Observation Systems

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The most sensitive, sophisticated, and flexible instrument of observation available today is the human being. All the recent advances in technology have not changed this central fact; we can monitor communications, transcribe conversations using language processing software, and conduct computer-assisted content analysis of the results. Still, at some point a person who understands the social context must infer the meaning of the communications. Systematic methods of observation may vary the unit of analysis, shift the boundaries of categories, and adjust the level of judgment allowed, but sociologists are ultimately left with the basic reality of human beings watching other human beings. The role of the methodologist is to make this process more systematic.

Most sociological data are filtered through the perceptions of informants in an idiosyncratic manner. Retrospective accounts of events, opinion polls, and surveys measure the output of the social perception process. Only systematic observation, with valid and reliable instruments, provides a record of the events themselves rather than the retrospective reconstruction of the events. The more rigorously defined the categories, the more confident the researcher can be that the data reflect the events and not just the biases and preconceptions of the informants.

While some of the systems that are described below were developed for specific purposes such as the observation of business case-study groups or the diagnosis of psychiatric patients, most attempt to capture the full range of social behavior and may thus be applied to a wide range of settings. Not included here are specialized systems that have been developed for single contexts, such as the classroom behavior of small children, the responses of subjects in tightly controlled laboratory experiments, and the evaluation of employees. One fast-food restaurant, for example, has developed a thirty-one-category observation system that managers can use to observe and evaluate counter staff. Items include "There is a smile," "The bag is double folded," and "Change is counted efficiently."

Observation systems have been used for a wide variety of purposes over the years. Early uses included psychiatric diagnosis, job placement, and basic research into group process and development. As corporate assessment centers came into widespread use for the selection of executives, early observation systems reappeared for the analysis of leaderless-group exercises. More recent applications have included research and consulting on team building and training, the evaluation of social workers, the prediction of success and failure of military cadets, the study of leadership networks in large corporations, the evaluation and treatment of problem children in the classroom, the evaluation of psychiatric interventions, the analysis of delinquent behavior, and resocialization, and consultation on mergers and consolidations (Polley et al. 1988). In the past ten years, direct observation has been in decline. As a result of the high costs in terms of time and money, systematic observation has often given way to retrospective rating systems (Bales 1998). Such methods are, however, a poor substitute for direct observation.


Elliot D. Chapple introduced the interaction chronograph in 1940. It was a simple device that consisted of two telegraph keys. Observers were instructed to press key A when person A spoke and key B when person B spoke. A record of the conversation was kept on a moving paper tape. Not surprisingly, inter-rater reliabilities were nearly perfect. Twenty-five years later, the human observers wee replaced by voice-activated microphones attached to analog-digital converters (Wiens et al. 1965). That such a simple device could replace the human observer suggests that the systems were not taking full advantage of the observers' capabilities. In reality, the decision to record such objective and basic information simply shifted the burden of interpretation from the observer to the researcher. Elliot Chapple (1940) and his successors developed elaborate schemes for interpreting the patterns of lines and blanks that appeared on their paper tapes. At the peak of its popularity, the interaction chronograph was used for everything from psychiatric diagnosis to employee placement.


Chapple's work serves as an important benchmark. The near-perfect reliability is achieved at the cost of validity. The observation systems that followed it generally traded off a measure of reliability for greater validity. More meaningful sets of categories will almost certainly be harder to employ with any degree of inter-rater reliability.

Interaction Process Analysis (IPA) was one of the earliest attempts to devise more meaningful categories. Bales (1950) began with an encyclopedic list of behaviors and gradually consolidated them into an elegant set of twelve basic categories. Fifty years later, his original system is still one of the most widely applied observation methods.

The IPA category list was evolving at the same time that Parsons and Bales (1955) were developing a model of family socialization. They saw family leadership in the 1940s and 1950s as divided between the father and the mother. IPA perpetuates this somewhat dated division through its primary dimension; six categories are provided for coding task-oriented behaviors and six are for coding socioemotional behaviors (Table 1). When Slater (1955) suggested that this role differentiation could be extended to a general model of effective leadership in groups, he sparked a continuing controversy. But it must be remembered that this conceptualization preceded any serious consideration of either androgyny or flexibility in sex roles.

