9/29/2019COM230 – Lesson 2
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Theory in Small Group
Introduction: Connecting Your Learning
What are your theories about life? Theories, in general, help to explain and predict different phenomena. In Lesson 1, you
learned how to define small groups, what it takes to participate in different small group environments, and how to be a
competent communicator in small groups.
Now, in Lesson 2, the fun really begins as you learn about five specific theories in small group communication. By the end of
this lesson, you will be able bridge the gap between participating in small groups and more consciously “making sense” of
small groups to climb to the next level in your study.
Readings, Resources, and Assignments
Lesson 2: Theory in Small Group Communication
Lesson 2 Short Answer (25 points)
Lesson 2 Blog Post: “Theoretical Statement” (25 points)
You are expected to use college-level study and reading skills for all lessons. This includes previewing the chapter, identifying
and defining key vocabulary words, taking notes on key concepts, and organizing and summarizing important information to
help you to understand, learn, and remember this information.
Check Prior Knowledge
Check your prior knowledge of Lesson 2 concepts and key terms by completing the Lesson 2 Concept Check game.
COM230 – Lesson 2
Evaluate if the following statements are true or false.
Current Score: 0 points
RESET ALL QUESTIONS
1. Theories provide explanations of behaviors that allow you to predict the likely consequences
of various actions.
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You can focus your comprehension of the key concepts in this chapter by choosing to use these questions as a guide during or
after your reading. Taking notes or writing out the answers can also increase your learning.
Lesson 2 Flashcards
Click on the notecard to reveal the definition.
The power of a theory to explain things.
Term 1 of 16
Focusing Your Learning
By the end of this lesson, you should be able to:
Explain the usefulness of theory in small group communication
Describe five theories utilized in small group communication
Define potential variables in small group communication
COM230 – Lesson 2
Explain the usefulness of theory in small group communication.
Understanding small group communication theory creates a firm foundation for study and assists in building your awareness
of communication choices. While theories in many disciplines can be hard for some to understand, in a field like
Communication, our theories are important to understand because they directly impact our daily lives. In this respect, they
serve several functions in guiding our communication.
The two primary functions of communication theory are to explain and predict.
In small group communication, the explanatory function showcases how small groups can perform more efficiently, and the
predictive function allows for members to forecast outcomes.
Consider This: Communication Theory & You
Sean De’Bey with Sylfronia King
In elementary school you might have believed in cooties. Or, you might
have believed that if a boy was mean to a girl, he must have liked her,
and vice versa. In Jr. High and High School, finding a date to the
homecoming or prom could be one of the most intimidating things to do.
Now, in college, the dating world has evolved. The ambiguity between
what defines a date and a friendly night out can be frustrating for some
and exciting for others. Regardless, when situations like these appear, it
is easy to seek advice from friends about the situation, ask a parent, or
search the web for answers. Each of these resources will likely provide
theories about functioning in relationships that you can choose to use or
dismiss when clarifying the relationship’s dynamic situation. What are
COM230 – Lesson 2
some theories you’ve heard about how to communicate in crossgendered relationships?
The Functions of Theory:
Organize & Understand
The first function theories serve is that they help us organize and understand our communication experiences. We use
theories to organize a broad range of experiences into smaller categories by paying attention to “common features” of
communication situations (Infante, Rancer & Womack). How many times have you surfed the internet and found articles
or quizzes on relationships and what they mean for different genders? Deborah Tannen, author of You Just Don’t
Understand: Women and Men in Conversations , argues that men and women talk in significantly different ways and for
significantly different reasons. Of course, these differences cannot be applied to all men and women. But, theories on
gender communication help us organize and understand the talk of the different genders in a more simplified context so
we can understand general patterns of communication behavior. This helps us make appropriate decisions in gendered
Choose What to Study
A second function of theories is that they help us choose what communicative behaviors to study. Theories guide where
we choose to look, what we look at, and how we look at communicative phenomenon. In lesson 1, we defined
communication study. Theories focus our attention on certain aspects of that definition. If you find that Tannen’s theories
regarding how men and women talk differ from your own perceptions, or that they’re outdated, you might choose to
more closely study the verbal or non-verbal communication of men and women to see if you can rectify the difference in
theoretical perspectives. You likely already do this on a personal level with your self-concept , which is your theory about
yourself that influences your choices. Googling something as simple as “how to act in a relationship,” will lead you to
hundreds of websites and articles breaking down the dynamics of relationships depending on one’s gender. Likewise, if
you want to persuade someone to do something for you, you probably have a theory about what strategies you can use
to get them to do what you want. Your theory guides how you approach your persuasive attempts, and what you look for
to see if you were successful or not.
