The study of group dynamics and interaction is often termed microsociology. There are many different areas investigated within microsociology, and there are different perspectives and methodologies. The area can be broadly conceptualized as considering issues related to self and identity, status and power, cooperation and competition, exchange, legitimation, and justice.
The self is one of the most important concepts in microsociology, particularly in the general perspective of symbolic interaction. The self, as distinct from the psychological conceptualization of the personality, is fluid and adaptive to context. So the roles that an individual must fulfill might require him or her to be very structured in one context and very flexible and adaptive in another context. From the symbolic interaction perspective, individuals learn to define themselves in large part based upon how others see and interact with them. In this way individuals are constantly assessing and projecting different identities to themselves and others. This makes interaction fundamental to self-identity. Research within this area has focused on both qualitative and quantitative investigations of such topics as role taking, altercasting, identity disruptions or deflections, and self-referent behavior.
Group interactions themselves or types of encounters with others constitute other aspects of microsociology. Cooperation and competition were some of the earliest topics in microsociology, and they have endured in their importance. Early studies of group cohesion and identity were featured in Émile Durkheim’s study of suicide, for example. More recent developments in the area examine differing incentive structures that lead toward or against cooperation. Much of this work has focused on social dilemmas, settings in which there is a conflict between individual short-term incentives and overall group incentives. Such dilemmas range from those found in dyadic relationships to larger groups such as those involved in collective movements.
Sometimes implicated in the level of cooperation and conflict or competition are characteristics of the individuals or of their positions within the group. Status is usually defined as a position in a social network, and the investigation of the development, maintenance, and diminishment of status has been pivotal in examining how groups organize and how resources are allocated. Commonly examined aspects of status are diffuse status characteristics such as ethnicity or sex and specific status characteristics such as accounting ability or ability to score soccer goals. Allocation of different resources is studied within exchange formulations, and the resulting assessments, behavior, and feelings of fairness are the focus of justice and equity formulations. Related to assessment of justice is the degree of acceptance of particular institutional arrangements or legitimation.
Microsociology incorporates many types of research methods, including case studies, documentary-historical studies, ethnomethodology, participant observation studies, surveys, and experiments. A particularly promising trend in research is the examination of the interrelationships between micro and macro phenomena. These developments do not begin with the assumption that either the micro or the macro cause the other; rather, they investigate how the different levels affect and are affected by each other.
SEE ALSO Durkheim, Émile; Groups; Interactionism, Symbolic; Sociology
Coleman, James R. 1986. Social Theory, Social Research, and a Theory of Action. American Journal of Sociology 91: 1309–1335.
Lawler, Edward J., Cecilia Ridgeway, and Barry Markovsky. 1993. Structural Social Psychology and Micro-Macro Problem. Sociological Theory 11: 268–290.
Lovaglia, Michael J., Elizabeth A. Mannix, Charles D. Samuelson, Jane Sell, and Rick K. Wilson. 2005. Conflict, Power and Status in Groups. In Theories of Small Groups: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, eds. Marshall Scott Poole and Andrea B. Hollingshead, 139–184. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.