The Social Psychology of Groups

By Sabatelli, Ronald M. | Journal of Marriage and Family, August 2000 | Go to article overview

The Social Psychology of Groups


Sabatelli, Ronald M., Journal of Marriage and Family


The Social Psychology of Groups. J. W Thibaut & H. H. Kelley. New York: alley, 1959.

The team of Thibaut and Kelley goes back to 1946 when, after serving in different units of the armed services psychology program, the authors joined the Research Center for Group Dynamics, first at M.LT and then at the University of Michigan. Their continued association eventuated in appointments as fellows at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, 19561957. It is during these years that their collaboration resulted in the publication of The Social Psychology of Groups.

The book was designed to "bring order and coherence to present-day research in interpersonal relations and group functioning." To accomplish this aim, the authors introduced, defined, and illustrated basic concepts in an effort to explain the simplest of social phenomena, the two-person relationship. These basic principles and concepts were then employed to illuminate larger problems and more complex social relationships and to examine the significance of such concepts as roles, norm, power, group cohesiveness, and status. The lasting legacy of this book is derived from the fact that the concepts and principles discussed therein serve as a foundation for one of the dominant conceptual frameworks in the field of family studies today-the social exchange framework.

Specifically, much of our contemporary thinking about the process of interpersonal attraction and about how individuals evaluate their close relationships has been influenced by the theory and concepts introduced in The Social Psychology of Groups. Today, as a result of Thibaut and Kelley, we think of interpersonal attraction as resulting from the unique valence of driving and restraining forces, rewards and costs, subjectively thought to be available from a specific relationship and its competing alternatives. We understand, as well, that relationships are evaluated through complex and subjectively based comparative processes. As a result, when we think about assessing the degree to which individuals are satisfied with their relationships, we take into consideration the fact that individuals differ in terms of the importance they attribute to different aspects of a relationship (e.g., financial security, sexual fulfillment, companionship). We also take into consideration the fact that individuals differ in terms of the levels of rewards and costs that they believe are realistically obtainable and deserved from a relationship.

In addition, as a result of Thibaut and Kelley's theoretical focus on the concept of dependence and the interrelationship between attraction and dependence, there has evolved within the field of family studies a deeper appreciation for the complexities and variability found within relationships. Individuals are dependent on their relationships, according to Thibaut and Kelley, when the outcomes derived from the existing relationship exceed those perceived to be available in competing alternatives. Individuals who are highly dependent on their relationships are less likely to act to end their relationships. This dependence and the stability it engenders may or may not be voluntary, depending on the degree to which individuals are attracted to and satisfied with their relationships. When individuals are both attracted to and dependent on their relationships, they can be thought of as voluntarily participating in their relationship. That is, they are likely to commit themselves to the partner and relationship and actively work for its continuance. Thibaut and Kelley termed those relationships characterized by low levels of satisfaction and high levels of dependence "nonvoluntary relationships. …

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