A third function of theories is that they help us broaden our understanding of human communication. Scholars who
study communication share theories with one another online, through books, journal articles, and at conferences. The
sharing of theories generates dialogue, which allows us to further refine the theories developed in this field. Tannen’s
book allowed the public to re-think the personal theories they had about the communication of men and women. With
the opportunity to find countless theories through new books, magazines, the Internet, and TV shows, the general public
has the opportunity to find theories that will influence how they understand and communicate in the world. But, are
these theories valid and useful? It’s likely that you discuss your personal theories of communication with others on a
regular basis to get their feedback.
Predict & Control
A fourth function of theories is that they help us predict and control our communication. When we communicate, we try
to predict how our interactions will develop so we can maintain a certain level of control. Imagine being at a party and
you want to talk to someone that you find attractive. You will use some sort of theory about how to talk to others to
approach this situation to make it more successful. As in all situations, the better your theoretical perspectives, the better
chances for success when communicating. While theories do not allow us to predict and control communication with
100% certainty, they do help us function in daily interactions at a more predictable and controlled level. Notice that when
you are successful, or unsuccessful, in your interactions, you use this information to assess and refine your own
A fifth function of theories is that they help us challenge current social and cultural realities by providing new ways of
thinking and living. People sometimes make the mistake of assuming that the ways we communicate are innate rather
than learned. This is not true. In order to challenge the communicative norms we learn, people use critical theories to ask
questions about the status quo of human communication, particularly focusing on how humans use communication to
COM230 – Lesson 2
bring advantage and privilege to particular people or groups. For example, Tannen argues that when men listen to
women express their troubles, they listen with the purpose of wanting to provide a fix or give advice. Tannen argues that
many times, women are not looking for advice or a fix, but rather empathy or sympathy from their male conversational
partners. With this understanding, it’s possible to begin teaching men new strategies for listening in cross-gendered
conversations, which serve to build stronger communication ties. Critical theories challenge our traditional theoretical
understandings, providing alternative communicative behaviors for social change.
Theories help us organize and understand our communication experiences.
Theories can guide us in choosing which behaviors to study.
Theories help us broaden our personal knowledge of human
Theories are tools to help predict and control our communication.
Theories are tools that help us challenge current social and cultural realities
by providing new ways of thinking and living.
Think back to the list of small groups in your life that you made in Lesson 1. Was one of the groups on your list members of
your family? Sometimes overlooked, families function as small groups with high levels of complexity. For instance, families
change as people marry or separate, new members are born, and other members pass away. Families may engage in varying
levels of conflict and utilize a variety of roles and norms. They also may navigate different environments such as physical
locations (like a home) or virtual situations (such as text messaging). In this video, Family Ties…Strengthening the Family Unit ,
meet Raymond and Veronica’s family.
Take a “Blog” Moment:
From this brief introduction and considering what you learned
in Lesson 1 about small group communication, what
theoretical statement could you develop about this family?
Create a draft for this lesson’s blog. Use your observation of this family
to draw a conclusion that could explain or predict a behavior in their
family. Write your conclusion in a concise statement using 1-2 sentences.
Next, write a paragraph describing your observations that lead to your
theoretical statement. The blog should follow this format . Save your draft.
Later in the lesson, you will add more discussion.
COM230 – Lesson 2
Developing Good Theories
Take a moment to compare Newton’s theory of gravity to communication theories. Simply put, Newton theorized that there is a
force that draws objects to the earth. We base our physical behaviors on this theory, regardless of how well we understand its
complexities. For example, if you hold a pen above a desk and let go, you know that it will fall and hit the desk every time you
drop it. In contrast, communication theories change and develop over time (Infante, Rancer & Womack; Kaplan; Kuhn). For
example, you might theorize that smiling at someone should produce a smile back. You speculate that this should happen most
of the time, but it probably would not surprise you if it does not happen every time. Contrast this to gravity. If you dropped a
pen, and it floated, you would likely be very surprised, if not a little bit worried about the state of the world.
