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THEORIES OF SMALL GROUP COMMUNICATION

The majority of small group communication textbooks are grounded in systems theory. Although systems theory is a relatively intuitive way to explore small group processes, it does have some weaknesses. For example, systems theory tends to favor stability over change, so innovation is often characterized as a system anomaly rather than a normal part of group work. The emphasis on harmony in systems theory means that conflict must be presented as abnormal and destructive. Systems theory generally ignores issues of power and status that influence small group decision making, particularly when groups are embedded in larger organizations. So while systems theory encourages us to examine the ways in which group members and groups are inter-related, it ignores other aspects of small group communication that are equally as important. In this module we'll briefly examine other theories of small group communication.

The Importance of Theory

Theories influence the way we think, interpret our world, and the actions we take. We develop theories about our environment to help organize and interpret our experiences. For example, if our theory of communication is that communication is the transmission of information, then we'll study senders who present clear, concise, well-organized messages. If we think of communication as performance, then we'll be concerned with shared meanings, sensemaking, and the way people coordinate their actions. These two approaches to communication suggest that "communication" can be understood in different ways if it is studied through different theories.

Let's examine a hypothetical scenario. During a group meeting, the leader provides oral and written instructions for all group members, which tell them how to write their sections of the group's report. Half the group members follow the instructions completely, one-quarter follow some of the instructions, and the remaining members don't follow the instructions at all. With the communication as transmission model, we'd examine the leader's instructions for clarity, detail, and organization. Our goal would be to improve the instructions so all group members could follow them to the letter. Based on the communication as performance approach, we'd want to know how the leader and group members made sense of the meeting and the instructions. We might want to hear about stories the leader and group member told based on their experience. We would focus on the way group members go about coordinating their actions, and possibly work with the group to reflect on group member interaction.

No single, perfect, all-encompassing theory of small group communication exists. Each theory of small groups illuminates some features of communication while hiding others. Still, some theories have greater utility than others do because they provide more insight, more practical implications, and lead us to ask more interesting and creative questions about small groups. For example, early research on work groups in organizations used a machine metaphor to understand group processes. This research focused on the group's task and ignored interpersonal aspects of small group work. Yet, those interpersonal aspects influence the way group members go about accomplishing their tasks. Thus, the machine metaphor may help us develop an efficient assembly line for producing automobiles, but it won't help us understand why the line's team members sabotage each other's work.

Theories of Small Group Communication

This section of the website provides an overview of four theories of small group communication: Functional Theory, Symbolic Convergence Theory, Structuration Theory, and the Naturalistic Paradigm. The descriptions included here serve only as introductions to these theories of small group communication and are not meant to be comprehensive discussions. The reference and additional reading lists offer sources for you to further explore research theories of small group communication. The overview does not cover every theory of small group communication, but includes the more developed and researched approaches to small groups.

Functional Theory

The functional approach to small group communication is concerned with the results or outcomes of group behaviors and structures. This perspective sees communication as the tool group members use to solve problems and make decisions. Communication helps group members by promoting rational judgments and critical thinking, as well as preventing group members from faulty decision-making and flawed problem solving. Thus, communication is instrumental because it provides the means by which group members can achieve their goals. From a functional perspective, researchers are concerned with identifying the specific aspects of group communication and structure that produce the group's desired outcomes.

Research conducted from this perspective suggests that several conditions must exist for group members to make appropriate decisions and effectively solve problems. For example, group members must:

  • commit to making the best decision,
  • identify resources needed to carry out the group's charge,
  • determine procedures for the group to follow,
  • articulate procedural rules and interaction practices, and
  • review the decision-making process and make any necessary adjustments to the decision.


According to the functional perspective, groups follow systematic procedures to accomplish their tasks. So, much like Standard Agenda (see Critical Thinking and Pragmatics modules), group members must:

  • demonstrate that they understand the charge,
  • establish criteria with which to evaluate possible solutions,
  • develop alternative solutions,
  • evaluate those alternatives by comparing them to each other and the previously-established criteria, and
  • use the evaluation to choose between alternatives.


The functional approach to small group communication has several strengths. Unlike systems theory, functional theory is prescriptive in nature. That is, it suggests that critical thinking, sound logic, informed discussion, and systematic procedures are essential to effective decision making and problem solving. Second, this approach emphasizes the purpose communication serves in small groups, and it makes it clear that, without communication, group members could not accomplish their goals. Third, researchers from this perspective have studied both laboratory groups (e.g., student groups engaged in a task for extra credit) and natural groups (e.g., work teams at Cisco). Examining groups in the laboratory and in their natural environment provides more support for the theory and makes it easier to develop general theory from specific examples.

