the research within this area has focused on the idea of alternatives to valued resources and so considered exchange networks. Relative power of positions in simple networks can be analyzed by calculating the alternatives to a given position. Suppose there is a network in which there are three actors, Alphonse, Brunheilde, and Constantine (or A, B, and C). If Brunheilde can exchange with either Alphonse or Constantine, but Alphonse and Constantine can only exchange with Brunheilde, then B has alternatives while the others do not. As a result, in negotiations, B can demand much, and A and C can demand very little. This type of network has been termed strong power (Cook et al. 1983; Markovsky, Willer, and Patton 1988).

This network approach to negotiated exchange has flourished and other important exchange relations have been explored. One of the most important is weak power. Weak power yields exchange results intermediate between equal power and strong power (Markovsky et al. 1993; Willer 1999).

There have been a number of attempts to find methods of predicting power in networks that vary in structure and size. There is the graph-theoretic approach (Lovaglia et al. 1995), a game-theory approach (Bienenstock and Bonacich 1993), and an expected-value model (Friedkin 1992), among others. However, as discussed in Lucas et al. (2001), a general solution for a range of networks that vary in complexity is not yet clear.

As mentioned earlier, recent work within exchange perspectives has begun to consider how emotion is implicated in the exchange process. The affect theory of social exchange, for example (see, in particular, Lawler 2001; Lawler and Yoon 1993, 1996, 1998), maintains that while social exchange has an instrumental and individual function, the exchange itself involves a group product that fosters emotional, affective processes. While rational choice formulations had examined how commitment in exchange networks was fostered by uncertainty reduction, Lawler, Thye, and Yoon (2000) demonstrated that affect, in and of itself, also generated commitment. They also present the argument that such affect is particularly strong in productive exchanges. These exchanges occur in settings in which group members have equal power, coordination issues exist and must be solved, and the interdependence of group members is necessary for the production of the outcome.

While the study of exchange has always been important to group dynamics, the addition of emotion and notions of risk, trust, and uncertainty has transformed early investigations of simple cost and benefit. The transformations have expanded both the depth and scope of exchange formulations. For example, depth has been transformed by analysis of actors’ strategies in the face of contingencies, and scope has been transformed by analysis of the network configurations under which exchange occurs. In this regard, the effects of economics in terms of game theory, anthropology in terms of studies of gift exchange, and psychology in terms of risk have been particularly influential.

Cooperation and Competition

Very early studies in cooperation drew attention to the incentive structures that “steer” actors toward cooperating with others or competing with others (see Coser 1956, 1967; Thibaut and Kelley 1959). In a study meant to reflect on why people might “panic” in settings, Mintz (1951) provided people with incentives if they withdrew their playing pieces successfully. However, only one person could withdraw at a time. When incentives or costs for not withdrawing were high, cooperation decreased and consequently success decreased. These findings illustrated that early ideas of mob or panic “mentality” were not appropriate social psychological models of group behavior. In fact, actors respond to perceived immediate individual incentives that might result in long-term negative results both for themselves and for the group. In other words, panic situations could be analyzed in terms of incentive dilemmas.

Social dilemmas are one of the most studied phenomena within the area of cooperation and competition. A social dilemma is any setting in which there is a conflict between individual short-term incentives and overall group incentives (see Dawes 1980). Common examples of social dilemmas include the creation of collective movements, such as civil rights movements, and the maintenance of resources, such as fisheries or fragile ecosystems. Such settings are very different from market settings, in which individuals pay a price (money, time, etc.) to obtain a private good. Social dilemmas can only be solved through group effort, yet individuals cannot be excluded from the benefits, even if they have not contributed. For example, even if an individual does nothing to preserve a fragile ecosystem, he or she benefits by it. This feature of social dilemmas creates the “free-riding problem,” the temptation for individuals to reap benefits but not contribute. Of course, if every individual reacts to the immediate incentives and free rides, the public good or resource is not provided. Social dilemmas are pervasive and appear in all levels of interaction.

Two statements often used to frame the issues surrounding social dilemmas are Mancur Olson’s (1965) book The Logic of Collective Action and Garret Hardin’s (1968) article “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Olson’s book is about public goods, while Hardin’s article addresses common property resources. Because both types of problems have an incentive structure that pits individual against group interest, they are considered social dilemmas; however, there are social psychological differences between the public good problem, which involves “giving up” individual resources for the group good, and the resource good problem of establishing individual restraint from using the resource (see Brewer and Kramer 1986; Sell and Son 1997; Sell et al. 2002; Son and Sell 1995). There are many further categorizations of social dilemmas. An important distinction is between a two-person (or -actor) dilemma and multiperson dilemmas, termed N-person dilemmas. Other distinctions relate to the timing and structure of the incentives and to the relationship between cooperation (and the reverse of cooperation, defection) and group gains.

Because social dilemmas are so pervasive, most of the social sciences have investigated them. As a result, there is an especially rich cross-disciplinary literature. Particularly important has been game theory. Game theorists have concentrated on formal solutions that invoke the mathematics involved in expected utility arguments. One very important formulation for advancing the possibility of “rational” cooperation is the folk theorem. The folk theorem posits a whole range of history-contingent strategies that allow for cooperation if, at some point, it is the case that an actor’s cost of contributing exceeds the cost of contribution and the discount rate is sufficiently large for contributing to remain an individually rational strategy. This means that social dilemmas can be solved rationally, without resorting to explanations such as altruism. However, while the folk theorem does suggest many possibilities for purely rational cooperation, it does not rule out many possibilities.

