One of the key characteristics of a human group is the member’s sense of belongingness. Those who belong think of one another as forming a social unit. This unit has boundaries that separate ‘us’ from ‘them’, that differentiate those who are ‘in’ from those who are ‘out’.
This type of differentiation was made by W.G. Sumner in his classic study of Folkways (1906). He observed that people tend to like their own group, to which he termed in-group, over other competing or opposing group—the out-group.
An in-group is a social category to which persons feel they belong and share a consciousness or awareness of kind. In other words, these are the groups for which we precede with the pronoun ‘my’ such as my family, my nation, my caste, my occupational group etc. Simply put it, it comprises everyone who is regarded as ‘we’ or ‘us’. The members of in-group feel that they share a common fate, adhere to a common ideology, and come from a common background.
Important characteristics of in-groups are:
(1) Mutual sympathy towards one another.
(2) Mutual cooperation, help and goodwill.
(3) Respect for mutual benefits and rights.
(4) Sentiment of solidarity and we-feeling.
(5) Feeling of tolerance, compassion and generosity.
(6) Preferential behaviour with the members.
“Birds of the same feather flock together” is an old proverb, which reflects the feelings of in-group to some extent. Individuals having same sex, same language, same past, same interests and aspirations and so on are naturally drawn together and form their own groups.
In-groups may be primary groups but not necessarily. We can feel ‘in’ with people we have never met or shared personal intimacies with—members of our college alumni group, religious group or nation. One typical consequence of in-group membership is a feeling of distinctiveness and superiority “among members, who see themselves as better than people in the out-group. This feeling leads to ethnocentrism.
It was defined by W.G. Sumner (1906) as “that view of things in which one’s own group is the centre of everything and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it.” This attitude binds people of one group to the good qualities of other groups.
Most groups in society tend to be ethnocentric. Ethnocentrism is an extreme form of the in-group or out-group phenomenon. Sumner said that “in modem nations, ethnocentrism is really the sentiment of patriotism in all its philosophic fullness, that is, in its rationality and its extravagance and exaggeration”.
The very existence of an in-group implies that there is an out-group viewed as ‘they” or ‘them’. An out-group is a group or category to which people feel they do not belong. It is defined by the individual with relation to the in-group. For such groups, we usually use the words—they group, other sex, other families, other caste or other occupation etc.
We do not identify or affiliate ourselves with such groups, and feel little allegiance with them. We treat most members of out-groups as ‘others’ or as ‘different’ from the in-group. We have the feeling of indifference, avoidance, disgust, competition, antagonism, suspicion and scorn towards them. We dislike and ridicule and at times we feel hostile towards them or even come in outright conflict with them. The distinction between in-group and out-group is always a matter of situational definition.