Additional symmetries are built into IPA. Three of the six socioemotional categories carry positive affect, and each has a direct counterpart on the negative side. Task-oriented behavior is seen as the process of asking questions and offering answers, though the answers—in the form of suggestions, opinions, and orientation (or information)—may be in response to questions asked or implied. Finally, the functionalist orientation of Parsons and Bales (1955) appears in the identification of six problems faced by groups: communication, evaluation, control, decision, tension reduction, and reintegration.

Following Chapple's lead, Bales developed and marketed a moving paper-tape recording device. The interaction recorder allowed for observation of groups rather than just dyads; the tape was divided into twelve rows and moved past a window at a constant speed so that the observer could write a code, indicating who was speaking to whom, within a category-by-time sector on the tape. This added complexity and enlarged the unit of analysis. The interaction recorder provided a continuous on-off record while IPA recorded discrete acts. The coding unity was, however, kept small. IPA coders often record two or three acts for a single sentence and are expected to record all acts. The first serious challenge to Bales's IPA system was Borgatta's Interaction Process Scores (IPS) system (1963). Borgatta argued that the twelve categories failed to make some crucial distinctions. His redefinition of the boundaries resulted in an eighteen-category system that had the advantage of greater precision and the disadvantages of greater

Table 1
Interaction Process Analysis
source: adapted from bales (1950) p. 14.
1. shows solidaritypositive reintegration
2. shows tension releasepositive tension reduction
3. agreespositive decision
4. gives suggestion answercontrol
5. gives opinion answerevaluation
6. gives orientation answercommunication
7. asks for orientation questioncommunication
8. asks for opinion questionevaluation
9. asks for suggestion questioncontrol
10. disagreesnegative decision
11. shows tensionnegative tension reduction
12. shows antagonismnegative reintegration

complexity and a lack of symmetry. The former problem was largely solved by the availability of a self-training workbook (Borgatta and Crowther 1965). Such a manual has never been widely available for IPA.

The next logical step after categorization is the organization of categories. IPA had an implicit organization that was lacking in IPS. This, and the fact that IPA had twelve rather than eighteen categories, made IPA the easier system to learn and use. As Weick (1985) points out, however, there is a problem of "requisite variety." A system for understanding a phenomenon must be at least as complex as the phenomenon itself. Weick uses the metaphor of a camera with variable focal length. In order to photograph objects at twenty different distances, the camera must have at least twenty focal settings or the pictures will not all be of equal clarity. This creates real problems for the interaction chronograph. Clearly, social behavior is more complex than Chapple's on-off category system. Unfortunately for researchers, it is also more complex than IPA's twelve-category system. This creates a dilemma. The mind can hold only so many categories at once; even with twelve categories, most observers tend to forget the rarer ones in an attempt to simplify their task.


Timothy Leary (1957) proposed one of the first observation systems based primarily on dimensions rather than categories. His interpersonal diagnosis system placed sixteen categories at the compass points of a two-dimensional circumplex. The dimensions, dominance-submission and love-hate, would prove to be the two most common dimensions among the systems that followed. While intended primarily for the diagnosis of psychiatric disorders, the system also identified the "normal," or less intense, variant of each behavior as well as the likely response that each behavior would generate in other people. For example, the general behavior in the direction of dominance is "manage, direct, lead"; this behavior is likely to "obedience" in others. The extreme version of the category is "dominate, boss, order." This falls into the larger category of behavior that is described as "managerial" when in the normal range and "autocratic" when in the abnormal range. More than a method of observation, the interpersonal diagnosis system was a remarkably well-articulated theory of interpersonal relations. Were it not for Leary's well-publicized advocacy of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), the system might very well be in common use today. While the research was briefly resurrected by McLemore and Benjamin (1979), it never had a major impact on either social psychology or psychiatry. Leary claimed that the system worked so well for psychiatric diagnosis that a receptionist trained in its use could provide diagnoses based on observations in the waiting room that rivaled those obtained by psychiatrists after conducting a diagnostic interview.

