Classification of Social Groups

Different sociologists have classified groups in different ways. Social groups are not only innumerable but also diverse. It is not possible to study all the groups. A systematic study of groups needs a classification. Various thinkers have chosen many criteria or bases for the classification of social groups such as size, kind of contact, nature of interests, degree of organisation and degree of permanence etc. Some of these bases have received more attention than others.

Dwight Sanderson has classified groups into three types on the basis of structure such as involuntary, voluntary and delegate groups. An involuntary group is that to which man has no choice, which is based on kinships such as the family, tribe or clan. A voluntary group is one which a man joins of his volition or wishes. At any time he is free to withdraw his membership from this group. A delegate group is one to which a man joins as a representative of a number of people either elected or nominated by them. Parliament or Assembly is a delegate group.

P.A. Sorokin, an American sociologist, has divided groups into two major types – the vertical and the horizontal. The vertical group includes persons of different strata or statuses. But the horizontal group includes persons of the same status. A nation, for instance, is a vertical group, while a class represents horizontal grouping.

F.H. Giddings classifies groups into genetic and congregate. The genetic group is the family in which a man is born involuntarily. The congregate group is the voluntary group to which he joins voluntarily.

George Hasen has classified groups into four types on the basis of their relations to other groups. They are unsocial, pseudo-social, antisocial and pro-social groups. An unsocial group is one that largely lives to itself and for itself and does not participate in the larger society of which it is a part. It does not mix up with other groups and remains aloof from them.

But it never goes against the interests of the larger group. A pseudo-social group participates in the larger group of which it is a part but mainly for its own gain and not for the greater good. An antisocial group is one, which acts against the interest of the larger group of which it is a part. A pro-social group is the reverse of an antisocial group. It works for the larger interest of the society of which it is a part.

C.H. Cooley classified groups on the basis of kind of contact into primary and secondary groups. In the primary group, there is a face-to-face, close and intimate relationship among the members such as in the family. But in a secondary group, the relationships among the members are indirect, impersonal and superficial such a the political party, a city and trade union etc.

W.G. Sumner made a division of groups into in-group and out-group. The groups with which the individual identifies himself are his in-groups such as his family, tribe, college, occupation etc. All other groups to which he does not belong are his out-groups.

Besides these above, the groups can be classified further into the following categories:

(i) Disjunctive and overlapping groups.

(ii) Territorial and non-territorial groups.

(iii) Homogenous and Heterogeneous groups.

(iv) Permanent and Transitory groups.

(v) Contractual and non-contractual groups.

(vi) Open groups and closed groups.

Thus, sociologists have classified groups into numerous categories according to their own way of looking at them.

In-group and Out-group:

William Graham Sumner, an American Sociologist in his book “Folkways” made the distinction between in-group and out-group from the individual point of view and it is based on preferential bonds (ethnocentrism) among the members of the groups. According to Sumner, “The groups with which the individual identifies himself are his in-groups, his family or tribe or sex or college or occupation or religion, by virtue of his awareness of likeness or consciousness of kind”. The individual belongs to a number of groups which are his in-groups; all other groups to which he does not belong are his out-groups.

In-groupness produces among the members the sense of belonging together which is the core of the group life. In-group attitudes contain some element of sympathy and a sense of attachment to the other members of the group. It embodies the collective pronoun ‘we’. The members of the in-group display cooperation, goodwill, mutual help and respect for one another’s rights.

They possess a sense of solidarity, a feeling of brotherhood and readiness to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the group. W.G. Sumner also said that ethnocentrism is a characteristic of the in-group. Ethnocentrism is that view of things in which one’s own group is the centre of everything and others are scaled and rated with reference to it. It is an assumption that the values, the ways of life and the attitude of one’s own group are superior to those of others.

An out-group, on the other hand, is defined by an individual with reference to his in-group. He uses the word ‘they’ or ‘other’ with reference to his out-group. Toward the members of out-group, we feel a sense of indifference, avoidance, disgust, hostility, competition or outright conflict. The relationship of an individual to his out-group is marked by a sense of remoteness or detachment and sometimes even hostility.

