Group Communication

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Families, friendship circles, work teams, committees, and sports teams are all examples of groups. Individuals belong to many types of groups. The quality of people's everyday lives depends in important ways on the groups to which they belong. Much of the work and many of the decisions that shape the world depend on the actions that groups take. Groups are important because they influence the way in which people experience and understand the world. The study of group communication helps further the understanding of how groups function in influencing individuals and society. Additionally, the study of groups can lead to innovations in such things as technology, government, and organizational policy.

Defining a Group

To understand groups, there must be some way of determining what makes a collection of people a group. The number of members can be used to distinguish groups from other forms of social behavior, such as crowds, organizations, and interpersonal relationships. Groups, which are obviously bigger in size than interpersonal relationships but smaller than crowds or organizations, typically have around five members (but can be as large as twenty members). This supports the theory that the ideal decision-making group consists of five members (plus or minus two). While it is useful, the number of members does not capture exactly what makes a collection a group.

A group is not a crowd or a mob. As with crowds (such as those that gather for sporting events or around the scene of an accident), groups focus their attention on particular matters of interest. Unlike crowds, groups are more than just a collection of individuals. People come together in groups to accomplish a set of goals and to work together to accomplish those goals. Crowds disperse once the event that draws their attention is over, but a group remains intact.

A group is not an organization. As with organizations (such as business firms or school districts), a group has rules and expectations that help members accomplish shared goals. Unlike organizations, groups do not develop a bureaucracy to organize members and do not hire managers to enforce the rules. Instead, members of small groups typically know each other, develop informal rules and norms, and monitor each other's behavior.

A group is not an interpersonal pairing of two individuals. As with interpersonal relationships (such as those between friends, parents and children, or coworkers), group members interact with each other and influence each other at a personal level. Groups, however, include at least three people who have a common relationship and develop a sense of mutual belonging that differs from any interpersonal relationship that might exist between any two given members of the group.

Because the number of members is just a useful starting point for understanding groups, it is important to understand that a collection becomes a group only when the members (1) share a goal, (2) hold expectations over each other about participating in and belonging to the group, (3) create identities for the group and its members, and (4) influence each other and develop strategies and tactics to control each other and maintain the group.

Function of Group Communication

The term "group communication" refers to the messages that are exchanged by group members. These messages, whether verbal or nonverbal, are important to groups because it is through the exchange of messages that group members participate, maintain the group identity, determine goals, motivate participation, and do the many things that keep the group intact. For example, a soccer team can be considered to be a group, but one would not expect a soccer team to exist or compete with other soccer teams without exchanging messages. How would team members share information about the game plan? How would they make collective decisions in executing the game plan? How would members build the relationships that help each member understand who to trust in the critical moments of a game? How would members create the team spirit that motivates each member to play their best game possible?

Examining group communication is fundamental to understanding groups. The messages that are exchanged by group members provide evidence of the nature of the group. The messages that are exchanged identify whether the group is a social group or a task group. The messages also reveal what roles specific members play in a group. Imagine a family trying to decide what to do during the two weeks in the summer when all the family members are free to do something as a family. Should they go on vacation, stay home and relax, paint the house, or have some parties with extended family and friends? The types of messages that are exchanged and the manner in which the messages are exchanged can be used to describe such group characteristics as the structure of the family, who is in control, and the group's collective identity. However, messages are more than just a signal about what the group is.

Group communication is important because it is through messages that groups make decisions, manage conflict, and build the rapport that is necessary to keep the group going in difficult circumstances. The exchange of messages shapes what the group will be and what the group can accomplish. The way in which, for example, a family exchanges messages about pending choices shapes important features, such as how members understand each other, whether they will respect each other, and whether they will be motivated to make the decision happen.

The Importance of Studying Group Communication

The study of group communication often challenges folk wisdom. It is a common belief, for example, that more communication is better. Research suggests, however, that group discussion leads to the polarization of opinions; that is, group decisions tend to be either more cautious or more risky after group discussion of a choice. This occurs because group members want to appear correct, which leads them to exaggerate their positions in the direction that the group favors. Shifts toward more risky or cautious decisions also occur because group members tend to present more arguments that support the direction that the group favors. More communication, then, is not in principle better than less communication. The point of studying group communication is to provide insight into the sometimes hidden aspects of groups.