The theory has weaknesses as well. First, assessing outcomes is challenging. For example, a given solution might be best for the group, but it may have harmful consequences for other members of the organization. In addition, a decision may seem appropriate today, but in 10 years, it might turn out to be a poor one. Second, some researchers argue that decision making is not rational. Emotions, power, hidden agendas, interpersonal conflicts, competing goals, and forces outside the group all play a part in the final decision a group makes. Thus, the functional theory may not provide a very useful picture of decision making and problem solving in naturally occurring groups. Third, researchers have found it difficult to consistently identify the key group functions essential to small group decision making and problem solving. It is difficult to pinpoint group functions that remain consistent from group to group; even a given group will use different functions as time passes and circumstances change.

Symbolic Convergence Theory

Symbolic Convergence Theory studies the sensemaking function of communication. "Symbolic" refers to verbal and nonverbal messages and "convergence" refers to shared understanding and meaning. In small groups, members develop private code words and signals that only those inside the group understand. When groups achieve symbolic convergence, they have a sense of community based on common experiences and understandings.

Central to this theory is the idea that group members share fantasies that serve as critical communication episodes, forming the basis for members' sensemaking. Sharing fantasies helps group members create a social reality that indicates who is part of the group and who is not. Sharing fantasy themes increases group cohesiveness as members develop a common interpretation of their experiences. Fantasy themes are stories or narratives that help group members interpret group interactions and their surrounding environment. Fantasy themes develop when group members actively engage in dramatizing, elaborating on, and modifying a story. In this way, the story becomes publicly shared within the group as well as privately shared by each group member. Fantasy themes are related to small group culture in that the stories reveal the group's identity and underlying values (see the Culture module for more information on small group culture).

Researchers have observed group members "chaining out" fantasy themes. In chaining out, group members tell a story in a collaborative manner. Often, no single narrator can be identified. A group meeting may start out in a rational, predictable manner, but when someone begins to tell a story, the others will start to help dramatize the message. As group members come to share fantasy themes, a simple word, phrase, or gesture can take participants back to that drama. By using a symbolic cue that triggers a recall of the fantasy, group members are participating in an inside joke known only to the group. Thus the word "magnolia" may send group members into peels of laughter as they recall a shared fantasy theme, yet outsiders would wonder why they were laughing.

As group members come to share a number of fantasies, and thereby acquire similar understandings of their experiences, participants will begin to develop a rhetorical vision of themselves and the group. The rhetorical vision is often symbolized by an image or slogan, as with Apple's "Think Different" and Ford Motor Company's "Better Ideas." The image or slogan calls up a whole host of associations and shared narratives for group members. The rhetorical vision summoned by the slogan frames the way the group members interpret their actions and imagine their future.

Symbolic Convergence Theory is very different from the Functional Theory of group communication. One strength of symbolic convergence theory is the focus on group identity and the development of group consciousness. This theory is descriptive rather than predictive. Symbolic Convergence Theory helps us understand how group members interact and provides a way of examining small group culture. We can also determine who is a group member and who isn't depending on whether they are familiar with the group's fantasy themes, inside jokes, and rhetorical vision. Finally, Symbolic Convergence Theory is useful for examining groups in organizations because is provides a useful way to compare them; similarities and differences in the rhetorical visions and fantasies of small groups are often significant.

Like Functional Theory, Symbolic Convergence Theory has its critics. First, some people believe the theory is not useful because it is not predictive or evaluative. That is, we can't make predictions about group outcomes based on fantasy themes, nor have researchers evaluated the quality of fantasy themes and the contributions they make to the group's task accomplishment. Second, researchers who apply Symbolic Convergence Theory to small groups tend to assume that fantasies themes and rhetorical visions have singular meanings for all group members. It may be the case that stories and images have many different meanings for group members, even though participants might believe they have a shared understanding of their experiences. Last, Symbolic Convergence Theory assumes that all group members have equal influence in creating fantasy themes and rhetorical visions. This is hard to believe, since nearly all groups have power imbalances based on formal and/or informal roles. Thus, some group members' voices rise above the others in group interactions.

Structuration Theory

Structuration Theory distinguishes between systems, such as small groups, and structures, the practices, rules, norms, and other resources the system uses to function and sustain itself. When applied to small groups, Structuration Theory views small groups as systems that both produce structures and are produced by structures. This means that group members follow particular rules in their interactions that produce some sort of outcome. That outcome eventually influences the group's future interactions.

