Primary Groups in Sociology (Definition & 10 Examples)

primary vs secondary groups in sociology

Primary groups refer to social groups that are characterized by intimate, face-to-face, and continuous relationships. They usually have strong importance in an individual’s social life.

Furthermore, our belonging to primary groups and our association with their members often shape our core social identity.

Examples of primary groups include your close family, close friends, cousins, and long-term church group.

Primary Group Definition

In sociology, the term primary group was popularized by American sociologist Cooley, who discussed it in his book entitled Social Organisation: A Study of The Larger Mind (Cooley & Rieff, 2017; Lee, 1964).

Cooley argued that human nature is not something internal to individuals, but something that needs to be acquired (Cooley & Rieff, 2017; Lee, 1964).

He called primary groups “the nursery of human nature”, meaning that they play a fundamental role in teaching individuals human nature (Cooley & Rieff, 2017; Lee, 1964, p. 26).

Therefore, the main functions of primary groups include providing social support and facilitating socialization (Elliot, 2017). 

For example, primary groups such as crisis support groups or church communities can be resources of social and emotional support to individuals.

Similarly, primary groups such as families and relatives can facilitate individuals’ socialization process by making them learn and internalize social norms and values.

Studying primary groups is important as it is a key concept for understanding social organizations, the ways in which individuals obtain social and emotional support in the society, and how they go through socialization.

See Also: Definition of Secondary Groups in Sociology

Primary Group Characteristics

Primary groups are characterized by their size and composition.  The duration and forms of the relationships between its members also characterize primary groups (Lee, 1964).

Here is a summary of key characteristics:

  • Small groups: Primary groups are often small, composed of people who know each other closely.
  • Usually homogenous: The primary group’s composition is usually homogenous, meaning that these groups include people who have the same or similar social characteristics, such as generation, age, religion, race or ethnicity (Lee, 1964).
  • Intimacy: The relationships between the members of primary groups are personal and intimate.
  • Continuity: These relationships are supposed to be continuous or repeated in a long-term process or permanently.

The members of the primary groups are not always chosen by the individual voluntarily.  Examples to such primary groups can be close family, relatives, or one’s spouse’s family.

Primary Groups Examples

  • Close Family: Close family is one of the major examples of primary groups. First-degree relatives such as parents or siblings are members of primary groups and they have a permanent relationship with an individual. While various cultures had different structures of nuclear families across different time periods, the intimate nature of interactions between parents and a child and one with their siblings are universally recognized.
  • Relatives: Relatives, who are also called kin, are also examples to the primary groups. This category can include extended family and relatives from multiple generations who have interactions with an individual throughout their life.
  • Love Relationships: Love relationships or intimate partners are main examples to the closest relationships of an individual, which often have an important impact on one’s core sense of identity. Even though love relationships also can be short-term, long-distance, or casual, most common representations of them in media, literature, and popular culture often include long-term interactions which are face-to-face and intimate.
  • Spouse’s Family: An individual’s partner’s or spouse’s parents and siblings can also be considered a part of their primary groups. In many cultures, it is common for spouses to treat each-others parents as a part of the close family. Terms such as ‘mother-in-law’ or ‘daughter-in-law’ are also examples of the socially significant roles that are attributed to one’s spouse’s family in terms of being a part of one’s fundamental relationships.
  • Close Friends: An individual’s close friends are one of the main categories that are seen as a primary group. Across different cultures, close friendships are characterized by intimate and face-to-face interactions that provide social and emotional support. An individual’s close friend circle is assumed to be smaller than one’s other friends and acquaintances, thus making it a small group which is one of the criteria for primary groups.
  • Crisis & Addiction Support Groups: Peer support groups which are formed to deal with crises or addictions, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, can be considered a primary group depending on its size. These groups are usually small and its members share intimate details of their lives with each other in order to receive and provide support.
  • Faith Community: Faith or religious communities refer to communities that are in an individual’s local church, temple, mosque, or other worship area. Depending on one’s relation with faith or religion, these communities can be considered a primary group as they are long-term resources of social and emotional support.
  • Neighbors: Neighbors are one of the key primary group examples, together with friends and kin (Litwak & Szelenyi, 1969). People who live in the same buildings or streets in close proximity to each other for a long time often develop close relationships. These relationships and interactions which are centered around support can qualify them as primary groups.
  • Roommates: While not all roommates have close and supportive interactions, people who share the same room or house for several years or a longer time usually develop a close bond. Across North America and Europe, rising costs of housing and rent lead to the increase of roommate or housemate agreements between younger and older adults.
  • Sororities & Fraternities: Sororities and fraternities are student organizations in universities in North America, Europe and the Philippines. Through sororities and fraternities, young adults who are often far away from their families bond with each other and share the same living and studying environments for a period of several years(Clow, 1919). Despite the temporary duration of close interactions within sororities and fraternities, memberships to these groups often shape the social identity and future networks of individuals.

