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Chapter 5: Groups and Organizations

5.1 Social Groups

Social Issues in the News

“Arrests Made in Vandalism Spree,” the headline said. In March 2010, three high school students, two juveniles and one 18-year-old, allegedly spray-painted obscenities on cars, homes, and an elementary school in Muncie, Indiana. A police captain said, “I think they just started out to do a friend’s house. The thing kind of carried away after that and went nuts through the rest of the neighborhood.” The estimated damage was in the thousands of dollars and was so extensive that the 18-year-old suspect was charged with a felony. The police captain said the boys felt sorry for their vandalism. “They probably wish they could take it back, but it happened and it’s a lot of damage.” (Werner, 2010)

This news story depicts an unusual group activity, spray-painting. It is likely that none of these teens would have done the spray-painting by himself. If so, this news story reminds us of the importance of the many groups to which people typically belong. The English poet John Donne (1573–1631) once wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself; Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” (Donne, 1839, pp. 574–575). Obviously meant to apply to both sexes, Donne’s passage reminds us that we are all members of society. At the more micro level, we are all members of social groups and categories. As we have seen in previous chapters, sociologists look at us more as members of groups and less as individuals, and they try to explain our attitudes and behavior in terms of the many groups and social backgrounds from which we come. For these reasons, sociology is often considered the study of group life, group behavior, and group processes. This chapter discusses the importance of many types of groups for understanding our behavior and attitudes and for understanding society itself. We will see that groups are necessary for many of our needs and for society’s functioning but at the same time can often lead to several negative consequences, as the story of vandalism in Muncie illustrates.

Social Groups

A consists of two or more people who regularly interact on the basis of mutual expectations and who share a common identity. It is easy to see from this definition that we all belong to many types of social groups: our families, our different friendship groups, the sociology class and other courses we attend, our workplaces, the clubs and organizations to which we belong, and so forth. Except in rare cases, it is difficult to imagine any of us living totally alone. Even people who live by themselves still interact with family members, coworkers, and friends and to this extent still have several group memberships.

It is important here to distinguish social groups from two related concepts: social categories and social aggregates. A is a collection of individuals who have at least one attribute in common but otherwise do not necessarily interact. Women is an example of a social category. All women have at least one thing in common, their biological sex, even though they do not interact. Asian Americans is another example of a social category, as all Asian Americans have two things in common, their ethnic background and their residence in the United States, even if they do not interact or share any other similarities. As these examples suggest, gender, race, and ethnicity are the basis for several social categories. Other common social categories are based on our religious preference, geographical residence, and social class.


A social aggregate is a collection of people who are in the same place at the same time but who otherwise have nothing else in common, such as a crowd at a sporting event. Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels.

Falling between a social category and a social group is the , which is a collection of people who are in the same place at the same time but who otherwise do not necessarily interact, except in the most superficial of ways, or have a common identity. The crowd at a sporting event and the audience at a movie or play are common examples of social aggregates. These collections of people are not a social category, because the people are together physically, and they are also not a group, because they do not really interact and do not have a common identity unrelated to being in the crowd or audience at that moment. That said, a sociologist could find patterns of categorical relations between members of a seemingly unrelated population. For instance, compare the aggregate at a Whole Foods store to the aggregate at a Walmart store and you will see find similar categories. With these distinctions laid out, let’s return to our study of groups by looking at the different types of groups that sociologists note.

Primary and Secondary Groups

A common distinction is made between primary groups and secondary groups. A is usually small, is characterized by extensive interaction and strong emotional ties, and endures over time. Members of such groups care a lot about each other and identify strongly with the group. Indeed, their membership in a primary group gives them much of their social identity. Charles Horton Cooley, who proposed the looking-glass-self concept discussed previously, called these groups primary, because they are the first groups we belong to and because they are so important for social life. The family is the primary group that comes most readily to mind, but small peer friendship groups, whether they are your high school friends, an urban street gang, or middle-aged adults who get together regularly, are also primary groups.

Our primary groups play significant roles in so much that we do. Survey evidence bears this out for the family. Figure 6.1 “Percentage of Americans Who Say Their Family Is Very Important, Rather Important, Not Very Important, or Not at All Important in Their Lives” shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans say their family is “very important” in their lives. Would you say the same for your family?

Figure 6.1 Percentage of Americans Who Say Their Family Is Very Important, Rather Important, Not Very Important, or Not at All Important in Their Lives


Source: Data from World Values Survey, 2011.

Ideally, our primary groups give us emotional warmth and comfort in good times and bad and provide us an identity and a strong sense of loyalty and belonging. Our primary group memberships are thus important for such things as our happiness and mental health. Much research, for example, shows rates of suicide and emotional problems are lower among people involved with social support networks such as their families and friends than among people who are pretty much alone (Maimon & Kuhl, 2008). However, our primary group relationships may also not be ideal, and, if they are negative ones, they may cause us much mental and emotional distress. In this regard, the family as a primary group is the setting for much physical and sexual violence committed against women and children (Gosselin, 2010).


