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Sociology considers human groups its major unit of analysis. If asked to describe the bases on which human groups exist, we would give different answers for different groups.

There are many criteria by which social groups may be classified. They, for instance, include the nature of their interests, the degree of organization, the extent of their permanence, the kind of contact among the members and the like. Ginsberg also takes the same view and says, “Groups can be classified in numerous ways, according to size, local distribution, permanence and inclusiveness of the relationships on which they rest, mode of formation, type of organization and so forth.”

Thus, while some sociologists give a simple basis for classification of groups, others have given an elaborate classificatory scheme.


George Simmel considered size as the criterion for classification of groups. Since the individual with his societal conditioning is the most elementary unit of sociology, Simmel began with the nomad. He took the single person as a focus of group relationships and pursued his analysis through the ‘dyad’ the ‘triad’ and the other smaller collectivities on the one hand and the large scale groups on the other.

Dwight Sanderson takes structure as the basis for classifying groups. He classifies them into involuntary, voluntary and delegate groups.

C.H. Cooley divides groups into two types, namely primary group and secondary group on the basis of the kind of contact.

F.H. Giddings classifies groups into genetic or congregate on the basis of the type of relationship.


W.G. Sumner makes a distinction between the in-group and out-group on the basis of consciousness of kind.

George Hasen classifies groups on the basis of their relations to other groups into unsocial, pseudo-social or pro-social.

Miller divides social groups into horizontal and vertical groups.

Thus sociologists have classified groups into numerous categories according to their own ways of looking at them. On these bases of classification, various types of groups are identified. For our purpose, however, only few of them like in-group and out-group; primary and secondary group, will suffice. These two types of groups are discussed in detail below, while others are mentioned only briefly.


Primary Groups

The term ‘primary groups’ was coined by Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929) in 1909 in his book ‘Social Organisation’ a primary group is relatively small. Its members generally have face to face contact; have intimate and cooperative relationships, as well as strong loyalty. The relationships between the members are ends in themselves because members derive pleasure and enjoyment merely by associating with one another. They have no other particular ends or goals in view. The primary group comes to an end, when one or more members leave it, they cannot be substituted by others. The best example of a primary group is the family or the friendship, or ‘peer’ group.

Secondary Groups

Secondary groups, in several respects, are the opposite of primary groups. As they are in general large groups, members of the secondary group maintain relatively limited, formal and impersonal relationships with one another. Secondary groups are specific or specialized interest groups. Secondary groups generally have a well defined division of labour. Secondary group may continue irrespective of whether its original members continue to be its members or not. A football team, a music club, a factory, an army, etc. are examples of secondary groups.


In-Group and Out-Group

These twin terms were introduced by William Graham Sumner to refer to insiders in a particular ‘we’ relationship, in contrast with outsiders to the relationship. Sumner used the term ‘in-group’ in his celebrated book Folkways written in 1906.

There, are some groups to which I belong, my family, my religion, my university, my clique my profession, my sex, my nation – any group which proceed with the pronoun, “my”. These are in- groups, because I feel, I belong to them. There are other groups to which I do not belong-other families, cliques, occupations, races, nationalities, religions, the other sex-these are out-groups, for I am outside them.

The least advanced primitive societies live in small, isolated bands which are usually clans of kinsfolk. It was kinship which located one’s in-group and out-group, and when two strangers met, the first thing they had to do was establish the relationship. If kinship could be established they were friends, both members of the in-group. If no relationship could be established, then in many societies they were enemies and acted accordingly.


In modern society, people belong to so many groups that a number of their in-group and out-group relationship may overlap. For example, in a hostel there are various in-groups who consider others as members of out-groups. However, in a cricket match against another hostel, all the hostel inmates will behave as in-group and cheer their team on the field.

Exclusion from an in-group can be a brutal process. Most primitive societies treated outsiders as part of the animal kingdom; many had no separate words for “enemy” and “stranger” showing that they made no distinction. Not too different was the attitude of the Nazis, who excluded the Jews from the human race. Rudolf Hess, who commanded the Auschwitz concentration camp in which 70,000 Jews were put to death, characterized this slaughter as “the removal of racial-biological foreign bodies”.

In-groups and out-groups are important then, because they affect behavior. From fellow members of an in-group we expect recognition loyalty, and helpfulness. From out-group our expectation varies with the kind of out-group. From some out-group we expect hostility; from others, a more or less friendly competition; from still others, indifference.

From the sex out-group, we may expect neither hostility nor indifference yet in our behaviour a difference undeniably remains. The 12-year-boy who shuns girls grows up to become a romantic lover and spends most of his life in matrimony.

Yet when men and women meet on social occasions they tend to split into sex-groups, perhaps because each sex is bored by many of the conversational interests of the other. The clique is one kind of in-group. Thus our behaviour is affected by the particular kind of in-group or out-group which is involved.

However, it should also be obvious that in-group and out-group are not actually groups in-so-far as people create them in their use of the pronouns ‘we’ and ‘they’ and develop a kind of attitude towards these groups. Nevertheless, this distinction is an important formal distinction because it enables us to construct two significant sociological principles.

(A) The in-group members tend to stereotype those who are in the out-group. Thus the Delhites have stereotypes of those who live in Bihar or U P. The significant thing is that such stereotypes are usually formed by considering only what appear to the members of the in-group the least respectable traits to be found in the members of the out-group the people of each linguistic state in India have a tendency to form stereotypes of the people of other linguistic states a Punjabi, for instance, has a stereotype or a generalized perception of what a Gujarati stands for and how he behaves, completely ignoring the fact that all Gujaratis do not fit into that stereotype.

In fact, social distance (a concept developed by Bogardus) encourages such categorization and discourages individual differentiation. Knowledge of this principle helps to considerably reduce the unfortunate effects of such categorization into stereotypes and to demolish the barriers that obstruct the easy communication and intercourse between people.

(B) Any threat, real or imaginary, from an out-group tends to bind the members of the in group against the members of the our-group. This may be illustrated with reference to our experience in the family situation. Mecinus, the Chinese sage, said many years ago: “Brothers and sisters who may quarrel within the walls of their home, will bind themselves together to drive away any intrude”.

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