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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 13 Numbers 2 and 3, 2003


AFRICAN AMERICAN FEMALE SMALL GROUP COMMUNICATION:

AN APPLICATION OF GROUP-AS-A-WHOLE THEORY

 

Laura Kathleen Dorsey

Morgan State University

Abstract: The present article seeks to understand African American female small group communication using Group-as-a-Whole Theory, a psychological behavioral theory. This work places the lived experience of African American women at the center for analysis.  An exploratory research question guided this article.  Data for this study was gathered via a two-hour focus group session where eight African American women and an African American female moderator gathered to discuss small group communication among African American women in an informal, but guided, way.  Data analysis of this focus group session drew upon the tacit knowledge of the primary researcher as an African American woman and both expert-observation by the primary researcher and an additional non-participant observer to uncover the unconscious group-as-a-whole dynamics between the research participants. Thematic issues of inclusion and exclusion and the longing for more connection and relationship with African American men emerged from an interpretive analysis of the data.  It is concluded that these primary findings uniquely help communication scholars understand what both the process and context of small group communication offers African American women. This article concludes with recommendations for future research on African American female small group communication.

Introduction

A time exists now, more so than ever, when social scientists explore ethnically and culturally diverse sets of voices and standpoints in academic research.  To their credit, communication scholars are visibly among those who make a noticeable effort in this important direction.  Among the recent diverse communication studies, Rao (1993) conducted an ethnographic communication study of Indian women and their relationship to nature, Orbe (1994) produced a phenomenological study of African American male communication and Brummet and Nam (1995) analyzed Korean apocalyptic discourse.  Each of these studies exemplifies the current effort within the field of communication to understand perspectives other than that of traditional White European descendants and has the wider goal of broadening the understanding of communication on a whole.  Finally, the perspectives and experiences of those traditionally held at the margin have increasingly been moved to the center for understanding.  The communicative life of African American1 women stands among these said perspectives.

The African American female owns a unique place in the United States; her history, identity, and arguably her culture, separate her from Black American men who share her race/ethnicity and American women who share her gender (Copeland, 1977; Gainor & Forrest, 1991; Gibson, 1995; Higginbotham & Watts, 1988; Hull, Scott & Smith, 1982; Ladner, 1981; Malson, et al., 1999; Noble, 1978; Peterson, 1992; Reid, 1975; Robinson, 1983; Rodgers-Rose, 1980; Simms & Malveaux, 1986; Staples, 1973; Thomas & Miles, 1995).  Black feminist Patricia Hill Collins’ (1986) conceptualization of Afro-American Women’s Culture lends itself to this argument.  She writes that culture cannot be viewed as ahistorical, but rather connected to and as a result of specific experiences over the course of time.

Paula Giddings (1984) introduces three central themes that outline the unique history belonging to Black women in America.  First, African American women have continually struggled with the unique relationship between sexism and racism and, for some scholars, the additional confounding variable of classism (Glenn, 1985).   Classism, in this case, however, must be viewed in a broader perceptual sense for, yes, a Black American woman can be oppressed due to her actual economic position, but also as a result of how others construe her economic position and her behavior.  Second, Giddings states that Black American women have also understood that their full liberation lies in the advancement of both Blacks and women (hooks, 1981).  Third, she writes that the battles of sex/race for Black American women have resulted in a particular set of experiences.  In this statement, she points to the African American female’s unique acculturation into slavery, her own struggle for suffrage, the early demand on her to financially support the family, the dynamics between her and Black American men and, most closely aligned with this article, the ongoing relational negotiations among Black American women themselves.

It is also these types of experiences that have influenced much of the scholarship in the field of communication studies.  At this point, communication researchers have looked at African American female rhetoric, mass media representations, organizational experiences, self-image/self-esteem concerns and relationship dynamics with Black American men (Allen, 1998; Matabane & Merritt, 1996; Quainoo, 1999; Stanback 1985).   And though it is clear that scholarship concerning African American women has become more prominent within the field of communication, a significant lacuna within this growing body of literature exists.  More specifically, small group communication among African American women has yet to be understood or examined.  This is a noteworthy omission given that communication research in the small group context has become one of the most growing areas in the field (Cragan & Wright, 1990; Frey, Gouran & Poole, 1999; Wyatt, 1993).  In addition to this, research in this important area has begun to examine the influence of culture in the small group context (Kirchmeyer, 1993).

Statement of Purpose

The present article will explore small group communication among African American women using group-as-a-whole theory, a psychological behavioral theory.  From a group-as-a-whole perspective, this article will examine the “here-and-now” dynamics of African American female small group communication using a sample of data from a larger study on African American female small group communication (Dorsey, 2000).  In this larger study, the participants were instructed to discuss their own lived experience of small group communication among African American women for two hours.  This analysis of small group dynamics will provide a rich set of data for interpretation and understanding in the field of communication. 

Rationale

In its broadest sense, the present article continues to challenge the historical assumption in scholarly communication pursuits that the Anglo-Saxon male experience and perspective serves as a template for understanding the communicative life for all other groups.  This article uniquely uses the lived experience of African American women as a lens to understand a particular aspect of their communicative life.  Additional studies that focus on women’s communication often render the implicit assumption that all women experience sexism and patriarchal hegemony similarly Foss & Foss (1983), Lakoff (1975), Pearson (1985) and Spitzack and Carter (1987).  These works can indeed be credited for the distinction and definition of women’s communication, however, they must also be questioned for the, perhaps unconscious, assumption that women really meant White middle-class women.   Even in recent texts on gender and communication, relevant research remains limited on the African American female population.  Now is the time for Black female communication scholarship to more fully emerge.

