Bormann's Symbolic Convergence Theory
University of Colorado at Boulder
Ernest Bormann's Symbolic Convergence Theory offers a promising method of looking at small group interaction and cohesiveness. When individuals who are not familiar with each other come together for the sake of achieving a common goal, be it a group in an organization or students working on a school project, the symbolic convergence theory presents an understandable and generally accurate stance on how cohesiveness within the group is attained.
The symbolic convergence theory is praised and even considered a bit unusual, because it meets the criteria for both scientific and humanistic standards. Symbolic Convergence Theory is credible because it fulfills the "twin objectives of scientific knowledge" (Griffin, 1991, p.34). Bormann's theory meets the scientific standards of explanation of the result, relative simplicity, and practical utility.
Symbolic convergence theory meets the humanistic standards of aesthetic appeal (in some cases), community of agreement, and reform of society. While it appears that all five requirements must be met in order to make a good scientific theory, it is only necessary that some of the standards be met to achieve a good humanistic theory. In this light, it appears that Bormann has created more of a humanistic theory than a scientific one. However, because symbolic convergence theory manages to meet the criteria for three out of five of both sides, the theory serves as an acclaimed attempt at combining the two views (Griffin, 1991, pp.34-42).
The symbolic convergence theory is based on the idea that members in a group must exchange fantasies in order to form a cohesive group. In this theory, a fantasy does not refer to fictitious stories or erotic desires. Fantasies are stories or jokes that contain or reveal emotion. Fantasies includes events from a group member's past, or an event that may occur in the future. Fantasies do not include any communication that focuses on what is going on inside of the group., For example, Bob is a member of a team in an advertising agency and brings up an idea for a possible advertisement. Bob is not expressing a fantasy, because he is discussing the work at hand. However, if Bob admits he is going shopping after work to buy his son a bike for his seventh birthday, then he has expressed a fantasy.
A fantasy chain reaction is a positive and energetic response to the initial fantasy. When Bob mentions his son's birthday, several other group members add how they must attend their son's soccer game after work, The atmosphere in the work environment has gone from serious to comfortable and even energetic. When Bob mentions his son's birthday, a fantasy chain reaction has been ignited. Other fantasies emerge about children, soccer games, and birthdays. Once the fantasy chain reaction begins, common ground is established between group members and a cohesion, no matter how slight, has formed.
Cohesion within a group is not an immediate form of action. A single fantasy chain event will not bring about complete cohesion. In the example above, it is possible that a group member or members do not have children and thus would not engage in the conversation. Their fantasies have not been expressed at that point, so common ground has not been established between all members of the group. Generally, a variety of fantasies will be expressed over the course of the group project, so that formerly excluded members can find common ground with and relate to the rest of the group. Creating cohesion within a group takes time, because recognizing similarities and developing a comfortable atmosphere is a gradual and critical process that a group must endure.
According to Griffin (1991), "Through symbolic convergence, individuals build a sense of community or a group consciousness (p. 34). As symbolic convergence ties a group together with cohesive bonds, a sense of togetherness is formed. Individual members begin using the words "we" instead of "I," and "us" instead of "me." Members may even become attached to each other, and sometimes, group conformity takes place. Though individuals "assume a joint venture" (Griffin, 1991, 34) through symbolic convergence, it is important to stress that there is a limit on how much conformity should take place. Groupthink occurs in a very cohesive group when members strive so much for unanimity, that they are basically incapable of thinking for themselves. Groupthink is a surprisingly common process and can result in fatal incidents, such as The Challenger disaster.
I was reminded of the groupthink theory while learning about the symbolic convergence theory. I was assigned to do a project on groupthink for a class last summer. Not only was the project on groupthink, but the class was Interpersonal Communication. As a result of this combination, all members in my group were very aware of exactly how we were communicating within the group. We even had to take a journal on any tensions or favorites within the group as a result of communication or miscommunication. We were very intent on how we would be portrayed in the other members' journals, and we were a little too aware of the groupthink theory and how to avoid it. There were tensions between group members, but this only lasted about a week.
Gradually, we each went through the process of self-disclosure. We shared a lot of simple common ground, such as being Communication majors at the University of Colorado and being "stuck with" summer school due to various reasons at our own expense. We allowed an appropriate amount of self-disclosure, meaning that we did not talk about anything too personal. We did not confess our most evil sins or anything controversial that would make group members feel uneasy and jeopardize our newfound relationship. Many times, we would sit around and gossip for over an hour. When the project was over, we still sat together in our corner, partially segregated from the rest of class. We even hung out on several occasions when the class was over, and I am thrilled to see any of them on campus today.
At the time, I knew we had engaged in self-disclosure, which brought us together as a team. Along with self-disclosure, we talked about everyday activities and things we had in common. We talked about our favorite movies and books. We complained about our least enjoyable classes, teachers, or assignments. I assumed we were just gossiping and even wasting valuable work time. I had presumed only self-disclosure had transformed us into a cohesive group, and the gossiping had nothing to do with it.
After learning about the symbolic convergence theory, I realized that our gossip was an essential part of discovering common ground. Disclosure is a key factor in expressing fantasies, as is the art of gossiping. Our simple conversations on movies and prior vacations were ways of expressing fantasies. Talking about ourselves, using self-disclosure, was not only an important part of developing trust and cohesion within the group, but it also served as a fantasy theme.
