Sociocultural influences in small group research[1]

Muzafer Sherif
University of Oklahoma

All constituents of the individual's environment which are products of human interaction in the distant or recent past, or which are "man-made" (borrowing a phrase from Herskovits) are parts of the sociocultural setting. This setting includes the "man-made" environment consisting of "material culture" (i.e., economic setup, technology, village, city, neighborhood anchorings, etc.) ; of "nonmaterial" culture (i.e., language, sets of norms, norms concerning self-image, image of males and females, groups and their relations, professions, religion, art forms, etc.) ; of social organization of the group or groups to which the individual is related with more or less established modes of reciprocities (i.e., status and role relations).


Sociocultural influences are expressed initially on the stimulus side in relation to single individuals. In time the individual internalizes some of these influences to the extent of his participation in social life. Thus, sociocultural factors, as internalized, take their place in the motivational repertory of the individual in the form of social attitudes. Those attitudes which classify and define his relatedness to his surroundings in so many capacities become constituent parts of his very conception of his self-in short, parts of his ego system.

Not infrequently social psychologists have been prone to restrict the scope of sociocultural influences to the events of immediate interpersonal relations and to immediate situations. They have been prone to point out that whatever influences may be coming into the picture from the material and nonmaterial culture and from social organization will be

( 2) reflected in the interpersonal relations in the immediate situation. It is true that whatever influences may be coming from the past, from the life histories of individuals, whatever influences may be coming from the general sociocultural setting, of which the immediate situation is a part, will contribute to the shaping of interpersonal relations at the given time. For individuals do not abandon at the doorstep whatever part of the culture they have internalized when they interact with one another, and the immediate situation does not cease to be a part of the more general sociocultural setting. This fact, nevertheless, does not absolve us from the necessary task of relating the influences coming from the past to their specific referents, nor does it absolve us from specifying in so many words the relation of the immediate situation to the setting of which it is a part. Otherwise, the social psychologist is displaying lack of concern with certain aspects of the stimulus conditions.

In this connection, an illustration from Malinowski may be instructive. Malinowski describes the complex exchange system of the Argonauts of the Western Pacific called the Kula.[2] The Argonauts themselves "have no knowledge of the total outline of any of their social structure. ... For the integral picture does not exist in his mind; he is in it, and cannot see the whole from the outside."[3]

Of course, if some investigators of small groups were on the spot studying face-to-face relations of these peoples, they would have found patches of the Kula system reflected in the interpersonal relations of small groups chosen for study. But if they were equipped first with the information which the sociologist or anthropologist can give us about the system, interpersonal relations and behavior within any small group will become intelligible and meaningful in terms of their relations to other interdependent parts of the system. If this is necessary in order to study face-to-face relationships 'represented in small group research in a functionally related and meaningful way, to this extent the social psychologist studying small groups has to be a sociologist or anthropologist if he wants to make his psychology social.


Small groups cannot be adequately studied independently of their appropriate sociocultural influences. Sociocultural influences, in turn, cannot be studied independently of the motives or "needs" of the group

( 3) members. Small groups serve a function of satisfying one or more motives of individual members. These may be motives related to food, economic gain, sex, or they may be related to a sense of belongingness, desire for recognition or social climbing, or other internalized social values. There is considerable evidence to show the effects of human motives in group formation and functioning, in bringing about social change, in effecting harmony and tension between groups.[4]

The point to be stressed here is the important implication that motivational factors coming from within the individual and sociocultural factors impinging on the individual at a given time operate interdependently. Therefore, taking sides either as the exponent of motives, needs, and instinct on the one hand or as the exponent of culture on the other is pointless and futile. Neither set of factors determines social behavior single-handedly, unaffected by the other. Nor can the relative contribution of each factor, motivational and cultural, be said to be the same for all cases. The relative contribution of motivational and cultural factors in determining social behavior will vary according to their place in the frame of reference, consisting of the totality of external and internal factors operating at a given time in a functionally interdependent way.[5] This conception gives due weights to motivational and cultural factors, but according to the ways that they participate in the reference frame at the moment. At the same time, it takes cognizance of situational factors rightly stressed by some investigators. By studying variations in the relative contribution of various factors in given instances within such a functional scheme, scientific determination of the lawfulness of such variations will become feasible.


