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Students often have a difficult time examining power in their own groups. They usually have a love-hate relationship with power because they want to influence the group, but they don't want to admit that they exercise power.

In this unit, the emphasis is on encouraging students to examine norms that are usually taken for granted and practices that legitimize power. This should lead students to question the distribution of power in the many groups in which they are embedded.


  1. Definitions

    1. Power is a force that gives one communicator (or unit) the ability to influence another communicator (or unit) to take an action which would not otherwise be taken.

    2. Authority refers to power validated by the formal cultural, societal, small group, and organizational rules and practices.

    3. Politics occurs when group members vie for power and influence over others.

  2. Forms Of Power

    1. Dominance is a form of power that occurs when one or more group member has the ability to influence others who are not able to respond in kind.

    2. Resistance is a form of power that arises in response to dominance.

    3. Empowerment occurs when group members allow power to be distributed somewhat evenly among group members.

  3. Identifying Power

    1. Small group culture is a good place to examine the artifacts of power.

    2. Power distribution becomes embedded in the group's culture and thus legitimized.

    3. The cultural indicators discussed in the Culture and Small Group Communication unit are also useful indicators of the way power is exercised in a group.

      1. Vocabulary: what terms are used to describe various group members? Who controls the language the group uses? How does the group define itself?

      2. Practices: who controls how group members accomplish their tasks? To what degree do group members have autonomy as they complete tasks and make decisions?

      3. Stories: who tells stories? Who makes decisions? Who carries out those decisions? Who gives out rewards/punishments? Who receives those rewards/punishments?

      4. Metaphors: In what terms do group members describe themselves?

      5. Rituals: who develops group rituals? Who implements them? Who participates in rituals? Who does not?

      6. Objects: objects often embody the essence of the group. The slogan or logo the group chooses to represent itself can reveal the way power is distributed in the group.

    4. When examining the ways in which power in regulated within a group, it is important to look beyond the cultural indicators to the values beneath them.


Cheney, G., Straub, J., Speirs-Glebe, L., Stohl, C., DeDooyer, Jr., D., Whalen, S., Garvin-Doxas, K., & Carlone, D. (1998). Democracy, participation, and communication at work: A multidisciplinary review. In M. Roloff (Ed.), Communication yearbook 21 (pp. 35-91). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Gastil, J. (1993). Democracy in small groups: Participation, decision making, and communication. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers.

Glaser, H. (1996). Structure and struggle in egalitarian groups: Dimensions of power relations. Small Group Research, 27, 551-571.

Langellier, K., & Peterson, E. (1993). Family storytelling as a strategy of social control. In D. Mumby (Ed.), Narrative and social control: Critical perspectives (pp. 49-76). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Mumby, D. K. (1988). Communication and power in organizations: Discourse, ideology and domination. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Pfeffer, J. (1981). Power in organizations. Boston: Pitman.


Helmer, J. (1993). Storytelling in the creation and maintenance of organizational tension and stratification. Southern Communication Journal, 59, 34-44.

Holt, G. R. (1989). Talk about acting and constraint in stories about organizations. Western Journal of Speech Communication, 53, 374-397.

Peterson, E. (1987). The stories of pregnancy: On interpretation of small-group cultures. Communication Quarterly, 35, 39-47.

Papa, M., Auwal, M., & Singhal, A. (1997). Organizing for social change within concertive control systems: Member identification, empowerment, and the making of discipline. Communication Monographs, 64, 219-249.

Savoie, E. (1998). Tapping the power of teams. In R. Tindale, L. Heath, J. Edwards, E. Posavac, F. Bryant, Y. Suarez-Balcazar, E. Henderson-King, & J. Myers (Eds.)., Theory and research on small groups (pp. 229-244). New York: Plenum Press.

Shonk, J. (1992). Team-based organizations: Developing a successful team environment. Homewood, IL: Business One Irwin.


The Challenge to Change: Creating Diversity in our Libraries
Sponsored by several libraries in the eastern U.S. in 1998, the notes and papers from the conference provide a glimpse into the intersection of diversity and power as experienced by conference participants. Click on Program, Abstracts, and Notes for a list of papers presented. "Diversity Matters: How One University Has Learned to Collaborate, Understand, and Appreciate Its Differences" is probably the most relevant to this unit.

Leadership Strategies-Test Yourself
Sponsored by Leadership Strategies, this site offers free leadership coaching through a series of online quizzes.

Developing Coalitions: An Eight-Step Guide
Sponsored by the University of South Florida's Community and Family Health Department, this website provides an overview of strategies for effective coalition development. Other useful pages include:
how to address barriers to building coalitions,
coalitions and empowerment,
multicultural issues in coalitions,
and building community coalitions.


