Secondary Groups in Sociology (Definition & 10 Examples)

primary vs secondary groups in sociology

A secondary group can be defined as any group of people which is organized for achieving a professional goal or to provide a service. Individuals can join or leave these groups depending on the roles that they can perform.

For example, a football team is a secondary group since it is organized to achieve the goal of playing and competing in sports events, and a football player can leave the team any time, depending on the context.

Secondary Group Definition

‘Secondary group’ is a sociological concept popularized by Charles Cooley, an American Sociologist and the author of the book Social Organisation: A Study of The Larger Mind (Cooley & Rieff, 2017; Lee, 1964).

In sociological theory, secondary groups are one of the most common types of social groups, together with primary groups.

Key quick facts about secondary groups include:

  • They are characterized by goal-oriented, and impersonal relationships.
  • They are composed by a diverse range of individuals and they are sometimes referred to as professional associations.
  • Relationships and interactions between the members of the secondary groups are often temporary.

Understanding the definition and function of the secondary groups are important as it allows us to understand social organization better (Elliot, 2017). It also helps us to understand the ways in which the impacts of primary groups are supported and supplemented.

Characteristics of Secondary Groups

A secondary group is often larger than primary groups, composed of a diverse group of people whose interactions are temporary, goal-oriented, and impersonal (Cooley & Rieff, 2017; Lee, 1964).

In terms of size and composition, the characteristics of the secondary groups can vary depending on the situation.

For example, a musical choir composed of several dozen musicians would be considered a secondary group.

Similarly, a corporation consisting of hundreds of thousands of employees can also be categorized as a second group.

Both of the above groups are large enough to allow a diverse composition, enabling division of labor between them.

The interactions within a secondary group is often temporary, while the duration can also vary depending on the goals of the group.

For example, interactions among the members of a musical choir would last until their concerts are performed.

In contrast, interactions between members of the same university cohort might last longer, up to multiple years depending on the length of the university program. 

In addition to being temporary, the nature of these interactions are impersonal and goal-oriented.

Secondary Groups Examples

  1. University Cohorts: A group of students who are registered at the same university program during a particular academic year are considered a cohort. The main goal of cohort members is to complete the educational program and achieve a university degree, which makes this group temporary and goal-oriented.
  2. Classmates: Students who share the same classroom in a single course or in an educational program are considered classmates. Often, interactions between classmates are goal-oriented, directed towards achieving common academic goals. Depending on the course or program, the number of students in a single class can exceed a hundred, which further contributes to the impersonal nature of relations between them.
  3. Companies And Corporations: Companies and corporations consist of groups of people who are gathered to conduct business and own financial profit. Large corporations such as Apple or Amazon include hundreds of thousands of employees, which make face-to-face contact between them impossible.
  4. Non-Governmental Organizations: Non-governmental organizations, which are also called non-profit organizations, consist of groups of people who carry professional activities for a common cause. Examples to the non-profit causes include human rights, animal rights, and taking action against climate change.
  5. Coworkers: Employees or coworkers in a business or organization who share the same working space may be a secondary group. Relationships between coworkers are expected to be formal, professional, and temporary depending on the duration of work projects or employment.
  6. Police Departments and Units: In the United States, police departments refer to the police and law enforcement authorities of a specific city, territory or state. For example, the New York Police Department (NYPD) is one of the largest police departments of the United States with tens of thousands of employees (“About NYPD”, n.d.). As a professional organization, NYPD and any other police department or unit would qualify as a secondary group.
  7. Political Parties: Political parties consist of groups of people who organize to achieve shared political goals. Depending on the case, the number of political party members can range from tens to thousands. Interactions between political party members are often formal and hierarchical depending on these members’ roles within the group. 
  8. Workers Unions: Workers unions are organizations formed to defend and achieve workers rights, including but not limited to work safety, parental leave, and salary raise demands. Interactions and relationships between union members are temporary and oriented towards common goals, making these organizations an example of secondary groups.
  9. Athletic Teams: An athletic team consists of people who perform a sport in a competition against another team. Examples to athletic teams range from professional football teams to basketball teams in high schools or colleges. Athletic teams are considered secondary groups as the interactions between its members are temporary, impersonal, and goal oriented.
  10. Musical Choirs: Musical choirs refer to groups of musicians who perform in various projects. Musicians who form choirs interact with each other in an impersonal manner, in accordance with the definition of secondary groups. The formation of these groups are goal-oriented since they function as professional and artistic organizations directed towards performing in musical projects and events.

Difference Between Primary Groups and Secondary Groups

The main difference between primary and secondary groups, primary groups are more intimate than secondary groups.

The sizes, compositions and interactions characterizing primary and secondary groups, and the roles that they play in social organization significantly differ.

Furthermore, the functions and impacts of primary and secondary groups contrast with each other (Elliot, 2017).

Below are some key differences between primary and secondary groups:

  • Size: While primary groups are usually small in a way that allows intimate and face-to-face contact between all its members, a secondary group can include thousands of people.
  • Goals: In contrast with primary groups whose function is to socialize the individual and to provide them with social support, secondary groups have functions such as academic or professional goals or selling service (Cooley & Rieff, 2017; Lee, 1964).
  • Member relationships: While the relationships between the members of primary groups are emotionally close and intimate, the interactions between secondary group members are impersonal and sometimes formal (Cooley & Rieff, 2017; Lee, 1964). In fact, in large secondary groups such as corporations, all members of the group might not even personally know each other.
  • Transience: Due to the less personal and more formal characteristics of the secondary groups, its members can often exit these groups easier and be replaced with another individual. This, however, is often not the case in primary groups such as families or close friends.
  • Age of initiation: Usually, membership to primary groups, such a families or neighborhoods, develop earlier in life. In contrast, individuals often become connected to secondary groups during adulthood.

Because of these differences, it is possible to say that primary groups have a fundamental importance for an individual’s life, while secondary groups have a supplementary role to the primary groups (Cooley & Rieff, 2017; Lee, 1964).

Conclusion

Secondary groups, a sociological concept popularized by Cooley, refer to goal-oriented social groups shaped by impersonal relationships.

These groups are relatively large, and composed of a diverse group of people who can perform different tasks.

Examples to secondary groups include university cohorts, companies and corporations, music choirs or athletic teams.

While primary groups often develop earlier in life, secondary groups are more influential during adulthood.

Unlike primary groups, secondary groups are organized to serve an academic or professional purpose. Their role is often supplementary to primary groups, and its membership can often be temporary.

References

About NYPD – NYPD. (n.d.). NYC.gov. Retrieved November 23, 2022, from https://www.nyc.gov/site/nypd/about/about-nypd/about-nypd-landing.page

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

Elliot, D. L. (2017). Primary groups. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Los Angeles: Blackwell. doi: 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.

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

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.

Chris Drew (PhD)
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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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