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Chapter 5: Social Structure, Social Interaction and Social Groups

5.2 Social Groups

As you read in Chapter 1, social structure takes a predictable form (pictured below in the graphic from Chapter 1 showing how parts of the social structure nest inside one another). The roles a person plays depend on their status at the time, which guide social interaction accordingly. The next component of social structure are the social groups we belong to that give meaning to the statuses we have. Your status as a student is only relevant to the groups you belong to related to your education, such as a member of this sociology course. This begs the question: what are social groups?

graphic of 4 circles layered in each other, labeled statuses, social groups, social institutions and society.

Parts of the social structure typically nest inside one another. The social structure is interconnected, each part influencing the other, and each shaping the experience of individuals.

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 are 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 are 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.

image of baseball stadium

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. Tim Gouw 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 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 theory 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 5.3 “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 5.3 Percentage of Americans Who Say Their Family Is Very Important, Rather Important, Not Very Important, or Not at All Important in Their Lives

Bar graph showing Percentage of Americans Who Say Their Family Is Very Important, Rather Important, Not Very Important, or Not at All Important in Their Lives, with 91% saying very important, 7.1% saying rather important, 1.6% saying not very important and .2% saying not at all important.

Source: Data from World Values Survey, 2017-2020.

Ideally, our primary groups give us emotional warmth and comfort in good times and bad and provide us with 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).

image of students sitting in classroom interacting with one another

A secondary group is larger and more impersonal than a primary group. Since it exists to achieve a specific purpose, it may be short-lived. College classes are an example of a secondary group. Fredler Brave – Public domain – Wikimedia Commons

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 both act 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.


Think Like a Sociologist

Old advertisement for dental cream stating, "Lovely teeth kept lovely because Kolynos Dental Cream cleans in between." On the poster is a blond woman.

Advertisements use the principles of reference groups to sell us products by depicting members of a desirable group using an item. Consumers subconsciously make a connection between the two, and get the message that, for example, they can be like the pretty woman in the Kolynos ad if they used Kolynos dental cream to brush their teeth. Welcome Images – CC BY 4.0 – Wikimedia Commons

People use reference groups to evaluate themselves and as a guide for how to behave. They may not even belong to the reference group that influences them, such as when a high school student compares themself to college students. Advertising taps into this tendency, particularly when it presents the middle class, which is the most desirable social class in America. Members of the middle class are shown buying certain cars, drinking particular beers, and going to certain restaurants – even if the target consumer is not in the middle class.

Can you think of an advertisement that demonstrates the use of reference groups to sell products?


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).


Think Like a Sociologist

Chapter 3 had an extensive discussion of the concept of ethnocentrism, or the tendency to judge other groups or cultures using standards relevant to the groups or cultures to which we belong.

How does ethnocentrism relate to in-groups and out-groups?


Social Networks

graphic hsowing 9 people in separate bubbles, yet all connected together with arrows.

The individual on the top left does not know the individual on the bottom right personally, but the mutual connections in their social network could allow them access to each other. Gerd AltmanPixabay

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.

image of 3 people standing on a train platform, each looking at their cellphone

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 with others, but also how we interact with those around us in our daily lives. Rawpixel.comPexels

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 Latinx—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 (https://linksinc.org/). 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.


Think Like a Sociologist

If you have a social media account online, look at the group of friends who you are linked to through social media.

To what degree are they similar to you?

What impact might similarity within social groups have on your opportunities and outcomes?


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 LGBTQ+ rights movement, and the environmental movement, to name just a few.

image of "Love is Love" banner

As a result of the LGBTQ+ rights movement, attitudes towards and laws related to the LGBTQ+ community have changed dramatically over the past century. 42 NorthPexels

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.

Test Yourself


Section 5.2 References

Barreto, M., M. K. Ryan and M. T. Schmitt, (Eds.). (2009). The glass ceiling in the 21st century: Understanding barriers to gender equality. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. 

Gosselin, D. K. (2010). Heavy hands: An introduction to the crimes of family violence (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. 

Granovetter, M. (1983). The strength of weak ties: A network theory revisited. Sociological Theory, 1, 201–233. 

Home. Links. (2021, January 11). Retrieved January 20, 2022, from https://linksinc.org/.

Maimon, D. and D. C. Kuhl.  (2008). Social control and youth suicidality: Situating Durkheim’s ideas in a multilevel framework. American Sociological Review, 73, 921–943. 

Olzak, S. (1992). The dynamics of ethnic competition and conflict. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

Stouffer, S. A., E. A. Suchman, L. C. DeVinney, S. A. Star and R. M. Williams, Jr. (1949). The American soldier: Adjustment during army life.  Studies in Social Psychology in World War II, Vol. 1. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

Sullivan, M. (1989). Getting paid: Youth crime and work in the inner city. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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Griffiths, Heather, Nathan Keirns, Eric Stayer, Susan Cody-Rydzewski, Gail Scaramuzzo, Tommy Sadler, Sally Vyain, Jeff Bry and Faye Jones.  (2015).  Introduction to Sociology 2E. OpenStax. Houston, TX.  License: CC BY 4.0.  License Terms:  Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/introduction-sociology-2e/pages/1-introduction-to-sociology.

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