Social Groups and Organizations
Social integration is the degree to which an individual feels connected to the other people in his or her group or community.
Durkheim’s Study of Suicide
The term social integration first came into use in the work of French sociologist Émile Durkheim. Durkheim wanted to understand why some people were more likely than others to take their own lives.
Durkheim’s term for a lack of social integration was anomie. He concluded that three characteristics put some people at a higher risk of suicide than others, and that anomie was partly to blame:
- Gender (male): In most societies, men have more freedom and are more independent than women. While this might sound like a good thing, it can lead some men to feel that they have few significant relationships with other people and that it would be an admission of weakness to seek advice or comfort from others. This can lead to feelings of being cut off from a group or community.
- Religion (Protestant): Durkheim felt that Protestants were more likely to commit suicide than Catholics or Jews because the religious practices of the latter two religions emphasize the development of closer ties among their members. People who do not develop close ties with others are more likely to commit suicide.
- Marital status (single): Durkheim used the idea of social integration to explain the higher suicide rate among unmarried people. He concluded that people who were not married had fewer connections to other people and were less likely to feel part of the larger community.
Durkheim’s connection of social integration to the suicide rate is still relevant today. People who attempt suicide are much more likely to say they feel lonely and isolated from others and claim to have few significant relationships, confirming what Durkheim hypothesized over one hundred years ago.
The term group dynamics implies that our thoughts and behaviors are influenced by the groups to which we belong and that, in turn, we influence how the group as a whole thinks and behaves.
Example: Children’s behavior is influenced by the behavior of other children. Clothing styles, speech patterns, and mannerisms spread quickly among groups of children. When a few children in a classroom begin using a particular expression, soon all the kids in the class will be using the same expression.
This example illustrates two ways in which group dynamics work. First, one or two children adopt a mannerism and it spreads to the group. After the majority of the group has adopted it, it is very likely that other individual children will adopt it. Groups influence individuals, and individuals influence groups.
Adults are also influenced by the behavior of others. When adults voluntarily join a new group, they usually want to fit in and show others that they are worthy of membership. New members of a group are even more likely to be influenced by group dynamics because they don’t want to seem obstinate or contrary. It usually takes a while before the new member is able to influence the thoughts and behavior of the group.
Group Size and Member Interaction
Georg Simmel was one of the first sociologists to look at how the size of a group affects interactions among its members. Simmel believed that in a dyad, a group of two people, interactions were intense and very personal. He also believed that a dyad was the least stable category of groups. A marriage is an example of a dyad. Simmel further said that a triad, a group of three people, was much more stable because conflicts between two of its members could be mediated by the third person. In general, Simmel believed that larger groups were more stable than smaller groups, but that in smaller groups the interactions between members were more intense and more intimate.
In the early 1950s, Solomon Asch conducted an experiment that illustrated how strongly group membership can influence behavior. He found that one-third of the subjects he tested were influenced by the group’s consensus, even though the group was obviously incorrect.
The sociologist Irving Janis coined the term groupthink to refer to the tendency of people in positions of power to follow the opinions of the group to the point that there is a narrow view of the issue at hand. When groupthink operates, the emerging viewpoint is that there is only one correct course of action and anyone who disagrees is labeled as disloyal.
Example: President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his advisors concluded that the Japanese would never attack a U.S. installation. Some members of Roosevelt’s inner circle felt differently but were not assertive in voicing their opinions, since they did not want to contradict the group consensus and appear disloyal. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the general consensus was revealed to be incorrect.