5 theories supporting group work practice

Group work is a micro level practice of social work and comprises several technicalities which have evolved over a period of time. These techniques are guided by a certain theoretical knowledge base which is inherent to a social group. Some of the theories which guide group work practice are discussed below. 

Psychoanalytic theory

Psychoanalytic theory has an important influence on group work practice. Although psychoanalytic theory focuses mainly on the individual and Freud did not practice Group psychoanalytic but many of his followers  have adapted psychoanalytic theory for working with groups, psychoanalytic theory has also influenced the founders of other practice theories used in groups. These include Eric Bern’s Transactional analysis, Fritz Perls Gestalt therapy and Frank Moreno’s Psychodrama. 

According to psychoanalytic theory group members act out in the group unresolved 

conflicts from early life experiences. In many ways, the group becomes a re-enactment of the family situation.Group members identify with the group leader as the “ego ideal”. Members form transference reactions to the group leader and to each other on the basis of their early life experiences. Thus, the interactions that occur  in the  group is a reflection of members’ personality structures and defense mechanisms. 

The group worker uses a transference reaction to  help the members work through unresolved conflicts by exploring past behaviour patterns and linking these patterns to current behaviours. When interpretation made by the group worker is timed appropriately, members gain insight into their own behaviour. According to psychoanalytic theory, insight is the main ingredient  in modifying and changing behaviour patterns inside and outside the group.

A modern approach to psychoanalytic group treatment has adapted and modified classical psychoanalytic theory to include a greater emphasis on here-and-now experience of group interaction. This is useful in ensuring that members deal with issues of immediate concern to them. From an analysis  of here-and-now behaviour patterns in the group the group worker can help members reconstruct unresolved childhood conflicts. Through direct, mutual interpersonal communications, members build interpersonal skills, adaptive capacities, ego strength,as well as gain insight into their behaviour. The cohesiveness of the group allows members to reveal intimate details about their personal lives and to act out their conflicts in a safe, supportive environment.

Learning theory

Though learning theory focuses more on individual behaviour than group behaviour, it has an important influence on current methods of group work practice.

According to social learning theory , the behaviour of group members can be explained by one of three methods of learning. In the classical approach to learning theory, behaviour becomes associated with a stimulus. For instance, a group member observes the worker giving a negative verbal comment each time a group member interrupts another member while speaking. After several times, when a group member interrupts somebody, the member looks at the worker waiting for a negative comment. 

A second method of learning is called operant conditioning in which behaviour of the members are  governed by the consequences of their actions. For instance, the group worker gives positive feedback each time a member raises his hand to ask  a question while others just ask randomly. After several times, all members raise their hand before asking a question. Positive feedback gets associated with the action of raising hand which reinforces positive behaviour in other members.  

Thus, the group worker can use positive and negative feedback to encourage or discourage a behaviour.

Bandura has developed a third learning paradigm called social learning where an individual learns by observation and through  a complex of positive and negative reinforcement. Therefore, the group worker can encourage desired behaviour through reward and punishment. 

Field theory

Field theory is greatly influenced by the studies done by Kurt Lewin on small groups. According to Kurt Lewin’s theory “a group has a life space, it occupies a position relative to other objects in space, it is oriented towards goals, it locomotes in pursuit of these goals, and it  may encounter barriers in the process of these locomotion.” The unique contribution of field theory is that it views a group as a gestalt, that is, an entity of opposing forces that act to hold members in the group and to move the group  along in its  quest for goal achievement. Groups are constantly changing to cope with their social situation and the behaviour of the group members and the group itself should be seen as a function of the total situation.

Most of the field theorists have focused their studies on cohesion, which they define as the totality of forces acting on individual members to keep them in the group. Studies have shown that cohesion is related to agreement of goals and norms, shared understanding and similar demographic backgrounds of the members as well as to productivity, satisfaction and cooperative interaction patterns.

As one of the principles of field theory suggests that individuals will not change their own  behaviour unless they see their behaviour and their attitudes as others see them, the t-group experience provides participants with extensive feedback about their own behaviour. Members are confronted with the effects of their behaviour on the other group members and on the group’s facilitator. Role plays, simulations, and other experimental program activities are often used to illustrate how group processes develop and how they affect members.

Social exchange theory

Social exchange theory focuses on behaviour of individual group members. This theory suggests that when people interact in groups, each will attempt to behave in a way that will maximize reward and minimize punishment. Group members initiate interactions because these social exchanges provide them with something of value, for instance approval. According to exchange theorists, since ordinarily nothing is gained unless something is given in return, there is an exchange implied in all human relationships.

In this theory, a group behaviour is analysed by observing how individual group members seek rewards by dealing with the sustained social interaction occurring in a group. For an individual in a group, the decision to express a given behaviour is based on a comparison of the rewards and punishments that are expected to be derived from the behaviour. Group members act to increase positive consequences and decrease negative consequences. Social exchange theory also focuses on the way members influence one another during social interactions.

Guided Group Interaction and Positive Peer Culture are two specialised group work methods that derive heavily from principles of social exchange theory. They are frequently used with delinquent adolescents in residential and institutional settings.

System theory

System theory attempts to understand the  group as a system of interacting elements. As per this theory groups are constantly facing changing demands in their quest to attain goals and to maintain stable equilibrium. Groups must mobilize their resources and act to meet changing demands if they are to survive. The likelihood that the group will survive depends on the demands of the environment, the extent to which members identify with group goals, and the degree to which members believe goals are attainable. By overcoming obstacles and successfully handling the functional tasks confronting them, groups strive to remain in a state of equilibrium. The group worker should be concerned about the process and outcome, that is members’ social and emotional needs and the task accomplishments expected from the group.

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