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Social Groups and Organizations

Group Classifications

Groups, Aggregates, and Categories

Social Integration

Humans have a natural tendency to form groups, and a single person can be a part of several groups at a time.

Primary Groups and Secondary Groups

A person can belong to several groups at once, but not all of those groups will be of the same importance or have the same effect or role in his or her life.

A primary group offers a great deal of intimacy. Members of a primary group meet the following criteria:

  • Meet frequently on a face-to-face basis.
  • Have a sense of identity or belonging that lasts a long time.
  • Share little task orientation.
  • Have emotional intimacy.

A secondary group is more formal and less personal. Members of a secondary group meet the following criteria:

  • Do not meet frequently, or they meet only for short periods of time.
  • Share a sense of identity or belonging only until the group ends.
  • Are task-oriented.
  • Feel little emotional intimacy.

Example: A family is an example of a primary group, and an after-school job in a fast-food restaurant is an example of a secondary group.


Family (primary group)

After-school job (secondary group)

Frequency of meeting

Every day for years or decades

Several hours a week, probably less or none if the person finds a different job

Duration of sense of identity

A lifetime, despite changes in comp-osition (moving out, divorce, remarriage, or death)

Usually disappears when not at place of work

Task orientation

None. A person belongs to family simply by virtue of existence.

A person is there to accomplish a specific task and do his or her job.

Emotional intimacy

Strong. Family members see each other at their best and worst and are privy to one another’s feelings.

It is inappropriate to show strong emotion or to discuss personal problems. Relation-ships are generally impersonal and work-related.

In-Groups and Out-Groups

An in-group is a group to which we belong and to which we feel loyalty. An out-group is a group to which we do not belong and to which we feel no loyalty.

We judge people to be members of our group based on factors including religion, race, nationality, job category, and level of education. When we meet a person for the first time, we often size them up to see if they are “one of us.” One person’s perception of another to be a member of the same group can foment feelings of loyalty or shared identity. Individuals who meet by chance and happen to share something in common, such as their hometown or alma mater, often feel an immediate kinship.

Labels and Out-Groups

Sometimes we perceive a person to be a member of an out-group and interpret his or her behaviors very differently from our own. Men may think of another man who strives to succeed professionally as being “ambitious,” but they might label a woman who exhibits the same behaviors as being “pushy.” The members of a particular religious background might consider themselves “secure” in their beliefs but call members of another religion “self-righteous” for demonstrating similar levels of certainty in their respective religions.

Identifying a group as an out-group can serve several functions. By pointing out a group that we are not part of, we increase our commitment to the groups of which we are members. If we claim that a particular out-group espouses beliefs that we disavow, we confirm our ideological compatibility with the groups to which we belong. By claiming that an out-group is bad, we are implying that, in comparison, our group is good.

Reference Groups

The group to which we compare ourselves for purposes of self-evaluation is called a reference group.

Example: Susan graduates from college and lands a job as a marketing assistant in a large corporation. To find out whether the proposed salary is fair, she can compare the offer against those of the other members of her graduating class or against the salaries of marketing assistants at similar corporations nationwide. Her reference groups would be her graduating class and all marketing assistants, respectively.

Self-evaluation is largely a social phenomenon, in that we look for others with whom to compare ourselves. In our society, people compare themselves to others in similar age groups and with similar educational levels to determine how successful they are materially. If a person who rents an apartment sees that others of the same age and education own their own homes, his or her self-evaluation will be negative. On the other hand, if a person owns a home and a vacation home while his or her peers own only one home, his or her self-evaluation will be positive.

Specific Groups as Reference Groups

Primary or secondary groups can serve as a reference group.

  • If we feel stymied in our career progress, we look to our best friends to see how they are doing and then evaluate ourselves in comparison to them.
  • If we think that we should be paid more, we can look to other members of our company and see how much they are making.

A general category can also serve as a reference group. If a person worries about approaching thirty without being married, he or she can look at a general cross-section of thirty-year-olds to see whether the majority of them are married and adjust the self-assessment accordingly.

People often use celebrities as reference groups. If a woman wants to know whether she’s slim enough and uses a supermodel as a reference, the answer will probably be no. If she compares herself to a more full-figured woman, the answer might be yes. A young man who aspires to a career in sports will compare his career progress to that of his favorite player and judge himself by how closely his career mirrors that of his idol.

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