Understanding Primary and Secondary Groups in Sociology

An Overview of a Dual Concept

A young Asian mother eats dessert with her daughter, demonstrating the concept of primary groups and primary relationships within sociology.
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Primary and secondary groups both play important social roles in our lives. Primary groups are small and characterized by personal and intimate relationships that last a long time, and typically include family, childhood friends, romantic partners, and religious groups. Conversely, secondary groups are comprised of impersonal and temporary relationships that are goal- or task-oriented and are often found in employment or educational settings.

The Origin of the Concept

Early American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley introduced the concepts of primary and secondary groups in his 1909 book Social Organization: A Study of the Larger Mind. Cooley was interested in how people develop a sense of self and an identity through their relationships and interactions with others. In his research, Cooley identified two different levels of social organization that are comprised of two different kinds of social organization.

Primary Groups and their Relationships

Primary groups are made up of close, personal, and intimate relationships that endure over the longterm, and in some cases throughout a person's entire life. They consist of regular face-to-face or verbal interaction, and are composed of people who have a shared culture and who frequently engage in activities together. The ties that bind the relationships of primary groups together are made up of love, care, concern, loyalty, and support, and also sometimes animosity and anger. That is to say, the relationships between people within primary groups are deeply personal and loaded with emotion.

People that are part of the primary groups in our lives include our family, close friends, members of religious groups or church communities, and romantic partners. With these people we have direct, intimate and personal relationships that play important roles in the formation of our sense of self and identity. This is the case because it is these people who are influential in the development of our values, morals, beliefs, worldview, and everyday behaviors and practices. In other words, they play important roles in the process of socialization that we experience as we grow and age.

Secondary Groups and their Relationships

While the relationships within primary groups are intimate, personal, and enduring, the relationships within secondary groups, on the other hand, are organized around fairly narrow ranges of practical interests or goals without which they would not exist. Secondary groups are functional groups created to carry out a task or achieve a goal, and as such they are impersonal, not necessarily carried out in person, and the relationships within them are temporary and fleeting.

Typically we become a member of a secondary group voluntarily, and we do so out of a shared interest with the others involved. Common examples include coworkers in an employment setting, or students, teachers, and administrators within an educational setting. Such groups can be large or small, ranging form all employees or students within an organization, to the select few who work on a temporary project together. Small secondary groups like these will typically disband after the completion of the task or project.

An important distinction between secondary and primary groups is that the former often have an organized structure, formal rules, and an authority figure who oversees the rules, members, and the project or task that the group is involved in. Conversely, primary groups are typically informally organized, and rules are more likely to be implicit and transmitted through socialization.

Overlap between Primary and Secondary Groups

While it is useful to understand the distinctions between primary and secondary groups and the different kinds of relationships that characterize them, it's also important to recognize that there can and often is overlap between the two. For example, one could meet a person in a secondary group who overtime becomes a close, personal friend, or a romantic partner, and eventually becomes a member of a primary group within that person's life.

Sometimes when an overlap occurs it can result in confusion or embarrassment for those involved, like when a child's parent is also a teacher or administrator at the child's school, or when an intimate romantic relationship develops between coworkers.