Unit 2: Groups


groupsHuman beings are social animals. Most of our activity is conducted within groups. As you will learn in the unit on socialization, much of what we learn comes from the various groups that we associate with. Our associations with other individuals in groups produces the opportunity to create situations of either cooperation or conflict. To better understand the importance of groups, let’s take a look at the different types of groups and how they have an impact on our lives.

Types of Groups

Many of us share space with other people, but this does not always mean that we are in a group. An aggregate is a group of individuals who temporarily share the same physical space but who do not see themselves as belonging together. An example would be people waiting in a checkout line at the store. A category is when people share a similar characteristic, such as blue eyes, women, homeowners, college students, or Moslems. Members in a category may know that others like them hold the same status, but most are  strangers.

primarygroupGroups on the other hand, are different from the examples above. Groups are individuals who think or see themselves as belonging together. There is interaction between members. There are two major headings of groups. The first type of group is the primary group. Primary groups are groups that through face to face interaction, give us our identities, a feeling of who we are. Our family and close friends are examples of primary groups. Primary groups provide one of the most basic of human needs- a sense of belonging. Primary groups tend to be small in number. The group’s values and identity become part of our identity. Members of primary groups share personal and enduring relationships.

secondarygroupA second category of group is the secondary group. Secondary groups tend to be larger, more anonymous, and based on some interest or activity. Members interact on the basis of specific roles. Examples of such interaction would be supervisor-worker, and teacher-student. Secondary groups often fail to meet our needs of intimate associations. Because of this, they tend to break down into primary groups (cliques). A special type of secondary group is voluntary associations. This is a group made up of volunteers who organize on the basis of some mutual interest. Individuals involved in such associations often form close friendships and form primary groups. The differences between primary and secondary groups is outlined in the table below.

Primary Group Secondary   Group
Quality of Relationship personal, intimate goal orientated
Duration of Relationship long lasting, lifetime commitment often short term
Type of Relationship broad, many activities narrow, few activities
Perception of Relationship an end to themselves, enduring a means to an end, short lived
Examples family, friends, military unit co-workers, students in a   classroom

inoutgroupAnother classification of groups involves in-groups and out-groups. In-groups are groups towards which we feel loyalty to and a sense of belonging towards. Out-groups are groups towards which we feel conflict towards. In-groups produce a sense of loyalty and superiority. This leads to discrimination of out-group members. Think of high school rivalries, or conflict between members of different ethnic or racial groups. All in-groups and out-groups operate on the “us” and “them” principle. Those in the in-group have desirable characteristics, those in the out-group do not. Tensions between the groups sharpen the groups’ boundaries and provide group members with a clearer social identity. Related to in and out group behavior is the concept called “the iron law of oligarchy”. The term “the iron law of oligarchy” refers to how many organizations come to be dominated by an “inner circle” or “elite”. This inner circle is distrustful of those not in it and tend to pass leadership positions on to other inner circle members. Political parties in the United States would be an example of the iron law of oligarchy.

referencegroupAs individuals, we all have reference groups. Reference groups are the groups we use as standards to evaluate ourselves. They may include family, an organized church, an organization, or a class. Reference groups operate as a form of social control, acting as a yardstick for us to gauge our behaviors and beliefs. The nurses pictured left may serve as a reference group and inspire others to enter the nursing profession. Sometimes a conflict can exist when using a reference group as a measure of standards. For example, if your parents are pacifists and you want to join the military, there could be a conflict.

We have all probably recognized that when in a large group, there are a few people within the group that we associate with more than others. The links between people, who may constitute family members, friends, coworkers, or “friends of friends”, are called social networks. Although the social ties of a social network may be weak, they can be a powerful resource. Think of when there is a job opening at a small business. The phrase, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” applies to social networks, as does the phrase “old boys network”. The term networking is used to describe how people try to overcome the inequalities created by such social networking. For example, in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, American blacks used networking to overcome the social injustice created by a segregated society.