In order to comprehend the nature and problems of small group research as it flourishes today, we must turn briefly to its background. Theoretically and empirically, sociological studies have historical priority in showing systematic concern with the topic of small groups, as we learn from Faris' recent survey and evaluation of the small group research movement.[6] For example, in his Social Organization, Charles H. Cooley introduced and elaborated his concept of primary groups, which

( 4) is close to our present concept of small groups. He defined the concept as follows : "By primary groups I mean those characterized by intimate face-to-face association and cooperation. They are primary in several senses, but chiefly in that they are fundamental in forming the social nature and ideals of the individual."[7]

As a definite empirical research movement, small group studies flourished in the twenties and thirties. The most impressive list of these came from University of Chicago sociologists under the initial inspiration especially of Robert E. Park. Thrasher's Gang, Anderson's Hobo, Clifford Shaw's Jack Roller, Zorbaugh's Gold Coast and the Slum are among the earlier works in this impressive series.

Psychologists' contributions to the mounting list are well represented in a large number of sociometric studies stemming from the work of Moreno and in studies by the Research Center for Group Dynamics initially under the direction of Kurt Lewin. Another impressive list of studies,' especially in the area of industrial relations, comes from Elton Mayo and his associates at the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration and the Chicago group studying human relations in industry. Studies along these lines have proliferated, especially in various institutions of technology, so that they are far too numerous to mention here.

Nowadays literally scores of studies are being conducted on various phases of the topic, such as productivity, leadership, morale, group cohesion, topics related to communication, etc. It cannot be said that this sudden boom in small group research is mainly due to the methodological advantages the study of the small group affords. The overwhelming impetus for this rapid development comes from the practical concerns of interested bodies and agencies outside institutions of learning.

Such impact of various agencies in fostering important developments in small group research poses a serious question to the research scholar in this area. These agencies, with their practical preoccupations, are naturally interested in more immediate solutions to their pressing problems. Is the role of the research scholar in group relations merely that of a technician? This issue was raised in editorial comment in two recent issues of the journal Human Organization under the title "ResearchBusiness or Scholarship?"[8] It leads to another related query which we raise without implying any dichotomy between so-called "pure" and

( 5) applied research : Are the problems formulated by research men in response to immediate practical questions those problems which would be raised `with long-range concern over an adequate conceptualization of group relations?


If one of the objectives of concentration on small group research is attainment of some well-verified generalizations which can be applied to any group, at least in their essentials, serious consideration should be given to the kind of groups on which small group research is to be concentrated. The term small group is coming to mean all things to all people. It may mean simply small numbers of individuals. If this were the criterion, any small number of individuals in a togetherness situation would be considered a small group.

For example, one line of study flourishing at present is to take a small number of individuals, assign them a specific task with a specific goal in relation to the assigned task. In such cases the task is specific, and the interaction process of the small number of individuals in question is transitory, that is, confined to the duration of the assigned task. When the unit of interaction is merely in terms of a task unit in time and performance, the rise of leadership will be largely a function of the task at hand.

Of course, all data obtained from the various lines of research using a small number of individuals will add to our knowledge. But in extending the implications of findings obtained, we may be saved disappointment from the point of view of their validity if the particular nature of the small number studied is carefully specified, and if a special point is made of finding whether it embodies the main features of groups that form and function in natural settings.

With this aim in mind, one of our first tasks becomes that of extracting some minimum essential features of actual small groups. If we succeed in extracting these essential characteristics of actual small groups, the problems and hypotheses formulated are likely to have relevance and validity for the subject matter in which we are interested. If hypotheses are extracted from the actual run-of-things, they are likely to be testable ones. With this approach, we will not be in the position of justifying our hypotheses and concepts with some such statement as, "A small group is what the research man is studying and the concepts used are defined by the operations performed." We have seen some cases in which public opinion did not turn out to be what the pollsters were presumably

( 6) measuring. In the present amorphous state of our understanding of the dynamics of group functioning, it may pay us in the long run if we counterbalance our concern over formal aspects of our procedures with just a little more concern for the content of the subject matter.

Anyone who surveys findings on informally or spontaneously formed small groups cannot help noticing certain essential features common to them all. On the basis of a survey of informally formed groups, the following features seem to appear time and again

1. As noted earlier, one or more motives are common for all members of the group. Further, whatever common motive(s) might have been initially conducive to interaction among individual members, once a group structure starts to take shape, concerns for belongingness, improvement of status, and the like are generated, accompanied by new expectations and goals. Henceforth, other previously existing motives of the individual member function as affected and as modified by these emergent motives generated as a function of group membership.

