Social group

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In sociology and psychology, a social group is generally considered to be a group of 3 or more people, whose members are in regular contact with one another over a longer period of time, pursue common goals and feel that they belong together. In addition to common norms and collective values, a group-specific distribution of roles develops within the group . In certain contexts, a lower group limit of 2 people is also mentioned, but only when forming a mathematical limit value .

For the Danish sociologist Theodor Geiger, there is a fundamental difference between a group and a couple ( dyad as a two-person relationship ), since in a couple all members are inevitably involved in all interactions at all times . For the German sociologist Georg Simmel , the three number (the triad ), which is set as the lower limit of group size, is of particular importance for the formation of society .

A group composed of several social groups forms an association (sociology) . In science there is usually no upper limit for the number of people that can be designated as a social group, but only corresponding definitions that result in a limitation.


A widely accepted definition of the term "social group" comes from the social psychologist Henri Tajfel 1986:

"We can conceptualize a group, in this sense, as a collection of individuals ,

  • who perceive themselves as members of the same social category ,
  • have an emotional connection to this common self-classification and
  • Gaining some degree of social consensus on how to assess the group and their membership in it. "

Tajfel's definition applies to both small groups such as ethnic groups and very large groups such as an entire nation .

Sociologically, a group is defined by the fact that all of its members are in a direct social relationship with one another, each member is aware of the other members and social interaction is possible between all members . In this way, a social group differs from an organization as a social form that can have a very large extent in terms of membership and the complexity of its social structure. For example, large organizations often have an anonymous structure with formalized and anonymous encounters. In contrast, a social group would be limited in size due to the necessary interactions.

In addition, a distinction is made between formal groups or secondary groups that were formed from outside, and informal groups or also primary groups that have formed based on individual contact and emotional ties.

  • The formal groups are formed by the organizational management according to the respective requirements and objectives in order to carry out specific, planned and defined tasks and to achieve sub-objectives, e.g. working group , team , committee or quality circle .
  • The informal group is characterized by emotional ties between group members. The members have relationships that are independent of the formal organization, for example as a circle of friends, peer groups or cliques. They meet social needs at work and in their free time.
A characteristic of many groups is their demarcation from non-members

A sociological definition by Friedhelm Neidhardt reads: "Group is a social system, the context of which is directly determined by diffuse member relationships as well as by relative permanence." A group is often characterized by recurring interaction between people, but not necessarily. A social agent ( actor ) belongs to a group:

  • if he feels that he belongs to the group
  • if this sense of belonging is not rejected by the group

In order for the first condition to be fulfilled, this group must exist at least in the mind of an actor. It can then serve as a frame of reference for social comparisons and thus act as its reference group, although it does not have to consist only of living actors (e.g. "my clan ") or perhaps the members are not aware that they act as a reference group.

In order to distinguish between ingroup and outgroup , a group can also have developed something like a group identity with group cohesion (“we-feeling”) and groupthink . Group cohesion - sometimes also referred to as corps spirit - is an essential, constituent starting factor for the maintenance and existence of groups, because it is based on the feeling of belonging and togetherness. Direct interaction of one member with each other, familiarity and intimacy are also among the qualities of the group.

Group membership

The group distinguishes its members from non-members who are attributed to the environment through togetherness. Membership becomes perceptible through recurring interrelationships, but it persists beyond pure interaction. Unlike in organizations, the entry of new group members (as well as the exit) does not always take place via a concrete decision, but rather proceeds slowly. The perception of togetherness is closely linked to the development of personal trust (generation of confidence in expectations). Membership in the respective group is expressed in different ways, starting with the language to visible signs such as in clothing.

Group structure

The social coexistence within the group is characterized by permanent social relationships and contacts, by individual and mutual action, by shared values ​​and interests, by the immediacy of relationships, by mutual perception of those involved, by presence and direct interaction as well as by coordinated social roles.

In terms of structure, the various social roles of individuals and social status with regard to the distribution of power , competence , influence , authority or other significant social resources on the one hand and submission or adaptation as specific behaviors on the other hand, which may possibly result in a hierarchy, are revealing or some other specific structure.

Another important factor is the inside-outside relationship of the group, how it develops internally as a community, e.g. B. defined via content, feelings, rituals , values ​​and how the group differentiates itself from the environment, from other groups or society. The more or less clearly defined way of this delimitation represents a determining analysis factor.

Group norms - action and behavior in groups

Norms are formed through participation in group interaction; H. primarily through the group dynamic system history. However, these norms are often only "visible" or expressed for everyone in the event of a conflict. For example, those who do not explicitly contradict the behavior of the other group members during an interaction commit themselves to a self-presentation that they will accept the behavior - also for the future - without being able to legitimately protest against it.

Roles within groups

As a rule, individual positions emerge over time in the groups, which are taken up by individual group members and filled in different ways (the social role can be played differently) or which are assigned to an individual by the other group members. With most roles, individual group members identify themselves consciously or unconsciously; assigned roles are accepted or rejected by them. It can be said that roles are taken on and assigned socially.

The development of “decision-making mechanisms of a hierarchical nature”, ie the differentiation of instrumental roles, can be influenced by the pressure to act, which is caused by the external environment of a group, and the resulting focus on a group. Especially in groups for which the external pressure to act is less relevant, roles are differentiated instead through the formation of personalized stereotypes (e.g. the caring person). In general, it can be said that the pressure of the external environment and the pressure of the internal environment must be constantly balanced through role differentiation and integration efforts within the group in order to ensure the continued existence of the group. It is also crucial that roles in groups are not made explicit but remain latent.