In addition to the above, the rationale for this article also comes from a critical view of overall African American female focused scholarship, the specific contributions that the field of communication has, or has not, made and the Black American woman’s unique place in American history.  In general, Black American women have not been the subjects of a large amount of African American-focused research (McDonald & Ford-Ahmed, 1999).  Moreover, only the field of psychology has examined her in the small group context (Gainor, 1992).  The Black woman has been in the United States for as long as the Black man and has labored alongside him on plantations, sharecropper fields, factories, and more (Ladner, 1981).  During the 1970’s, a surge of sociohistorical texts, dedicated to understanding the African American female experience, consistently documented the Black woman’s contributions to the development of America (Cade, 1970; Harley & Terborg-Penn, 1979; Ladner, 1971; Staples, 1973; Watkins & David, 1970).  Indeed the story of America cannot be told without the inclusion of the experience of African American women.

Group-As-A-Whole Theory

The theory chosen to guide this article finds it original roots in the psychotherapeutic tradition where part-object and infant-mother relations informed a new way to understand psychotherapeutic groups (Segal, 1964).  Psychological scholars such as Wilfred Bion (1959) and Melanie Klein (1985) are often associated with the original conceptualization of the group-as-a-whole.  In direct relationship to this study, however, group-as-a-whole has also been explored from an open systems perspective and has, therefore, been applied to other behavioral social sciences such as communication.  Moreover, unlike many of the current group theories within the field of communication, the group-as-a-whole perspective offers a researcher the ability to examine varying levels of group occurrences simultaneously (i.e., intrapersonal and intergroup).  Given the Black American female experience of multiple levels of identity, primarily her existence at the cross-section of gender and race, the writer of this article thought that this feature of the theory would serve quite useful.  In addition to this, group-as-a-whole theory works best for this study of African American female small group communication because it underscores the need for communication scholars to use a diverse set of theoretical lenses, within and outside of the field, to inform the overall understanding of communicative phenomena.  The present study will utilize basic tenets of this complex theory to inform its work.  An understanding of group-as-a-whole can be best achieved through examination of the scholarly work of Leroy Wells, Jr. (1985; 1990).  Here, Wells provides a lucid understanding of the underlying concepts of the group-as-a-whole; his work grounds the presentation of the theory and its application to the present study.

Wells (1985) writes that from the group-as-a-whole perspective, a group is considered an open living system that exchanges information and energy with the environment in which it exists.  Moreover, a group is more and less than the sum total of the individual co-actors (members) and their intrapsychic dynamics.  With the term “intrapsychic dynamics,” Wells refers to the good and bad wishes, dreams, fantasies, feelings that individuals feel in relationship to the group to which the belong.  Each group member’s personal life experience, the collective memory of the cultural group to which she belongs and the unique make-up of the small group at the time determines these dynamics.  The group-as-a-whole perspective purports that these individual intrapsychic dynamics come together to reflect and express the total group’s gestalt. 

Group-as-a-whole theory takes this idea of the “group gestalt” further in that this said gestalt serves as the primary source of data concerning the group, where individual member’s behavior and experience are viewed as reflections of the “group-as-a-whole” experience.  In other words, the single members of a group become carriers and communicators of the group’s lived experience en masse.  When a member communicates something, be it verbally or non-verbally, from the group-as-a-whole premise, that individual does so as an expression of the group’s collective nexus. This nexus and its themes form the group’s “élan vital” or “raison d’être” and thus become the unit of study from the group-level perspective.

There are five levels or perspectives in total that inform group-as-a-whole theory (see Figure 1).  In essence, group-as-a-whole theory suggests that all five levels can be taken into consideration when examining systems from those that are small groups, to those that are large organizations or even societies.  This study, however, will focus on the single small group system and, therefore, considers and focuses exclusively on the inter-relatedness of the intrapersonal, interpersonal and group process levels. Group-as-a-whole theory provides a methodological framework through which African American female small group communication may be seen.  Its selection to inform the present small group communication articles has three primary strengths.  First, it solidifies the emphasis on the most important component of study: the group.  Second, it allows for the simultaneous and interrelated understanding if intrapersonal, interpersonal and group level processes.  Third, these first three levels of understanding have direct parallels to areas of study within the field of communication.  The use of this theory acknowledges and demonstrates the important connection of different areas of social science inquiry.

Intrapersonal Processes

Relates to the co-actor’s relatedness to him–or–herself. Focuses on personality characteristics, character traits, mode of ego defense and ego ideal.   Intrapersonal analysis assumes that the behavior emerges from the internal life or from within the co-actor.

Interpersonal Processes

Refers to member-to-member relations. Focuses on the quality and type of relationships that exist between co-actors; how well or how poorly individuals relate to their peers, or those ranked above or below them.  Emphasis is placed on how well individuals listen and establish meaningful and viable alliances.

Group Processes

Refers to behavior of the group as a social system and co-actors’ relatedness to that system, the group-as-a-whole. Assumes that when co-actors act, he or she is acting not on his or her own behalf, but on behalf of the group or parts of the group.

Inter-group Processes

Concern with relations among various groups and subgroups.  Intergroup relations can develop from hierarchical, task position, sex, race, age, ethnic identities and ideological differences.  

Inter-organizational Processes

Concern with relationships that exist between organizations and their environment and concern the set of organizations that make demands of, or have impact upon, the focal organization. 

 

Figure 1.           Five Levels of Understanding for Group-as-a-Whole Theory

Literature Review

The following section sequentially explores literature in the following areas: (1) Gender and Women’s Communication; (2) Small Group Communication; and (3) All-Female Groups (including all-African American Female Groups).

Gender and Women’s Communication

According to Foss and Foss (1991), gender/women and communication research can be traced back to the early part of the 20th century.  For the most part, the early research in these areas only compared women to men, but did little to define women’s communication on its own terms.  In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-1970’s that these lines of research took a significant turn where scholars began to challenge the then accepted male-centered models of viewing communication.  Research on gender and communication and women’s communication that is significant to the present article has occurred primarily since the mid-1970’s (Bate & Taylor, 1988; Pearson, 1985).  Though much of the seminal research in this area does not take into account that the White middle class female doesn’t speak for all women communicators, it remains important to review.  It is through the review of key anthologies and collections that the most substantive ideas in this area can be introduced.