Barker, J. (1994). Tightening the iron cage: Concertive control in self-managing teams. In J. Van Maanen (Ed.), Qualitative studies of organizations (pp. 126-158). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Biggart, N. & Hamilton G. (1984) The power of obedience. Administrative Science Quarterly, 29, 540-549.

Carron, A., & Prapavessis, H. (1997). Self-presentation and group influence. Small Group Research, 28, 500-516.

Cohen, B., & Zhou, X. (1991). Status processes in enduring work groups. American Sociological Review, 56, 179-188.

Franz, R. (1998). Task interdependence and personal power in teams. Small Group Communication Research, 29, 226-253.

Gibson, M., & Papa, M. (2000). The mud, the blood, and the beer guys: Organizational osmosis in blue-collar work groups. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 28, 68-88.

Hardy, C., & Clegg, S. (1996). Some dare call it power. In S. Clegg, C. Hardy, & W. Nord (Eds.), Handbook of organization studies (pp. 622-641). London: Sage.

Katz, S. (1998). A newcomer gains power: An analysis of the role of rhetorical expertise. Journal of Business Communication, 35, 419-442.

Markham, A. (1996). Designing discourse: A critical analysis of strategic ambiguity and workplace control. Management Communication Quarterly, 9, 389-421.

Meyers, R., & Brashers, D. (1999). Influence processes in group interaction. In L. Frey, D. Gouran, & M. Poole (Eds.), The handbook of group communication & research (pp. 288-312). Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Scott, C., & Easton, A. (1996). Examining equality of influence in group decision support system interaction. Small Group Research, 27, 360-382.

Seibold, D., Meyers, R., & Sunwolf. (1996). Communication and influence in group decision making. In R. Hirokawa & M. Poole (Eds.), Communication and group decision making, 2nd ed. (pp. 242-268). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


Communication Web of Resources
Prof. Joan Aitken, current editor of NCA's Speech Communication Teacher, developed this site. The site includes many resources, but it can be difficult to navigate as it's rather cluttered. Click on "Virtual Professor" for a list of case studies applicable to this unit as well as others on the McGraw-Hill Small Group Communication website.


Instructions to students:

This assignment is worth 350 points. There are 4 parts to this project: (1) Project Plan, 75 pts.; (2) Report, 225 pts.; (3) Project Activity Log, cr/nc; and (4) Individual Evaluation, 50 pts.

Choose one of the projects below. For each project, you need to identify how power is enacted in the groups and the impact of influence processes on group functioning.

  1. Observe television portrayals (recent or past) of task-oriented small groups (e.g., "M*A*S*H," "NYPD Blue," "Voyager," "ER"). Select at least three shows and watch a minimum of two episodes of each show.

  2. Conduct a case study of a task-oriented small group, such as a local government council or a campus committee. Observe at least three meetings and conduct in-depth interviews with at least two of the group members.

  3. View a minimum of 4 commercial films (either current or older) that depict task-oriented small groups (e.g., "Toy Story 2," "Apollo 13," "The Commitments," "Charlotte's Web"). You will probably need to watch each film more than once.

  4. Choose one of the above projects, but choose shows or movies you can use to compare and contrast power in social groups vs. task-oriented groups. For example, view two films that focus on tasked-oriented small groups (such as "12 Angry Men" and "Ghostbusters") and two that focus on social groups (e.g., "Steel Magnolias" and "Diner").


In your Plan, you need to provide a rationale and roadmap for your project in about 1000 words. How does this project relate to power in small groups? Why view these particular television shows, observe these particular groups, or analyze these particular films? From what class materials are you likely to draw? What other sources of information will you use? Who will be responsible for what tasks? What is your timetable?

Use the format below in developing your plan:

  1. Introduction: a paragraph or two that introduces your topic and the paper format.

  2. Rationale and significance of the project: here you need to provide reasons for doing the particular project you've chosen. In addition, you want to indicate that you've done some preliminary research in this area to provide support for your rationale. You also want to discuss why you are interested in this project. Finally, you need to clearly state your objectives for the project. What do you hope to accomplish?

  3. Area(s) of inquiry: what will be the focus of your research? Which aspects of power and small group processes will you study? What course concepts are applicable to your project?

  4. Methods: how will you go about gathering information? What movies will you examine? What groups will you observe? Which television shows will you analyze? Who is responsible for what tasks? What is your timetable for the project? Be thorough and explicit in this section, so you and I have a clear idea of what you plan to do.

I will grade your Project Plan based on the following criteria:

  1. relevance to power in small groups;

  2. clarity of objectives and rationale;

  3. demonstrated knowledge of relevant course material;

  4. specificity of methods;

  5. the degree to which you will be able to execute the project;

  6. evidence of group effort;

  7. creativity; and

  8. mechanical and structural appropriateness.


