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Groups may be defined in many ways, indeed providing an absolute definition of a group, as with much of the theory around group work, is highly problematic and contestable. However for the purposes of discussing groupwork within a context of working with young people we may define a group as a small gathering of young people. Group work may simplistically be described as the study and application of the processes and outcomes experienced when a small group comes together.
Konopka (1963) defines groupwork as a method of social work that is utilised in order to `help individuals to enhance their social functioning through purposeful group experiences, and to cope more effectively with their personal, group or community problems`. This definition shows a tradition within groupwork of helping individuals with problems. Brown provides a modernised and more comprehensive definition of group work (1994, p.8). He states that `groupwork provides a context in which individuals help each other; it is a method of helping groups as well as helping individuals; and it can enable individuals and groups to influenceand changepersonal, group, organisational and community problems` (original emphasis). He goes on to distinguish between `relatively small and neighbourhood centred` work and `macro, societal and political approaches` within community work, explaining that only the former may be properly classified as groupwork.
Thus the role of groupwork can be seen as one which places emphasis on sharing of thoughts, ideas, problems and activities.
Roles within Groups
Each individual within a group has a role to play in the development of that group to a greater or lesser extent. Through observation, understanding of difference, awareness of personal resourcesand effective communication(Douglas, 1995), each member may affect group processes and individual emotions. Roles develop within groups both through formal appointment and because of the personal characteristics and interpersonal relationships that develop between members. Roles which develop can be constructive and support the group and its members in achieving its goals, or can be destructive and work against the overall group aims. Individuals within the group can develop several roles and at times these may conflict. For example a PTV member who was designated as leaderfor a specific task, also played a clownand was fond of practical jokes. The fooling around led to a lack of trust from other group members creating a conflict with the leadership role.
As the group begins to develop an understanding of four things can be observed:
Observation: the way we behave is based upon what we observe of ourselves, and what we make of others and their reactions to us.
Differences: personally and socially generated; the effects they have on behaviour and understanding.
Resources: frequently stemming from difference but are the source of potential power for a group and an individual.
Communication: considered to be natural but subject to many barriers that remain largely unknown unless a conscious effort is made to find them:
(Douglas, 1995, p. 80-97)
Through supportive roles, groups may play a part in reducing oppression generated externally to the group. Groupwork can be used as a medium for oppressed groups to `help these groups adjust in society`, and moreover to help society to adjust towards these groups. This can be achieved by `individual rehabilitation` in which we can `help individuals to adjust to social life and manage â€¦ tension â€¦ gain confidence, high self esteem`, and in `getting and keeping employment etc.`. `Societal or community rehabilitation` involves `helping the society to have meaningful contact` with individuals and groups which are discriminated against and oppressed (Osei-Hwedie, Mwansa, and Mufune, 1990, p. 188).
Preston-Shoot describes groupwork creating a `sense of belonging and mutual identity` encouraging `the formation of relationships which foster mutual identification and influence`, thus feelings of isolation and singularity with issues of difference and oppression may be reduced. Also, the group may be encouraged to use its internal resources to move towards individual or group `problem-resolution`, reducing feelings of helplessness, building self worth, and discouraging worker dependency (Preston-Shoot, 1987, p. 6-28). Smith concurs with this view of the suitability of groupwork, stating `Groups are obvious sites of interaction and within them a sense of connectedness or community with others can be fostered` (Smith, 1994, p.111). This `connectedness` is a valuable tool with which to challenge discrimination and oppression, for as Piven and Cloward argue, it is only when we act collectively that change can begin (Piven and Cloward, 1993).
Conclusion: Group Work – Double Edged Sword?
To state that group work is not an exact science is something of an understatement. As we have seen, it is problematic to even define what is meant by a group as no absolute definition exists. Similarly most, if not all, concepts within group work theory can be, and are, contested.
Groups are extremely important in the lives of all individuals. Johnson and Johnson (1975, p1-2) state `many of our goals can be achieved only with the cooperation and coordination of others`.
However `the success of any group depends on the ability of its members to exchange ideas freely and to feel involved in the life and decisions of the group` (Massallay, 1990). All groups within youth work have goals, i.e. a future state of affairs. It is important that short term and long term goals are set realistically if the group is to develop and function effectively. These functions are achieved through the direction of leadership and the development of individual roles within each group.
