In search of the tipping point: Why groups matter


Of groups, and tipping points (photo credit Library of Congress)

I teach one non-policy course. It’s a human behavior class that I agreed to teach only because it focuses on groups, organizations, and communities, which are much more my areas of expertise than human behavior at the individual or family levels. I actually enjoyed the hundreds of hours of readings I did about systems theory and different schools of thought about how people work together (or not) and how those patterns of interactions shape outcomes in these collectives.

I’ve been thinking more about this idea of the role that groups, and group formation, play in social change, both because I can’t think of any single example where a significant, positive social change resulted solely from the actions of an individual (or even a family), and because humans naturally group together, so understanding how to harness the power of these collections for good is a fundamental piece of community organizing.

In The Tipping Point, Gladwell provides several examples of how people respond to new ideas, challenges, and threats differently within a supportive group context, and how building the right kind of group can impact how ideas take hold and, ultimately, plant the seeds of social change.

I’ve seen this in my own organizing work, vividly. People who would never march down the center of the street, or demand action from a member of Congress, will do so with the support of a strong group of peers.

And, in Cognitive Surplus, Shirky picks up on another aspect of groups–essentially, their potential to generate momentum for change but also their risk of falling into a pattern of meeting individuals’ needs while failing to affect their environments. In my class, we call this the tension between maintenance/affective and productive/generative functions.

I’ve seen this, too: Boards of Directors that amble aimlessly into their meetings every month, groups that expend unbelievable energy organizing the same tired events every year without result, and groups that descend into chaos and infighting.

Both authors illustrate the high stakes involved in getting this right, in creating the former outcome rather than the latter. Shirky sees creating groups that can challenge their members to higher purposes as critical in the quest to put our cognitive surplus to good use, while Gladwell focuses somewhat more on those affective functions, citing the creation of a strong support cushion as key to rooting a significant new idea in an individual’s consciousness.

And both reflect on the unique properties of groups, which are simultaneously collections of individuals and entities in their own right, a dynamic we discuss in class as part of the reason why I think social workers naturally make great community organizers: bringing together any group of people requires the ability to work with people as, well, people.

We know in community organizing, though, and I teach in class, that not every grouping of people really becomes a group. The best groups are often built intentionally, or at least consciously fostered. The size of the group matters, too–too big, and people can’t build meaningful relationships, but, too small, and they won’t be exposed to a diverse set of ideas. And groups that will result in social change need to also be connected to other groups, both so that they can diffuse the values/behaviors/attitudes (or issues/campaigns/causes) you want to spread, and so that they resist the temptation to fall into an unproductive echo chamber of sorts.

I’m sure that you’ve been a part of many groups, some which were powerful vehicles for social change, and some which failed to get off the ground, or even actively impeded progress. From your social worker’s perspective on human behavior and group dynamics, what can community organizers and social justice activists do to create groups that will serve our common interests, and to intervene in groups gone awry? How can we use groups in our own macro practice, and what kinds of groups must we create in order to sustain ourselves in our quest for a better tomorrow?

4 responses to “In search of the tipping point: Why groups matter

  1. Eloquent articulation of the importance of groups. I’m concerned that fewer and fewer social workers are really acquiring the skills of working with groups–in micro and macro practice. Your post makes a wonderful case for why groups are the building blocks for social (and I would add organizational) change.

    • Thanks so much for your comment! In class yesterday, one of my students volunteered that what he most wanted to learn this semester was “how to build groups that can help individuals and improve our society.” I joked that he got an A automatically! What do you think would help to communicate skills and content on groups to social workers–where are the gaps? In clinical courses? In organizing/advocacy practice courses? Both?

  2. I think the gaps are in both places, and in field. It seems that more and more I come across social work professionals who don’t really understand group work. People may understand group dynamics to some degree, but they tend to be weak on the actual intervention part. So, if student don’t have a chance to practice this stuff with good supervision I don’t think they really learn it. When I used to teach our interventions with groups course (which was micro and macro focused) we did lots of role plays. I think that helps. But I am increasingly surprised at the lack of group work skills in micro and macro practice. One only has to look at the number of ineffectively run meetings in human services organizations to see how poor people’s skills are.

    • So true! Our organizations are littered with examples of missed opportunities for effective group work (as are, unfortunately, some of our efforts at social movement building!). Thank you again for reading and sharing your experiences. –melinda

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