Fantasy themes helped to create a relaxed environment, because every individual member could somehow relate to the theme at hand. We developed a fantasy theme when we focused our talk on school alone, a subject in which we hold experience and in which we all have a lot to say. "A fantasy theme is a way for people to present or show to the group mind, to make visible a common experience and invest it with an emotional tone" (Jackson, [online]).
Because school was a central fantasy theme among the group, it was fairly obvious that we shared many of the same views and talked about it often. For example, we all agreed that our class demanded too much work for a freshman level course. We also agreed that our teacher was not very fond of us because we had the disapproving tendency to occasionally converse in class.
According to Bormann, our shared views on a repeated topic is we could have extended our theme to our professor and "beyond its original small group context" (Griffin, 1991, p.34). If we sincerely believed he held us in a troublesome regard, we could have tried to persuade him otherwise. In the end, we discovered that our professor did not have any problems with us at all. Actually, he always assumed we were talking about our group project during class time!
Toward the end of my group project, I remember my boyfriend telling me how I referred to my group as "us," instead of "me." In the beginning, I was almost suspicious of my group members. There was no cohesion within the group, and I barely even knew their names. I felt "alone" in the group, like an isolate. As we bonded within the group, and symbolic convergence took place, I no longer felt isolated. In retrospect, "we" felt isolated from the rest of the class. By using the transformation of such pronouns, and using them unconsciously, we produced a sense of community. Building a sense of community and group consciousness is a key component of symbolic convergence theory (Griffin, 1991, p.34).
Looking at the groupthink project through the lens of the symbolic convergence theory helped me to understand exactly how the cohesive bond between us was formed. I knew we had become close due to appropriate self-disclosure, but looking at the case through the symbolic convergence theory opened up another important view. Almost everything we had discussed, besides what was going on within the group, helped each individual member to open up. Through these fantasies, cohesion was formed within the group.
In general, I believe Bormann's theory provided an easily recognizable lens in examining the communion of group membership. There were many strengths of his theory that related to my case, but there were also some weaknesses.
Bormann's main strength in the symbolic convergence theory is the idea of fantasies. Sharing fantasies and common interest with other group members is a good beginning to establish bonds with group members. Symbolic convergence theory claims that fantasy themes are organized and premeditated (Jackson, [online]). If knowing this, group members can arrange their thoughts to support the common ground between other group members. Group cohesion can then be a more natural process once members have discovered common ground.
By alerting group members to the symbolic convergence theory, it is possible for them to generate change due to what the theory suggests. People may be more open-minded toward others' attempts of "ice-breaking" conversation or fantasies. In a humanistic view, generating change among group members' outlooks and preconceptions can be an advantage. Bormann's idea of fantasies may have provided me with a new light in viewing my group's interaction, but his theory seems to leave out certain factors.
Self-disclosure was a crucial part in forming cohesiveness within my group, but Bormann does not mention this point in the select reading material I acquired. Without self-disclosure, it is difficult to form any personal bonds within a group. If group members create a fantasy theme based on a school subject alone, the group may establish common ground leading to the symbolic convergence theory, but it is based on an fairly impersonal level.
In my case, I disagree with Bormann that discussing what is going on inside the group is not sharing fantasies. It seems that any discussion that evokes emotion may be considered fantasy. People who are really devoted to and excited about their jobs may form cohesion within a group because of this fact. In my groupthink group, we earned an A+ on our project. We knew we did very well and were proud of our effort and hard work. I believe this excitement, though we were talking about what went on inside our project, is definitely a form of fantasy.
Another weakness of Bormann's theory according to my case is that he does not mention clustering within the group. For example, I became acquainted with a girl in my group before anyone else. We tended to stick together in the beginning, as did some of the other members. Sub-groups developed within the main group. Even when we became a tightly cohesive group, the sub-groups still remained. Despite the hint of segregation among the main group, our cohesive bond remained. In fact, we gained an even stronger sense of togetherness.
I am not exactly sure for the explanation of this, but I do know that the sub-groups were like the glue that held the group together, especially when we were the most stressed about our project. Maybe one reason is that the sub-groups contained a more personal attachment, resembling friendship, and this created a better support system for the entire group.
The biggest weakness I found in comparing Bormann's theory to my own case, is the simplicity of the theory. Though the simplicity is an asset from a scientific view, I do not feel that enough details are given to draw many explicit conclusions from my case. The symbolic convergence theory concludes that my group became cohesive due to various factors, such as fantasies, fantasy themes, and rhetorical vision. Though I support such conclusions, the theory does not offer further, in-depth explanations. To me, it is obvious that our group became cohesive due to the exchange of information, be it self-disclosure or fantasies. Once I have realized that this is all due to symbolic converging, the theory sort of "stops" there.
Additional insights from Bormann, a sort of extension of the theory, might make the symbolic convergence theory less vague and more detailed. Though added complication to the theory would not appeal to scientific standards, it would develop a more in-depth understanding of the outcomes. Additional forecasts on what happens next will also support the scientific standard for prediction of future events.
Though I have mentioned many weaknesses of Bormann's symbolic convergence theory, generally, the theory provided me with beneficial insights on the process of group cohesion. Without cohesion, it is difficult and unenjoyable for a group to accomplish the task or goal at hand. Bormann provides a useful alternative for looking at interpersonal communication within a group, and understanding how cohesion is formed through the symbolic convergence theory.
Griffin, E. (1997). A first look at communication theory (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Jackson, B. (1997). Linking the immediate with the mass-mediated theatre in organizations: