Copyright © 2000 by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
The Study of Groups: Past, Present, and Future
Joseph E. McGrath
Department of Psychology University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign
Department of Psychology University of Oregon
Jennifer L. Berdahl
Haas School of Business University of California,Berkeley A century of research on small groups has yielded bountiful findings about many specific features and processes in groups. Much of that work, in line with a positivist epistemology that emphasizes control and precision and favors the laboratory experiment over other data collection strategies, has also tended to treat groups as though they were simple, isolated, static entities. Recentresearch trends that treat groups as complex, adaptive, dynamic systems open up new approaches to studying groups. In line with those trends, a theory of groups as complex systems is offered and some methodological and conceptual issues raised by this theory are identified. A 3-pronged research strategy based on theory development, computational modeling, and empirical research that holds promisefor illuminating the dynamic processes underlying the emergence of complexity and the ongoing balance of continuity and change in groups is proposed. As the 20th century ends and the 21st begins, we look back on a century of research on groups, take stock of where the accumulated work of the century has brought us, and look ahead to a possible future for the study of small groups. It is time toreorient our thinking about small groups to make it fundamentally dynamic, to refocus group research on the group as a distinct level of analysis in interaction with other levels, and to take time and history in groups seriously. To reground the study of groups in the reality of group life as it occurs in the world, we must acknowledge and study groups as embedded not only within a hierarchy oflevels, from the individual to the interpersonal to the embedding contexts of organizations, networks, and institutions, but also within the passage of time. We view groups as bounded, structured entities that emerge from the purposive, interdependent actions of individuals. Groups bring together individuals who carry their pasts with them, and groups create
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their own history, guided by members’ sense of the future, as they operate in time. This is not, however, the conception of groups that has guided most research in the past century. It is also not the conception that one would deduce by reviewingmost current published studies in social psychology that purport to study groups. Social psychologists have learned much about phenomena relevant to groups, and also quite a bit about groups, in the past century. However, conceptual and methodological traditions, which in the past have supported advances in our knowledge about groups, have now begun to constrain progress in small-group research.This article adds voice to a persistent chorus of doubts about the current state of small-group research, identifies specific shortcomings grounded in the past that impede advances in the field, and outlines an approach toward setting group research on what is viewed as a more promising path. To this end, we outline our theory of groups as complex adaptive systems, discuss some of the conceptual andmethodological challenges this approach entails, and note some ways of tackling these challenges using new approaches, such as computational 95
MCGRATH, ARROW, & BERDAHL
modeling, established but seldom used research strategies (e.g., experimental simulation), and new approaches within the prototypical research strategy of laboratory experiments. First, however, we discuss in more detail...