If communication theories are not 100% consistent, like theories in the physical sciences, why are they useful? This question
has initiated a great deal of debate among those who study communication. While there is no definitive answer to this
question, there are a number of criteria we use to evaluate the value of communication theories. According to Littlejohn and
Foss, scope, parsimony, heuristic value, openness, appropriateness, and validity are starting places for evaluating whether or
not a theory is good.
Scope refers to how broad or narrow a theory is (Infante, Rancer & Womack; Shaw & Costanzo). Theories that cover
various domains are considered good theories, but if a theory is too broad it may not account for specific instances that
are important for understanding how we communicate. If it is too narrow, we may not be able to understand
communication in general terms. Narrow theories work well if the range of events they cover can be applied to a large
number of situations. It is easier to understand some theories when we are given examples or can see it being played
Parsimony refers to the idea that, all things being equal, the simplest solution takes precedence over a more complicated
one . Thus, a theory is valuable when it is able to explain, in basic terms, complex communicative situations. If the theory
cannot be explained in simple terms it is not demonstrating parsimony.
Heuristic Value means that a theory prompts other theorists to engage in further study and theorizing about a given
problem . The Greeks used the term, heurisko, meaning “I find” to refer to an idea that stimulates additional thinking and
discovery. This is an important criterion that facilitates intellectual growth, development, and problem solving. For most
Communication theories, it would be quite easy to track their development as more people weighed in on the discussion.
Openness is the quality that a theory allows for, and recognizes, multiple options and perspectives . In essence, a good
theory acknowledges that it is “tentative, contextual, and qualified” (Littlejohn & Foss, 30) and is open to refinement. The
openness of a theory should allow a person to examine its multiple options and perspectives in order to personally
determine if the theory holds up or not.
Appropriateness refers to the fit between the underlying theoretical assumptions and the research question . Theories
must be consistent with the assumptions, goals, and data of the research in question. Let’s say you want to understand
the relationship between playing violent video games and actual violence. One of your assumptions about human nature
might be that people are active, rather than passive, agents meaning we don’t just copy what we see in the media. Given
this, examining this issue from a theoretical perspective that suggests people emulate whatever they see in the media
would not be appropriate for explaining phenomenon.
Validity refers to the worth and practical nature of a theory . The question should be asked, “is a theory representative of
reality?” There are three qualities of validity — value, fit, and generalizability. Is a theory valuable for the culture at large?
Does it fit with the relationship between the explanations offered by the theory and the actual data? Finally, is it
generalizable to a population beyond the sample size? In our example of the relationship between violent video games
and actual violence, let’s say we studied 100 boys and 100 girls, ages 12-15, from a small rural area in California. Could
we then generalize or apply our theories to everyone who plays video games?
The above functions of theory and criteria serve as a starting point for generating and evaluating theories. As we move into the
next section on different theoretical perspectives, you will see how some of these criteria work. First, it is important to
remember that the purpose of communication in small groups is to make sense. Communication does not follow a linear
model, rather communication is transactive . Second, whether you are making sense of a situation on your own (intrapersonal),
in a dyad (interpersonal) or in a small group, the words used become powerful tools to reduce uncertainty about the situation
as people move toward their goal(s). Third, the number of people involved in the communication increases the complexity of
the sense-making. Thus, it becomes necessary for all involved to continue to reduce the uncertainty.
Scope – How broad or narrow a theory is.
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Parsimony – All things being equal, the simplest solution takes precedence over more complicated
Heuristic Value – A theory prompts other theorists to engage in further study and theorizing
about a given problem.
Openness – The quality that a theory allows for, and recognizes, multiple options and perspectives.
Appropriateness – The fit between the underlying theoretical assumptions and the research
Validity – The worth and practical nature of a theory.
Just another theory:
Uncertainty Reduction Theory (URT) deals with the ability to predict
others’ behaviors in a conversation to reduce uncertainty. The
uncertainty arises when there are many possible alternatives to explain a
given situation or encounter. The ability to narrow down, or predict,
where the conversation is headed therefore provides for more ease
There are two kinds of uncertainty:
Behavioral Uncertainty is the degree of uncertainty to how people
Example: Not knowing how long to hold the door behind you
based on how far away the next person is.
Cognitive Uncertainty is the degree of uncertainty related to
cognitions and understanding that person as an individual.
Example: Not knowing how much to disclose about yourself if
you are meeting a new person.
