Social group

Individuals in groups are connected to each other by social relationships

In the social sciences, a social group has been defined as two or more people who interact with one another, share similar characteristics, and collectively have a sense of unity. Other theorists disagree however, and are wary of definitions which stress the importance of interdependence or objective similarity.[1][2] Instead, researchers within the social identity tradition generally define it as "a group is defined in terms of those who identify themselves as members of the group".[3] Regardless, social groups come in a myriad of sizes and varieties. For example, a society can be viewed as a large social group.


Social cohesion approach

A social group exhibits some degree of social cohesion and is more than a simple collection or aggregate of individuals, such as people waiting at a bus stop, or people waiting in a line. Characteristics shared by members of a group may include interests, values, representations, ethnic or social background, and kinship ties. Kinship ties being a social bond based on common ancestry, marriage, or adoption.[4] In a similar vein, some researchers consider the defining characteristic of a group as social interaction.[5] According to Dunbar's number, on average, people cannot maintain stable social relationships with more than 150 individuals.[6]

Social psychologist Muzafer Sherif proposed to define a social unit as a number of individuals interacting with each other with respect to:

  1. Common motives and goals
  2. An accepted division of labor, i.e. roles
  3. Established status (social rank, dominance) relationships
  4. Accepted norms and values with reference to matters relevant to the group
  5. Development of accepted sanctions (praise and punishment) if and when norms were respected or violated[7]

This definition is long and complex, but it is also precise. It succeeds at providing the researcher with the tools required to answer three important questions:

  1. "How is a group formed?"
  2. "How does a group function?"
  3. "How does one describe those social interactions that occur on the way to forming a group?"

Significance of that definition

The attention of those who use, participate in, or study groups has focused on functioning groups, on larger organizations, or on the decisions made in these organizations.[8] Much less attention has been paid to the more ubiquitous and universal social behaviors that do not clearly demonstrate one or more of the five necessary elements described by Sherif.

Some of the earliest efforts to understand these social units have been the extensive descriptions of urban street gangs in the 1920s and 1930s, continuing through the 1950s, which understood them to be largely reactions to the established authority.[9] The primary goal of gang members was to defend gang territory, and to define and maintain the dominance structure within the gang. There remains in the popular media and urban law enforcement agencies an avid interest in gangs, reflected in daily headlines which emphasize the criminal aspects of gang behavior. However, these studies and the continued interest have not improved the capacity to influence gang behavior or to reduce gang related violence.

The relevant literature on animal social behaviors, such as work on territory and dominance, has been available since the 1950s. Also, they have been largely neglected by policy makers, sociologists and anthropologists. Indeed, vast literature on organization, property, law enforcement, ownership, religion, warfare, values, conflict resolution, authority, rights, and families have grown and evolved without any reference to any analogous social behaviors in animals. This disconnect may be the result of the belief that social behavior in humankind is radically different from the social behavior in animals because of the human capacity for language use and rationality. Of course, while this is true, it is equally likely that the study of the social (group) behaviors of other animals might shed light on the evolutionary roots of social behavior in people.

Territorial and dominance behaviors in humans are so universal and commonplace that they are simply taken for granted (though sometimes admired, as in home ownership, or deplored, as in violence). But these social behaviors and interactions between human individuals play a special role in the study of groups: they are necessarily prior to the formation of groups.[citation needed] The psychological internalization of territorial and dominance experiences in conscious and unconscious memory are established through the formation of social identity, personal identity, body concept, or self concept. An adequately functioning individual identity is necessary before an individual can function in a division of labor (role), and hence, within a cohesive group. Coming to understand territorial and dominance behaviors may thus help to clarify the development, functioning, and productivity of groups.

Social identification approach

Explicitly contrasted against a social cohesion based definition for social groups is the social identity perspective, which draws on insights made in social identity theory.[10] Here, rather than defining a social group based on expressions of cohesive social relationships between individuals, the social identity model assumes that "psychological group membership has primarily a perceptual or cognitive basis".[1] It posits that the necessary and sufficient condition for individuals to act as group members is "awareness of a common category membership" and that a social group can be "usefully conceptualized as a number of individuals who have internalized the same social category membership as a component of their self concept".[1] Stated otherwise, while the social cohesion approach expects group members to ask "who am I attracted to?", the social identity perspective expects group members to simply ask "who am I?"