Robin Lakoff (1975), in her groundbreaking book entitled Language and Women’s Place, described that the domain of power available to men in society was not also available to women.  Therefore, the way that women communicated was due to the status of powerlessness and marginalization.  What stands out the most about Lakoff’s work is that it was the first to try to define women’s communication on its own and not solely within a male framework. Pearson (1985) offered one of the first full textbooks devoted to the analysis of gender and communication for university level audiences that also encourages a distinction between male and female communication.  Bate and Taylor (1988) add a critical perspective to the gender and communication discussion begun just under a decade before.  They discovered that little, if any, data existed that examined women’s talk.  Moreover they argued that little was known about the way women’s communication styles changes over their life span and varied among women and cross-sex situations. 

Where Bate and Taylor (1988) offered data for applied research on women’s communication, Carter and Spitzack (1989) added a critical feminist exploration of theory and method as it related to doing research on women’s communication. They took a “woman-centered re-reading” of tradition approaches to understanding communication.  They based the bulk of the work they assembled on the idea that women and men will have different ideas of the “questions, data collection techniques, subject selection, data interpretation, and the relationship between researcher and researched,” (p. 2).  Additionally, Foss and Foss (1991) concluded that women’s communication had not been given the significance it deserves in their field.  They attribute this insignificance to eight primary assumptions alive within communication as it concerns the study of public address.  They decide that the most important of these eight assumptions to tackle is that: Significant communicators are only male.  Finally, Wood (1999), in the third edition of her text, offers and represents an important turn in the study of gender and communication as well as women’s communication.  Prior to texts like hers, many analyses talked of “culture” in part, but did not ground the discussion in it.

Small Group Communication

The field of small group communication has been a focus for many communication scholars since the beginning of the 20th century.  According to Frey (1999), small group communication has gone through five major phases (see Figure 2) and for the better part of the past century, scholars have recognized the importance of studying a broad range of issues in group communication. 

                        Phase                                                              Description

 

Phase 1

 

Research emphasis was on pedagogical questions concerning the sources of individual and group decision-making effectiveness.

 

 

Phase 2

The “grand old days” of the mid-century where psychological and sociological theories drove research on communication in groups both functionally and developmentally.

 

 

 

Phase 3

Primarily occurring during the 1970’s, an increasing number of scholars explored group communication more fully and identified more specific variables that influenced the process.  Many studies were grounded in the Systems perspective.

 

 

 

Phase 4

During the 1980’s, more substantive group communication theories are established (functional theory, socio-egocentric theory, developmental theory, structuration theory, symbolic convergence theory).

 

 

 

 

Phase 5

 

A time of reconstruction and multiculturalism.  The 1990’s saw new philosophical, conceptual, theoretical, methodological, technical and cultural opportunities in the study of group communication. Bona Fide Groups Theory and naturalistic/qualitative research on groups becomes more prominent.

Figure 2.           Major Phases of Small Group Communication Research

Moreover, Cragan and Wright (1990) named seven major lines of research that occurred within the area of small group communication during the 1980’s.  Several of these lines continued into the next decade and today.  The first of these consisted of a steady stream of criticism of the research and theory in small group communication that occurred before then.  Along with this, small groupcommunication scholars of the 1980’s generated research concerning the varying types of leadership within small groups.  Pravitt’s (1999) look at the group communication-leadership relationship represents the continuation of this focus into the next decade.  Third, Cragan and Wright identify research on how professors of small group communication can better teach the fundamentals of the field as an additional major line of study.  The fourth and fifth major lines of research consist of the tradition of classical discussion methods occurring in the small group context and the outcomes that result from this type of communication.  The final two lines of small group communication research identified and reviewed by Cragan and Wright may be most related to interpreting the data for the present article.  They state that a strong portion of research in the 1980’s concerned itself with the “process” of small group communication.  Along with this, researchers looked at the variables occurring within a small group that affected the communication among its members.  This article seeks to explore both how African American women understand the process of their small group communication as well as the factors that they think affect the nature of it.

Cragan and Wright (1990) also projected four new trends to occur within the field in the 1990’s.  They predicted that 1) there would be competing theoretical explanations for small group communication; 2) there would be multiple models for describing and researching the decision-making process within small groups; 3) competing definitions of small groups would emerge; and 4) small group communication would be studied in applied settings.  Frey (1999) confirms and adds to several of these predictions in his exploration of the emergence and evolution of the study of group communication in the 21st century and beyond.  A sample of three important small group communication analyses exemplifies these predictions and now follows.

Kirchmeyer and Cohen (1992) represent the increasing need to address culture as an important and influential construct when understanding small group communicative phenomena.  They examine the effects of constructive conflict on decision-making culturally diverse groups.  The results of the empirical study reveal that with the use of constructive conflict, ethnic minorities made more valid and more important contributions to group problem solving.  Wyatt (1993) provides a feminist critique of small group communication and ushers in an important discussion on alternative ways to approach understanding small group communication and communication in general.  Ultimately, Wyatt challenges small group communication scholars to break new ground and bring in new perspectives to the area.  Putnam and Stohl (1996) introduce the concept of bona fide groups to those that study small group communication and in doing so cause a critical turn in scholarship in this area.  They write that with the increased importance of studying groups in a variety of social contexts, small group communication researchers must and are beginning to explore groups that originate apart from the control of a researcher.  Essentially, the term bona fide group refers to a naturally emerging or real-life group.  With this particular perspective, group boundaries become more fluid and permeable; roles and membership becomes less easy and necessary to define in a single moment.  With this critical difference, decision-making, information gathering, problem solving and a host of other group issues must be approached and understood differently.  This type of conceptualization of group communication, then, opens up a new series of questions and answers.  Though the group of African American women studied for this article cannot be defined as bona fide, that which “naturally emerges” within the group is under investigation and therefore connects to this aspect of small group communication research in an important way.

