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Alfred de Grazia: Discovering National Elites





When men organize to accomplish specific purposes, they often begin their tasks by series of informal, "off-the-record" discussions. They may meet informally, making no definite commitments as to their positions in regard to the subject under discussion. They "want to see all angles," "shake the bugs out of a proposition." They may say, "This looks pretty good to me, but I cannot speak for my company (or church, or party), but I will take it up with them (formally) and you do the same with your group and we will see what can be done."

Informal groupings in society represent flexible social structures in contra-distinction to more rigid institutional structures. Informal group discussions are an important means by which society "makes up its mind" related to a particular direction for action. The value structures of informal groups are less rigid, less absolute than those of institutions. Their value systems tend to be pragmatic, that is, "if a thing works, it is good."


VIII-1. Traits of informal association. Informal groups have no constitutions, written rules of procedures, or binding traditions to guide them. They may develop quasi-traditional way of acting, but so long as they remain informal, the ways may be easily changed to meet specific circumstances. Informal power groupings are usually seeking ways to accelerate action, to expedite it, to find short-cuts around cumbersome institutionalized procedures, and to effect change with the least amount of disruption of the institutionalized groups of which they are auxiliaries.

An informal group has both manifest and latent functions. That is, it has a loosely stated purpose and its actions are apparently aimed at this visible goal. This is its manifest function. In addition, it may also do things and express ideas that serve individual members in a manner quite unrelated to the expressed aim of the group. For example, a small group may decide to hold informal meetings to discuss means of increasing the community water supply. The manifest function is getting more water. But by meeting together and the group may gain increased business. And if the project is successful, the whole group may gain community prestige. None may have had these latter purposes in mind at the beginning of the meetings, but these functions of group activity were latent in the situation.

Again, it may be stressed that one looks at what men do. As one sees what is being done, social structures become apparent. Informal structures are often taken for granted. They appear to be friendly gatherings. They may seem trivial in their purpose, but if looked at for their functional significance, they may give one clues to the directions taken by related larger and more formal institutional groupings.

There can be no hard and fast line drawn between formal and informal social groups, and yet, when one sees a group operating without publicity, with no formal record of its activity with changeable membership, and with relatively few members, it is likely that the group is purely informal. Political caucuses are well-known example of informal groups. Such groups may continue to be informal, become formal, or dissolve.

VIII-2. Dysfunctional groups. A word may be said here concerning dysfunctional groups. Not all informal group activities are correlated to the over-all well being of the larger society or community. Some groups may function informally to subvert the larger system, or they merely may be

"misguided" in their aims. Through discussion and trial-and-error activities, they may finally come to conclusions in conformity with the ongoing interests of society. Nevertheless, such groups, in operation, are dysfunctional to the system in which they act, regardless of the "rightness" or "wrongness" of their cause.

Gossip cliques in a corporate structure, critical of top management, might be an example. Regardless of the merit contained in the gossip, it usually is dysfunctional to the corporation. In this case, the gossip activity may be functional to the smaller group while being dysfunctional to the whole group. Functional evaluation is, of course, subjective and related to the observer. One check is to have different observers evaluate the same phenomena. This will result in more objective conclusions.

No matter how informal a group may be, it will have a leader or leaders. Such leaders are often leaders in the more formal organizations. Formal organizations operate social institutions, but the identification of elite leaders who are engaged in informal activities may throw light on formal movements within organizations.

VIII-3. Boundaries of informal groups. The manifest function of the informal group will suggest its limitation to individuals with some relationship to the stated goal. But since latent functions also are important, they may have much to do with the delineation of informal group membership. A regular, informal gathering of public relations people, for example, might have no more manifest function than to provide a congenial gathering at luncheon time. Yet this group might serve the latent function of providing a place where politics, literature, or a variety of subjects could be discussed. The group could also be a social device for exclusion. It might limit its membership to certain persons considered "desirable" and keep out those who "would not fit." Such a latent function of inclusion-exclusion is always a characteristic of a group.

The rules of inclusion and exclusion may be vaguely defined or unstated in an informal group, in contrast to those of formal associations and institutions. Yet most persons recognize whether they are included or excluded from an informal group, even though there is no formal statement of membership qualifications. They know, for example, that only persons of a certain religion, racial background, economic status, social position, party affiliation, or business connection can belong to this or that informal group.