Structuration refers to the processes group members employ as they work together. Structures both produce a system (in this case, a group) and are outcomes of a system. For example, suppose a committee decides to meet every second Wednesday of the month from 2:30-4:00 p.m. This regular meeting is a rule ("The committee will meet every second Wednesday of the month from 2:30-4:00 p.m.") that the group produced (and is thus an outcome of group interaction) as well as an instrument for producing the group. Other structures include methods of voting, norms of interaction, leadership styles, decision-making procedures, and rules for distributing the group's workload.

According to Structuration Theory, group members interact according to particular rules, and those group members also produce those rules through their interactions. This suggests that group members can negotiate group structures, yet at the same time, their interactions are constrained by those structures. For example, group members may decide to take turns leading each group meeting. The group member in charge of a particular meeting constructs and distributes the agenda, reminds others of the meeting, and makes arrangements for the meeting room. However, if the group found this structure was not working (e.g., group members forgot when it was their turn to lead the meeting), members could consider changing their procedures. Still, group member interactions may be constrained by the original structure, particularly if members A and B fulfilled their leadership duties and members C, D, and E did not.

Structuration theorists are interested in the way group members enact structures in their interactions. So structuration researchers observe group interaction directly. Researchers have examined the way group members' attitudes affect the structuration process, the influence of different types of structures on group decision-making and problem-solving, institutional constraints on group structures, and appropriated structures (those taken from other sources, such as majority rule in voting) and those that are unique to the group.

One strength of Structuration Theory is that it examines structures in action by focusing on the structuring process. Thus, attention is on small group interaction and how group members appropriate, adapt, create, and maintain rules and resources. Second, Structuration Theory is applicable to a variety of small groups, not just those that perform decision-making and problem-solving functions. In this way, Structuration Theory can help us understand an array of small groups, from corporate committee to self-help groups. Third, Structuration Theory takes into account environmental forces that may impinge on group processes.

It has its strengths, but Structuration Theory suffers from several weaknesses as well. First, Structuration Theory to date has not provided a way of predicting which circumstances will result in the development of particular structures. That is, Structuration Theory is largely descriptive in nature. Second, because structures are both system producers and the outcome of systems, it is difficult to research structuration in small groups. Researchers must examine group member communication as they put structures into action, as well as the structure that arises from that interaction. Third, the very definition of structuration implies that group structures change over time. Yet, it is often difficult to pinpoint which structural changes occurred and when by examining group interaction on a day-to-day basis. Last, research in Structuration Theory relies primarily on case studies. Structuration Theory can be adapted to individual cases, but because it is flexible, it is difficult to make generalizations based on Structuration Theory.

Naturalistic Paradigm

Like Systems Theory, the Naturalistic Paradigm is a general approach that is applicable to many communication contexts and academic disciplines. When applied to small groups, the Naturalistic Paradigm focuses our attention on "real life" groups.

The Naturalistic Paradigm addresses a major fault in small group research-its reliance on zero-history groups in which strangers interact in a laboratory setting to solve an artificial problem. Researchers using the Naturalistic Paradigm study groups situated in their natural settings.

Unlike Functional Theory and Structuration Theory, which assume there is a measurable, objective reality, the Naturalistic Paradigm assumes that communicators construct social reality as they interact. Research within the Naturalistic Paradigm is qualitative (e.g., observation, in-depth interviews) and assumes that researchers' values and biases are part of the research process. Researchers look at the relationship between researcher and study participants as an interdependent one. That is, communicators are not simply objects to be studied, but are partners in the research process. For example, researchers within the Naturalistic Paradigm often ask study participants for their responses to the researchers' report. Those responses then become part of the report or are used to modify the report.

The Naturalistic Paradigm focuses the researcher's attention on human communication as it naturally occurs. In small group communication research, this means that researchers study real groups in their natural settings. For example, a researcher might study work team culture in a local organization. Or a researcher might examine multiple teams or groups in an organization, focusing on boundary permeability and group identity. The Naturalistic Paradigm encourages researchers to venture outside corporate settings and examine self-help groups, families, religious groups, and children's groups.