Difference Between Primary Groups and Secondary Groups

Primary and secondary groups are two most common forms of social groups with contrasting characteristics (Elliot, 2017). These groups differ from each other in terms of the nature of its members’ relations, their size, and their composition.

Key differences are shown below.

1. Time commitment

Our social relationships and interactions with primary groups are usually long-term or even permanent while secondary groups are often gathered for a short-term or temporary goal.

For example, a family is a primary group which has permanent significance, even if all family members pass away. In contrast, a university cohort is a secondary group, which is usually active for several years, or until all of its members graduate.

However, some scholars argue that primary groups and secondary groups are not necessarily separate categories as these groups can sometimes overlap (McIntosh & Alston, 1982).

To continue with the previous example, one’s siblings are a member of a primary group for them, but they can also be members of the same secondary group together, such as a university cohort or even the same classroom.

2. Size

Another important difference between primary and secondary groups is related to their sizes.

Compared to primary groups which are relatively small, secondary groups are much bigger.

An instance can be a church community consisting of several dozens of people, which is a primary group, compared to all followers of the Armenian Gregorian Church, which would be a secondary group including thousands of people with no face-to-face contact.

3. Composition

Primary and secondary groups also differ in terms of their composition.

While primary groups often consist of people with similar social characteristics, such as age, race, class, or religious identity, secondary groups are less homogenous.

For instance, a university cohort would often include people from the same education level, generation, and socioeconomic status. In contrast, workers of a big corporation, which would be  a secondary group, will include people with diverse backgrounds and skills to facilitate division of labor.

Conclusion

Primary groups, a sociological concept popularized by Cooley, refer to relatively small social groups shaped by close relationships.

The most well-known examples to primary groups consist of close friends, neighbors, and kin which refer to families and relatives (Litwak & Szelenyi, 1969). Other examples to primary groups can include sororities and fraternities, roommates, faith communities or addiction support groups.

Unlike secondary groups, members of primary groups have long-term or permanent interactions. These interactions are important for providing an individual social and emotional support. They are also important for teaching them the ‘human nature’, or in other words, facilitating socialization.

Through its fundamental impact on the socialization process, primary groups also shape individuals’ senses of core identity.

Therefore, studying primary groups can teach us about individuals’ socialization processes and social support resources.

References

Clow, F. R. (1919). Cooley’s doctrine of primary groups. American Journal of Sociology, 25(3), 326-347.

Cooley, C. H., & Rieff, P. (2017). Social organization: A study of the larger mind. Routledge.

Elliot, D. L. (2017). Primary groups. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. https://doi.org/10.1002/97814 05165518.wbeosp092.pub2

Lee, S. C. (1964). The primary group as Cooley defines it. The Sociological Quarterly, 5(1), 23-34.

Litwak, E., & Szelenyi, I. (1969). Primary group structures and their functions: Kin, neighbors, and friends. American Sociological Review, 465-481.

McCormack, M., Anderson, E., Jamie, K., & David, M. (2021). Discovering sociology. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

McIntosh, W. A., & Alston, J. P. (1982). Lenski revisited: The linkage role of religion in primary and secondary groups. American Journal of Sociology, 87(4), 852-882.

Ritzer, G. (2015). Essentials of sociology. London: Sage Publications.

Sanam Vaghefi (PhD Candidate)
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Sanam Vaghefi (BSc, MA) is a Sociologist, educator and PhD Candidate. She has several years of experience at the University of Victoria as a teaching assistant and instructor. Her research on sociology of migration and mental health has won essay awards from the Canadian Sociological Association and the IRCC. Currently, she is am focused on supporting students online under her academic coaching and tutoring business Lingua Academic Coaching OU.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.

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