All Female Groups (including all-African American Female Groups)

Only four significant studies that explore the nature of all-female groups of any culture were discovered for the present article. Pheterson (1986) explored all-female groups that, for the purposes of her research, were separated into smaller groups that discussed racial, religious, and sexual orientation issues where subsequent oppressive and/or dominant attitudes arose.  She introduces two concepts in her work: internalized oppression and internalized domination.  She defines internalized oppression as the “incorporation and acceptance by individuals within an oppressed group of the prejudices against them within the dominant society,” (p. 148).  Along with this internalized domination is the “incorporation and acceptance by individuals within a dominant group of prejudices against others,” (p. 148).  Her analysis of both conceptual definitions reveals that one form of internalization can’t exist without the other.  In addition to this, women can be a member of both a dominant and an oppressed group simultaneously.  Ultimately, Pheterson explores the experience of women within their varied “group identities.”

Woolsey and McBain (1987) sought to answer the perplexing question: Why do the majority of all-female work groups, where race/ethnicity are not delineated, experience intense hostility among the members?  Framing their analysis around issues of “power” and “powerlessness,” the researchers put forth four theoretical explanations for the presence of conflict among the all-female work groups: a) the presence of “perceived” power imbalances in that those women with a strong sense of self threatened the women with known insecurities; b) suppressed anger resulting from envy over the power imbalances; c) unmet stereotypical expectations of certain members that a group solely consisting of women would be a bastion of consistent warmth and support; and d) what the researchers call the “dark” side of the empirically proven occurrence of emotional richness within all-female groups.  In other words, when women come together to accomplish a work task, they also bring the desire to bond emotionally.  This bonding, however, can run from strong support of each other to intense hostility and intragroup struggle.

Boyd-Franklin (1987; 1991) launched a theoretical discussion of specific social-psychological issues for Black American women in their therapeutic groups.  In two similarly focused articles, the scholar explains seven “re-current themes” that exist for the Black American female therapeutic support groups.  The themes are: (a) culturally and historically driven fears of emotional expression, (b) contending with the mythical lack of “good Black men,” (c) struggles with the maintenance of family and their individual needs, (d) tenuous relationships with men and women who filled the role of mother or father in their life, (e) strong presence of spirituality in their lives; and (f) feelings of sisterhood versus the need for individuality and difference.

Lastly, Gainor (1992), a psychologist, represents the limited scholarly efforts currently made to understand all-African American female groups.  She conducts a psychological exploration of internalized oppression among African American female therapeutic groups.  She argues that this phenomenon serves as a severe barrier to effective therapeutic work in all-Black American female groups.  She writes that numerous conflicts concerning historically and emotionally charged issues such as skin color, hair texture, socioeconomic status, speech patterns (talking “Black” versus talking “White”) arose.  The women would argue among each other over “who-was-more-oppressed” depending on their own painful experiences around these issues (p. 237).  This type of discovery indicates the need for further analysis of African American female groups in an effort to learn not only of the challenges of their group life, but also of the rewards.

The final article to be reviewed in this section is the only communication-focused study on predominantly female groups.  The emphasis on predominantly was with purpose, for Nelson (1988) provides findings from her observations of interactions on predominantly female teacher-research teams where one male claimed membership.  From her analysis and follow-up interviews with the teams, she asserts that they “functioned differently from most academic and professional groups,” (p. 199).  With this, she described the interactive patterns recurring on these largely female teams to illustrate their importance and compare to male-led groups.  Though Nelson makes no claims that “women’s ways” are found exclusively within predominantly female groups, she does share an interesting set of findings that might lend understanding to the present article’s data set.  She found that: (a) decision making tended to be collaborative and field-dependent, with administrative, instructional, and research-related decisions influencing each other and rooted in consensus rather than authority; (b) analyses were as much emergent as pre-planned, were more collaborative than individual, and involved intuitive and holistic as well as linear patterns of reasoning; and (c) teammates tended to offer each other emotional support and constructive criticism, interact good-naturedly, deal openly with negative feelings, and avoid competitive behaviors that threatened what they called the “sanctuary” atmosphere. 

Methodology

The following exploratory research question guides this work:

RQ:     When viewed as a group-as-a-whole, what small group communicative dynamics occur in African American female small groups?

There are a variety of group-as-a-whole constructs that can help explain small group dynamics.  Scholars within the fields of group relations and psychotherapy have identified specific processes that embody each and all of the levels of the group-as-a-whole; in fact, there are more than can be mentioned and focused on in one study.  Moreover, this particular article attempts to build a bridge from this theory to the field of communication.  In an effort, therefore, to build this bridge, three processes that most directly correspond to the intrapersonal, interpersonal and group levels of the group-as-a-whole were identified and became the focus.  General definitions that make for a more easy translation to the field of communication for each of the three processes are provided below:

1)                  Valency/Intrapersonal Process: refers to a group member’s “propensity” to behave and respond in a group.  It is dependent, in part, upon how the individual relates to herself and can be detected by the member’s behavior or direct “I” statements they offer about themselves. Valency can also be recognized in the “role” that a member takes on in a group.

2)                  Pairing/Interpersonal Process: refers to the way in which a group will produce a “good” (amiable and/or supportive) or “bad” (debating and/or argumentative) pair of group members.  A pair in a group can sometimes serve the purpose of offering the group an “answer” to a dilemma they are facing during the group’s life.

3)                  Scapegoating/Group Process: refers to a group’s unconscious need to have particular members at particular times express socially undesirable attitudes for the “group-as-a-whole.”  These members become momentary “scapegoats” and are figuratively “cast out” by ignoring the member, immediately dismissing what the member says as irrelevant or inaccurate, arguing with the member, interrogating the member with many questions or actually asking the member to leave the group.  Oftentimes, this role is assigned in association with a group member’s valency.

Each of these group-as-a-whole phenomena allows one to gain insight into the three levels of group processes (intrapersonal, interpersonal, group) under analysis.  Three examples of each group-as-a-whole phenomenon were found and interpreted for communicative meaning.

Sampling & Participants

This study used purposive sampling to select eight African American women as its participants.  It was the original intent of the primary researcher to assemble a group of African American women that were diverse in a number of experiences and demographic factors, such as age, income, education level and marital status, to enrich the data set.  As recruitment took place, however, older African American women seemed less interested in participating.  When this occurred, the primary researcher made a secondary decision to go forth with the group of African American women who did agree to participate though this made for a group with less demographic variance than first desired.  The primary researcher determined that this group of women would still provide a rich portrayal of a smaller segment of African American women and would still be a valuable scholarly contribution.  A more detailed demographic description of the participants now follows.

Age Range, Sexual Orientation and Religious Denomination

The age range was 20 to 55 with the mean age being 29.  All of the participants were heterosexual.  Four of the women were of the Baptist faith, one of the Roman Catholic faith, one was non-denomination and two designated no religious denomination.

Projected Annual Gross Income of the Household in which they were Raised

Of the eight African American women, one was raised in a household with a projected annual gross income of $25,000 or below per year, two between $25,001 and $50,000, three between $50,001 and $75,000, one between $75,001 and $100,000 and one between $150,001 and above per year.

Projected Annual Gross Income of their Current Household

Of the eight African American women, four currently earned $25,000 and below per year, two earned between $25,001 and $50,000 per year, one earned between $75,001 and $100,000 per year and one between $125,001 and $150,000 per year.

Level of Education

Three of the participants had attended some college, two had completed some graduate school and three had earned masters degrees.

Occupation

Three of the participants were full-time students (two of whom had part-time jobs) while one participant only mentioned her internship at a local radio station.  The remaining participants consisted of a social worker, an educational consultant and a case manager.  One participant did not indicate her occupation at all.

Procedures & Approach

As has been previously stated, the data for this article comes from a larger study on African American female small group communication (Dorsey, 2000).  The author of this article did not determine that the timeline of this larger study impacted the results for this work.  Permission for this larger study was obtained from the Howard University Institutional Review Board (IRB) and data were collected via the conduct of one 2-hour focus group discussion.  The moderator for the focus group discussion was an African American woman as well.  She was selected based on her previous experience conducting focus group discussion and her knowledge of small group communication.  The primary researcher served as a non-participant observer of the focus group session.  Along with this, an expert in group relations group-as-a-whole theory was also present as a non-participant observer.  The expert, an African American woman, played a more major role in the analysis of the data.  The focus group discussion was videotaped and audiotaped.  In addition, the primary researcher took notes during the session.  The expert observer and the primary researcher purposely did not immediately debrief their experience of the focus group discussion in an effort to support the intersubjectivity needed for the data analysis phase.  Rather they each individually examined the data for group-as-a-whole phenomena and then discussed and joined their findings.  In addition, after the primary researcher completed her data analysis, the members of the focus group were invited to a “member check” session where the major themes and interpretations were presented to confirm accuracy in capturing their experience.

Findings

As was stated in the methodology section of this article, the small group dynamics among the eight focus group participants were analyzed for the occurrence of three group-as-a-whole processes.  From this analysis, three examples of each process, and the corresponding communication process, were identified and confirmed with the expert-observer also present during the focus group discussion.  Definitions and findings for each group-as-a-whole process are presented below.  Those statements that reveal some of these processes are written in bold.  In the presentation of the data, the word “participant” is abbreviated to just the letter “P” followed by the participant number (1 through 8).  All commentary that follows each participant listing belongs to that participant only.  The focus group moderator’s comments are indicated with the letter “M.”

Valency/Intrapersonal Process

This refers to a group member’s “propensity” to behave and respond in a group.  It is dependent, in part, upon how the individual relates to herself and can be detected by the member’s behavior or direct “I” statements they offer about themselves. Valency can also be recognized in the “role” that a member takes on in a group.

1)         At the opening of the focus group discussion, each member was asked to state her name and share something she thought was unique about her.  It was at this time that Participant 5 revealed an example of one of her valences:

P5:       I’m Rhonda King…um…I live…a Washingtonian, I live in Silver Spring…I guess the unique thing in this situation            is I feel like a grandmother…

Hearty group laughter

you all are so youthful um…unique…um…I have a lot of young people that I’ve been surrogate mother to for a long long time…and they just come to me…I don’t go looking for them, but they stay.

Once Participant 5 made this statement about herself, her valency as mother/grandmother to the other (and younger) participants became evident and played out through the entirety of the focus group session.  Examples of this could be seen in her consistent reference to her age/generation and also the advise-giving and encouraging quality in the way she related to the other members.

2)         The second example of valency involves Participant 6.  She is the first participant to introduce something “negative” about the experience of communicating in small groups of African American women:

P6:       just to kind of give a flip side perspective of it, I think sometimes it can be…um…destructive…some of the things that we do amongst  ourselves…when we’re talking in small groups…

When Participant 5 says this, she challenges what was seemingly an agreeable and pleasant discussion for the other participants.  From the group-as-a-whole perspective, this act can be seen as her valency to be more willing to challenge the group discussion with ideas different from the others at key moment of group agreement.  For example, later in the discussion, there was apparent agreement among the focus group members on the relief they feel to not “represent” anyone, but themselves when in small groups of African American women.  Participant 5 is the first one again to offer a counter-perspective to this point:

P5:       But I feel like that still happens though…

3)         The third example of valency involved Participant 7 and comes through in her verbal communicative behavior.  Well into the focus group session, the participants talked extensively about African American men and the challenges they experience them having in communicating with African American women.  Participant 7 offers the following:

P7:       I…I hear you (P5) and I hear you (P2), but I just got to, I got to feel something else.  The…the…the thing is…I don’t know how it is if the man is in the Word or not, but…you (moderator) your question was about Black men in small groups.

P7:       I thank the…uh…Lord everyday that my husband is changing that cycle of men just got to go the woods, we got to camp…we got to…

Some snickers of agreement

…you know…we got to conquer this and then move to the next thing and conquer this.

Participant 7 is the first to use a religious, and recognizably Christian, reference to the discussion.  When she does this she makes her valency to be the “voice of morality” or spokesperson on “right vs. wrong” for the group known.  From the group-as-a-whole perspective, these archetypal moral qualities are often associated with religious declarations.  This valency continues to play out through the life of the group.  For example, Participant 7 becomes the first again to challenge another participant on the perceived “moral” issue of how African American women can exclude one another:

P7:       I’m offended…I’m mad

Entire group laughs and looks nervously at each other

From a communication perspective, this type of direct “I” statement indicates what Participant 7 might have been communicating to herself intrapersonally and continues to confirm her valence.