Group Dynamics

All of us have looked at our membership in groups and wondered how it is we interact with other group members. Such factors as group size and leadership styles influence how we influence groups and how groups influence us. Ask yourself, how do act in a one on one relationship with a friend, as a student in a classroom, or as a citizen of this country? When you are one of the first to arrive at a party, how does everyone present interact? What happens to the conversation when large numbers of people arrive? The information below will help explain your personal experiences in a group.

dyadSociologists use the term group dynamics to refer to how groups affect us and how we affect groups. Throughout our daily lives, we interact in small groups and large groups. A small group is a group small enough for everyone to interact directly with all other members. The sociologist George Simmel has contributed much to the understanding of small group behavior. He coined the term dyad to refer to the smallest group possible, a group of two. A couple who is dating or a couple who are married are examples of a dyad. Dyads are the most intense relationship because there is only one person to give attention to. A triad refers to a group of three. Every group size three members or large brings in the possibility of the formation of coalitions. A coalition is when some group members align themselves against others. Think of a triad which consists of a mother, father, and child. If the child wants something and finds one of the parents not meeting his/her demands, the child might turn to the other parent and form a coalition against the parent that did not meet the child’s demands.

1. Group Dynamics

Effects of Group Size

Group size effects the attitudes and behaviors of group members. As a small group grows larger, it becomes more stable. For example, in a dyad if a couple breaks up, the group is dissolved. But if someone leaves a larger group, such as a sports team, the group can survive the loss of a member. Another effect of group size is the larger the group, the less intimacy it has. As the size of the group increases, the sense of responsibility of doing something for the group decreases. We tend to think that it is someone else’s job. Finally, as the size of the group increases, members break off into smaller groups that provide needed intimacy. You probably have noticed this if you have attended an office party or Super Bowl party.


Group Leaders

The ability or inability to lead others is demonstrated in both large and small groups. Who and what is a leader? A leader is someone who influences the behaviors and opinions of others. In small groups, the leadership role may shift between members. In larger groups leaders are placed in a formal chain of command. There are two types of leaders:

Instrumental. This person is a task orientated leader. Such a leader tries to keep the group moving towards it goals. Because of the emphasis on the completion of tasks, instrumental leaders tend to have formal relationships with group members, and reward or punish people according to their contribution to the group’s efforts.

Expressive. This person is a socioemotional leader. Such a leader cracks jokes, offers sympathy and tries to improve moral before attempting to reach a goal. Such leaders receive more affection from group members than do instrumental leaders.

Traditionally, men as fathers and husbands were instrumental leaders and women, as mothers and wives, have been expressive leaders. As gender roles have changed, men and women now rely on both instrumental and expressive leadership. When looking at instrumental and expressive leaders, ask yourself which type of leader your mother and father were.

Leaders also have different leadership styles. There are three main leadership styles. They are:


1) authoritarian. This type of leader is someone who likes to give orders. Authoritarian leaders assign tasks and establish working conditions. This type of leadership style may be useful in times of crisis. Instrumental leaders often rely on this type of leadership style.

2) democratic. This type of leader is someone who tries to gain a consensus from the group. This leader will ask for input and probably lean to the majority. Expressive leaders often rely on this leadership style. They will often seek to include everyone in the group in the decision making process.

3) laissez-faire. This type of leader is someone who is highly permissive. This leader allows for a great deal of freedom. This leadership style allows the group members to function pretty much on their own. This style is usually the least effective in achieving group goals.

Good leaders will probably draw off of all three styles. Leadership styles need to be adapted according to conditions. What qualities make for a good leader? That question is still being debated. However, most leaders possess common characteristics, such as representing the group’s values, being more assertive, and being more confident.

Group Conformity

groupthinkThe most persistent problem with groups both large and small is the pressure on its members to conform to group norms. One problem with group conformity is called groupthink. Groupthink refers to when members think alike and any suggestion of alternatives is taken as a sign of disloyalty. Peer pressure can cause people to follow groupthink and commit horrible acts. Think of Nazi Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Or in modern times, the atrocities committed in Rwanda just a few years ago. Dr. Solomon Asch’s experiment on peer pressure and conformity is an important study on groupthink. His study demonstrated how peer pressure can get individuals to go conform to the group’s ideal even when their eyes told them otherwise. The influence of authority figures can also make us do horrible acts, as was demonstrated in the famous study done by Stanley Milgram. For more on these important studies, click on the links below.

Solomon Asch Study

Stanley Milgram Study

If Hitler Asked You to Electrocute a Stranger, Would You? Probably

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out–
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out–
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out–
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me–
and there was no one left to speak out for me. – Martin Niemoller


Modern Organizations and Rationalization

For the past few centuries, humans have organized in larger and larger groups. How do these large groups reach their goals? The sociologist Max Weber has provided a framework for understanding organizational behavior.