In these situations, there is a level of uncertainty about the proper way
to act that might leave the feeling of uneasiness. There are seven
assumptions of URT. These are:
1. People experience uncertainty in interpersonal setting.
2. Uncertainty is stressful.
3. When strangers meet, their primary goal is to reduce
4. Interpersonal communication occurs through stages.
5. Interpersonal communication is the primary means of uncertainty
6. Quantity and nature of info that people share changes through
7. It is possible to predict behavior in a “law like fashion” (West and
Turner, 168). The last assumption is the most controversial in that
it presents a covering law theory, which believes that it can
formulate a law that explains all behavior.
To make sense of small groups, like families, small group communication theory also offers process theories and method
theories . Process theories are used to help explain communication events while method theories can tell you what to do in
COM230 – Lesson 2
specific communication situations such as resolving conflict. Consider your theoretical statement about the family in the video.
For example, you may have theorized that the family regularly goes to church to maintain cohesion. In this statement, going to
church is considered a ritual. In more abstract terms, you could further theorize that rituals provide pathways to
communication. Such a statement could be used to not only explain the ritual, but to prescribe a behavior to aid small group
Describe five theories utilized in small group communication.
In the study of human communication, many theories seek to explain and predict human
interaction. In this course, you will focus on five theories that give you a sampling of different
theoretical ways to approach small group communication.
Systems theory asks you to view small group communication through the lens of a system. The
Systems Theory Paradigm represents a dramatic theoretical shift from empirical laws and human
rules approaches for understanding communication. Systems thinking began in the social and
physical sciences in the 19th century with George Hegel (Kaufmann), and was more fully developed
by biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy in the 20th century. When applied to communication, the
Systems Theory Paradigm seeks to understand the interconnectedness of human communication
rather than looking at just one part. The basic idea behind Systems Theory is, “The whole is greater
than the sum of its parts.”
Consider an automobile. Within the car are a number of parts such as the engine, transmission, fuel
tank, etc. Each part contributes to making the car run. When one part of the car breaks, the whole
car can be affected in various ways. A car is an open system that receives input, processes the
input, and creates an output. Small groups are also open systems. Systems theory works well
because it allows the scholar (that would be you) to account for the components of small group
communication, as well as the different environments that influence the group.
One characteristic of Systems Theory is that systems are teleological (Infante, Rancer & Womack),
meaning that they seek to achieve a particular goal or outcome. The goal of combining the
ingredients of a cake is to produce a cake and facilitate an occasion. The goal of a working
automobile engine is transportation. The goal of having a family is love and support. The goal of a
business is to produce products and profit. Communication researchers examine the interactions of
those that make up systems to understand the systems’ goals, as well as how they attempt to
Another characteristic of systems is they are always trying to achieve homeostasis — the state of equilibrium or balance. Using
the idea of a family, most families attempt to fit in with their neighbors, co-workers, friends, city, country, culture, etc. Systems
are always in a process of trying to achieve a level of homeostasis with their environment. When changes occur in either the
environment or a system, system participants will adapt in order to maintain balance. For example, if you moved away from
your immediate family to attend college your move had an impact on the homeostasis of your family. As a result, everyone in
your family had to adjust in some way to the change brought about by your move in order to create a new sense of
homeostasis. Even though you are still part of the family system, the system changed as a result of your move, and must
respond in order to adapt to the change.
Properties of Systems Theory:
They seek to
COM230 – Lesson 2
Core Tenets of Systems Theory:
Openness: A small group is open to its environment. Small groups are always affected by interactions with circumstances.
Many parts inside and outside of the group are subject to change such as group members and group or organizational
Interdependence: Interdependence is the state of being dependent upon one another; all parts are interrelated and
connected. Some areas of interconnectedness include membership, the goals set before the group, the climate of the
organization, the economy, or even the weather. Therefore, small groups must be studied considering each of these
areas; no individual area can be singled-out because it is dependent on other areas.
Synergy: As the group takes on its own personality through its development, synergy is evident when the whole is greater
than the sum of its parts. The group that is formed becomes more than each individual in the group.
Entropy: Entropy is the deterioration of the group as the group becomes rundown in a trend toward being disordered or
Equifinality: Equifinality is the property of allowing or having the same effect or result from different events. This is to say
that a group may have one goal, however, it could take many different paths to achieve the goal.
Input: Input variables are the items that go into the group like the group members, their supplies, the organizational
climate and the physical environment.
Output: Output variables include what the group delivers, i.e., their outcomes.
Process: Process variables are the ways the group functions to reach its goals, including their procedures and norms.
One area of communication study that utilizes systems theory extensively is the study of Organizational Communication.
Scholars in this specialization are interested in the interaction of people to see how they create what we know as organizations
(Bavelas & Segal; Katz & Kahn). For example, what makes Wal-Mart different than Target? It’s not simply their products or
prices. Instead, these two mega-retail stores have a certain “personality” and way of functioning that is different from the
other. Those who look at communication from a systems perspective believe that it is the interaction of the participants that
makes organizations what they are. The power of looking at communication from a systems perspective is that every
communicative act impacts the system as a whole. When there is a change in one part of a system, it changes the entire system
to some degree.
Social Exchange Theory
Social exchange theory draws on the principles of economics to explain human behavior. In application to small group
communication, relationships are described in terms of rewards, costs, profits, and losses. Social exchange theory posits that
all human relationships are formed using a subjective cost-benefit analysis and the comparison of alternatives. For example,
when a person perceives the costs of relationship as outweighing the perceived benefits, then the theory predicts that the
person will choose to leave the relationship. The notion of equity is also important to Social Exchange Theory. Equity is the
value of the relationship after the costs of the relationship is considered. Overall, Social Exchange theorists can predict the
success of a small group based on these variables.
Rewards − Costs = Profits
Rewards − Costs = Loss
COM230 – Lesson 2
In a small group, the group remains worthwhile if the rewards outweigh the costs to provide a profit.
Symbolic Convergence Theory
Symbolic convergence theory (SCT) is a communication theory developed by Ernest
Bormann where people share common fantasies and these collections of individuals are
transformed into a cohesive group. When you join a small group, you often feel a sense
of belonging with the group that is formed through the group’s identity. The identity is
formed by developing the group’s consciousness through shared communication that
results in fantasy. Fantasy is a technical term for the way the group makes sense of
communication through creatively sharing their interpretation of an event. Such
communication influences aspects of the group including roles and norms.
Symbolic Convergence Theory has three parts:
1. Discovery: The group notes the recurrence of communicative forms and patterns in the group to indicate the presence of
a group consciousness or the collective awareness of the group.
2. Dynamics: Groups describe the tendencies within the communication systems of the group to explain why group
consciousness arises, continues, declines, or disappears that impact the group consciousness in terms of meanings,
motives, and communication within the group.
3. Explanation: The development of hypotheses to explain the “why” people share fantasies.
As the group develops, members share the same awareness relating to emotions, motives, and meanings. Group fantasy often
begins in the telling of a story in which group members share stories in succession. Stories develop into themes for the
conversation that lead the group to develop a sense of shared identity. Therefore, Symbolic convergence creates a symbolic
climate and culture that allow people to achieve empathic communion as well as “a meeting of the minds.” It is symbolic
because it deals with the human tendency to interpret signs, signals, current experience, and human action and to invest these
The power of symbolic convergence theory stems from the human tendency to try to understand events in terms of people
with certain personality traits and motivations making decisions, taking action, and causing things to happen. We can
understand a person making plans to achieve goals and succeeding or failing to do so, because we often interpret our own
behavior in that way in our personal fantasies. We often daydream about achieving our desires and think up plans to achieve
our goals. We tacitly assume that our choices and our plans are motivated, under our control, and that they can make a
difference. Interpreting events in terms of human action allows us to assign responsibility, to praise or blame, to arouse and
propitiate guilt, to hate and to love.
When we share a fantasy, we attribute events to human action and thus make sense out
of what prior to that time may have been a confusing state of affairs, and we do so in
common with others who share the fantasy with us. Thus, we come to symbolic
convergence on the matter and we will envision that part of our world in similar ways.
We have created some symbolic ground and we can then talk with one another about
that shared interpretation with code words or brief allusions along the lines of the
One person might share about a time they started the race too fast. As they continue to
talk, others share about running events, how they train for races, and what works for
them. Before long, Sally’s group understands itself to be a group of runners that enjoys running and racing for the fun of it.
Winning is nice, but it is not the goal of the group. They just run to finish the race. Conversely, another running club might be
just the opposite. Sally’s running club works well and continues because each person feels a sense of belonging and buys into
the identity of the group.
Structuration theory helps you to understand how people behave in small groups by noting rules and systems. Developed by
sociologist Anthony Giddens, Structuration theory is based on creating and sustaining organization from interactions. In doing
so, rules not only guide group members, but also allow them to maintain or change a group. For example, when workers get
together for a meeting, it is standard for the boss, manager, or someone who has to most power to guide the conversation
without any opposition. If the entire group agrees on something, like striking against the boss, the organizational structure may
be altered. Communication is key for these processes to occur.
COM230 – Lesson 2
There are three assumptions to Structuration Theory:
1. Groups and organizations are produced and reproduced through the use of rules
2. Communication rules serve as both the medium for, and an outcome of,
3. Power structures are present in organizations and guide the decision-making
Though the rules we create may restrict our behavior, they also enable us to interact with each other. If our society didn’t have
rules, nobody would have a guideline as to how to behave. Imagine on your first day at a job that you’re simply thrown in
without being told what to do. You need some sort of rules to follow to be able to be efficient and do your job. There are two
types of rules: explicit and implicit. Explicit rules are clearly stated (similar to an instruction manual that comes with a new
piece of furniture) while implicit rules are assumed or learned through experience (raising your hand when you want to speak
Giddens claims that the key to understanding communication that occurs in organizations is to examine the structure of the
foundation. A structure varies from a system: a system is the organization itself and the behaviors that a group engages in to
complete its goals, while a structure refers to the actual rules and resources members use to create and sustain the system.
With that said, the actual concept of structuration can be defined as a “the process by which systems are produced and
reproduced through members’ use of rules and resources” (Poole, Seibold & McPhee, 1996). Structuration allows people to
understand their patterns of the way they behave, which is the foundation of the social system. Rules, whether explicit or
implicit, are typically learned from the organization and are passed on, unless the group decides to change them. The way in
which a group changes a rule is adjusted from one organization to the next. To have a successful group change, a good sense
of communication must be present.
In each communication, a sense of power is established- everyone has power, but some people (like bosses) can have more
power than others. With that said, nobody can have absolute power. Resources can be defined as the attributes or material
goods that can be used to exert power in an organization, and they are important because they establish power between
individuals. Different types of power can be used within an organization, and this power is what establishes communication
and enables understanding.
Within a group, the ability for members to influence one another is extremely important when considering goal
accomplishment; it is the basis of interpersonal communication in Structuration Theory. For this reason, many businesses will
analyze their authoritative resources, or interpersonal assistance used to help groups accomplish their goals. By determining
which workers employ which kinds of authoritative resources, as well as which resources are most effective for certain types of
goal-accomplishment, a business can better structure itself to be more efficient. For example, a teacher in a classroom can
analyze her students’ reactions to her use of different authoritative resources to decide which kinds are best to accomplish
their goals. Also, if she decided to split the class into small groups, each with a task to accomplish, she could make the groups
by deciding which students use which resources and by creating a balance within each group.
Authoritative resources can be broken down into five types of powers:
Reward Power: perception that another person can provide positive outcomes.
Coercive Power: perception that another person can enact punishment.
Referent Power: perception that another person can achieve compliance because of
established personal relationships.
Legitimate Power: perception that another person can exert influence because of a
certain title or position.
Expert Power: perception that another person can exert influence because of special
knowledge or expertise.
We will discuss these power bases in more detail later in the course.
COM230 – Lesson 2
Functional theories are focused on identifying and explaining behaviors that allow a group to achieve its goal. The functional
perspective on group decision making is a communication theory that deals with the decisions made by groups. It was
originated by Randy Hirokawa and Dennis Gouran. It focuses on how a group can increase the likelihood of making a good
decision by advancing three ideas that are key for determining a group’s success.
In general, the group members try to satisfy the task requirements, use communication to overcome constraints in the
problem solving, and take the time needed to review how they arrived at their decision. Specific to this process is analyzing the
problem to create an understanding of the nature of the problem, the seriousness and urgency of the problem, the feasible
origin of the problem and the consequences associated with not solving the problem. Next, they must establish criteria by
which to judge proposed solutions. If they fail to do this, their decisions are more likely to be driven by politics than reason. As
the group considers solutions, Hirokawa and Gouran stress the importance of considering a number of alternative solutions
from which the group members could choose. Hirokawa and Gouran argue that, “If no one calls attention to the need for
generating as many alternatives as is realistically possible, then relatively few may be introduced, and the corresponding
possibility of finding the acceptable answer will be low”(250-251).