Pairing/Interpersonal Process

This refers to the way in which a group will produce a “good” (amiable and/or supportive) or “bad” (debating and/or argumentative) pair of group members.  A pair in a group can sometimes serve the purpose of offering the group an “answer” to a dilemma they are facing during the group’s life.

1)         Participants 4 and 6 became a “pair” early in the focus group discussion when they discovered they were both from the south.  This pairing first became evident when Participant 6 came to Participant 4’s defense after she began to describe Washington, DC as only a northern town with some “southern ways.”  As some of the northern members began to question Participant 4’s statement, Participant 6 intervenes:

P6:       I think…I have to agree…I don’t consider DC the South…I mean I know technically in reference to the Mason Dixon line you know…

Moderate Group laughter

…it fits that requirement…but I mean just yeah the lifestyle…

Further data for pairing can be seen throughout the remainder of the focus group session as Participants 4 and 6 frequently finish each other’s sentences, agree with each other’s point and come to each other’s defense during heated discussion.

2)         Participants 3 and 7 become a pair towards the middle of the focus group discussion.  As the participants move to the topic of African American men, the overall tone, for some, turns to one of regret and longing for “the missing Black Father,” and “the absent Black husband.”  As can happen with a pair from a group-as-a-whole perspective, Participant 3 and 7 offer a positive voice of hope about where African American men are in relationship to each other and to African American women:

P7:       He’s starting to…um…to evolve into a whole man per se because he’s learning that “Mmm, I feel you honey, I feel what you’re going through…lemmelemme see where your God daughter feels because I…” we have a God daughter that’s five.  He’s down there trying to figure out what’s going through her mind, what’s going on and then he takes it back to his friends and…um…they have great conversations…you know…when it’s Thanksgiving and all the men get in a room and they watch football…

P7:       that didn’t happen this year.  It was an interaction going on and it was just like…oh…I see there’s more to a man than just football, beer…you know…putting their hand…

P3 expresses agreement

…where they’re not supposed to and just sitting back…you know…these men were interacting and it was wonderful to see them talk about social issues.  They were talking about, of course, promotions on the job, what they’re gonna do next, of course what kind of truck they’re gonna buy, but it was…it was also stocks, bonds, how your wife is doing, how your wife is doing, how can we make this thing better for Black men.  We gonna cutback on the old South thing…you know…men go to work, the woman stay home…you know…barefoot and pregnant…they’re stopping that…it’s more of a partnership and I’m just glad that …uh…the…the men that I see that are around me in my life are kind of like…they’re evolving…

A lot of women try to talk at the same time…P3 wins out

P3:       I want to piggy back on that…because I have a younger brother, he’s 24 and when I’m upstairs I’ll hear him and his friends in the kitchen and they’re talking about spirituality…they’re talking about how to buy a house or what…you know…they’re long term goals.  They’re not sitting around…you know…doing beer, drinking or anything like that and these are the same friends that he had since high school and I remember being in the same position when he was younger and it was the same topics, it was more like they were talking…you know…we talk about evolving and my father evolving…um…with his friends with the same type of conversations.  And I don’t know if my brother has an influence on him or not, but it seems to me like he did because my brother is a very…he’s a very spiritual person and he brings stuff to my father that my father didn’t think about…my father’s like “I’m from the old school, I’m a Christian, I can’t hear this,” you know what I’m saying, but my brother will bring stuff to the table and I find him taking what my brother says and internalizing it and then bringing it out to other people…his other friends…so…to me that’s like that’s positive and it…it seems to me that…that our brothers are changing.

3)         The third example of pairing that occurred during the focus group discussion involves Participants 3 and 8.  Towards the conclusion of the session, the women discussed how White American women often question the blackness of those African American women with European body features such as long straight hair or light colored skin.  Though Participant 5 ushered this topic in, it is Participants 3 and 8 who provide passionate commentary on the topic and pair in a powerful way:  The commentary begins with Participant 5’s statement:

P5:       …I…I really and it’s been my experience and that’s with Caucasian women…um…they always want to make you something other than Black…especially the lighter you are or if you have straight hair or something like that…you either got to be Hispanic or you gotta be this or you gotta be that…something else other than an African American woman…

P8:       what are you…

P8:       I’m Black…don’t ask me…

P3:       No…you’re…no…no you’re not Black…

P8:       exactly…that’s what they’ll do…

P3:       you’re…you’re…you’re half something…you got something else in you…

In actuality, Participants 3 and 8 engaged each other in an interpersonal dialogue, looked only at each other and spoke with great animation.  It was as if they were creating one sentence from the combination of each other’s experience.  Moreover, unlike the other participants, both Participants 3 and 8 had very light skin and long straight hair.  From a group-as-a-whole perspective, these common physical characteristics gave them the most likelihood to pair on the issue of one’s blackness being questioned.

Scapegoating/Group Process

This refers to a group’s unconscious need to have particular members at particular times express socially undesirable attitudes for the “group-as-a-whole.”  These members become momentary “scapegoats” and are figuratively “cast out” by ignoring the member, immediately dismissing what the member says as irrelevant or inaccurate, arguing with the member, interrogating the member with many questions or actually asking the member to leave the group.  Oftentimes, this role is assigned in association with a group member’s “valency.”

1)         The first example of the scapegoating process involved Participant 6 and was related to her valency to challenge the group’s thinking.  After she is the first to share some of the negative aspects of small group communication among African American women, no other member joined her to agree or disagree, but rather remained silent; this began to indicate her role as scapegoat.  Following a meek attempt on the moderator’s part to have Participant 6 to elaborate, the eldest member of the group, Participant 5, confirmed the younger Participant 6’s role as a momentary scapegoat:

P5:       But have you (to P6) have you gotten to the point of your life where although we are just strangers sometimes in terms of gossip we still come together as a group when there is something that needs to be of assistance…

Essentially, Participant 5, due to her valency to be a mother figure in the group, placated the younger Participant 6 and her negative impression of small group communication among African American women and completed the scapegoat process.  All Participant 6 could do at this point was defend her position, with no help from other group members, remain quiet, and allow someone else to change the topic.