Studying group communication can reveal why particular decisions are made while other decisions are not. One might believe, for example, that people are individuals who make their own choices based on personal beliefs and values. However, studies on such diverse things as how people choose candidates for elected office or how people select which technology to adopt show that individuals are quite susceptible to the influence of the opinion leaders in the most important small groups to which they belong. Indeed, the ways in which individuals express their personal identity are often intimately tied to what their peer groups deem fashionable at the time.

Studying group communication refines, and often changes, the everyday beliefs about how groups work. It is an important field of study because it allows for a better understanding of how groups cooperate, make decisions, influence their members, accomplish their goals.

Specific Subjects of Study

Group communication touches many aspects of group life. The study of group communication tends to focus on group processes and how group communication can be improved. The topics that have been most important in the study of group communication all relate to the exchange of messages. Researchers study how group factors influence the exchange of messages; they also study the reverse, which is how the exchange of messages influences the group. The latter area has become increasingly important in the field of group communication.

"Group dynamics" is a general term created early in the history of the study of groups. Kurt Lewin coined the term to refer to what happens in group situations. The point was to draw attention to the fact that what happens in groups is active and vibrant and is not simply determined by larger social and historical forces. Many of the other key topical areas emerged from this term.

"Leadership" is one of the first, and longest lasting, areas in the study of groups. The goal in this area is to understand what makes leaders effective. If researchers can identify these factors, then it may be possible to develop methods and training from which all groups could benefit.

"Decision making" is another dominant area in group communication research. The goal in this area is to understand the factors that influence groups to make good decisions and bad decisions. The hope is that decision-making practice can be improved by figuring out these factors.

"Social influence" refers to how the messages produced by group members affect the conformity (and deviance) of group members. This includes the study of power, conformity, deviance, and leadership.

"Group process" refers to the functions that communication plays in groups and to the way in which communication in groups becomes patterned and sequenced over time. There is a great deal of interest in how group process affects group outcomes such as decisions and leadership. These interests include, for example, how computer-mediated communication influences group communication.

"Conflict" refers to how group members manage their individual differences within groups and how group members manage their differences with other groups.

Evolution of the Study of Group Communication

The rhetorical, the social-psychological, and the pragmatic traditions heavily influence the study of group communication. These traditions share a focus on how people persuade and influence each other but each has a unique approach.

Researchers in the rhetorical tradition identify the practices that speakers use to persuade audiences, and they are especially concerned with judging the performance of persuasive acts. Rhetorical studies develop standards for good persuasion (i.e., persuasion that is both effective and ethical). Group researchers following rhetorical approaches have contributed by developing discussion protocols and standards for assessing the quality of group discussion. Researchers and teachers of group communication have drawn from rhetoric and argumentation in their development of discussion agendas and rules for critical thinking. There was a great deal of interest in the early twentieth century that small groups could be formed among citizens to discuss important matters of the day, thus leading to better judgment by citizens on important public matters. It did not take long, however, to realize that simply gathering people together in the same place to talk does not cause good discussion. Those in the speech-communication field took on the task of cultivating good discussion habits in their students. They trained students in principles of discussion as well as public speaking. Their work was motivated to improve the quality of public discourse. They developed ideas such as the "standard agenda," which was a tool a group could use to improve the quality of the decision-making discussion.

Researchers in the social-psychological tradition identify how the beliefs and attitudes of group members are changed by a variety of social factors. Social-psychological studies compile the effects of such social factors as power, roles, and identity. The antecedents of group communication in this tradition are found in early investigations of whether groups could be more successful at accomplishing tasks than an individual could be. These results showed that groups were in fact likely to be more productive. Individuals were less productive in the groups than when they worked on their own. This apparent paradox motivated researchers to discover how groups influence individuals. The study of group influence on the beliefs and attitudes of members drew increasing attention with the events and social circumstances surrounding Adolf Hitler's rise and fall, the Holocaust, and the mobilization of allied support for the war effort. There was a great deal of interest in studying conformity—in particular, the formation of the "group mind" and how groups influence individual beliefs and attitudes. The study of conformity preceded much of later social-psychological research. From the early experimental research, a whole new area of study in facilitating group communication emerged. Researchers who engaged in this area of study developed many techniques that help small groups communicate and make better judgments. In addition, many innovations in using groups to aid individual therapy and to help manage organizations emerged from this initial movement to help citizens.