It is obvious that in-groups and out-group are not actual groups except in so far as people create them in their use of the pronouns ‘we’ and ‘they’ and develop a kind of attitude towards these groups. The distinction is nevertheless an important formal distinction because it enables us to construct two significant sociological principles. But the distinction between ‘we’ and ‘they’ is a matter of situational definition.

The individual belongs not to one group but to many groups, the membership of which are overlapping. As a member of a family, he is ‘we’ with the other members of that family, but when he meets in a club to which the other members of the family do not belong, these members become for him ‘they’ for limited purposes.

Mencius, the Chinese sage, said many years ago, “Brothers who may quarrel within the walls of their home, will bind themselves together to drive away any intruder”. Likewise, a wife serving in a women’s college becomes a member of the out-group for a husband serving in a men’s college, though husband and wife in the family are members of the in-group.

Thus, the distinction between in-group and out-group are not only overlapping, they are often confusing and contradictory. In short, an individual’s group identification changes in circumstances.

Primary Group:

The concept of the primary group was introduced by Charles Horton Cooley, in his book “Social Organisation” published in 1909. Though Cooley has never used the term ‘secondary group’, but while .discussing the groups other than those of primary, some sociologists like K. Davis, Ogburn and Maclver have popularised other groups such as secondary groups. Hence, the classification of primary and secondary groups is made on the basis of the nature of social contact, the degree of intimacy, size and the degree of organisation etc.

The Primary group is the most simple and universal form of association. It is the nucleus of all social organisation. It. is a small group in which a small number of persons come into direct contact with on another. They meet “face to face” for mutual help, companionships and discussion of common questions. They live in the presence and thought of one another. A primary group is a small group in which the members live together.

In the words of C.H. Cooley “By primary groups I mean those characterized by intimate face to face association and cooperation. They are primary, in several senses, but chiefly in that they are fundamental in framing the social nature and ideal, of the individual”. Such groups in Cooley’s phrase are “the nursery of human nature” where the essential.

Sentiments of group loyalty and concern for others could be learned. C.H. Cooley regards certain face-to-face associations or groups like the family, tribe, clan, playgroups, gossip groups, kinship groups, community groups, etc, as primary groups. These groups are primary because they are always “first” from the point of view of time and importance. “It is the first and generally remains the chief focus of our social satisfactions”.

Characteristics of a Primary Group:

Primary groups possess certain essential traits. The following are the characteristics of the Primary group.

Reference Group:

The term ‘reference group’ was coined by Herbert Hyman (1942) to apply to the group against which an individual evaluates his or her own situation or conduct. He distinguished between membership group to which people actually belong and a reference group that is used as a basis for comparison.

A reference group may or may not be a membership group. The term reference was introduced into the literature on the small groups by Muzaffar Sheriff in his book “An Outline of Social Psychology”. The concept was subsequently elaborated by R.K. Merton and Turner.

Strictly speaking, a reference group is one to which we do not actually belong but with which we identify ourselves or to which we would like to belong. We may actually belong to a group, yet we accept the norms of another group to which we refer but to which we do not actually belong. L Merton writes, individuals in society choose not only reference group but also reference individuals. Reference individual has often been described as “role model”. The person who identifies himself with a reference individual will seek to approximate the behavior and value of that individual in his several roles.

According to Sherif, “A reference group is one to which the individual refers and with which he identifies himself, either consciously or sub-consciously. The central aspect of the reference group is psychological identification.”

According to Shibutani, “A reference group is that group whose outlook is used by the act or as the frame of reference in the organization of his perceptual field.

As Horton and Hunt have pointed out, “A reference group is any group to which we refer when making judgements – any group whose value-judgements become our value-judgements”. They have further said, “Groups which are important as models for one’s ideas and conduct norms…”can be called reference groups.

Ogbum and Nimkoff say, “Groups which serve as points of comparison are known as reference groups”. They have further added that the reference groups are those groups from which “we get our values or whose approval we seek”.

An individual or a group regards some other group as worthy of imitating, such group is called 7 reference and the behaviour it involves is called the reference group behaviour. It accepts the reference group as model or the ideal to imitate or to follow. Reference groups, therefore, can be numerous- some may begin imitating, other may be potential imitators and some others may be aspiring to imitate.