After a group has identified alternative solutions, the participants must take care to test the relative merits of each option
against the criteria they believe are important. Some group tasks have a positive bias. They believe that spotting the favorable
characteristics of alternative choices is more important than identifying negative qualities. Other group tasks have a negative
bias. They believe that the unattractive characteristics of choice options carry more weight than the positive attributes.
**It is important to note that Hirokaw and Gouran believe that all four functions serve an important purpose and that no
individual function is better than another. They must all be used to reach a high-quality decision.
The Role of Communication in Functional Theory:
Hirokawa and Gouran outline three types of communication in decision-making groups
1. Proactive – interaction that calls attention to one of the four decision-making functions.
2. Disruptive – interaction that detracts from the group’s ability to achieve the four task functions.
3. Counteractive – interaction that refocuses the group.
Since most interaction is disruptive, the functional perspective relies heavily on counteractive communication to refocus the
Take a “Blog” Moment:
COM230 – Lesson 2
Now that you have
learned about five
significant theories in
communication, revisit your draft
for this lesson’s blog. Add a
paragraph aligning your theoretical
statement with one of these
theories (Systems Theory, Social
Exchange Theory, Symbolic
Convergence Theory, Structuration
Theory, or Functional Theory). In
your discussion explain why the
theory you chose is the best place
to start for the investigation of
your theoretical statement. When
you have completed your draft,
take time to proofread for proper
grammar, spelling and
punctuation. You are now ready to
submit it to the course blog.
Learn how to post to blogs here
Define potential variables in small group communication.
This course highlights seven key variables for study in small group communication. These variables function interdependently
with each affecting the others. Review the graphic below to see potential variables in small group communication.
COM230 – Lesson 2
Human Communication: What people say, how they say it, and to whom they say it
The context in which group communication occurs
Behavior that exerts influence on the group
The degree of attraction that group
members feel toward one another
and toward the group
Expectations of individuals in the group for
themselves and others in a given context
Individual and Group Goals:
Items to be accomplished like a task
or just having a good time
Standards that establish the behaviors that are
permitted or prohibited in the group
This lesson is adapted from several sources as a no cost course for students. The following sources
were used in creating
Assessing Your Learning
Submit your assignments for grading. The following are required for this lesson:
Lesson 2 Short Answer Essay (25 points)
Blog Post (25 points)
As referenced in the lesson, this course utilizes a blogging feature to enhance student learning and participation. Comment on
at least 2 blogs. In your comment, state what you noticed about their discussion and ask a question. You will use these
comments and questions as part of your writing for the lesson 3 short answer assignment. When you have completed the
assigned blog post and posted 2 comments, select the link to notify your instructor that you have completed the Lesson 2 Blog
Post: Theoretical Statement.
Blog Post Grading Rubric
Summarizing Your Learning
COM230 – Lesson 2
In this lesson, you learned more about small group communication theory. It is important to remember that the key functions
of theory are to explain and predict . In small group communication, a number of theories exist. In this course, you will focus on
several specific theories and core variables in small group communication.
Variables in Small Group Communication
Social exchange theory
Symbolic convergence theory
These theories and variables can be used as a foundation to continue your study of small group communication. As you
continue, utilize these concepts to enhance your understanding of communication, problem solving, and decision making.
Each of the following lessons must be completed before you gain access to take the Midterm Exam. If you have any questions,
please contact your instructor.
Lesson 3 Small Group Formation
Lesson 4 Collaboration Preparation
Lesson 5 Relating to Others in Small Groups
Have You Met The Objectives For This Lesson?
Copyright © 2019 Rio Salado College. All Rights Reserved.
Answer all questions.
1. What are the two primary functions of a theory? Using these functions, explain why
theories are useful in small group communication.
2. Systems theory asks you to view small group communication through the lens of a
system. Use at least 3 of the core tenets, with specific examples from a small group
experience in your life, to demonstrate your understanding of Systems Theory. Conclude
by stating how/why this knowledge is useful.
3. Review your work for Blog Post 1 in Lesson1. Considering your post and any comments
you received, is Social Exchange Theory or Symbolic Convergence theory a better fit for
understanding the small groups in your life? Refer to specific statements you made in
your blog or comments you received to explain why you selected this theory.
