Understanding Primary and Secondary Groups in Sociology

Primary groups are smaller and more personal than secondary groups

A young Asian mother eats dessert with her daughter, demonstrating the concept of primary groups and primary relationships within sociology.
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The study of social groups is the main focus of many sociologists because these groups illustrate how human behavior is shaped by group life and how group life is affected by individuals. The two groups on which social scientists mainly focus are primary and secondary groups, called "primary" because they are a person's primary source of relationships and socialization or "secondary" because they are of less importance but still significant to the individual.

What Are Social Groups?

Social groups consist of two or more people who regularly interact and share a sense of unity and common identity. They see each other often and consider themselves as part of the group. Most people belong to many different types of social groups. They could include family, neighbors, or members of a sports team, a club, a church, a college class, or a workplace. What social scientists are interested in is how the members of these groups relate and interact.

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 identity through their relationships and interactions with others. In his research, Cooley identified two levels of social organization that are composed of two different kinds of social structure.

What Are Primary Groups?

Primary groups are small and characterized by close, personal, and intimate relationships that last a long time, maybe a lifetime. These relationships are deeply personal and loaded with emotion. The members typically include family, childhood friends, romantic partners, and members of religious groups who have regular face-to-face or verbal interaction and a shared culture and frequently engage in activities together.

The ties that bind the relationships in primary groups are made up of love, caring, concern, loyalty, and support. These relationships play important roles in the formation of individuals' sense of self and identity because these people are influential in the development of values, norms, morals, beliefs, worldview, and everyday behaviors and practices of all members of the group. The relationships play important roles in the process of socialization that people experience as they age.

What Are Secondary Groups?

Secondary groups comprise relatively impersonal and temporary relationships that are goal- or task-oriented and are often found in employment or educational settings. While the relationships within primary groups are intimate, personal, and enduring, the relationships within secondary groups are organized around narrow ranges of practical interests or goals without which these groups would not exist. Secondary groups are functional groups created to carry out a task or achieve a goal.

Typically a person becomes a member of a secondary group voluntarily, out of shared interest with the others involved. Common examples include coworkers in an employment setting or students, teachers, and administrators in an educational setting. Such groups can be large or small, ranging from all the employees or students within an organization to the select few who work together on a project. Small secondary groups such as these often disband after completion of the task or project.

A secondary group does not exercise a primary influence over its members because they do not live in the presence and thoughts of one another. The average member plays a passive role, and the warmth of the relationships in primary groups is missing

Primary Groups vs. Secondary Groups

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 in which the group is involved. Primary groups, on the other hand, are typically informally organized, and the rules are more likely to be implicit and transmitted through socialization.

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 be overlap between the two. For example, an individual could meet a person in a secondary group who over time becomes a close, personal friend or a romantic partner who becomes a spouse. These people become part of the individual's primary group.

Such an overlap can result in confusion or embarrassment for those involved, for instance, when a child enters a school where a parent is a teacher or administrator or when an intimate romantic relationship develops between coworkers.

Key Takeaways

Here is a nutshell description of social groups and the distinctions between primary and secondary social groups:

  • Social groups include two or more people who interact and share a sense of unity and common identity.
  • Primary groups are small and characterized by close, personal relationships that last a long time.
  • Secondary groups include impersonal, temporary relationships that are goal-oriented.
  • Secondary groups often have an organized structure, an authority figure who oversees the rules, while primary groups are typically informally organized.
  • There often is an overlap between primary and secondary groups that arises, for example, if an individual forms a personal relationship with someone in a secondary group.