From this perspective, there is no single, small group reality, but rather multiple realities that group members share to varying degrees. Researchers record longitudinal case studies of small groups, so we get a sense of how groups evolve and change over time. Study results are shared with participants so they can use the information as a group resource. The participants are then invited to respond to the study. Their responses can indicate whether the researcher's

interpretations were on target. The greatest strength of the Naturalistic Paradigm is its focus on naturally occurring small groups. We learn about the idiosyncrasies and similarities of communication practices and norms as group members coordinate their interactions in everyday life. Second, the Naturalistic Paradigm has greatly broadened our conceptualization of small groups and moved the study of small groups outside the corporate context and traditional task groups. Third, the Naturalistic Paradigm study of small groups working in their natural contexts has produced advances in communication theory and practice.

Although the Naturalistic Paradigm may sound like the ideal approach to small group communication, it does have its critics. The first problem is that it can be difficult to determine what constitutes a group in a natural setting. Are people a group because they say they're a group? Or does the researcher determine what constitutes a group? Second, the theory requires that researchers and participants have equal levels of power, but this equilibrium can be difficult to maintain. Ultimately, the researcher makes the final decision about what is or what is not included in the study report. Moreover, other gatekeepers, such as journal editors and reviewers, can influence the report's content. Thus, the researcher may face conflicting interests in the process of framing information gathered in the study. Third, like Symbolic Convergence Theory, studies within the Naturalistic Paradigm are case studies, and it is difficult to generalize from specific cases. Researchers using the Naturalistic Paradigm recognize the evolving nature of groups; their interpretations of case studies are often tentative and qualified.

REFERENCES

Bormann, E. (1983). Symbolic convergence: Organizational communication and culture. In L. L. Putnam & M. E. Pacanowsky (Eds.), Communication and organizations: An interpretive approach (pp. 99-122). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Bormann, E. (1996). Symbolic convergence theory and communication in group decision making. In R. Hirokawa & M. Poole (Eds.), Communication and group decision making, 2nd ed. (pp. 81-113). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Frey, L., Boton, C., & Kreps, G. (2000). Investigating communication: An introduction to research methods, 2nd ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Gouran, D., & Hirokawa, R. (1996). Functional theory and communication in decision-making and problem-solving groups: An expanded view. In R. Hirokawa & M. Poole (Eds.), Communication and group decision making, 2nd ed. (pp. 55-80). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Poole, M. (1999). Group communication theory. In L. Frey (Ed.), D. Gouran (Assoc. Ed.), & M. Poole (Assoc. Ed.), The handbook of group communication theory and research (pp. 37-70). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Poole, M., Seibold, D., & McPhee, R. (1996). The structuration of group decisions. In R. Hirokawa & M. Poole (Eds.), Communication and group decision making, 2nd ed. (pp. 114-146). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Putnam, L., Phillips, N., & Chapman, P. (1996). Metaphors of communication and organization. In S. Clegg, C. Hardy, & W. Nord (Eds.), Handbook of organization studies (pp. 375-408). London: Sage.Poole, M. "Group Communication Theory." In The Handbook of Group Communication Theory and Research ed. L. Frey; D. Gouran; and M. Poole. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1999, pp. 37-70.

ADDITIONAL READING

Adelman, M., & Frey, L. (1997). The fragile community: Living together with AIDS. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

Frey, L. (Ed.). (1994). Group communication in context: Studies of natural groups. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

Frey, L. (Eds.). (1995). Innovations in group facilitation: Applications in natural settings. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press

Pavitt, C. (1999). Theorizing about the group communication-leadership relationship: Input-process-output and functional models. In L. Frey (Ed.), D. Gouran (Assoc. Ed.), & M. Poole (Assoc. Ed.), The handbook of group communication theory and research (pp. 313-334). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Poole, M., Seibold, D., & McPhee, R. (1985). Group decision-making as a structurational process. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 71, 74-102.

Sunwolf & Seibold, D. (1999). The impact of formal procedures on group processes, members, and task outcomes. In L. Frey (Ed.), D. Gouran (Assoc. Ed.), & M. Poole (Assoc. Ed.), The handbook of group communication theory and research (pp. 395-431). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

ONLINE RESOURCES

Group Decision Making Theories
http://osu.orst.edu/instruct/comm321/gwalker/Group.htm
A brief summary of three group theories from the Speech Communication Department at Oregon State University

Support for Group Decisions and Negotiations: An Overview
http://interneg.carleton.ca/interneg/research/papers/1997/04.html
This article by Gregory E. Kersten discusses methods for the analysis and support of group decisions and negotiations from three perspectives. Includes and extensive, although somewhat dated, reference list. Published on the InterNeg Group website. The InterNeg Group conducts research and training and develops materials and systems for decision making and negotiations.


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