4. Structuration theory focuses on the use of rules to govern behavior. Describe three rules
in your life that govern your behavior in small groups. How do these rules contribute or
detract from effective group behavior and why?
5. Explain why the variables of small group communication are interdependent. Include at
least three specific examples.
Information you might need
Describe five theories utilized in small group communication.
In the study of human communication, many theories seek to explain and predict human interaction. In
this course, you will focus on five theories that give you a sampling of different theoretical ways to approach
small group communication. Click on each the title of each theory below to learn more. For additional
information, pay close attention to pages 40‒47 in your textbook.
Systems theory asks you to view small group communication through the lens of a system. As stated in your
textbook, a system is a combination of interdependent parts that form a whole (p. 40). Consider an
automobile. Within the car are a number of parts such as the engine, transmission, and fuel tank. Each part
contributes to making the car run. When one part of the car breaks, the whole car can be affected in various
ways. A car is an open system that receives input, processes the input, and creates an output. Small groups
are also open systems. Systems theory works well because it allows the scholar (that would be you) to
account for the components of small group communication, as well as all of the different environments that
influence the group.
Social Exchange Theory
Social exchange theory draws on the principles of economics to explain human behavior. In application to
small group communication, relationships are described in terms of rewards, costs, profits, and losses. For
the person in a small group, the group remains worthwhile as long as the rewards outweigh the costs to
equal a profit. For example, consider Sally below. She is involved in three different small groups. Lately, Sally
feels like her schedule may not permit her to remain in all three groups. In terms of rewards and costs, which
small group do you think she should take a break from?
Symbolic Convergence Theory
When you join a small group, you often feel a sense of belonging with the group that is formed through the
group’s identity. According to the authors of the textbook, symbolic convergence theory explains how
“certain types of communication shape a group’s identity and culture” (p. 43). Such communication
influences aspects of the group including roles and norms. As the group develops, members share the same
awareness relating to emotions, motives, and meanings. The textbook indicates the key to understanding
symbolic convergence theory is the function of fantasy. In this theory, a fantasy is the “creative and
imaginative shared interpretation of events that fulfills a group’s need to make sense of an experience and
anticipate its future” (p. 43). Group fantasy often begins in the telling of a story in which group members
share stories in succession. Stories develop into themes for the conversation that lead the group to develop a
sense of shared identity.
Consider Sally from the example above. In her
running club, members share stories about running experiences. One person might share about a time they
started the race too fast. As they continue to talk, others share about running events, how they train for
races, and what works for them. Before long, Sally’s group understands itself to be a group of runners that
enjoys running and racing for the fun of it. Winning is nice, but it is not the goal of the group. They just run to
finish the race. Conversely, another running club might be just the opposite. Sally’s running club works well
and continues because each person feels a sense of belonging and buys into the identity of the group.
Structuration theory helps you to understand how people behave in small groups by noting rules and
systems. Rules are principles for behavior like raising your hand to signal that you want to speak in a
classroom setting and waiting to be called on. Such rules determine how a group structures itself. Systems as
discussed in systems theory are combinations of interdependent parts that form a whole. In the textbook,
structuration theory suggests, “When we join a new group we use rules we learned in other groups to
structure our behavior” (p. 46). Though you may bring your previously learned rules to the new group, the
group can still create new or different rules to help structure the group. According to Beebe and Masterson,
“Structuration theory helps explain why and how groups develop the rules and behavior patterns they adopt”
Functional theories are focused on identifying and explaining behaviors that allow a group to achieve its goal.
One interesting area in which functional theory has been used is in the political realm. Take some time to
review “Functional Theory and Political Discourse: Televised Debates in Israel and the United States” by
Benoit and Shaefer. It compares televised debates in Israel and the United States. When you read the article,
pay particular attention to the tenets of their functional perspective on page 284, and how context can affect
the ability of some theory to transcend inherent cultural differences on page 292.
In the textbook, the work of scholars Dennis Gouran and Randy Hirokawa is showcased with a three-pronged
functional perspective on how groups engage in effective problem solving and decision making. As you read
in Benoit and Shaefer’s research, consider how Gouran and Hirokawa’s tenets may be affected in different
Define potential variables in small group communication.
This course highlights seven key variables for study in small group communication. These variables function
interdependently with each affecting the others. Review the definitions below to match them with the
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