Leary's two dimensions were theoretically derived. In a 1960 doctoral dissertation, Arthur Couch pioneered the application of factor analysis to interpersonal behavior, thus offering an empirical alternative for the derivation of dimensions. Couch's six dimensions of interpersonal behavior were derived from the factor analysis of a vast amount of data on twelve groups of five undergraduates each. The individuals were given a large battery of personality tests and the twelve groups were observed participating in a wide variety of tasks across five meetings each. While the factor analysis is not independent of the original categories of measurement and observation, Couch's data set was so exhaustive as to deserve credence.


The three dimensions of Bales and colleagues' SYMLOG (System for the Multiple Level Observation of Groups) (1979) owe much both to IPA and to Couch's empirical work. They also reflect the legacy of Leary's circumplex. Dominant-submissive (up-down, or U-D) was the first factor from Couch's analysis; in IPA it corresponds to total amount of talking rather than to interaction in any specific set of categories; Leary's interpersonal diagnosis system had already identified the primary dimension as dominant-submissive. In essence, this was also the dimension that Chapple's interaction chronograph measured. Friendly-unfriendly (Positive-negative, or P-N), Couch's second factor, was represented in IPA by the three positive and three negative socioemotional categories, and it corresponds to love-hate in Leary's system. Task-oriented–emotional expressive (forward-backward, or F-B), the controversial distinction from IPA, was a compromise that created one bipolar dimension out of two of Couch's remaining factors. These three dimensions, generally referred to by the code letters shown above, define a three-dimensional conceptual space. Following Leary, Bales and his colleagues then defined the compass points of the space. In this case, definitions were produced for all twenty-six vectors in the three-dimensional space. Thus, a dominant, unfriendly, task-oriented act (UNF) is defined as "authoritarian and controlling," and a submissive, unfriendly, emotional act (DNB) is described as "withdrawn and alienated." This was a creative solution to the dilemma of providing requisite variety while keeping the number of categories reasonable. While there are twenty-six categories, they are organized into three dimensions, so coders can hold the three-dimensional space rather than the twenty-six categories in mind. The twenty-six category descriptions then become a reference to be used when first learning the system and trying to understand where specific behaviors fit.

In addition to the basic level of behavior described above, SYMLOG also provides definitions for the twenty-six vectors on the level of nonverbal behavior. This level is coded when unintentional messages are sent through nonverbal behaviors or when the nonverbal—or paralinguistic—cues are at variance with the overt verbal cues. In developing his descriptions of facial expression and nonverbal cues, Bales drew on the work of the eighteenth-century French Encyclopedists. He found that Diderot and his colleagues had developed a more sophisticated understanding of facial expression and nonverbal nuance than have modern social scientists.

SYMLOG also allows for the coding of verbal content. Theoretically, the two levels of behavior—overt and nonverbal—could be coded without reference to the content of the message. Conversely, the content of messages could be coded from written transcripts without reference to the behaviors of the speakers. The content coding level attends only to evaluative statements. Each statement is first coded PRO (for statements in favor of something) or CON (statements against something). The content of the value statement is then coded in the same three-dimensional space that was used for behavior. Finally, the level of the value statement is recorded. Levels begin with the self and move outward: self, other, group, situation, society, and fantasy.

When the full SYMLOG system is used for coding a conversation, the result is a set of simple sentences written in code. For example, Figure 1 records a brief exchange that took place from 1:23 to 1:24. Joe ordered Bill to stop contradicting him. The behavior was authoritarian (UNF) and the value statement was against negativity in Bill (CON N BIL). Bill responded in a rebellious manner (UNB) and made a value statement against Joe's authoritarianism (CON UNF JOE). Ron intervened in a "purposeful and considerate" manner (UPF) and made a value statement in favor of reducing the level of conflict (PRO DP GRP). If we see contradictions between the overt and nonverbal behavior, we could add lines such as 123 JOE GRP N DN. This would indicate that underneath Joe's authoritarianism is a note of insecurity and nervousness. (The first "N" in the message stands for "nonverbal," the "A" in each of the messages in Figure 1 stands for "act.") Clearly, the system requires fairly extensive training of coders. Most SYMLOG coders went through a fifteen-week course that was run as a self-analytic group. During this time, they alternated between serving as group participants and retreating behind a mirror to serve as coders. While there remain some universities in which such courses are still taught, the use of this method peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Most work being done with SYMLOG at this time uses a parallel system of retrospective rating which requires no special training. This has resulted in time and cost savings, but at the expense of sacrificing the dynamic moment-to-moment process measurement that the original SYMLOG observation system made possible.