A group is said to be successful if it:
1. accomplishes group tasks
2. maintains the group internally, and;
3. develops and adapts to improve effectiveness.
Groupwork can be used as an effective tool for many youth work situations, not least of which is as a medium for challenging oppression both within groups and individuals. Thus, we have seen the emergence and development of girls issue groups and black young people’s projects that offer mutual support as well as working to challenge oppression. Yet we have seen that through the development stages of a groups life there are many opportunities for individuals to develop and focus oppressive behaviour internally within a group.
A grasp of theoretical understanding of group behaviour and functioning can help to explain individual and group behaviour, and help us to achieve our ultimate aim as youth workers, that of informal education. It is important not to treat group work as an exact science with definitive answers. Indeed many of the questionswe must ask ourselves are unclear, thus the answersare a best guess, or a benchmark that we can develop on and work around.
Finally, let us consider briefly the historical context of group work development and the purpose it has not only within youth work, but society at large. As Taylor reminds us `A moment’s reflection shows that the social groupwork beloved of liberalism is the product of the American capitalist concern to develop more sophisticated management techniques` (Taylor, 1987, p. 140). Let us be careful to use group work to promote democracy and not fall into the trap of using group work as yet another tool for promoting social control in a capitalistic state.
© Student Youth Work Online 1999-2001 Please always reference the author of this page.
References &Recommended Reading
Adair, J. (1988) Effective LeadershipLondon: Pan
Barker, L. L., Cegala, D. J., Kibler, R. J. and Wahlers, K. J. Groups In ProcessNew Jersey, USA: Prentice-Hall
Bond, T. (1986) Games for Social and Life SkillsLondon: Hutchinson
Brandes, D. and Phillips, H (1977) Gamesters’ HandbookGreat Britain: Stanley Thornes
Brown, A. (1994) Groupwork 3rdEditionGreat Yarmouth: Ashgate Publishing
Dearling, A. and Armstrong, H. (1994) The New Youth Games BookGreat Britain: Russell House Publishing
Douglas, T. (1983) Groups: Understanding People Gathered TogetherLondon: Routledge
Douglas, T. (1995) Survival In Groups: The Basics of Group MembershipBuckingham: Open University Press
Dynes, R. (1990) Creative Games in GroupworkGreat Britain: Winslow Press
Garland, J. Jones, H. and Kolody, R. (1968) `A model for stages of development in social workgroups` in Bernstein, S. (Ed.) Explorations in GroupworkBoston: Boston University School of Social Work
Heap, K. (1977) Group Theory for Social WorkersGreat Britain: Pergamon Press
Konopka, G. (1963) Social Group Work : a Helping Process Englewood Cliffs, N.J. : Prentice Hall
Leech, N. and Wooster, A. D. (1986)Personal and Social Skills – A Practical Approach for the ClassroomGreat Britain: RMEP
Massallay, J. L. (1990) `Methods, Techniques and Skills of Youth and Community Work: Community Action and Group Work` Chapter 4. In Osei-Hwedie, K., Mwansa, L-K. and Mufune, P. (Eds.) Youth and Community Work PracticeZambia: Mission Press
Osei-Hwedie, K., Mwansa, L-K. and Mufune, P. (1990) Youth and Community Work Practice: Methods, Techniques and SkillsZambia: Mission Press
Piven, F. F. and Cloward, R. A. (1993) Regulating the Poor : The Functions of Public Welfare USA: Vintage Books
Preston-Shoot, M. (1987) Effective GroupworkHampshire: Macmillan
Rogers, C. R. (1967) `The process of basic encounter group` In Bugental, J. F. T. (Ed.) TheChallenges of Human PsychologyNew York: McGraw-Hill
Sessoms, H. Massachusetts, D. and Stevenson, J. L. (1981) Leadership and Group Dynamics in Recreation ServicesUSA: Allyn and Bacon
Smith, M. K. (1994) Local Education: Community, Conversation, PraxisGreat Britain: Open University Press
Taylor, T. (1987) `Youth Workers as Character Builders` Chapter 9. In Jeffs, T and Smith, M. (Eds.) Youth WorkBasingstoke: MacMillan
Tuckman, B. W. (1965) `Developmental Sequences in Small Groups` in Psychological BulletinNo. 63 p. 384-399
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