This article focuses on group size. Group size affects a group's consensus, effort, performance, idea production, cooperation, identity, problem solving, and stability. Understanding the role that group size plays in social life is vital background for all those interested in the sociology of groups and organizations as well as the structural determinants of social action. Studies of the connections between group size and social actions are part of larger bodies of sociological research including group studies and collective behavior research. This article explores the sociology of group size in four parts: an overview of the basic principles of group studies; a description of Georg Simmel's studies of group size including small groups, large groups, dyads, and triads; an explanation of the history of group studies and collective behavior research; and a discussion of the ways in which sociologists apply the principles of group size to understand the quantitative nature of social action.
Keywords Collective Behavior; Collectivity; Deindividuation Theory; Dyad; Free-Rider Theory; Group; Ringelmann Effect; Simmel, Georg; Social Life; Society; Sociology; Triad
Social Interaction in Groups
Group size affects a group's consensus, effort, performance, idea production, cooperation, identity, problem solving, and stability. An understanding of the role that group size plays in social life is vital for all those interested in the sociology of groups and organizations and the structural determinants of social action. Studies of the connections between group size and group action are part of larger bodies of sociological research like group studies and collective behavior research. This article explores the sociology of group size in four parts:
- An overview of the basic principles of group studies;
- A description of Georg Simmel's studies of group size including small groups, large groups, dyads, and triads;
- An explanation of the history of group studies and collective behavior research;
- and a discussion of the ways in which sociologists apply the principles of group size to understand the quantitative nature of social action.
The Basic Principles of Group Studies
Group research tends to be divided into three kinds of studies: group composition, group structure and group process (McGrath, 1978).
- Group Composition: Research on group character and composition focuses on group size and member characteristics. All group members bring qualities and characteristics to the group, and these qualities and characteristics influence the group as a whole. Examples of personal characteristics which can affect the group include biographical characteristics such as age, race, sex, and class; personality characteristics; and the members' abilities, attitudes, social positions, and roles within the group. Research has shown that there is no generalizable prescription for forming an effective group based on member characteristics.
- Group Structure: Research on group structure and relations between individuals tends to focus on communication networks and friendship networks. Studies of communication networks were popular in the 1940s and 1950s. In particular, the success of centralized and decentralized communication channels is of great interest to small group researchers. Centralized networks have been found to produce faster and more accurate communication. Small group researchers study friendship networks to understand the interpersonal nature of relations in groups. Researchers have found that group cohesiveness is higher in friendship networks than non-friendship networks. Small group researchers also study power and influence relations in groups. They have found at least five bases of power in group relations: legitimate, referent, reward, coercive, and expert. Studies of power relations in groups provide insight into issues of leadership, conformity, group norms, and interpersonal conflict.
- Group Process: Research on group process and member behavior produces data useful for predicting group actions. Small group researchers study the interaction processes in groups to understand how groups function. All member characteristics and behaviors are found to be mediated and interpreted through the group interaction process. Group processes are challenged by socio-emotional and group maintenance problems.
Georg Simmel's Studies of Group Size: Small Groups, Large Groups, Dyads,
Georg Simmel (1858–1918), a German sociologist, was the first sociologist to study the connections between group size and group actions, as well as the effect of group size on social life (Hare, 1952). Simmel's essay "Quantitative Aspects of the Group" had a strong influence on the development of the group studies field. Simmel was one of the first to recognize that the number of participants in a group affects the group's success, quality, and experience. He saw a connection between quantitative relationships, group processes and structural relationships. Simmel's work on group size exemplifies his intellectual standpoint on the structural determinants of social action (Coser, 1977). Simmel was also concerned with social structure and sociability. He researched and wrote extensively on culture, social structure, economics, and the city. His ability to understand and analyze individual action within the context of social structures made his work of interest throughout the 19th and 20th centuries (Nooteboom, 2006).
Over the course of his life, Simmel was concerned with the significance of numbers upon social life. Simmel studied group relations as part of a larger effort to understand broad social trends. He believed that group size was directly related to specific manifestations and experiences of social life. Simmel found that the larger the group size, the higher the level of structural differentiation in the group. Structural differentiation refers to the specialized organs created by the group to promote and maintain its interests (Levine, 1972). Simmel proved that there are crucial differences between small groups and larger ones. Simmel's work on the differences between small groups (characterized by intense member involvement) and large groups (characterized by member distance, aloofness, and segmentation) is representative of his position on the connections between individual freedoms and group structures (Coser, 1977).
Small groups are marked by the number of opportunities they give their members to interact with one another. They tend to have greater member involvement and frequency of member contact (Coser, 1977). Simmel found that socialism, religious sects, and aristocracies were most successful as small groups. Each of these groups has an absolute size limit which, when met, limits the success of the group. Socialism succeeds best in small, homogeneous groups in which individual members can see how socialism benefits all the group members. Likewise, small group religious sects succeed when they identify themselves as special and apart from the population at large and in opposition to larger groups. Aristocracies also succeed best when they are small and contained. Large or fast-growing aristocracies have difficulty maintaining their authority and mission. Successful political aristocracies, too, require members to know one another (Levine, 1972).
In contrast to small groups, large groups are characterized by formal arrangements which mediate relationships. By necessity, large groups develop special organs and offices to direct member interactions. Large groups also delegate tasks and engage in the active differentiation of status positions and roles. They are structurally differentiated and tend to prioritize the group over the individual.
In addition, large groups tend to have weaker member involvement and participation. Because they do not require members' whole selves to be involved in the mission and operations of the group, they require less energy, commitment, and initiative from their members. Furthermore, the distance between the members of larger groups frees individuals from the scrutiny and control common in smaller groups (Coser, 1977). Simmel found that large groups tend to form into masses that are guided by simple ideas. When group members are in close proximity to one another, the mass is capable of being politically, socially, and religiously zealous.
Simmel also studied the connections between group size, radicalism, and cohesiveness. He concluded that small groups are more radical than large groups and tend to display more solidarity. A large group, on the other hand, is more likely to manipulate its messages and positions in order to appeal to a heterogeneous constituency and maintain a wide range of supporters (Levine, 1972).
The Isolated Individual, the Dyad,
Simmel also developed influential theories about the isolated individual, the dyad, and the triad.
The Isolated Individual
The isolated individual, Simmel believed, lives in a state of distance from imagined or abstract society. He or she relates to society by choosing distance and freedom over interaction. Some people define their lives through isolation, autonomy, and freedom from social demands and ties. Isolated individuals may experience only periodic isolation or isolation as status quo.
The dyad, or a group of two people, is the simplest group form that may exist between individuals, according to Simmel. He considered it to be distinct from other forms of social association or interaction....
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