The first place to start is the important role Weber gave to rationalization. Rationalization is the process which uses logical assessment of the most efficient means as a way to solve a problem or achieve a goal. Rationalization replaces thinking based on tradition, superstition, or on strong emotions such as love, hatred or revenge. For example, there are cultures that view trees as mysterious, and the home of spirits. These trees are to remain untouched. For a modern society based on rationalization, trees are a means to achieve a goal. They could be used for wood, paper, or a life saving drug. It must be remembered that rationalization does not always mean a better understanding or greater knowledge. It doesn’t mean we are always choosing the smarter way of doing something, just the most efficient.



Bureaucracies are a special type of group. Bureaucracies are formal organizations with a hierarchy of authority. Bureaucracies rely on rationalization and efficiency to achieve social goals that accommodate large numbers of people. Max Weber identified how bureaucracies have a number of characteristics. As you look at the characteristics below, think about your experience at a fast food restaurant. The characteristics include:

1. Clear cut levels or a hierarchy, with assignments flowing downward and accountability flowing upward. Each person is supervised by higher-ups. Fast food franchises are under the authority of the corporate office.

2. Specialization. Modern bureaucracies employ a division of labor. Each worker has a specific task. In a fast food restaurant, there are workers who take your order, make sandwiches, cleans the dining rooms, etc…

3. Written rules and regulations. Everyone must follow guidelines and procedures. There are training manuals, guidelines for such things as how many pickles go on a hamburger, etc…

4. Written Communications. Lots of record keeping, sending memos, paperwork. Such things as shift schedules, new products, sales, etc…

5. Impersonality. You work for the company. You probably don’t know the boss (at the corporate level at least )on a first name basis.

6. Technical competence. Much of the work in a bureaucracy requires meeting standards and monitoring workers performance. To keep track of numerous records, ever changing new technology is used. Workers in modern bureaucracies need to be familiar with various forms of technology.

Problems Associated With Bureaucracies

Bureaucracies can create problems of their own. A few of the problems associated with bureaucracies are described below.


1. Bureaucratic inefficiency and ritualism. Because of the large size of modern bureaucracies, it may take undo time to complete tasks and provide services. The term “red tape” refers to the inefficiencies of bureaucracies from the strict adherence of following rules and regulations.

2. Bureaucratic alienation. The drive for efficiency has dehumanized the people who work in bureaucracies. People feel alienated or disconnected from their work. They begin to feel that instead of bureaucracies serving people, people are serving bureaucracies.

3. Bureaucratic inertia. Many workers in a bureaucracy are more interested in protecting their jobs than in meeting organizational goals. This means institutional change comes slowly, if at all. Even after a bureaucracy has met its goal, the bureaucracy will continue to exist. Bureaucracies have a tendency to perpetuate themselves. An example would be the Rural Electrification Department of the United States or the March of Dimes.

The McDonaldization of Society

mcdonaldizationThe phrase, “McDonalization of Society” refers to the process by which the organizing principles that underlie McDonald’s are coming to dominate our society and the world. We are increasingly relying on the “chain” restaurant or store to meet our needs. Technology is employed to find the most efficient means to reach a desired end. Think of drive up windows and ATM’s. The second element is calculability. This involves the emphasis on quantity over quality. Think of the phrases “supersize” or “value-meals”. A third component is predictability. People feel comfortable when they know what to expect. Someone visiting a McDonald’s in the United States, Germany, or Japan will recognize the restaurant surroundings and be comfortable ordering a Big Mac, fries, and a Coke. The final component is control. Here there is a move to replace human work by non-human technology. Machines make fewer mistakes than humans. Think of how many goods are pre-measured, pre-packaged, or how retail stores scan goods looking for the barcode. If we just look at fast-food restaurants, this reliance on rationality has made it possible to serve food to large numbers of people. But sometimes there is an “irrational” side to rationality. There are times when it takes longer to get food in the drive-through, than it does going into the store.

  1. The Irrationality of Rationality (I Love Lucy Skit)
  2. The McDonalization of Higher Education  (youtube video)


Max Weber coined the term, “the Rationalization of Society” to describe how bureaucracy rules and regulations would come to dominate our lives. Was he right? Do you feel that bureaucratic rules and regulations have an unduly influence on your life?