Your Report should be about 3000 words and must include the following information:

  1. Introduction

  2. Objectives and rationale.

  3. Relevant course concepts.

  4. Methods (e.g., What movies did you review? Why those movies? What were you looking for? What were your procedures? Write this section so someone else could conduct your study. If you conducted interviews or used an evaluation form in viewing the films or TV shows, include the interview guide or evaluation form in the Appendix).

  5. Findings: this is the analysis section. You should apply course concepts as well as outside research in your analysis.

  6. Implications and conclusions: here, go beyond your findings to speculate on what your research implies about critical thinking and small group communication. What conclusions can you draw based on your analysis? Situate your findings within course material and your outside research.

  7. Annotated bibliography: a list of references you used in the project, including a 3-4 sentence description of each citation. You must have 1 reference for each group member.

  8. Appendices: include any materials used in your project, such as interview guides and your format for observation field notes.

I will grade your report based on:

  1. relevance of the project to the course;

  2. demonstrated familiarity with appropriate course concepts;

  3. evidence of appropriate research;

  4. clarity of discussion of methods used;

  5. application of course concepts to findings, implications, and conclusions;

  6. insight into power and small group communication processes;

  7. completeness (all sections included);

  8. evidence of group effort;

  9. creativity; and

  10. presentation or writing style.


Each group member must keep a record of her/his work on the project. Each time you work on the group project, note what you did. Use the format below.

Entry Number: 10
Date: March 12, 2000
Time: 2:30-5:30 p.m.
Location: Lynne's house
Participants: Lynne, Joe, Nan, Jamie, myself

Viewed the movie "Boys on the Side." I took notes on leadership styles and the characters' attempts to exert influence. Discussed the movie after it was over. Decided that we'll each watch it again separately and post our notes on the group discussion board.

Entry Number: 12
Date: March 14, 2000
Time: 9 a.m.-12:15 p.m.
Location: my house
Participants: me

Viewed the movie "Boys on the Side" again. I added to my notes on influence and noted language that seems to indicate power structures. I typed up my notes and posted them on the group's discussion board.


You will "grade" yourself and the other group members on participation in and contribution to the group's project. Assign each group member, including yourself, a numerical score based on a 50 point scale (45-50, A; 40-44, B; 35-39, C; 30-34, D; < 30, F) and provide a 4-5 sentence justification for the grade. These evaluations are anonymous. However, I will summarize the comments, along with the average score, for each group member in a personal email. Turn in your evaluations to me by the date listed on the course schedule.


  1. In class, review the forms of power (dominance, prevention, and empowerment) and power sources (information, expertise, legitimate, affiliation, and rewards/punishments). Divide students into three groups, one for each form of power. Watch Phillip Zimbardo's film "Stanford Prison Study," based on his 1970s' mock-prison experiment. (The old version is about 20 minutes; the new version, "Quiet Rage," is about 45 minutes. The first version works better for the activity because there is less interpretation). Have each group identify examples of its assigned form of power as well as sources of power. After the film, allow group members a few minutes to compare notes. Have each group report on its findings.

  2. The first 30 minutes of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe is another useful example of power dynamics. Have student pay particular attention to the change that occurs when the interaction goes from a dyad (Martha and George) to a small group (when Nick and Honey arrive). The film provides many useful examples of politics, the use of language and nonverbal cues during the characters' attempts to influence each other, the development of coalitions, and the unethical use of power. It's useful to divide students into groups; have each group focus on a specific aspect of power.

  3. Have students assess power in their permanent/project groups. Modify the questionnaire below to fit your class discussions of power.


Although groups often dedicate much time to talking about tasks, groups seldom talk about group processes, or how the group is functioning. Today, I'd like you to discuss the way power is evident and distributed in your group, and then identify any changes that could improve the way your group functions.

  1. Power Resources and Indicators

    1. What power resources (information, expertise, rewards/punishments, personal qualities, authority) do group members use? Give examples.

    2. What indicators of power (group culture [e.g., stories, practices, rituals], language, nonverbal) can you identify within your group's interactions?

  2. Conformity

    1. To what degree do group members conform to group norms?

    2. What strategies are used to encourage compliance?

  3. Resistance

    1. To what degree do group members use resistance strategies? Give examples.

    2. Have any group members been openly defiant? How did other group members respond?

  4. Assertiveness

    1. Identify examples of group members exhibiting assertive behaviors.

    2. How do these behaviors empower group members?

  5. Assessment

    1. What are your group's areas of strength in power issues?

    2. What areas of weakness can you identify?

    3. What changes, if any, do you need to make in how your group functions to improve the use of power in your group?

    4. What have you learned from this analysis that you can apply to future small group work?

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