A secondary group is larger and more impersonal than a primary group and may be short-lived to achieve a specific purpose. Scouting organizations are an example of a secondary group. Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay.

Although primary groups are the most important ones in our lives, we belong to many more , which are groups that are larger and more impersonal and exist, often for a relatively short time, to achieve a specific purpose. Secondary group members feel less emotionally attached to each other than do primary group members and do not identify as much with their group nor feel as loyal to it. This does not mean secondary groups are unimportant, as society could not exist without them, but they still do not provide the potential emotional benefits for their members that primary groups ideally do. The sociology class for which you are reading this book is an example of a secondary group, as are the clubs and organizations on your campus to which you might belong. Other secondary groups include religious, business, governmental, and civic organizations. In some of these groups, members get to know each other better than in other secondary groups, but their emotional ties and intensity of interaction generally remain much weaker than in primary groups.

Reference Groups

Primary and secondary groups can act both as our or as groups that set a standard for guiding our own behavior and attitudes. The family we belong to obviously affects our actions and views, as, for example, there were probably times during your adolescence when you decided not to do certain things with your friends to avoid disappointing or upsetting your parents. On the other hand, your friends regularly acted during your adolescence as a reference group, and you probably dressed the way they did or did things with them, even against your parents’ wishes, precisely because they were your reference group. Some of our reference groups are groups to which we do not belong but to which we nonetheless want to belong. A small child, for example, may dream of becoming an astronaut and dress like one and play like one. Some high school students may not belong to the “cool” clique in school but may still dress like the members of this clique, either in hopes of being accepted as a member or simply because they admire the dress and style of its members.

Samuel Stouffer and colleagues (Stouffer, Suchman, DeVinney, Star, & Williams, 1949) demonstrated the importance of reference groups in a well-known study of American soldiers during World War II. This study sought to determine why some soldiers were more likely than others to have low morale. Surprisingly, Stouffer found that the actual, “objective” nature of their living conditions affected their morale less than whether they felt other soldiers were better or worse off than they were. Even if their own living conditions were fairly good, they were likely to have low morale if they thought other soldiers were doing better. Another factor affecting their morale was whether they thought they had a good chance of being promoted. Soldiers in units with high promotion rates were, paradoxically, more pessimistic about their own chances of promotion than soldiers in units with low promotion rates. Evidently the former soldiers were dismayed by seeing so many other men in their unit getting promoted and felt worse off as a result. In each case, Stouffer concluded, the soldiers’ views were shaped by their perceptions of what was happening in their reference group of other soldiers. They felt deprived relative to the experiences of the members of their reference group and adjusted their views accordingly. The concept of relative deprivation captures this process. Later in this chapter, relative deprivation is described as the essential first step to a social movement.

In-Groups and Out-Groups

Members of primary and some secondary groups feel loyal to those groups and take pride in belonging to them. We call such groups . Fraternities, sororities, sports teams, and juvenile gangs are examples of in-groups. Members of an in-group often end up competing with members of another group for various kinds of rewards. This other group is called an . The competition between in-groups and out-groups is often friendly, as among members of intramural teams during the academic year when they vie in athletic events. Sometimes, however, in-group members look down their noses at out-group members and even act very hostilely toward them. Rival fraternity members at several campuses have been known to get into fights and trash each other’s houses. More seriously, street gangs attack each other, and hate groups such as skinheads and the Ku Klux Klan have committed violence against people of color, Jews, and other individuals they consider members of out-groups. As these examples make clear, in-group membership can promote very negative attitudes toward the out-groups with which the in-groups feel they are competing. These attitudes are especially likely to develop in times of rising unemployment and other types of economic distress, as in-group members are apt to blame out-group members for their economic problems (Olzak, 1992).

Social Networks

These days in the job world we often hear of “networking,” or taking advantage of your connections with people who have connections to other people who can help you land a job. You do not necessarily know these “other people” who ultimately can help you, but you do know the people who know them. Your ties to the other people are weak or nonexistent, but your involvement in this network may nonetheless help you find a job.

Modern life is increasingly characterized by such , or the totality of relationships that link us to other people and groups and through them to still other people and groups. Some of these relationships involve strong bonds, while other relationships involve weak bonds (Granovetter, 1983). Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and other Web sites have made possible networks of a size unimaginable just a decade ago. Social networks are important for many things, including getting advice, borrowing small amounts of money, and finding a job. When you need advice or want to borrow $5 or $10, to whom do you turn? The answer is undoubtedly certain members of your social networks—your friends, family, and so forth.


Rather than chatting with one another while waiting for their train, these strangers are interacting with friends and family through their online social networks. The internet has not only changed how we network, but also how we interact with those around us in our daily lives. Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels.