SYMLOG adds depth and sophistication to the coding of social interaction but again enlarges the unit of measurement. While IPA is an act-byact coding system, SYMLOG is a "salient-act" coding scheme. Since it takes longer to record a SYMLOG observation, the coder must select the most important acts for recording. Clearly, this results in a loss of reliability as disagreements may result not only from two observers interpreting the same act differently but also from two observers selecting different acts for recording. Because of this, two observers are generally sufficient for IPA, but five or more are recommended for SYMLOG. Alternatively, interaction can be coded from video recordings. By going over the record repeatedly and picking up different acts with each pass, a higher percentage of acts can be picked up by each coder, thus increasing the inter-rater reliability and decreasing the number of coders required. The only problem with this alternative is that SYMLOG does not record intensity. When multiple coders are used, more intense acts are likely to be selected as salient by more coders and will thus be weighted more heavily than the less intense acts that may be picked up by only one or two coders. Using only two coders and allowing them multiple passes in order to pick up a higher percentage of acts eliminates this implicit weighting effect.

The issue of reduced reliability is directly related to the problem of subjectivity. Moreno (1953) was an early critic of IPA; he argued that the observations of nonparticipants were meaningless because they could not possibly comprehend the life of a group to which they did not belong. While his position was extreme, it raised a difficult problem for any system that relies on the observations of outsiders. By standing outside the group, the outsider gains distance and "objectivity." Unfortunately, it is not clear that objectivity has any real meaning when speaking of interpersonal interaction. IPA sidestepped the problem by providing very clear specifications of categories. SYMLOG confronts the problem directly since observers are required to make fairly strong inferences as to the meaning of behavior. The coder is instructed to take the role of the "generalized other," or the "average" group member. When a group is polarized, this may be impossible. Half the group is likely to interpret an act in one way and the other half in a different way. This is another reason for having multiple observers. It is hoped that the various biases of the observers will cancel one another out if five or more people observe. Polley (1979) goes a step further by providing "descriptive reliabilities." Instead of simply reporting a reliability figure, descriptive reliabilities allow for a systematic analysis of observer bias. It is argued that observations tell us as much about the observer as about the observed. This is particularly true when group members are trained to serve as observers, as is the case in the self-analytic groups that are often the subject of SYMLOG observations.

Both IPA and SYMLOG have been repeatedly criticized for their use of a bipolar model of the relationship between "task-oriented" and "emotional" behavior. Two of these critiques have proposed adding a fourth dimension. Hare (1976) went back to Parsons' original Adaptation, Goal Attainment, Integration, Latent Pattern Maintenance (AGIL) system and concluded that the task dimension should be divided into two dimensions: serious versus expressive and conforming versus nonconforming. Wish and colleagues (1976) proposed leaving the task-emotion dimension intact, even though it did not seem to be quite bipolar, and adding a fourth dimension: intensity. Polley (1987) has argued that emotionality is already captured in the friendly-unfriendly dimension and that the third dimension should be reserved for recording conventional versus unconventional behavior. This solution contends that the polarization of task and emotion is an artifact from the 1950s and has largely lost its meaning since then. If work is defined as devoid of emotional satisfaction, then task and emotion are bipolar. As soon as we recognize the possibility of having an emotional reaction—positive or negative—to work, the two dimensions become orthogonal. As Stone points out, the task-emotion polarity "implies that most work involves sublimation of the libido, and demands impulse control. Moreover, it becomes difficult to imagine management's orientation . . . fostering individual creativity as some so-called excellent companies have been able to do" (1988, p. 18). It is becoming increasingly apparent that no "universal" scheme for coding interpersonal interaction exists totally independent of cultural and temporal context.


While Leary's system was intended primarily for psychiatric diagnosis, and IPA was originally designed for the coding of case discussion groups at Harvard Business School, the methods described above represent attempts to develop comprehensive and general coding schemes. In addition to these all-purpose methods, observation systems have been devised for somewhat more specific relationships or channels of communication.

