Social Groups: Definition, Types, Importance, Examples

Definition: A social group refers to two or more individuals who share a common social identification, and who perceive themselves to be members of the same social category Hence, the shared perception or understanding that the individual feels as though they belong to a group is instrumental in defining a social group. It is this shared perception that distinguishes social groups from aggregates, this shared perception is referred to as social identification. An aggregate is a group of people who are at the same place at the same time, for example, a number of individuals waiting together at a bus stop may share a common identification, but do not perceive themselves as belonging to a group, hence a collection of individuals waiting at a bus stop are an aggregate and not a social group. Another collection of individuals that needs to be distinguished from social groups are categories, categories consist of sets of people who share similar characteristics across time and space. A similar characteristic can be race or gender, again the feeling of belonging amongst the individuals involved is what distinguished individuals in a social group and individuals in a category.

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Types of Social Groups

Social groups are of two kinds- primary and secondary groups. The former is small and tightly knit, bound by a very strong sense of belonging, family is a typical example of this kind of social group. In this type of group, the common interest shared amongst the individuals is the emotional attachment to the group in and of itself. Conversely, secondary groups are large impersonal groups, whose members are bound primarily by a shared goal or activity as opposed to emotional ties. For this reason, individuals typically join secondary groups later in life. Employees at a company would constitute as a secondary group. As individuals within a secondary group grow closer they might form a primary group, wherein the individuals are no longer goal-oriented but are instead a group based on emotional connection.

Lastly, reference groups refer to a group to which an individual or another group is compared. Sociologists call any group that individuals use as a standard for evaluating themselves and their own behaviour a reference group. The behaviours of individuals in groups are usually considered aspirational and therefore are grounds for comparison. From the existence of multiple groups, one can also make the distinction between in-groups and out-groups. This distinction is entirely relative to the individuals, hence reference groups are typically out-groups ie. groups that an individual is not a part of, though an individual may aspire to be a part of the reference group.

The acknowledgment of in-groups and out-groups is relevant to an individual’s perception and thus behaviour. Individuals are likely to experience a preference or affinity towards members of their groups,, this is referred to as in-group bias. This bias may result in groupthink, wherein a group believes that there is only one possible solution or mindset which will lead to a consensus. These poor decisions are not the result of individual incompetence when it comes to decision making but instead but instead due to the social rules and norms that exist in the group, such as the nature of leadership and the nature of homogeneity.

A byproduct of in-group bias is intergroup aggression- experience feelings of contempt and a desire to compete to the members of out-groups. This desire to ‘harm’ members of the out-group is a result of dehumanization wherein the members of the out-group are less they deserve the humane treatment. It is a combination of intergroup aggression and groupthink which often results in harmful prejudice. The dehumanization of out-groups is often used as a political agenda. A notable example from history is the way that the Jewish community (out group) were dehumanized by Nazis (in group), through means such as stereotyping. Hence, prejudice can be a result of extreme intergroup aggression.

Group Behaviour and Social Roles

Within a social group individuals typically display group behaviour, which is seen through the expression of cohesive social relationships. This group behaviour is likely the result of social or psychological interdependence for the satisfaction of needs, attainment of goals or consensual validation of attitudes or values. Hence, group behaviour which is expressed through cooperative social interaction hinges on interdependence. It is this group behaviour that yields the development of an organized role relationship. Social roles are the part people play as members of a social group. With each social role you adopt, your behaviour changes to fit the expectations both you and others have of that role. In addition to social roles, groups also create social norms- these are the unwritten rules of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours that are considered acceptable in a particular social group. The ability to develop roles and norms which are guided by a common interest is referred to as social cohesion.  The behaviour attached to the norms and roles fulfilled by individuals within a certain social group is usually not the same behaviours exhibited when that individual is not with their group ie. social interaction theory. For example, in a family (which is a social group) a mother is likely not to behave in the way she would in another social group such as at her place of work.

All social groups have an individual who fulfils the leadership role, a leader is an individual who influences the other members of a group, their position may or may not be explicitly stated.

Leadership function considers the intention by which the leader behaves on, either instrumental or expressive. An instrumental leader is focused on a group’s goals, giving orders and making plans in order to achieve those goals. An expressive leader, by contrast, is looking to increase harmony and minimize conflict within the group. In addition to leadership function, there are also three different leadership styles. Democratic leaders focus on encouraging group participation as obsessed with acting and speaking on behalf of the group. Secondly, laissez-faire leaders take a more hands-off approach by encouraging self-management. Lastly, authoritarian leaders are the most controlling by issuing roles to members and setting rules, usually, without input from the rest of the group.

In secondary groups, every member is has a definitive role, however as secondary groups are goal oriented the roles differ from group to group. It is also not uncommon within secondary groups for roles to change. For example, in a school research assignment, initially individuals may fulful roles such as writer, illustrator, researcher, etc in order to write a report. But in the second half which is focused on presenting the repot, members may take up new roles such as presenter, debator, etc, as the goals of the group shifts.

Norms can be simply defined as the expectations of behaviour from group members. These norms which dictate group behaviour can largely be attributed to the groups’ goals and leadership styles. However norms need not only be the result of in-group occurrences, reference groups oftentimes dictate what is and what is not acceptable behaviour. Typically there are norms that apply to the group as a whole known as general norms. Additionally,  there are also norms that are role-specific. For example consider a family (ie. a primary group) everyone in the family attends dinner at 8 pm, while the father cooks dinner and the child sets the table. Everyone attending dinner is a general norm while the act of cooking dinner and setting the table are role-specific to the father and child, respectively.

The Importance of Social Groups

Social groups, primary groups, such as family, close friends, and religious groups, in particular, are instrumental an individuals socialization process. Socialization is the process by which individuals learn how to behave in accordance with the group and ultimately societies norms and values. According to Cooley self-identity is developed through social interaction. Hence, from an identity perspective, primary social groups offer the means through which an individual can create and mold their identity. The development of identity is most rapid and crucial in childhood, hence the importance of family and friends, but the development of identity does continue throughout one’s life. Additionally, from a psychological perspective, primary groups are able to offer comfort and support. Secondary groups, such as members of a group assignment, tend to have less of an influence on identity, in part because individuals within these types of groups are older and hence have a self-identity as well as are familiar with the socialization process.

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Natasha D'Mello is currently a communications and sociology student at Flame University. Her interests include graphic design, poetry and media analysis.