Technology and the Development of Human Society: The Four Social Revolutions

The growth of human society has gone through a series of stages. Human society began as hunters and gatherers. These societies were small ( 25 – 50). They expended a lot of energy and time looking for food. Because everyone had to work for the survival of the community, there was a high sense of equality. Limited technology leaves hunting and gathering societies to natural disasters such as storms, drought and disease.


The first social revolution occurred with the domestication of plants and animals. Pastoral societies domesticated animals. These societies are mobile. They follow the grazing of the herd. Horticultural societies domesticated plants. These societies stayed put and developed small towns. The domestication of plants and animals transformed human society. It allowed for the production of tools and other objects. It also brought about social inequality. People began to fight for goods. Males began to dominate society. As wealth grew, it became more concentrated.

The second social revolution occurred with the invention of the plow. The plow created Agricultural societies. The huge surpluses in food allowed cities to develop. This time period is known as the “dawn of civilization”. Culture and the arts came into being ( philosophy, math, etc…) An elite developed (kings, pharaohs, emperors, etc…)which surrounded itself with armed men. People became “subjects”. Social inequality grew to its highest levels. It is these type of societies where there were large numbers of serfs, slaves, and peasants.

industrialsocietyThe third social revolution occurred with the invention of machines. Industrial societies were the result. Industrial societies began to form at the end of the 18th century. The Industrial Revolution created the ability to manufacture large quantities. With the Industrial Revolution, there is a huge migration of people from the countryside into cities, where they are looking for work in factories. How people interacted with one another also changed. The traditional beliefs, values, and customs of an agricultural society were replaced by other values and norms necessary to survive in small, densely populated cities. This age also produced inequalities between the have and the have-nots. On the positive side, it also increased life spans, allowed for more democracy, and minority rights.

The fourth social revolution occurred when information became the most important commodity. The new society is referred to as a post industrial society. By definition, a society becomes post-industrial when more than 50% of its workforce is employed in the service sector. Workers in a post industrial society offer information and services instead of raw materials and manufactured goods. The United States became the world’s first post industrial society in the late 1950’s. Post-industrialism has also changed the way we interact with one another and how we view the world.

What Holds Society Together?

The question of what holds societies together has perplexed people for a long time. Emile Durkheim answered this question by saying there is a social “cement” that holds society together. For Durkheim the social cement was tradition. Durkheim wrote that in pre-industrial societies, communities were shaped by mechanical solidarity, meaning that social bonds were based on a shared morality. People felt a mechanical, or automatic sense of belonging together. There was an emphasis on social order and cohesion based on common thinking and behavior. In comparison, organic solidarity describes social bonds based on specialization. Unlike mechanical solidarity where people interact with one another based on sameness, interactions in organic solidarity occur with people who are different. Industrialized societies are based on specialization. In organic societies, we rely on one another through mastering a special set of skills, not through familiarity. Why do we put our faith in people we hardly know? According to Durkheim, because we couldn’t live without them.

amishThe German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies also looked at what holds society together. He used the terms Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft to describe how societies have changed. Gemeinschaft refers to an “intimate community” based on tradition where everyone knows everyone else. In the United States the Amish would be an example of a Gemeinschaft community. Gesellschaft refers to our modern society where impersonal and short term relationships crowd out family ties and personal connections.

On Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft

Regardless of the terms used, it is evident that the social structure in society is changing, and the way we act, feel, and think about the world around us will change as well.


actionSociology in Film

Below are a list of movies that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

The Outsiders. This movie has enough material to be useful in other units. This film explores sociological concepts such as in-groups and out-groups, and group conformity.

Schindler’s List. The Nazi experiment in Germany provides an in depth look at the worst thing that can happen to an out-group: extermination.

The Village. This film looks at such sociological topics as Durkheim’s mechanical solidarity and Tonnies Gemeinschaft, as well as the socialization process.

Lord of the Flies. This film explores many sociological topics, from in and out groups to what holds society together.

books03Sociology in Books

Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1. The McDonaldization of Society, by George Ritzer

2. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

3.  Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter  by Cass Sunstein



Brym, Robert J.
2003 Sociology: Your Compass For A New World Canada: Wadsworth Thomson Learning

Ferrante, Joan

2000 Sociology: The United States in a Global Community United States: Wadsworth Thomson Learning

Henslin, James M.
2000 Essentials of Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach (3rd Edition) Boston: Allyn and Bacon

Macionis, John J.

1999 Sociology. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall

Copyright ©2002, 2013 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved

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