Social Groups: definition, features & classification

In our day-to-day life and social activities, we interact with each other, belonging to a group of some kind. The study of group is central to any sociological investigation.

Definition of a Social Group

The term group has a special meaning in sociology because it represents a concept that is central to any sociological analysis. Quite several definitions have been given to the term group by different sociologists.

Generally, a social group is defined as the collectivity or set of people who involve in more or less permanent or enduring social interactions and relationships. Members of a social group have common basis for interaction and shared characteristics, a feeling of identity or belongingness, shared psychology or consciousness and a definite set of norms to govern the behaviors of the individual participant in the group

Basic Features of a Social Group

In their sociological analysis of the group behavior of human society, sociologists have identified some essential elements of a social group. For a set or collectivity of people to be a social group, it has to have the following essential traits or features (Calhoun et al,


  1. Members of the group continue to interact with one another;
  2. Membership requires living by norms that are special to the group;
  3. Members view each other as part of the group; members feel some sense of identification with the group and with one another; and there is a social boundary between members and non-members;
  4. Members are functionally integrated through role and status relationship in the group structure; and
  5. Others see members as group.

Social interaction among the members is relatively permanent; it is not causal. Common interests should characterize as a basis for interaction. There are shared values, beliefs and lifestyles. The emotional, shared consciousness is also important. The feeling of belongingness is very important. Social norms and values govern behavior of group members.

All of the following are examples of social groups, from the smallest possible level to the largest possible. A dyad (made up of two persons like fiancés, husband and wife), a family, a group of students in a dormitory, peer group, a friendship, an ethnic group, a community, a nation, a continent, a university, an organization, etc.

Classification of Groups

Sociologists have classified groups into two basic classifications, namely, primary and secondary groups.

The classification of groups into primary and secondary is mainly based on: (a) the quality of relationship between or among the members of the group, and (b) the degree of group identity. People, for example, generally feel more loyal to their family and close friends than to the companies for which they work (Henslin and Nelson, 1995).

Primary Groups and Their Main Features

Charles H. Cooley was the first sociologist to use the term primary groups to describe such groups as family, neighborhood and children’s play groups. Such groups were the ”nursery of human nature” where the essential sentiment of human group loyalty and concern for others could be learned.

Primary groups are distinguished by some of the following characteristics:

  • There is face-to-face interaction among members.
  • There is high sentiment or loyalty.
  • Identification (group identity) and close cooperation among members
  • There is a high level of emotional, spiritual satisfaction to be derived from involvement in primary social groups.
  • Concern for friendly relations as an end in themselves, not as a means to an end.
  • Primary groups are often small in size.
  • Primary group gives its members (individuals) their ”first acquaintance with humanity”.
  • Primary groups, for a child, are a school for learning the ways of human interaction and the give and take of working and playing together.

Secondary Groups and Their Main Features

Secondary groups are the more formal types of groups to which peoples belong. To start with clearly definitive examples, the Federal Army, Lion’s Club, Ethiopian

Commercial Bank, etc, are secondary groups. As organizations, secondary groups do not give people the feeling of close identity that primary groups give.

Considerable effort must be devoted to making people proud of the corporation for which they work, and this type of pride, if it is achieved at all, is not primary group sentiment. One can still be lost in the great organization; there is not the same sense of psychological security.

Main features (traits) of secondary social groups include:

  • There is little or no emotional involvement.
  • Members are more competitive than cooperative.
  • Members are less intimate.
  • Group identity is less relevant.
  • Economic efficiency is given higher emphasis than psychological identity.
  • The group is mainly a means to an end rather than an end in itself.
  • Membership is unlimited.

Some critical observations must be made concerning the classification of groups.

  1. Primary and secondary groups are ideal types, i.e. types represented as opposite poles for the sake of analysis. In concrete life situations, most relations are not purely primary or secondary, but come somewhere between, examples: school, church, etc.
  2. A second reservation about primary secondary group classification is that primary groups may be formed with in secondary groups.

In other words, the classification of social groups into primary and secondary should not be taken as a sort of dichotomy. It should rather be considered as a continuum, i.e. at the two extreme ends, there may be crystallized primary and secondary groups, and in between the two extremes, there are mixtures of the two types.

Quasi-Social Groups

Quasi-groups are those kinds of social groupings which lack the essential features of social groups. In this kind of grouping, there may be no functional integration among members. There are little or no structured and patterned social relationships. This kind of social interactions is common in modern, industrial and complex societies. It is more common in urban heterogeneous settings. They characterize individualistic societies. Such groups lack meaningful social structures and social interaction. There are two types of quasi groups: aggregates and categories.

1.      Aggregates

A social aggregate is quasi-social grouping in which two or more people are physically together at a certain time and at a certain place. There is physical proximity without enduring social interaction. There is no shared psychological-identity. However, out of this kind of grouping a real social group can emerge. Examples of an aggregate include: two or more people in a- taxi, bus, air plane, an elevator, a busy city street, in a cafeteria, a stadium, in a market, in a hospital ward, etc.

Anonymity in the midst of crowd behavior usually characterizes aggregates. Such condition may lead to the problem of sense of alienation, dehumanization, sense of being lost, depression, social stress and other psychosocial problems. Suicide is very common in urban than rural areas and mental illness is more increased in societies characterized by anonymity, individualism, and heterogeneity.

2.      Categories

This is a quasi-group which consists of a plurality or collectively of people who are physically dispersed, but who share common traits and interests. It refers to a social class; or a group of people who are more or less of similar lifestyles, and physical and psychosocial characteristics. There may be little or no social interaction, social structure, social norms, etc. but there is the feeling of belongingness, even though the people may never know each other. However, gradually, a meaningful social grouping can grow out of a category.

Examples of a social category include: all female students in higher learning institutions in Nigeria; all female engineers in Nigeria; all students from rural background, HIV positive persons, etc.

  • Discuss the difference between social groups and quasi-social groups.
  • Identify the elements of social group influence that you think have become part of your personality, life style, life choices and goals. Which of your life philosophies, likes and dislikes are not the products of social influence, i.e., that are just your own idiosyncrasies?