Interview with Professor Robert Freed Bales

Master’s Series on Field Research
Interview with Professor Robert Freed Bales (1916-2004)
Professor Emeritus, Harvard University


Peter Blanck interviews Professor Robert Freed Bales about his career developing practical methods of observation under adverse conditions in the field. Professor Bales discusses the origin and development of his approach entitled SYMLOG (Systematic Multilevel Observation of Groups), the steps and challenges he faced in development, and methods of studying the dynamics of various sized group interaction. An example of an observation room for a SYMLOG group is shown and a SYMLOG kit, which allows a group to study its own dynamics without technical assistance, is described. Finally, Professor Bales reveals what he finds most fun about his work as a researcher.

Transcript File

Interview with Professor Robert Freed Bales -Transcript | Transcript (Text file)

From Harvard University Gazette archives online:

Bales was a pioneer in the development of systematic methods of group observation and measurement of interaction processes, including several technological innovations designed to facilitate observation itself and the rating of observed behavior in progress. His approach was set forth in technical detail in what he termed the SYMLOG system (an acronym for SYstematic MultiLevel Observation of Groups). SYMLOG became the focus of a consulting group devoted to the practical application of the method in managerial settings to assessment and training for team effectiveness, individual leadership potential, and related matters. His goal in all of his work, as expressed by himself in his last book, Social Interaction Systems: Theory and Measurement (1999), was the development of “a theory of personality and group dynamics integrated with a set of practical methods for measuring and changing behavior and values in a democratic way.”

Bales was deeply interested in the role of individual values in the generation of conflict or cooperation in human social groups of all sizes. His analysis of the processes that lead to consensus concerning effective forms of interpersonal behavior and of group survival cast light on conflicts of ideology such as that between democratic and authoritarian societies.

For many years, Bales taught a popular undergraduate course on group psychology, centering around a practicum experience. Students were divided into two self-analytic groups that explored their own interactions as a basis for learning about the problems faced in groups by members and leaders. Furthermore, each group made systematic observations of the other group’s interaction and fed back to that group the results of their observations.

Bales also played a central role in graduate training. For many years, starting in the late 1960s, he chaired the Doctoral Program in Social Psychology. When the Department of Social Relations broke up with the sociologists’ decision to form a separate Department of Sociology, he opted to stay with what was originally (and, in fact, until Bales’s retirement in 1986) called the Department of Psychology and Social Relations and to continue as Chair of the Social Psychology Program.