The History of Group Dynamics
The study of small group behavior is a relatively modern development. It's a sub-discipline of social psychology, which itself only gained recognition as a field distinct from sociology or psychology in the early 20th century.
Early research and writing in social psychology were primarily concerned with the behavior of large, unorganized groups and crowds. The seminal publications included Gustave Le Bon's (1841-1931) The crowd: A study of the popular mind (1896), Wilfred Trotter's (1872-1939) Instincts of the herd in peace and war (1916), and William McDougall's (1871-1938) The group mind (1920). All three works dealt primarily with crowds and groups at their worst (mobs), especially during periods of civil unrest and social upheaval, such as the French Revolution and World War I. The only organized groups to study were armies and the church, as these works predate the rise of corporations.
But it wasn't long before focus shifted to small groups by the growing psychoanalytic movement. Sigmund Freud's Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1922) was in large part a critique of Le Bon's work, and posed new theories about small-group behavior. Wilfred Bion (1897-1979) also studied groups from a psychoanalytic perspective, and was much influenced by Trotter, for whom he'd worked at University College Hospital, London. Many of Bion's findings were reported in his published books, especially the groundbreaking Experiences in Groups (1961). While working at The Tavistock Institute, Bion developed a theory that unconscious behavioral patterns (which he hypothesized were instinctive) drove small-group organization and functioning. Like Freud and Trotter, Bion concluded that people generally regress in groups and that, contrary to popular opinion, most groups devolve and under-perform individuals left to work on their own. Bion also introduced many specific terms to describe small-group experience that are still in vogue. For instance, the concepts of group basic assumptions, group mentality, and work group all come from him.
Where the term Group Dynamics comes from
Gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) also was among the first to focus on small groups and coined the term group dynamics to describe the way groups react to changing circumstances. Lewin established the world's first Research Center for Group Dynamics (RCGD) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1945. The center later moved to the University of Michigan, where it thrives today. Lewin was especially interested in processes that influence individuals in various kinds of group situations. He initially focused on group productivity and communication, social perception, inter-group relations and group membership, leadership, and improvement of group functioning through sensitivity training (T-groups).
Group Dynamics comes of age
Since the days of Bion and Lewin, nearly all the major schools of psychology have developed group theories befitting their core hypotheses and values. For instance, the neo-psychoanalytic and psychodynamic approaches of Otto Rank (1884-1939), Melanie Klein (1882-1960), Karen Horney (1885-1952), and others emphasized the unconscious elements (defenses) that obstruct group functioning and health. From the cognitive schools, Aaron Beck (1921- ) and Albert Ellis (1913-2007) have highlighted the errors and assumptions embedded in perception, thought, beliefs, and language that undermine group cohesion and effectiveness. B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) and other behaviorists have examined the critical role of training and behavioral modification in getting groups to break bad habits and produce desired responses. And humanistic psychologists such as Carl Rogers (1902-1987), Fritz Perls (1893-1970), and Will Schutz (1925-2002) showed that developing better understanding, empathy, and communication in groups facilitated movement away from dependency and fear and toward greater emotional maturity, interdependence, and awareness.