Thus the operator may often discover both membership and limitations upon it of the informal group from the non-member. But the excluded person probably will have only general knowledge of the inside workings of the informal group. Such information can usually not be obtained in detail, except from members of the group itself.

VIII-4. Using ‘hidden’ informal groups as channels. Many informal groups may be unknown to the majority of persons in a culture or community. Many may be of relative unimportance, but the informal groups of the elite are important to seek out, to inquire about, because they are often channels of access to the most influential decision-makers. The operator may not find himself included in an informal elite circle, but by knowing members he may approach them individually and know that his information will eventually be carried into the informal group for discussion. The informal "grapevine" is often a powerful and swift channel of communication.

Informal groups operate in and criss-cross through formal organizations. In many large scale organizations, one often hears the statement made, "the man to see on such and such a project is John Doe." Doe may not have the title of "running the show." Top decisions may be made by the chairman of the board of the corporation, but Doe is still the man to see. Why? Simply because, in all likelihood, Doe is the person who can go most quickly to the chairman and get a decision. Many men in corporate positions refuse to retire at an early enough age to allow for vigorous prosecution of their own work, or they may rely heavily on technical persons in relation to certain decisions. These angles must be explored to ascertain the best channels of contact in relation to any given project. No set rule can be laid down here, but it may be emphasized that the organization chart of a corporate grouping will not reveal the informal channels that make the whole group function adequately. See Figure 3.


Figure 3

In studying the organization structure, the official organization chart is obtained. Sociometric ratings based on with whom most time is spent in getting work done are superimposed over the formal organization chart. In all samples, there are noticeable deviations between the formal organization and the informal organization as revealed by the sociometric ratings. An index of deviation to show in statistical terms the amount of deviation is in process of development.

In this figure, the formal organization chart is shown in solid lines with the pattern of interpersonal relationships in checked lines. The checked lines show the first two choices; that is, the two persons within the group with whom most time is spent. The arrow points in the direction of the person named. Thus, number 51 named number 1 and number 511 and number 1 named number 2 and number 51. One can see what are sometimes called "violations" of the organization chart. The studies of various staff suggest that "violations" are a normal activity. The informal or interpersonal work structure represents day-to-day relationships. Staffs are usually fairly familiar with the organization chart, but little has been done to acquaint staff members with an understanding of the "interpersonal chart."

The informal structure is one index of the dynamics of getting work done, and it appears that for efficiency it will necessarily deviate from the formal structure. Extreme deviations, however, may hamper rather than promote efficiency.

*Carroll L. Shartle, "Leadership and Executive Performance," Personnel (1949), reprinted and copyrighted, 1949, by the American Management Association. Reproduced with the permission of the American Management Association.

VIII-5. Discovery of informal groups. The easiest way to locate the informal elite structures of a community or a nation is to identify the formal elite structures first, and then ask oneself, "what really makes them work?" The stated purposes of an organization may be so general and highly abstract that they have little meaning in terms of action, but the association may accomplish a great deal. How, then, is this done? A large measure of the activity of a formal organization is carried by informal methods. "Off the record" meetings, informal luncheons overlapping club memberships of association members, social knowledge of members of one another, card games on the breakfast car coming into New York, civic, educational, and project committees of many sorts may all be points at which influentials meet to come to a like-mindedness on social, political, moral, and economic questions. Places in which men eat, sleep, play, are all likely spots for developing groups that may have profound bearing on formal decisions.

In every formal organization the process of delegating responsibilities for the execution of projects is a continuing task of the organization leadership. The process does not end with naming a formal chairman of a committee, for example, but continues with further delegation by the man named. To know the persons called upon to act, time and again, on behalf of a formal organization, is to make a beginning at understanding the operations of it, but to go a step further and see whether these persons habitually use an informal group to stimulate their ideas, and to carry out details of operations is to begin to trace out informal patterns of behavior.

VIII- 6. Access to top elite information via informal groups. It may well be that in some instances, access to the top elite of both the formal and informal organizations will be denied the operator. In such cases, the whole patterning of action, from its formal to its informal aspects is highly important and highly relevant work for the operator, for it will lead him to persons who can contact those higher on the hierarchical line and transmit the information he wishes to disseminate to the target persons. For a power structure is of one piece, operating up and down gradations of influence, with messages and information going up and down the line. The further from the source of decision one finds oneself, the less formalized may be the modes of operating in relation to a given policy, and the greater the number of informal actors who in various ways have access to others higher in the power gradient than they.

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