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Types of Social Groups in Society

Image of a social group of people in a work office

 What is a Social Group?

 Before we can look at the types of social groups in society, we need to define what a social group is.

 A Social Group will consist of people (two people or more) who share the same characteristics, mix with each other, and together will have a sense of oneness.

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 There has to be some form of cohesion within the Social group. It cannot just be a random assortment of people who, by chance, are thrown together for a few moments.

   Social cohesion can be created by:

  1. A shared interest;
  2. Shared values;
  3. The same ethnic background;
  4. The same social background;
  5. Family ties.

 For a social group to exist, members must identify with the group, and that other members see each other as part of the group. Some social scientists also state that there must also be an element of interdependence. This is still under debate.

 This is a very broad description of social groups of any size. Society, as a whole, could fit this definition and could, therefore, be described as a group that shares culture and relationship to geographic boundaries.

   Examples of Groups:

  1. Groups of friends;
  2. Family;
  3. Local religious congregations;
  4. Clubs;
  5. Companies;
  6. Local chapters of fraternities and sororities.

 A simple way of deciding if a collection of people refers to we when talking about themselves.

 Now to look at the Types of social groups in society a bit closer.

Image of a group of people following each other

     Primary Groups.

   A primary group can be defined as a small group which has the following features:

  1. They have a concern for one another;
  2. They share culture and activities;
  3. Members spend significant amounts of time in each other’s company.

 A primary group has the relationship, rather than any external goal, as the reason for it to exist.

   The American Sociologist C.H.Cooley defined a primary group as having the following components:

  1. They should be direct;
  2. Relatively permanent;
  3. Face to face;
  4. Intimate.

 Cooley never used the term secondary groups, but accepted later to be all other groups that were not primary.

 Examples of primary groups are families and close friends.

     Secondary Groups.

 Secondary groups typically are larger than primary groups, they are impersonal, and they have defined goals. They are also usually of a temporary nature. Secondary group membership will not normally occur until later in life than primary ones.

 They are unlikely to exert a significant influence on an individual’s identity. Primary groups are essential for the health of the individual and that of society, but secondary groups play an important role as well.

 Secondary groups tend to create solutions and assist in meeting goals that are required to help society function correctly. They also play an important part in connection to the workplace and assist individuals to perform as part of the workforce more effectively.

 Maintaining relationships within the group is not a function of the secondary-group, and relationships within secondary groups are not strong (as in primary groups). Members of secondary groups are unlikely to have much personal knowledge of one another.

   Examples of secondary groups might include:

  1. Employment;
  2. A sports team;
  3. A university class;
  4. A military unit.

     In Groups and Out Groups.

 Here we look at groups from a different perspective. An in-Group is a group to which the individual believes he/she belongs. An out-Group is a group to which the individual believes he/she does not belong.

 An individual will show favoritism/partisanship towards an in-group and will seek to find reasons why the in-group is superior to the out-group. These reasons why the in-group is superior may be insignificant. However, since membership of a group is part of the way an individual improves their self-esteem, they will seek out reasons why their group is superior over the out-group. This belief is called “Group bias.”

     Intergroup Aggression.

 Any action that intentionally harms another individual because they are seen to be in the out-group is called intergroup aggression. This is an inverted form of in-group bias.

 If the in-group feels threatened by the out-group or their beliefs are challenged by the outgroup, thus threatening their feelings of superiority, then they will respond with aggression towards the out-group.

 This perceived “conflict of interest” between the in-group and the out-group result in aggression towards the out-group, and this aggression is demonstrated in dehumanizing the out-group, which makes it easier to deny the out-group the treatment that would be normal in society.

 Part of this process is the belief that members of the in-group are diverse, while members of the out-group are all the same. A simple illustration of one facet of this is demonstrated by an experiment that was carried out some time ago. In the experiment white students were shown a selection of random faces. Some were black and some were white.

Handshake of people of different nationalities

 Later they were asked about the faces and the result was that the students were able to remember the white faces they had previously seen far more frequently than they could remember the black ones. When the experiment was repeated with black students, the reverse was true.

 This same in-group to out-group aggression was utilized by Adolph Hitler when the National Socialist Party promoted the concept of the Aryan Race as an in-group and then built the sense of superiority of the Aryan in-group over the out-group, consisting mainly of Jews and Gypsies.

 The out-group was dehumanized which made it easier to allow them to be treated in ways that would not be acceptable normally. We all know where that leads.

 Of course, not all group conflicts are so dramatic in the end result as Hitler and his Aryan Group. Thinking back in recent history, we see ISIS who saw themselves as an in-group who were able to treat members of the out-group with such barbarity.

 We think of the issue of Brexit in the UK, where the company was divided into two groups, Leavers and Remainers. In the debate, Leavers would see several diverse reasons why members of their group held the opinion that they wished to leave the EU, and at the same time, characterized the Remainers as all being “Lefties.” The Remainers did exactly the same, recognizing that their side had diverse views leading them to the wish to remain in the EU.


 Using these definitions of Primary Group, Secondary group, In-Group, and Out-group, we can look at our society with a totally different perspective.

 Think about what Social groups that you belong to. Consider what membership of that group means to you. How do you feel about tour in-groups and out-groups? Be brutally honest, and it could change your view of society.

   Read an interesting post: Do Humans Have Herd Mentality?

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