Social groups: Meaning, Characteristics, Functions and Classification (cooley’s classification; Reference Group

Social groups: Meaning, Characteristics, Functions and Classification (cooley’s classification; Reference Group

Social groups are collections of individuals who interact with one another, share a sense of identity, and perceive themselves as a distinct entity, exhibiting patterns of relationships and interdependence.

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A social group can be defined as two or more individuals who regularly interact on the basis of shared interests, goals, identities, or activities.

The group members identify as belonging together and possess a group consciousness. Examples include families, friendships circles, professional associations, sports teams etc. Groups form a fundamental building block of society.

Characteristics of Social Groups

Social groups share common characteristics that bind members together and shape a shared identity. These include:

  • Shared identity and beliefs – Groups have members that feel a psychological sense of belonging based on things like religious ideology, cultural traditions or professional ethics that unite them.

  • Shared norms and values – Formal and informal guidelines for appropriate attitudes and conduct in a group reflect what members value and prioritize. These norms shape group cohesion.

  • Shared interaction and relationships – The members engage with each other frequently through meetings, events, conversations etc. enabling meaningful emotional bonds and support networks.

  • Common interests and goals – Groups focus members’ efforts towards some shared purposes, causes or objectives. These motivate participation.

  • Defined roles and leadership structure – To function effectively, groups have roles and hierarchies that facilitate decision making processes providing stability.

Functions of Social Groups

Joining social groups serves many key functions:

  1. Shapes identity – Groups provide members a valuable source of self-definition based on affiliation.

  2. Socializes members – Through instructions and role modeling, groups teach appropriate values, conduct norms and knowledge to integrate members effectively.

  3. Emotional support – Belonging to groups caters to basic needs for intimacy, care and mental health through companionship.

  4. Achieve shared objectives – Collective decision making and cooperation enables efficacious fulfillment of members’ common interests.

  5. Facilitates social control – Groups promote conformity by formally or informally applying social pressures and sanctions to maintain order.

Cooley's Classification of Groups

An early 20th century sociologist Charles Cooley classified human groups into three categories:

  1. Primary Groups – Typically consist of intimate, informal groups like families and friend circles that most directly impact an individual’s identity and ideals.

  2. Secondary Groups – This covers casual, professional associations like workplaces, classes or religious congregations that exert relatively less extensive influence on members.

  3. In Groups and Out Groups – Any groups that individuals actually identify with and feel they belong represent their In Groups. In contrast, groups they view as distinct from or in opposition to their group identity constitute their Out Groups.

Reference Groups

Reference groups signify social clusters that people may or may not actually belong to but use to assess their own attributes and condition. For example, people may positively look up to billionaires as aspirational references while negatively comparing themselves against celebraties with perfect bodies triggering self-doubt. Such frames of reference serve as comparisons for self-appraisal and self-enhancement.

Human beings’ intrinsic drive to bond through shared psychologies forms the essence of social groups that continue to shape behaviors and societies.

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