2)         The second example of scapegoating involved Participant 6 once again.  Later in the focus group discussion, the moderator invited the women to return to the topic of destructive things that occur during small group communication among African American women.  Though other members shared some examples, Participant 6 offered a controversial example from her life that illustrated African American women’s ability to deliberately shut each other out of groups.  When she does this, several group members bombarded her with a deluge of questions:

P3:       She’s not overwhelming…she’s…

P6:       No…it was just…

P2:       What….

P7:       She didn’t look like you…

P6:       no…it was just…

P7:       she didn’t walk like you…

P6:       …it was just…it was the purpose of what…of our group…like how I was saying how we came together…you know…artificially…how we…

P4:       She had a different agenda than you all had?

P7:       She was stink (didn’t smell good)?

P6:       No…it’s just that…

Group breaks out in laughter and a lot of nonverbal body movement indicating something important was going on…

…we had like…we all wanted the same thing, but we just didn’t like…like some of the things about her…like we didn’t feel like…she wasn’t very discreet so we were like she doesn’t…we don’t want her…

In the midst of the questioning, which lasted approximately 10 minutes, no one joined nor expressed explicit understanding of Participant 6’s experience.  She is left, again, to tell her story alone, defend herself and wait for the group members to lose interest.  From a group-as-a-whole perspective, it is highly likely that this episode of scapegoating was the result of unspoken/unconscious feelings of anxiety for the participants raised by the thought of group exclusion.

3)         The last example of scapegoating involved Participant 3.  As the members of the focus group gave examples of small groups of African American women they were either a member of or had observed, Participant 3 talked about a group of teenage African American women she mentored.  In describing the teenagers’ behavior and style of communication with each other, she shared that they had a tendency to be judgmental with each other:

P3:       um…I work with teenagers and basically what I find with my girls is that they’re very judgmental with each other and when we’re in a group.

With this example, there was the potential for the participants to talk about their own experience with judgmental African American women in groups, however this did not occur.  Rather, the moderator and Participant 8 dismissed the communicative behavior as being a factor of age and dropped the subject immediately:

M:        Is that a function of their age…because they’re teenagers?

P3:       Yeah…they’re teenagers…they’re 16 and 17 years old.

M:        It’s been so long (laughing)

P8:       I think…I feel that’s age more too…

P4:       Yeah

P8:       more than…than…being women or being Black.

From a group-as-a-whole perspective, the quick dismissal of Participant 3’s ideas indicated an unconscious need of the group’s to stray away from the topic and make her a temporary scapegoat.

Discussion

The group-as-a-whole examples discussed in the previous section lend themselves to several interpretations of the small group communicative dynamics occurring in the focus group.  More specifically, when the findings from the three group-as-a-whole processes (valency, pairing and scapegoating) are considered in combination with each other, they offer a unique understanding of the group’s “gestalt” or “raison d’être.”  Once the primary researcher of this article, well trained in group-as-a-whole theory, blended the group-as-a-whole phenomena together, two critical interpretations of the focus group’s gestalt emerged.  It is important to note that these interpretations do not have to do with individual members of the group, but rather the collective experience of all at times expressed through individual members.  It is also important to note that the first interpretation serves in a more obvious way to understanding the process of African American female small group communication.  The second interpretation, however, has a less obvious connection to the process, but in the end is determined to be an important potential discovery about what the context of small group communication offers African American women.  These interpretations and explanations will become clearer as each interpretation is subsequently discussed.

The first interpretation of the focus group data is related to the focus group participants’ unconscious, but apparent, struggle with the issue of inclusion and exclusion.  This struggle was initially indicated in the scapegoating of Participant 6, who shared her own story of purposely excluding a woman from a group to which she belonged (see data presentation in Findings section of this article).  Evidence of this appeared again later in the session when members scapegoated Participant 3 for speaking to young African American women’s propensity to judge each other harshly.  From a group-as-a-whole perspective, it is important to pay attention to the issue that a group scapegoats one of its members for.  Often the issue is one that the group does not feel safe discussing and cannot tolerate a member speaking on.  For the focus group members to grapple with the anxiety of including or excluding each other makes sense given the context under which they were coming together.  They really had no prior knowledge of each other except for two members who were in the same graduate class.  Though of course this issue can be found throughout a group’s life (be it one session or a lifetime), the fear of inclusion/exclusion is of particular importance for a group meeting for the first time.  This interpretation connects directly with some of the psychological research on African American female small therapeutic groups (Gainor, 1991; 1992).  In her work, Gainor describes the paradox of how Black American women struggle with the need for both sisterhood and individuality/difference.  It appears from the data of this study that this similar theme emerges from a small group communication perspective.

The second critical interpretation of the focus group’s gestalt can be found first in the pairing that occurred between Participant 3 and 7 when the relationship between Black American women and men became a point of much discussion.  This example of pairing served as a precursor to subsequent and passionate discussions about emotionally immature men, absent fathers and reclusive husbands.  In truth, discussion concerning Black American women’s relationship to Black American men constituted approximately 25% of the total conversation and certainly brought forth the most passion, emotion and energy.  This passion didn’t emerge, however, with ease.  Rather, when the moderator of the focus group initially raised the issue of men and Black American men specifically with the participants, their reaction indicated the anxiety and energy that would soon manifest in the life of the group.  Note the description of the group once the moderator brings the topic up:

M:        What about…um…we’ve talked a lot about…um…interact…differences between…um…White women or cultural groups whether the dominant other is a White woman…what about men as a cultural group?

P8:       Black men, White men, both…what…

Moderator answers with “mmm mmm

P8:       just men in general…

M:        men in general or Black men versus…is…are there any things different…

A lot of energy in the group emerges…people shifting in chairs, laughing, looking at each other and the moderator.  Some of the comments, unattributable to one woman in particular were: ”Mmmmm,” ”That’s a whole other story,” “Especially if you want to talk about Black men” “That’s a whole issue in and of itself,” “Two hours…you know!