Empirical support for the social identity perspective on groups was initially drawn from work using the minimal group paradigm. For example, it has been shown that the mere act of allocating individuals to explicitly random categories is sufficient to lead individuals to act in an ingroup favouring fashion (even where no individual self-interest is possible).[11] Also problematic for the social cohesion account is recent research showing that seemingly meaningless categorization can be an antecedent of perceptions of interdependence with fellow category members.[2]

While the roots of this approach to social groups had its foundations in social identity theory, more concerted exploration of these ideas occurred later in the form of self-categorization theory.[12] Whereas social identity theory was directed initially at the explanation of intergroup conflict in the absence of any conflict of interests, self-categorization theory was developed to explain how individuals come to perceive themselves as members of a group in the first place, and how this self-grouping process underlies and determines all problems subsequent aspects of group behaviour.[13]

Defining characteristics of groups

In his text, Group Dynamics, Forsyth (2010) discuses several common characteristics of groups that can help to define them.[14]

1) Interaction

This group component varies greatly, including verbal or non-verbal communication, social loafing, networking, forming bonds, etc. Research by Bales (cite, 1950, 1999) determine that there are two main types of interactions; relationship interactions and task interactions.

  1. Relationship interactions: “actions performed by group members that relate to or influence the emotional and interpersonal bonds within the group, including both positive actions (social support, consideration) and negative actions (criticism, conflict).”[14]
  2. Task interactions: “actions performed by group members that pertain to the group’s projects, tasks, and goals.”[14] This involve members organizing themselves and utilizing their skills and resources to achieve something.

2) Goals

Most groups have a reason for their existence, be it increasing the education and knowledge, receiving emotional support, or experiencing spirituality or religion. Groups can facilitate the achievement of these goals.[14] The circumplex model of group tasks, by Joseph McGrath[15] organizes group related tasks and goals. Groups may focus on several of these goals, or one area at a time. The model divides group goals into four main types, which are further sub-categorized

  1. Generating: coming up with ideas and plans to reach goals
    • Planning Tasks
    • Creativity Tasks
  2. Choosing: Selecting a solution.
    • Intellective Tasks
    • Decision-making Tasks
  3. Negotiating: Arranging a solution to a problem.
    • Cognitive Conflict Tasks
    • Mixed Motive Task
  4. Executing: Act of carrying out a task.
    • Contests/Battles/Competitive Tasks
    • Performance/Psychomotor Tasks

3) Interdependence in relation

“The state of being dependent, to some degree, on other people, as when one’s outcomes, actions, thoughts, feelings, and experiences are determined in whole or part by others."[14] It is obvious that some groups are more interdependent than others. For example, a sports team would have a relatively high level of interdependence as compared to a group of people watching a movie at the movie theater. Also, interdependence may be mutual (flowing back and forth between members) or more linear/unilateral. For example, some group members may be more dependent on their boss than the boss is on each of the individuals.

4) Structure

Group structure involves the emergence or regularities, norms, roles and relations that form within a group over time. Roles involve the expected performance and conduct of people within the group depending on their status or position within the group. Norms are the ideas adopted by the group pertaining to acceptable and unacceptable conduct by members. Group structure is a very important part of a group. If people fail to meet their expectations within to groups, and fulfil their roles, they may not accept the group, or be accepted by other group members.

5) Unity

When viewed holistically, a group is greater than the sum of its individual parts. When people speak of groups, they speak of the group as a whole, or an entity, rather than speaking of it in terms of individuals. For example, it would be said that “The band played beautifully.” Several factors play a part in this image of unity, including group cohesiveness, and entitativity (appearance of cohesion by outsiders).[14]

Other Languages
Alemannisch: Soziale Gruppe
azərbaycanca: Sosial qrup
Bân-lâm-gú: Siā-hōe-kûn
български: Социална група
català: Grup social
chiShona: Boka
eesti: Grupp
español: Grupo social
Esperanto: Socia grupo
euskara: Gizarte-talde
français: Groupe social
galego: Grupo social
한국어: 사회 집단
Bahasa Indonesia: Kelompok sosial
italiano: Gruppo sociale
Basa Jawa: Golongan sosial
la .lojban.: remna girzu
македонски: Општествена група
Nederlands: Groep (sociologie)
日本語: 社会集団
oʻzbekcha/ўзбекча: Ijtimoiy guruhlar
português: Grupo (sociologia)
slovenčina: Sociálna skupina
српски / srpski: Друштвена група
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Društvena grupa
татарча/tatarça: Иҗтимагый төркем
українська: Соціальна група
Tiếng Việt: Nhóm xã hội
ייִדיש: גרופע
中文: 社會群體