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Sociology’s group processes perspective is characterized by theoretical development and basic research on fundamental social processes that occur in group contexts. Work in the group processes tradition dates to scholars who were interested in the interactions of individuals in small groups. As the perspective has developed, its focus has largely evolved to an interest in the processes that occur in group contexts rather than in groups themselves.
A focus on group processes, of course, implies an interest in two things – groups and processes. As the group processes perspective has developed, the focus of the area has shifted to a greater interest in processes than in the groups in which the processes occur. In large part because of the perspective’s roots in the classification of behavior in small groups, however, sociologists not in the group processes perspective will frequently treat studying ”small groups” and studying ”group processes” as interchangeable.
What interests those in the group processes perspective is how various social processes operate in groups. The groups in which the processes operate need not be small. Two of the processes that dominate work in the perspective are power and status. These processes occur in groups both large and small, and they provide examples of the perspective’s major focus on processes that occur in groups rather than on the groups in which processes occur.
Power, in simple terms, is the ability to control resources that people value. Your boss, for example, has the ability to fire you from your job. If you value your job, this ability gives your boss power. Early treatments of power generally focused on the characteristics of powerful people that made them powerful. This research was limited by the fact that almost anyone put in the right position can be powerful. In other words, nothing about your boss herself gives her power over you. Your boss’s power comes not from individual traits but instead from a position in a structure. Group processes scholars focus their efforts on discovering the conditions of groups rather than of people that give rise to power differences. Note that the groups in which these conditions arise need not be small. The president of a university, for example, has power (the ability to control resources) over a group (the university’s employees and students) because of her structural position.
Status is a position in a group based on esteem or respect. Perhaps the most well-developed group processes theory is a theory of status named status characteristics theory (Berger et al. 1977). Status, like power, is relative; in other words, people do not have status or power in and of themselves, but instead only in relation to other people. It is meaningless to say that medical doctors are high in status, for example, except in the context of other, lower-status occupations.
Status characteristics theory specifies the processes that lead some people to have more status in groups than others. According to the theory, status orders in groups develop out of the characteristics held by group members. Examples of status characteristics include gender, age, appearance, race, and education. Status characteristics theory proposes that individuals act as though they develop performance expectations consistent with larger cultural beliefs about the characteristics held by themselves and other group members. Members with characteristics accorded higher expectations have higher-status positions in the group and are likely to be evaluated more highly than others and to have more influence.
- Bales, R. F. (1950) Interaction Process Analysis: A Method for the Study of Small Groups. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA.
- Berger, J., Hamit Fisek, M., Norman, R. Z., & Zelditch, M., Jr. (1977) Status Characteristics and Social Interaction: An Expectation States Approach. Elsevier, New York.