Along with this, here are some examples of what the group said, as seen through individual members, about African American men specifically:

P8:       …I think that’s really it…I think that we do…like I said before…Black women for the most part feel as though they’re going to be okay…

Some group members express agreement

…and they know how to do things for themselves and we’re not dependent on them...

P8:       I think it’s their…I don’t know…I think it’s their own…um…personal ego, I think it’s their self-esteem.  They…in order for them to feel like a man…um…someone needs to be dependent on them or need them and not be okay without them…

P7:       Or they gotta go get them women who are like “gimme gimme gimme gimme gimme gimme gimme…”

P2:       I don’t…I don’t think that when men are alone…Black men are alone that they really have serious conversations.  That’s my opinion…

Some group laughter

…I just don’t think they do and I say this because…piggy backing on what you’re (P6) saying…when a…a Black man is by himself with…with another Black woman, it’s like a totally different person because it’s like things they really want to talk about, but they can’t cause they’re with their boys it’s like this…

P2:       My father was with me and my mother, but it was like my father was not there because my father didn’t know how to communicate…I don’t think they have real…substantive conversations…

Some group agreement via nonverbal nods or smile

P5:       But you know what my experience has been is that when they’re out in the world they’re very confident…um…what they’re doing, but they do disassociate themselves from their…in the home…

P5:       I see this and I see this with my friends…I mean same thing…you know…the…the Black men are there, but they’re very silent players…

The group-as-a-whole perspective lends itself to understanding what lies behind and underneath these types of above comments that were often met with uncomfortable giggling or pauses.  From the data, the intuitive experience of the primary researcher and that of the expert observer, the following interpretation emerged.  In essence, the women were actually expressing a tremendous sense of longing for more connection with African American men and healing for the loss of connections that never were.  The previous statement deserves a moment of pause.  Moreover, it might be a natural instinct, particularly of African American female readers of this article, to dismiss the idea of longing for anything or anyone altogether.  To long for someone is to also have some dependence on him and as was evidenced in the conscious discussion of the African American female participants in this article, they were strong and dependent on no one…especially African American men.  The group-as-a-whole perspective, however, helps unpack this seemingly deliberate attempt to make something a non-issue and reveals that indeed it is a very important one. 

Once this is understood, then it is imperative to relate this interpretation to the focus of this article…that of small group communication among African American women.  At first glance, this interpretation is not obviously connected to this communicative context, however, with a closer look, a connection emerges.  It seems that an important discovery about the context of the small group has been made as it relates to African American women.  More specifically, the participants of this focus group used the small group context to process their feelings and experience in relationship to African American men.  From the standpoint of the primary researcher, it seems that the context provided the women with some sense of safety to deal with…and perhaps heal with…each other.  Though it would not be appropriate to argue that this topic, that of African American male/female relationships, would emerge in all types of small groups, but its emergence here creates more of a curiosity of whether in fact one would.

There has been a small amount of empirical data that explores the relationship between African American men and women, but none that cuts to the core of the longing that this study uncovers.  Miller and Browning (2000) discovered due to the shortage of available African American men in the “marriage pool,” African American women feel as though they must share a man…and feelings of anger and disgust with each other ensue.  Hutchinson (1999) studied African American female adolescents and determined that the participants of her study would rather be “sexual” with a man and feign a real connection than have no connection with men at all.  McCreary and Wright (1997) explored negative stereotypes that influence African American male and female relationships and conclude that these stereotypes create distance between the two genders.  Aborampah (1989) determined that sexism and racism within the African American racial/ethnic group generated stresses and strains between Black American men and women.  In addition to this, one can also turn to the field of African American female popular fiction to gain insight into the relationship between African American women and men.  The best selling work of Black American female writers such as Maya Angelou (1969), Zora Neale Hurston (1937), Terry McMillan (1992), Toni Morrison (1987) and Alice Walker (1982) reflects many aspects of the lived experience of African American women.  Moreover, each author weaves into their cathartic stories, plots that explore strained relationships between African American women and men and the way African American women support each other through communicating.

Finally, one need also look at the historical experience of African American women to understand why they may long for connection with African American men.  During slavery, African American men (and women) were ripped from the home leaving their female counterparts alone to defend herself and her children from tremendous onslaughts of brutality.  This legacy of separation continued long after slavery, and continues even today, where Black American women often serve as the head of their families and/or grow up in homes without fathers present.  Along with this, even in homes with Black American men physically present, they were and are then emotionally unavailable to their sons and daughters.  Even if this is not the primary experience of some African American women, it seems that she need not look far in her circle of “sister friends” or family to find it somewhere.

Recommendations for Future Research

Three recommendations for future research of African American female small group communication emerge from this work.  First, research of more than one group of African American female communicators at a time should occur.  Cross-comparison of the data generated might verify or debunk conclusions that could be drawn from the focus on a single group.  Second, it would be beneficial to study groups of varying sizes, from small to median to that which is considered large as well as types of groups (i.e. designed, bona fide) in order to create a robust data set on this particular phenomena for this particular cultural group.  Lastly, research that generated specific communication models that apply to African American female small group communication would be useful.  One could use existing models as a starting point, but might find the need for adjustment based on the unique cultural and contextual experience of African American women.

Conclusion

This article has explored the small group communicative experience of African American women using group-as-a-whole theory.  In doing so, it has introduced a useful and applicable psychological theoretical framework to the to the field of communication.  In addition, this article has placed the lived experience of African American women at the center for analysis and thus enabled the researcher to demonstrate the way in which a qualitative/interpretive research design gives the perceived voiceless voice.  Finally, by introducing specific data regarding a specific cultural group, this article strengthens both the study of small group communication as well as furthers a tradition of inclusion that is very much needed in the overall field of communication.

Note

1    For the purpose of this article, the terms “African American” and “Black American” will be used interchangeably.

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