Richard Mann's (1967) sixteen-category system codes only one-way relationships from members to leaders. By narrowly defining the relationships to be observed, Mann was able to provide a much more detailed picture. Coding categories are provided for four types of impulse, four different expressions of affect, three variations of dependency, and five ego states. The additional sophistication is achieved by drastically reducing the number of observed relationships. If we observe a ten-person group using Mann's leader-member relationship scheme, we are looking at nine oneway relationships. If we use one of the all-purpose methods, we are coding forty-five two-way relationships.

The most thoroughly studies channel of communication is probably the nonverbal. While this is a small part of the SYMLOG system, proxemic behavior has been exhaustively categorized by Hall (1963) in terms of posture, orientation of bodies, kinesthetic factors, touch code, visual code, thermal code, olfaction code, and voice loudness. The potential complexity of this mode of communication is further illustrated by the fact that Birdwhistell (1970) developed an equally elaborate system for the coding of movement. While Hall's system codes states, Birdwhistell's codes state-to-state transitions. Each of these coding schemes concentrates on the physical nature of nonverbal behavior. In contrast, Mehrabian's system (1970) attempts to directly record the meaning of the behavior via a three-dimensional model that closely parallels SYMLOG. Again, the difference is in whether meaning is inferred by the observer or deferred to the researcher.

The other channel of communication that has been studied in depth is content. Again, this is a small part of SYMLOG; all content that does not carry a positive or negative evaluation is ignored. In 1977, Philip Stone and his colleagues published The General Inquirer, a computerized content analysis system. While many of the applications involve the coding of written text, it has also been used for the coding of transcribed conversations. In one of the first applications of the method, Dexter Dunphy used The General Inquirer to code descriptions that group members had written of recent sessions. The great advantage of the methods is that it allows the user to define a dictionary. Three of the earliest dictionaries were the Harvard III Psychosocial Dictionary, the Stanford Political Dictionary, and the Need-Achievement Dictionary. It would also be possible to develop a SYMLOG value-level dictionary. In the case of a computerized content analysis system, the dictionary designer infers meaning before the behavior is coded.


Observation systems only flourish when supported by a substantial research group. Because of the expense and the need for multiple coders, it is difficult to use observation systems as an isolated researcher. For three decades (the 1950s through the 1970s) such a group existed at Harvard. Bales and his colleagues had a well-equipped observation room and plenty of graduate student labor available. When Bales retired in 1985, the observation laboratory ceased to function as a research center. For most of the 1980s there were really no major research centers conducting observation work.

In the 1990s Joseph McGrath and his colleagues at the University of Illinois established a major research agenda around McGrath's theory of time, interaction, and performance (TIP) (1991). While much less method-driven than Bales's IPA and SYMLOG research groups, McGrath's group uses an observation method known as "time-by-event-by-member pattern observation" (TEMPO) (Futoran et al. 1989).

TEMPO was designed as a general observation method for the analysis of a wide range of group performance settings. It is divided into two sets of categories. The first codes on four performance functions:

  1. Propose content—solutions, ideas.
  2. Propose process—goals, strategies, acts.
  3. Evaluate content—agreement, disagreement, clarification.
  4. Evaluate process—agree, modify, disagree.

The two "proposal categories" are further classified as: (1) new—a new proposal; (2) prior—previously proposed; or (3) dictate—repeat content for clarification or emphasis. The two evaluation categories are further classified as: (1) agree, (2) clarify or modify, (3) disagree, or (4) reject/veto.

The second set of categories codes seven nonproduction function categories:


Task digression


Personal comments


Interpersonal comments


React to experiment







McGrath's group devised their own methodology rather than relying on IPA or SYMLOG because they were concerned with both process and activity. They felt that the existing systems did not allow for the level of temporal pattern recognition that they were looking for. Their primary criteria for the system were that it: (1) be time-based, (2) identify individual member behavior, (3) recognize multiple acts within a single speech, (4) allow for multiple simultaneous acts and periods of inactivity, and (5) relate act to task products. Virtually all their observation studies are based on the analysis of videotaped records of interacting groups. The TIP theory and the TEMPO method are central to the line of research that McGrath and his colleagues conducted in the 1990s. Small Group Research devoted an special issue to six articles that resulted from a single large research project known as "The JEMCO Workshop Study" (McGrath 1993), but additional work from this research team has resulted in numerous journal articles and books.