In line with this, there are a number of conditional cooperation strategies (for a discussion, see Yamagishi 1995) that have been investigated. One of the simplest and most investigated strategies is the tit-for-tat strategy (see Axelrod 1984). This strategy suggested a “nice response” of initial cooperation and thereafter cooperating when a partner cooperates and not cooperating when the partner does not.

Many solutions to social dilemmas involve changing the basic structure of the dilemma and thereby affecting incentives (see Messick and Brewer 1983; Samuelson and Messick 1995). Such solutions include factors such as punishment mechanisms for not cooperating (one class of which includes “trigger strategies”) and incentives for cooperating (see Ostrom, Walker, and Gardner 1992; Sato 1987; Sell and Wilson 1999; Yamagishi 1988).

Other solutions to social dilemmas have focused on “social” factors—namely, factors affected by group interaction. After much research, it is apparent that communication among group members facilitates cooperation (Sally 1995). The reasons include the creation of commitments (Kerr and Kaufman-Gilleland 1994; Orbell, van de Kragt, and Dawes 1988) and the development of in-group identity (Brewer and Kramer 1986). However, simply sending signals of intention, or “cheap talk,” is not enough to increase cooperation (Wilson and Sell 1997).

Two other very powerful social factors are social identity and trust. Social identity is the sense of “we-ness” that accompanies shared significant social categories that indicate some extent of common fate. Trust is a more diffuse property, which may or may not relate to social identity but does entail a sense of predictability of others’actions. If an actor trusts others to cooperate, and so acts on that basis, the original incentives of the social dilemma can be transformed and the dilemma solved (see Brann and Foddy 1987; Kollock 1998; Scharlemann et al. 2001; Yamagishi 1995). Some cross-cultural research indicates that there are indeed initial differences in levels of trust and cooperation, a difference we might expect based on cultural differences in social identity (see Hwang 1987; Kopelman, Weber, and Messick 2002; Sell et al. 2002; Yamagishi 1988, 1995).

Studies of cooperation and competition continue to be a primary focus in group dynamics. This area, perhaps more than any other, promises further interdisciplinary work because it already possesses an interdisciplinary base, which includes many different disciplines. Early studies emphasized incentive structures, and because of this, much of the literature is characterized by a rational choice perspective. Such a perspective does not inhibit analysis of trust and social identity but demands that it be placed within the incentive structure. It is this combination of “rational choice” along with the more traditional social psychological emphasis on “not so rational” choice that provides an intriguing combination for further innovative theory.

New Directions and New Innovations

The study of group dynamics or group processes has been an important part of sociology since its inception. It was closely allied with psychology and, perhaps because of this, never abandoned the methodological acceptance of laboratory experiments. Later developments, especially in the areas of legitimation and cooperation, included contributions from political science and economics. Studies of coalition formation in political science and collusion in economics, for example, were important in the development of principles in cooperation.

Because of its interdisciplinary approach, for the most part, group dynamics research has not fallen into an insular pattern in which reference is made only to sociological developments. In fact, recent research reaches across not just to the social sciences but to the biological sciences as well (see, e.g., McCabe et al. 2001; Robinson, Rogalin, and Smith-Lovin 2004). Such interdisciplinary and crossdisciplinary research will almost certainly guarantee greater theoretical development and more attention to application. If the area is to remain vibrant, researchers cannot be reticent about attempting new methodologies that might be less well known and accepted. Such techniques might include physiological measurements and techniques, simulations, and explorations of virtual reality experiments.

A common vocabulary and framework also helps to frame different approaches to a similar problem. Lovaglia et al. (2005) and Sell et al. (2004) argue that one common vocabulary that might unite research across different areas in group dynamics is that of institutional rules. Institutional rules are formal or informal rules that specify who can engage in certain acts and under what conditions this can occur (see Crawford and Ostrom 1995 for a general discussion of institutional rules). Institutions might be an important framework for integration because they enable comparisons among very different groups. So, as an example, we can speak of the boundary rules of groups: who is and who is not in the group. These rules specify the permeability of the group. Can people easily come and go from the group, or are there membership rules that prevent entrance and exit? As another example, position rules define who gets to act and when he or she gets to act. Such position rules might specify leaders and a hierarchical form of group governance or the complete opposite, a total equalitarian governance.

The institutional framework allows comparison and also highlights the structural dimension of group dynamics. It can enable comparisons of the structure and dynamics of groups of schoolchildren, groups of circus entertainers, groups of world leaders, and groups of workers and CEOs in a bureaucracy. These rules could also help strengthen the development and analysis of nested groups. There is an important theoretical push in group dynamics to consider how smaller groups might be nested within larger groups and at the same time how larger groups are affected by smaller groups (see Lawler, Ridgeway, and Markovsky 1993). Institutional language can also aid this theoretical endeavor because it enables assessment of how rules compare within and across levels. The idea of nested groups is especially important for the development and elaboration of group dynamics because it points out that the study of “small groups” is really not necessarily about small. Groups can have a powerful impact on “big” structures. Indeed, the topics of status, exchange, legitimation, justice, and cooperation reach out to and into all domains of society.


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