Researchers in the pragmatic tradition identify the sequences of communication among group members and how those sequences become patterned (i.e., conventional ways group members communicate). Pragmatic researchers assess how communication patterns influence what groups can and cannot accomplish due to their patterns of communication. This area of research has many different starting points. The researchers in this tradition recognize that messages have multiple functions. These researchers focused on the content and relational aspects of a message. Every message has content, or information value, and every message makes a "meta-comment" on the relationship between the speaker and the hearer. The same message content can be used to signal a request or an order. These researchers were very interested in how group members negotiated the variety of meanings that messages have. To study this, they looked at the interaction between messages.

Contemporary group communication finds its roots in the above three basic areas. While some research remains clearly rhetorical, social-psychological, or pragmatic, some blending of the three has taken place. The study of group communication has always focused on how discussion among group members can be used to help groups cooperate to achieve larger goals. The advent of computer and telecommunication networks has not altered this quest, but it has brought about opportunities for group interaction that were impossible and even inconceivable in the past. Communication technologies such as e-mail, cellular telephones, and group support systems make it possible for groups to meet without being in the same place at the same time. Even more interesting than the possibility of compressing time and space, these tools make it possible to alter or provide new forums for interaction. New channels can be made available to group members, and decision and discussion aids can be designed to aid group interaction via the technology. The use of new technology raises questions about whether groups can emerge and function without meeting face-to-face or whether technology can aid group effectiveness. Many of the issues that motivated the original research on groups apply to technologically supported groups.

The goal of developing better forms of discussion occurred in four unique but related eras in the evolution of group communication research. In each era, a new use of discussion emerged and is marked by a different set of assumptions about groups and the strategies for improving group communication. The first period, 1900 to 1920, is marked by an interest in improving democracy and the responsiveness of government. Group discussion and training in effective discussion were seen as ways to facilitate widespread participation in democratic governance. The second period, 1930 to 1950, is marked by an interest in using groups to help individuals learn about themselves. Group discussion and training in effective discussion were seen as ways to help people help themselves. It was during this time that movements such as T-groups (therapy groups) and Alcoholics Anonymous emerged. The third period, 1960 to 1980, is marked by an interest in improving the effectiveness of organizations. Group discussion and training in effective discussion were seen as ways to foster employee involvement in organizational goals and to shape the commitment of members to the organizational mission. This is the era when the concept of teams and teamwork became very popular. The fourth period, 1980 to the present, is marked by an interest in knowledge. Group discussion and training in effective discussion include the use of new communication technology that enhances the mobility, memory, and efficiency of group members.

Examples of Scholars Working in Group Communication

Some of the scholars who have worked in the area of group communication are Kurt Lewin, Solomon Asch, B. Aubrey Fisher, and M. Scott Poole. In addition to forming the area of group dynamics, Lewin's efforts contributed to the development of methods and techniques for improving group discussion. Asch was a leader in the study of compliance and developed novel methods to show how groups influence individual conformity to the group. Fisher developed an interactional view of group communication and a phase model of group decision processes and leadership emergence. Poole, one of the contemporary leaders in the study of groups, has developed structuration theory, an innovative view of group communication. He has also pioneered communication research on the use of technology to support group decision making.

See also:Group Communication, Conflict and; Group Communication, Decision Making and; Group Communication, Dynamics of; Group Communication, Roles and Responsibilities in; Interpersonal Communication; Organizational Communication; Public Speaking; Rhetoric.


Asch, Solomon. (1955). "Opinions and Social Pressures." Scientific American 193(5):31-55.

Brilhart, John K.; Galanes, Gloria J.; and Adams, Katherine L. (2001). Effective Group Discussion: Theory and Practice, 10th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Cathcart, Robert, and Samovar, Larry. (1992). Small Group Communication: A Reader, 6th edition. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown.

Cathcart, Robert; Samovar, Larry; and Henman, Linda. (1996). Small Group Communication: Theory and Practice, 7th edition. Dubuque, IA: Brown & Benchmark.

Fisher, B. Aubrey. (1970). "Decision Emergence: Phases in Group Decision Making." Speech Monographs 37:53-66.

Lewin, Kurt. (1951). Field Theory in Social Science. New York: Harper.

Poole, M. Scott; Seibold, David; and McPhee, Robert. (1985). "Group Decision-Making as a Structurational Process." Quarterly Journal of Speech 71:74-102.

Mark Aakhus