2. All of these small groups have a structure of their own which is more or less lasting. One testable index of group structure is the feasibility of placement of individual members in hierarchical arrangement along one or more dimensions-in short, in terms of some sort of established reciprocities. Status is such a dimension; popularity is another. Of course, the group structure is not immutable. It fluctuates with important changes in group activities and goals. However, groups tend to specialize in certain lines of activities. Hence, stabilization of leadership does not take place on the basis of unrelated tasks which are unimportant in the scheme of things of the group.

3. Another property of such informally organized small groups is a set of norms which is standardized, at least concerning matters with which the group is preoccupied. This set of norms is not a momentary affair. Although norms are not static, they do not change merely with the whims of individual members, not even of the leader.

Certain points stand out from the above considerations if research concentration on small groups aims at generalizations relevant to the formation and functioning of actual groups. The hierarchical group structure and set of norms which are more or less lasting in the life history of any group should be included in our definition of the concept of small groups. For actual groups are not just transitory structures. The inclusion of these points in our conception of groups should lead to studying the interaction process of individuals, not in one situation, but in various situations which embody common goals over a time span. Observing the interaction process longitudinally over an appropriate time

( 7) span will make possible the step-by-step study of the process of group formation, the stabilization of group structure and of social norms, with all the attendant consequences in terms of expectations in day-to-day dealings of individual members.


Methodologically, this orientation means immersing ourselves first in the wealth of literature on small groups accumulated during the last several decades by sociologists, anthropologists, and other social scientists. Such surveys are worth our time in spite of the fact that many of the studies may not be stated in clear-cut concepts, they may have serious defects in the collection of data, and they may reach unwarranted generalizations. If our survey will enable us to note certain recurrences in group processes, then problems formulated and hypotheses stated are likely to have greater relevance to the actualities with which we are concerned.

Group processes reported by sociologists, anthropologists, and historians cannot be altogether different from those with which psychologists are concerned. In fact, findings obtained by the use of given units at one level of analysis can serve as one of the most useful checks for validity of findings on the same topic obtained by units at another level of analysis.

I can illustrate the usefulness of this approach best from work with which I am more familiar. The problem of the study dealing with the rise of group norms in an unstructured, ambiguous, ill-defined situation was suggested especially through reading Thrasher's book on gangs, Durkheim's Elementary Forms of Religion, and literature on the rise of slogans.[9] The autokinetic effect was utilized for this purpose because it affords one experimental laboratory situation which is unstructured, vague, or fluid within limits.

Another illustration is the more recent experimental study of status relations in informal groups carried out at the University of Oklahoma.[10] The problem of this study, which ascertained the expectations of the highstatus, middle-status, and low-status members of small groups in terms of judgmental indices, was directly suggested by the studies of Clifford Shaw, William F. Whyte, and others who reported extensively the effects of established reciprocities or roles on the expectations of relative

( 8) excellence of group members in various activities. Especially suggestive was Whyte's finding that expectations for performance in a given activity within the group, in this case bowling, were stabilized in line with relative statuses of group members, in spite of the fact that some low-status members exhibited high skill in the task when they played against individuals outside their own group.[11]


In rounding out this discussion with the point with which it started, we will consider briefly a crucial point which is taken too much for granted and hence its implications are glossed over on the whole. This crucial point is that small groups are not self-contained, closed systems, especially in the highly industrialized and highly differentiated societies of today.

Without a historic perspective, it is almost impossible to comprehend why the particular claims of two contending groups on a controversial issue are what they are today. We often take too much for granted, the so many hours that make a day's work, the pay rates of so many cents an hour, and increased rates beyond the regular work period. Concepts of what constitutes a day's work, the pay rates that loom in bargaining and disputes are in terms of more or less established reference scales that prevail for each of the contending parties on these issues at the time. And these reference scales are products of developments in previous disputes, bargains, and agreements. In dealing with small groups, we shall gain in perspective if the reference scales that prevail therein for standards, rates, and goals in various phases of activities are consistently introduced in the context of the general setting of which they are a part, and if existing reference scales are related at least to their immediate antecedents.

Prevailing reference scales are not fixed entities. Changed relationships between the groups in question bring fluctuations in the general process of norm formation within the group, i.e., changes in its reference scale.

