Social Groups: definition, features & classification

In our day-to-day life and socialactivities, we interact with each other, belonging to a group of some kind. Thestudy of group is central to any sociological investigation.

Definition of a Social Group

The term group has a specialmeaning in sociology because it represents a concept that is central to any sociologicalanalysis. Quite several definitions have been given to the term group bydifferent sociologists.

Generally, a social group is definedas the collectivity or set of people who involve in more or less permanent or enduringsocial interactions and relationships. Members of a social group have commonbasis for interaction and shared characteristics, a feeling of identity or belongingness,shared psychology or consciousness and a definite set of norms to govern thebehaviors of the individual participant in the group

Basic Features of a Social Group

In their sociological analysis ofthe group behavior of human society, sociologists have identified some essentialelements of a social group. For a set or collectivity of people to be a socialgroup, it has to have the following essential traits or features (Calhoun etal,

1994)

  1. Members of thegroup continue to interact with one another;
  2. Membershiprequires living by norms that are special to the group;
  3. Members vieweach other as part of the group; members feel some sense of identification withthe group and with one another; and there is a social boundary between membersand non-members;
  4. Members arefunctionally integrated through role and status relationship in the groupstructure; and
  5. Others seemembers as group.

Social interaction among themembers is relatively permanent; it is not causal. Common interests should characterizeas a basis for interaction. There are shared values, beliefs and lifestyles.The emotional, shared consciousness is also important. The feeling of belongingnessis very important. Social norms and values govern behavior of group members.

All of the following are examplesof social groups, from the smallest possible level to the largest possible. A dyad(made up of two persons like fianc├ęs, husband and wife), a family, a group ofstudents in a dormitory, peer group, a friendship, an ethnic group, acommunity, a nation, a continent, a university, an organization, etc.

Classification of Groups

Sociologists have classifiedgroups into two basic classifications, namely, primary and secondary groups.

The classification of groups intoprimary and secondary is mainly based on: (a) the quality of relationship betweenor among the members of the group, and (b) the degree of group identity.People, for example, generally feel more loyal to their family and closefriends than to the companies for which they work (Henslin and Nelson, 1995).

Primary Groups and Their MainFeatures

Charles H. Cooley was the firstsociologist to use the term primary groups to describe such groups as family, neighborhoodand children’s play groups. Such groups were the ”nursery of human nature”where the essential sentiment of human group loyalty and concern for others couldbe learned.

Primary groups are distinguished by someof the following characteristics:

  • There is face-to-face interaction among members.
  • There is high sentiment or loyalty.
  • Identification (group identity) and close cooperationamong members
  • There is a high level of emotional, spiritual satisfactionto be derived from involvement in primary social groups.
  • Concern for friendly relations as an end in themselves,not as a means to an end.
  • Primary groups are often small in size.
  • Primary group gives its members (individuals) their”first acquaintance with humanity”.
  • Primary groups, for a child, are a school for learningthe ways of human interaction and the give and take of working and playingtogether.

Secondary Groups and Their MainFeatures

Secondary groups are the moreformal types of groups to which peoples belong. To start with clearlydefinitive examples, the Federal Army, Lion’s Club, Ethiopian

Commercial Bank, etc, aresecondary groups. As organizations, secondary groups do not give people the feelingof close identity that primary groups give.

Considerable effort must bedevoted to making people proud of the corporation for which they work, and thistype of pride, if it is achieved at all, is not primary group sentiment. Onecan still be lost in the great organization; there is not the same sense ofpsychological security.

Main features (traits) of secondarysocial groups include:

  • There is little or no emotional involvement.
  • Members are more competitive than cooperative.
  • Members are less intimate.
  • Group identity is less relevant.
  • Economic efficiency is given higher emphasis thanpsychological identity.
  • The group is mainly a means to an end rather than anend in itself.
  • Membership is unlimited.

Some critical observations must bemade concerning the classification of groups.

  1. Primary andsecondary groups are ideal types, i.e. types represented as opposite poles forthe sake of analysis. In concrete life situations, most relations are notpurely primary or secondary, but come somewhere between, examples: school,church, etc.
  2. A secondreservation about primary secondary group classification is that primary groupsmay be formed with in secondary groups.

In other words, the classificationof social groups into primary and secondary should not be taken as a sort of dichotomy.It should rather be considered as a continuum, i.e. at the two extreme ends,there may be crystallized primary and secondary groups, and in between the twoextremes, there are mixtures of the two types.

Quasi-Social Groups

Quasi-groups are those kinds ofsocial groupings which lack the essential features of social groups. In thiskind of grouping, there may be no functional integration among members. There arelittle or no structured and patterned social relationships. This kind of socialinteractions is common in modern, industrial and complex societies. It is morecommon in urban heterogeneous settings. They characterize individualisticsocieties. Such groups lack meaningful social structures and socialinteraction. There are two types of quasi groups: aggregates and categories.

1.      Aggregates

A social aggregate is quasi-socialgrouping in which two or more people are physically together at a certain time andat a certain place. There is physical proximity without enduring social interaction.There is no shared psychological-identity. However, out of this kind of groupinga real social group can emerge. Examples of an aggregate include: two or morepeople in a- taxi, bus, air plane, an elevator, a busy city street, in acafeteria, a stadium, in a market, in a hospital ward, etc.

Anonymity in the midst of crowdbehavior usually characterizes aggregates. Such condition may lead to theproblem of sense of alienation, dehumanization, sense of being lost,depression, social stress and other psychosocial problems. Suicide is verycommon in urban than rural areas and mental illness is more increased in societiescharacterized by anonymity, individualism, and heterogeneity.

2.      Categories

This is a quasi-group whichconsists of a plurality or collectively of people who are physically dispersed,but who share common traits and interests. It refers to a social class; or agroup of people who are more or less of similar lifestyles, and physical andpsychosocial characteristics. There may be little or no social interaction,social structure, social norms, etc. but there is the feeling of belongingness,even though the people may never know each other. However, gradually, a meaningfulsocial grouping can grow out of a category.

Examples of a social categoryinclude: all female students in higher learning institutions in Nigeria; all femaleengineers in Nigeria; all students from rural background, HIV positive persons,etc.

  • Discussthe difference between social groups andquasi-social groups.
  • Identifythe elements of social group influence that youthink have become part of your personality, life style,life choices and goals. Which of your life philosophies,likes and dislikes are not the productsof social influence,i.e., that are just your own idiosyncrasies?

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