Another major research effort that has produced its own observation system is led by Susan Wheelan. The work of Wheelan and her colleagues focused on group development. The Group Development Observation System (GDOS) is based in Wilfred Bion's concept of basic assumption and work groups (1959). It consists of seven categories (Wheelan et al. 1993):

  1. Dependency statement
  2. Counterdependency statement
  3. Fight statement
  4. Flight statement
  5. Pairing statement
  6. Counter-pairing statement
  7. Work statement

Like McGrath's group, Wheelan's group is primarily concerned with temporal patterns in group development. The conceptual underpinnings of the two lines of research are, however, very different. Again, GDOS has resulted in numerous journal articles and books. A special issue of Small Group Research was also devoted to this line of research (Wheelan 1999).

While there have been a number of other observation systems to emerge in the past decade, these two represent extended lines of research. Most of the publications that have used observation systems since 1980 have used either modifications of existing systems or idiosyncratic systems that were used once or twice and so did not generate a comparative body of work.


In 1990, International Journal of Small Group Research and Small Group Behavior merged to form a new international and interdisciplinary journal known as Small Group Research. This journal publishes research on small groups that ranges across sociology, psychology, organizational behavior, social work, group psychotherapy, communications, and management information systems. As the only interdisciplinary journal in the field of small groups, it is a good indicator of the popularity of the observation systems in general and also of specific systems. Table 2 presents the results of an inventory of the past decade of research published in Small Group Research. In addition to tabulating the total number of articles using observation systems each year, it also indicates whether the articles used direct observation, videotapes, or transcriptions and whether they used one of the four most popular general-purpose methods (IPA, SYMLOG, TEMPO, and GDOS) or some other method.

Of the 270 articles published in Small Group Research over the past decade, 41 used observation methods. IPA and SYMLOG are still in use; the other most common methods were TEMPO and GDOS, described above. However, the majority of articles (28) used idiosyncratic observation methods. While many represent real contributions to the literature, the lack of a common method makes comparisons across studies difficult. The other trend that is evident from Table 1 is that relatively few studies (9) used live observation. The remaining studies were almost equally split between the coding of videotapes and the coding of transcriptions. Perhaps the real loss in this shift of methodology is that so many rely on transcripts. One of the strengths of observation methods is that they capture paralinguistic cues; these data are lost to systems that rely on transcriptions.


Observation systems have been used less and less in recent years for a mundane reason: cost. Training observers is time consuming, as is the actual process of observing and coding behavior. At this point, serious research using direct SYMLOG observation is being done at only two or three institutions. In contrast, the much less time-consuming method of SYMLOG retrospective rating (using either the Bales items or the Polley revisions) is currently in use in at least fifty institutions around the world. While there is some indication of a resurgence of interest in direct observation, as evidenced by the studies cited in the preceding sections, it is clear that the method requires a substantial commitment of time and money on the part of the researcher.

While the costs of direct observation are high, it is clear that there are a great many aspects of social behavior that simply cannot be understood without it. Basic research still needs to be done on group development, particularly as it relates to team building in organizations. The effects of various leadership styles and decision-making processes on group functioning are still not thoroughly understood. A wide range of styles is currently

Table 2
 Small Group Research
yearno. of articlesno. using observationsno. using directno. using videotapeno. using transcriptsipasymlogtempogdosother
note: *february through august.
1999*224 13  112
1998315212    5
1997272 11   11
19962621 1    2
1995253111    3
1994272 11    2
19932810352 1414
19922631 2 1  2
1991285 411   4
19903051311 1 3

used by group therapists, but these styles are more often backed by rival schools of thought than empirical evidence.

As with content analysis, the future of observation systems may well lie with computerization. Johansen (1989) coined the term groupware to refer to computer systems for the support of groups or teams. To date, most of the systems have provided little more than an "electronic flipchart" for nominal group technique sessions. With advances in artificial intelligence, more sophisticated examples of groupware have been gradually emerging. Speech-recognition programs for the automatic transcription of meetings could greatly reduce the cost of using content analysis. Programs have been developed for recognizing emotional content in speech. If these were to be combined with voice-activated, some automatic scoring of behavior—at least at the paralinguistic level—should be possible. Until technology substantially reduces the costs, a return to the widespread use of observation systems seems unlikely.


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