One of the important factors coming from the sociocultural setting which at times produces profound changes in the reference scales and interpersonal relations within small groups is the impact of changing technology. Studies reported by Kolb and Brunner,[12] Lang,[13] and others

(9) give impressive examples of changed attitudes within the family structure with changed technology. More recent studies, stich as those by W. F. Cottrell of an isolated desert town which faced "death by dieselization" and Sayles on technological change and union participation, show changing group relations and in-group formation with technological innovations.[14] Our study of five Turkish villages shows how differential contact with modern technology brings about different standardization's for the perception and judgment of time and space localization and standards of wealth for different groups.[15] Pulling together all such differential standardizations of various groups tinder a generalized theory of reference scales may prove to be one of the major developments in social psychology.

Finally, I will mention briefly some further implications of the fact that in modern life small groups are not self-contained, closed systems and that an individual is a member or participant in some capacity in various groups at the same time. Besides being a member of a family, an individual in contemporary societies is usually a member of a professional group or work group, a chamber of commerce or union, a church in some neighborhood, a club, friendship groups of various sorts, and so on. No amount of concentration on the interaction processes within a single group will give us a completed and true picture of behavior of individual members, even within the confines of the particular group in question. Because of the existence of various groups to which the individual relates himself in various degrees and capacities, analysis of social behavior, not merely in terns of externally observed membership in a single group, but in terms of reference groups is proving to be highly effective. In actual research practice, this means first ascertaining the -relative significance of the relatedness the individual perceives in relation to various groups to which he belongs or aspires to belong. Once this is ascertained, it will be much easier to find out, even to predict, the behavior of group members as they interact within various groups. It will be easier to understand the member's compliance with group pressures, either with inner acceptance or without inner acceptance. Compliance with group demands or norms need not always imply inner acceptance, as Festinger recently pointed out.[16]

( 10)

Such an approach will enable us to handle cases of those individuals who, without being actual members of a given group by external criteria, try to regulate their tastes, strivings for belongingness, and status in relation to some other group higher in the social organization.

It is not an infrequent occurrence nowadays that individuals participating in discussions in the same room around a table may be perceiving the situation, and hence directing their utterances, not so much in terms of the professed objective at hand, as in terms of factors that lie outside the immediate situation. These outside influences may be the individual's reference group, or a source of authority to which the participant is related in some capacity. In analyzing such cases, we have no choice but to bring in these out-of-the-immediate-situation influences.

In addition to whatever immediate practical concern the study of small groups may involve and in addition to whatever contribution it may make to the specific topic at hand, if the study of small groups has the objective of attaining generalizations concerning the functioning of actual groups as they exist, a small group cannot be studied as a self-contained, closed system. It has to be studied with specific reference to the material and nonmaterial culture of which it is a part and in relation to other groups which affect the experience and behavior of the individual member.


  1. The main points of this paper were delivered at a symposium entitled "Sociological and Anthropological Perspective in Small Group Research" at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Cleveland, Ohio, September 1953.
  2. B. Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (London: Routledge, 1922).
  3. Ibid., p. 83.
  4. See, for example, M. Sherif, An Outline of Social Psychology (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1948), Chaps. 4 and 16.
  5. M. and C. Sherif, Groups in Harmony and Tension (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1953), Chaps. 6 and 8.
  6. R. E. L. Faris, "Development of the Small Group Research Movement," Chap. 7, in Group Relations at the Crossroads (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1953). Edited by M. Sherif and M. O. Wilson.
  7. Charles H. Cooley, Social Organization (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1909), p. 23.
  8. Human Organization, Vol. 11, Nos. 3 and 4, 1952.
  9. M. Sherif, "A Study of Some Social Factors in Perception," Archives of Psychology, No. 187, 1935; The Psychology of Social Norms (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1936).
  10. O. J. Harvey, "An Experimental Approach to the Study of Status Relations in Informal Groups," American Sociological Review, 18: 357-67, 1953.
  11. W. F. Whyte, Street Corner Society (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1943).
  12. J. H. Kolb and E. de S. Brunet, A Study of Rural Society, Its Organization and Change (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1935).
  13. O. Lang, Chinese Family and Society (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1946).
  14. W. F. Cottrell, "Death by Dieselization: A Case Study in the Reaction to Technological Change," American Sociological Review, 10:356-65, 1951; L. R. Sayles, "A Case Study of Union Participation and Technological Change," Human Organization, 11:5-15, 1952.
  15. M. Sherif, "The Effects of Technology," Chap. 15, An Outline of Social Psychology (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1948).
  16. L. Festinger, "An Analysis of Compliant Behavior," Chap. 10, Group Relations at the Crossroads (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1953). Edited by M. Sherif and M. O. Wilson.

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