The importance of the reference group concept is highlighted by R. Moerton in his theory of “relative deprivation” and “reference group”. He argues that we orient our behaviour in terms of both membership and non-membership, i.e. reference groups.

When our membership group does not match our reference group, we may experience a feeling of relative deprivation- discontent which arises from experiencing the gap between what we have (the circumstances of our membership group) and what we believe we should have (the circumstances of our reference group). Feelings of relative deprivation provide fertile soil for collective behaviour and social movements.

Reference groups serve as models for our behaviour. We assume the perspectives of these groups and mould our behaviour accordingly. We adopt value judgements of these groups. Depending on what groups we select to compare ourselves with, we either feel deprived or privileged, satisfied or discontented, fortunate or unfortunate. For example, when a student gets 2nd Division in the examination, he or she can either feel terrific in comparison to 3rd Division students or inadequate/ bad compared to 1st Division students.

The reference group is not synonymous with the membership group. The individual may identify himself with groups of which he is not a member, but of which he aspires to be a member. The ambitious clerk may identify himself with the board of directors of the bank. He interacts on a face-to-face basis with his fellow clerks, but he may think of himself in a more exalted company.

Identification with groups of which one is not a member is characteristic of a society where the opportunities for advancement are great and the choice of group participation is wide. In a simpler society, the individual rarely identifies himself with groups to which he does not belong, but is content with his own position. The individual evaluates his own situation and behaves with respect to three reference group situations:

1. The group in which he is a member and has direct contact.

2. The group to which he aspires to be a member but does not yet have direct contact; and

3. A group in which he is not a member and does not aspire to membership.

The individual’s social participation and functioning then operate under a continuing series of adjustments depending on the individual’s perception of three kinds of reference groups.

Objectives of Reference Groups:

Reference groups have two basic objectives:

Reference groups, as Felson and Reed have explained, perform both nor motive and comparative functions. As we aspire to membership in a certain group, we take on the group’s norms and values. We cultivate our lifestyles, food habits, musical tastes, political attitudes, and marriage patterns in order to view ourselves as being members of good standing.

We also use the values or standards of our reference group to evaluate ourselves – as a comparative frame of reference against which we judge and evaluate our speech, dress, ranking and standards of Irving.

By making such a comparison we may strive to be like the members of the reference group in some respect or to make our membership group like the reference in some respect. Or, as Johnson points out, we may simply appraise our membership group or ourselves using reference group as a standard for comparison, without aspiring to be like or unlike the reference group.

Types of Reference Group

A reference group can be, but is not necessarily, one ‘of a person’s primary groups. At times the In-Group and the reference group may be the same, as when the teenager gives more importance to the opinions of the peer group than to those of his teachers. Sometimes an Out-Group is a reference group. Each sex dresses to impress the other sex.

Newcomb distinguishes between positive and negative reference groups. A positive reference group is “one in which a person is motivated to be accepted and treated as a member (overtly or symbolically), whereas a negative reference group is one “which the person is motivated to oppose or in which he does not want to be treated as a member.”

By comparing ourselves with negative reference groups we emphasize the differences between ourselves and others. The significance of negative groups thus lies in strengthening social solidarity; the negative reference group is an instrument by which a community binds itself together. For example, Hindus constitute negative reference groups for Muslims and vice versa.

The reference group is, in summary, “a group with which the individual feels identified, the norms of which he shares and the objectives of which he accepts.” (Hartley and Hartley, 1952). The reference group provides many of the standards that guide behaviour, even when the standards are contrary to those of earlier membership groups.

The boy who identifies himself with a criminal gang will try to follow its standards, even when they conflict with those of his family. The delinquent boy “refers” himself to the gang, even though he “knows” that he is acting in conflict with the member groups of his family, school and religious institution. To understand the behaviour of an individual, we must, therefore, refer to his reference group as it helps us in understanding the interaction between the individual and the group.

Source(s) and Link(s):


Concept of Social Groups

Nature and Scope of Social Geography


About Rashid Faridi

I am Rashid Aziz Faridi ,Writer, Teacher and a Voracious Reader.
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