Social Groups

Social groups and organizations comprise a basic part of virtually every arena of modern life. Thus, in the last 50 years or so, sociologists have taken a special interest in studying these scientific phenomena from a scientific point of view.

A social group is a collection of people who interact with each other and share similar characteristics and a sense of unity. A social category is a collection of people who do not interact but who share similar characteristics. For example, women, men, the elderly, and high school students all constitute social categories. A social category can become a social group when the members in the category interact with each other and identify themselves as members of the group. In contrast, a social aggregate is a collection of people who are in the same place, but who do not interact or share characteristics.

Psychologists Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif, in a classic experiment in the 1950s, divided a group of 12‐year‐old white, middle‐class boys at a summer camp into the “Eagles” and the “Rattlers.” At first, when the boys did not know one another, they formed a common social category as summer campers. But as time passed and they began to consider themselves to be either Eagles or Rattlers, these 12‐year‐old boys formed two distinct social groups.

In-groups, out-groups, and reference groups

In the Sherifs' experiment, the youngsters also erected artificial boundaries between themselves. They formed in‐groups (to which loyalty is expressed) and out‐groups (to which antagonism is expressed).

To some extent every social group creates boundaries between itself and other groups, but a cohesive in‐group typically has three characteristics:

  • Members use titles, external symbols, and dress to distinguish themselves from the out‐group.

  • Members tend to clash or compete with members of the out‐group. This competition with the other group can also strengthen the unity within each group.

  • Members apply positive stereotypes to their in‐group and negative stereotypes to the out‐group.

In the beginning, the Eagles and Rattlers were friendly, but soon their games evolved into intense competitions. The two groups began to call each other names, and they raided each other's cabins, hazed one another, and started fights. In other words, loyalty to the in‐group led to antagonism and aggression toward the out‐group, including fierce competitions for the same resources. Later in the same experiment, though, Sherif had the boys work together to solve mutual problems. When they cooperated with one another, the Eagles and Rattlers became less divided, hostile, and competitive.

People may form opinions or judge their own behaviors against those of a reference group (a group used as a standard for self‐appraisals). Parishioners at a particular church, for instance, may evaluate themselves by the standards of a denomination, and then feel good about adhering to those standards. Such positive self‐evaluation reflects the normative effect that a reference group has on its own members, as well as those who compare themselves to the group. Still, reference groups can have a comparison effect on self‐evaluations. If most parishioners shine in their spiritual accomplishments, then the others will probably compare themselves to them. Consequently, the “not‐so‐spiritual” parishioners may form a negative self‐appraisal for not feeling “up to par.” Thus, reference groups can exert a powerful influence on behavior and attitudes.

Primary and secondary groups

Groups play a basic role in the development of the social nature and ideals of people. Primary groups are those in which individuals intimately interact and cooperate over a long period of time. Examples of primary groups are families, friends, peers, neighbors, classmates, sororities, fraternities, and church members. These groups are marked by primary relationships in which communication is informal. Members of primary groups have strong emotional ties. They also relate to one another as whole and unique individuals.

In contrast, secondary groups are those in which individuals do not interact much. Members of secondary groups are less personal or emotional than those of primary groups. These groups are marked by secondary relationships in which communication is formal. Members of secondary groups may not know each other or have much face‐to‐face interaction. They tend to relate to others only in particular roles and for practical reasons. An example of a secondary relationship is that of a stockbroker and her clients. The stockbroker likely relates to her clients in terms of business only. She probably will not socialize with her clients or hug them.

Primary relationships are most common in small and traditional societies, while secondary relationships are the norm in large and industrial societies. Because secondary relationships often result in loneliness and isolation, some members of society may attempt to create primary relationships through singles' groups, dating services, church groups, and communes, to name a few. This does not mean, however, that secondary relationships are bad. For most Americans, time and other commitments limit the number of possible primary relationships. Further, acquaintances and friendships can easily spring forth from secondary relationships.

Small groups


A group's size can also determine how its members behave and relate. A small group is small enough to allow all of its members to directly interact. Examples of small groups include families, friends, discussion groups, seminar classes, dinner parties, and athletic teams. People are more likely to experience primary relationships in small group settings than in large settings.

The smallest of small groups is a dyad consisting of two people. A dyad is perhaps the most cohesive of all groups because of its potential for very close and intense interactions. It also runs the risk, though, of splitting up. A triad is a group consisting of three persons. A triad does not tend to be as cohesive and personal as a dyad.

The more people who join a group, the less personal and intimate that group becomes. In other words, as a group increases in size, its members participate and cooperate less, and are more likely to be dissatisfied. A larger group's members may even be inhibited, for example, from publicly helping out victims in an emergency. In this case, people may feel that because so many others are available to help, responsibility to help is shifted to others. Similarly, as a group increases in size, its members are more likely to engage in social loafing, in which people work less because they expect others to take over their tasks.

Leadership and conformity

Sociologists have been especially interested in two forms of group behavior: conformity and leadership.

The pressure to conform within small groups can be quite powerful. Many people go along with the majority regardless of the consequences or their personal opinions. Nothing makes this phenomenon more apparent than Solomon Asch's classic experiments from the 1950s and 1960s.

Asch assembled several groups of student volunteers and then asked the subjects which of the three lines on a card was as long as the line on another card. Each of the student groups had only one actual subject; the others were Asch's secret accomplices, whom he had instructed to provide the same, though absurdly wrong, answer. The experimenter found that almost one‐third of the subjects changed their minds and accepted the majority's incorrect answer.

The pressure to conform is even stronger among people who are not strangers. During group‐think, members of a cohesive group endorse a single explanation or answer, usually at the expense of ignoring reality. The group does not tolerate dissenting opinions, seeing them as signs of disloyalty to the group. So members with doubts and alternate ideas do not speak out or contradict the leader of the group, especially when the leader is strong‐willed. Group‐think decisions often prove disastrous, as when President Kennedy and his top advisors endorsed the CIA's decision to invade Cuba. In short, collective decisions tend to be more effective when members disagree while considering additional possibilities.

Two types of leaders normally emerge from small groups. Expressive leaders are affiliation motivated. That is, they maintain warm, friendly relationships. They show concern for members' feelings and group cohesion and harmony, and they work to ensure that everyone stays satisfied and happy. Expressive leaders tend to prefer a cooperative style of management. Instrumental leaders, on the other hand, are achievement motivated. That is, they are interested in achieving goals. These leaders tend to prefer a directive style of management. Hence, they often make good managers because they “get the job done.” However, they can annoy and irritate those under their supervision.