Primary & Secondary Groups
This article focuses on primary and secondary groups. These two types of groups differ in their main characteristics, the function they serve for group members, and the group members' qualitative experience of each. Understanding the role that primary and secondary groups play in social life is vital for all those interested in the sociology of social interaction. This article explores the sociology of primary and secondary groups in four parts: an overview of the main principles of primary and secondary groups; a discussion of Charles H. Cooley and the primary group concept; an exploration of the history of small group research; and a description of primary and secondary group studies, including research on primary and secondary group kin relations, public opinion making in primary and secondary groups, primary and secondary group relations with large formal organizations, and primary and secondary group boundaries and norms.
Keywords Collective Behavior; Congenial Primary Group; Cooley, Charles Horton; Primary Group; Secondary Group; Social Interaction
Social Interaction in Groups
Sociologists divide and classify groups into primary and secondary groups. These two types of groups differ in their main characteristics, the function they serve for group members, and the group members' qualitative experience of each. Understanding the role that primary and secondary groups play in social life is vital for all those interested in the sociology of social interaction. This article explores the sociology of primary and secondary groups in four parts: an overview of the main principles of primary and secondary groups; a discussion of Charles Horton Cooley and the primary group concept; an exploration of the history of small group research; and a description of primary and secondary group studies, including research on primary and secondary group kin relations, public opinion making in primary and secondary groups, primary and secondary group relations with large formal organizations, and primary and secondary group boundaries and norms.
The Main Principles of Primary
Depending on the primary or secondary nature of a group, a group's norms, values, laws, boundaries, and roles may be rigid and official or flexible and casual. Primary groups are characterized by their small size, intimate relationships, and shared culture. Examples of primary groups include families, sports teams, hobby clubs, and close friendships. People tend to find emotional connection and psychological comfort in their primary group, which in turn has an influence on their opinions and identity. Individuals may belong to more than one primary group. Secondary groups are characterized by their large size, impersonal nature, and interchangeability of individual roles. Individuals almost always belong to multiple secondary groups.
Primary Group Characteristics
Primary group refers to small groups that last long enough to form emotional attachments between members, differentiated roles, and a group subculture. Examples of primary groups include informal work associations, families, gangs, or parent/child play-groups. Sociologist Charles Horton Cooley introduced the primary group concept in the early twentieth century. Primary groups describe the numbers of people who interact directly and intimately with each other, such as families, gangs, or friendly peer groups that are usually fairly small in membership. Primary groups are considered to have been the main social organization of traditional pre-industrial society. (In contrast, secondary groups are considered to be the main social organization of modern industrial society.) Primary groups are characterized and identified by their social-psychological dimensions, with member orientation toward other members and inter-member orientation as definitive elements. Primary groups require a unity or connection separate from any formal system or institution; it is often the emotional quality of the primary group relationship provides the necessary bond (Bates & Babchuck, 1961).
Secondary Group Characteristics
Secondary groups refer to groups of people who are not emotionally involved with one another but come together for a practical purpose such as a class, military exercise, or corporate work group. Secondary groups on a massive scale, such as religions, military and political groups, corporations, and factories, are referred to as associations. Secondary groups are characterized by their more formal and institutionalized nature. In some instances, secondary groups may contain multiple primary groups. For example, as members of secondary groups develop emotional ties with one another, primary groups form from these relationships. The primary and secondary nature of groups tends to affect the dynamics and decision-making abilities of the group.
Sociologists distinguish primary and secondary groups through the measurement of variables including the size of the group, the group's duration, frequency of member contact, age composition of group, and sex of members. Sociologists have found that the frequency of contact and hours of contact per week are strong predictors of intimate interactions and primary group status. Primary groups require significant auditory, visual, and associational contact and interactions to build familiarity and trust between members (Fischer, 1953).
Charles H. Cooley
Charles H. Cooley (1864–1929) was a sociologist committed to the study of social life and worked to understand the mental processes that result from social interaction. He believed that the fundamental facts of social life are mental, with individual and group behaviors existing as manifestations of mental phenomena. Cooley was an "arm chair sociologist" who based his ideas more on observations in daily life than objective research (Angell, 1930). The notion of a primary group was introduced in his book entitled Social Organization (1909) and the concept quickly became entrenched in sociological theories of human groups and classifications. Cooley's later book, entitled Social Process (1918), discusses the process of human life, personal aspects of social processes, degeneration, social factors in biological survival, group conflict, valuation, and intelligent processes. Cooley had strong views on the relation between organization and conflict and the opportunities inherent in culture and class relations (Holfe, 1920).
Cooley's primary group concept became a fundamental part of twentieth- century sociological thought (Lee, 1964). Cooley intended primary groups to mean those groups characterized by intimate association and cooperation and believed that secondary groups formed in response to the shift from agrarian to industrial societies. Primary groups, according to Cooley, are primary in nature because they play a fundamental role in the formation of their identity and ideals (Sherif, 1954). Ideals cited as part of primary group membership surrounds the presence of gregarious and sociable human beings. Cooley was particularly interested in the congenial primary group; a group consisting of members who maintain frequent, direct communication with one another for the sake of mutual enjoyment. Members of congenial primary groups tend to have sympathetic, positive feelings toward one another. Out of necessity, congenial primary groups tend to be limited in size. The addition of members changes the dynamics of the group and risks the growth of discord and animosity (Clow, 1919).
Small Group Research
Sociologists consider a group to be any number of people who interact with each other and share common expectations about each other's behavior. Sociological study of groups is part of sociologists’ larger concern for the connection between social structure and collective behavior. Sociological studies of primary and secondary groups are part of the small group research field. Small group research of primary and secondary groups tends to be divided into studies about group composition, group structure, and group process (McGrath, 1978). Research on the group character and composition of primary and secondary groups tends to focus on group size and member characteristics. Group members bring qualities and characteristics to the group that influence the group as a whole; such characteristics include biographical characteristics such as age, race, sex, and class; personality characteristics; abilities of members; attitude of members; and the social position and role of the member in the group. Research has shown that there is no set formula for forming an effective group based on member characteristics.
Research on the group structure and relations between individuals in primary and secondary groups tends to focus on communication networks and friendship networks. Studies of communication networks were popular in the 1940s and 1950s. In particular, the success of centralized and decentralized communication channels is of great interest to small group researchers. Centralized networks have been found to produce faster and more accurate communication. Friendship networks are studied to understand the interpersonal nature of interconnectedness and interpersonal relations in groups. Researchers have found that group cohesiveness is higher in...
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