All other things being equal, if you had two people standing before you, one employed as a vice president in a large corporation and the other working part time at a fast-food restaurant, which person do you think would be more likely to know a physician or two personally? Your answer is probably the corporate vice president. The point is that factors such as our social class and occupational status, our race and ethnicity, and our gender affect how likely we are to have social networks that can help us get jobs, good medical care, and other advantages. As just one example, a study of three working-class neighborhoods in New York City—one white, one African American, and one Latino—found that white youths were more involved through their parents and peers in job-referral networks than youths in the other two neighborhoods and thus were better able to find jobs, even if they had been arrested for delinquency (Sullivan, 1989). This study suggests that even if we look at people of different races and ethnicities in roughly the same social class, whites have an advantage over people of color in the employment world.

Gender also matters in the employment world. In many businesses, there still exists an “old boys’ network,” in which male executives with job openings hear about male applicants from male colleagues and friends. Male employees already on the job tend to spend more social time with their male bosses than do their female counterparts. These related processes make it more difficult for females than for males to be hired and promoted (Barreto, Ryan, & Schmitt, 2009). To counter these effects and to help support each other, some women form networks where they meet, talk about mutual problems, and discuss ways of dealing with these problems. An example of such a network is The Links, Inc., a community service group of 12,000 professional African American women whose name underscores the importance of networking (http://www.linksinc.org/index.shtml). Its members participate in 270 chapters in 42 states; Washington, DC; and the Bahamas. Every two years, more than 2,000 Links members convene for a national assembly at which they network, discuss the problems they face as professional women of color, and consider fund-raising strategies for the causes they support.

Groups and Social Change

As we consider ways to try to improve society, or change it, the role of groups and organizations becomes very important. is when norms and values of a culture and society change over time. There are, arguably, many explanations for what causes social change, as discussed earlier. This section addresses the role of the group in social change.

One individual can certainly make a difference, but it is much more common for any difference to be made by individuals acting together—that is, by a group. In this regard, it is very clear that groups of many types have been and will continue to be vehicles for social reform and social change of many kinds. Many of the rights and freedoms Americans enjoy today were the result of committed efforts by social reform groups and social movements of years past: the abolitionist movement, the women’s suffrage movement and contemporary women’s movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, and the environmental movement, to name just a few.


As a result of the gay rights movement, attitudes towards and laws related to the LGBTQ+ community have changed dramatically over the past century. Photo by 42 North from Pexels.

These are all intentional actions done collectively by a group who has organized to change something about society. Social movements do not come out of nowhere; they originate in social groups that feel entitled to something they do not have access to but should. This feeling of relative deprivation is an essential component in social change because a social movement would likely not move forward if the members of the group did not all believe that they deserved something more. Recall the discussion of societal transformation; social movements initiated by people who are feeling deprived compared to others in their society can even cause a replacement of the dominant ideology, as suggested by Marx’s theory.

Once a group recognizes its relative deprivation, coalescence of the movement takes place. People begin to plan events that will draw media attention and get the word out; this also helps the group obtain financial support. As the number of members grows, the group strengthens socially and politically. A social movement often evolves into a formally organized entity with little to no effort. As funds increase, the group is able to afford paid staff and so a hierarchy of authority develops, with leaders at the top. Buildings and other infrastructure are added to the list of costs. Once in the Institutionalization phase, a social movement works much like a business so much so that it can be hard to maintain focus on the original goals of the social movement. Social movements eventually end with accomplishing its goals, an evolution to a new goal or a failure to accomplish its goals.

In contemporary societies, there are innumerable social service and social advocacy groups that are attempting to bring about changes to benefit a particular constituency or the greater society, and you might well belong to one of these groups on your campus or in your home community. All such groups, past, present, and future, are vehicles for social reform and social change, or at least have the potential for becoming such vehicles.


Key Terms

Aggregate — a collection of people who are in the same place at the same time but who otherwise do not necessarily interact or have a common identity.

Category — a collection of individuals who have at least one attribute in common but otherwise do not necessarily interact.

Group — consists of two or more people who regularly interact on the basis of mutual expectations and who share a common identity.

In-group — groups that we feel loyal to and take pride in belonging to.

Out-group — groups that we are not in and that we would describe as “they”.

Primary group — usually small and is characterized by extensive interaction and strong emotional ties that endure over time.

Reference group — a group that sets a standard for guiding our own behavior and attitudes.

Secondary group — larger, more impersonal and often exist for a relatively short time to achieve a specific purpose.

Social change — occurs when norms and values of a culture and society change over time.

Social movement — intentional actions done collectively by a group who has organized to change something society

Social network — the totality of relationships that link us to other people and groups and through them to still other people and other groups.


Continue to 5.2 Group Dynamics and Behavior


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Exploring Our Social World: The Story of Us by Jean Ramirez, Rudy Hernandez, Aliza Robison, Pamela Smith, and Willie Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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