Theoretical perspectives in research on groups

Psychological perspective

In the psychodynamic perspective on small groups, two schools of thought can be distinguished: psychoanalytic and humanistic approaches. The former go back to the theories of Sigmund Freud and the research of Melanie Klein , on the basis of which Wilfred Bion developed the group analysis. The psychoanalytic approach in Germany was particularly shaped in the 1970s by Horst-Eberhard Richter . With the humanistic approaches, the T-Group (Traninig Group) method by Kurt Lewin on the one hand and the perspective of psychodrama by Jacob Levy Moreno can be distinguished. The T-Group method according to Lewin is based on the assumption of unconscious processes that produce forces that influence the interactions within a field (group). The individual group members should be enabled through training to solve problems in the group themselves. The psychodramatic perspective focuses on the actions within the group. The aim is to use the creativity of the individual and the group (role play, etc.) to solve problems by depicting suppressed emotions.

The social identity approach is based on the assumption that a person's identity consists of two components, namely personal identity, which can be traced back to idiosyncratic personality traits, and social identity. When it comes to the constitution of this second component, membership in groups is decisive. There is no clear definition of the group here. As soon as a group identity can be assumed, a social context can become the subject of investigation in the social identity approach; “Group” therefore includes both small groups, sports teams and working groups in organizations as well as ethnic groups, religious communities, subgroups within a religious community and gender categories. The main research interest of the approach is directed towards "the relationship between human psychological functioning and the large-scale social processes and events which shape this functioning and are shaped by it".

Systems theory perspective

In systems theory there are approaches to record the influences of the environment on the group. However, according to some authors, the special relevance of the inner world or inner environment or members of the group and the possibility of controlling group processes via feelings as media can be described more precisely with psychoanalytic terms than with sociological auxiliary constructions such as interest, intention or motivation. The concept of interpenetration can be used to conceptually define the relationship between the psychological and the social : "Interpenetration is present when [...] both systems mutually enable one another by introducing their preconstituted intrinsic complexity into the other." In this conception, the psychological and the social remain separate. The system theory of Luhmann considers the group initially completely independent of the environment. In theory, the size of the group is limited. But there are now also considerations of complex systems and thus larger groups.



Basic theoretical literature:

  • Horst-Eberhard Richter : The group. Hope for a new way to free yourself and others; Psychoanalysis in cooperation with group initiatives. 1972. New edition Psychosozial-Verlag 1995, ISBN 3-930096-37-4 .
  • Friedhelm Neidhardt : The inner system of social groups. In: Cologne journal for sociology and social psychology. Volume 31, 1979, pp. 639-660.
  • Hartmann Tyrell: Between interaction and organization I: Group as a system type. In: Friedhelm Neidhardt (Ed.): Group sociology. Perspectives and materials (= Cologne journal for sociology and social psychology. Special issue 25). WDV, Opladen 1983, pp. 75-87.
  • Helmut Willke: Elements of a system theory of the group: environmental reference and process control. In: social world. Volume 29, 1978, pp. 343-357.
  • Stefan Kühl : groups, organizations, families and movements. On the sociology of membership-based social systems between interaction and society. In: Bettina Heintz, Hartmann Tyrell (Hrsg.): Interaction - Organization - Society revisited. In: Journal of Sociology. Special tape. Lucius & Lucius, Stuttgart 2015, pp. 65–85.

Relevant empirical studies on the group:

  • William Foote Whyte: The Street Corner Society. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1943 (German: The Street Corner Society. The social structure of an Italian quarter. 3rd, revised and expanded edition. De Gruyter, Berlin / New York 1996) (youth gang).
  • Frederic M. Thrasher: The Gang. University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1927 (youth gangs).
  • Lewis Yablonski: The Violent Gang. Macmillan, New York 1962 (youth gangs; abstract: 1959: The Delinquent Gang as a Near Group. In: Social Problems. Volume 7, pp. 108-117).
  • Albert K. Cohen: Delinquent Boys. The Culture of the Gang. Free Press, Glencoe 1955 (youth gangs).
  • Ralf Bohnsack, Peter Loos u. a .: The search for community and the violence of the group. Hooligans, music groups and other youth clubs. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden 1995
  • Ronald Lippitt, Ralph K. White: An Experimental Study of Leadership and Group Life. In: Eleanor E. Maccoby , Theodore M. Newcomb, Eugene L. Hartley (eds.): Readings in Social Psychology. Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York 1958 (children's group).
  • Theodore M. Newcomb: The Acquaintance Process. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York 1961.
  • Elihu Katz, Paul F. Lazarsfeld: Personal Influence. The Part Played by People in the Flow of Mass Communication. Free Press, Glencoe 1955 (group in dormitories).
  • Paul Willis (1977): Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids get Working Class Jobs. New York: Columbia University Press (Working Class Groups).
  • Festinger, Leon; Schachter, S .; Back, Kurt W. (1950): Social Pressures in Informal Groups. A Study of Human Factors in Housing. New York: Harper (residential groups).
  • Sherif, Muzafer; Harvey, n.v .; White, BV; Hood, WR; Sherif, CW (1961): Intergorup Conflict and Cooperation. The Robbers' Cave Experiment. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press (youth groups).
  • Louis A. Zurcher (1970): The 'Friendly' Poker Game. A Study of an Ephemeral Role. In: Social Forces 49, pp. 173-186 (card game groups).
  • Marilena Rotundo, Nathan Thomas (2003): Fan clubs as a social group using the example of FC Basel. Zurich: Paper by the Sociological Institute of the University of Zurich (football fan groups).
  • Friedhelm Neidhardt (1982): Social conditions for terrorist action. In: Wanda von Baeyer-Katte, Dieter Claessens, Hubert Feger, Friedhelm Neidhardt (eds.): Group processes. Analysis of Terrorism. Opladen: WDV, pp. 318–391 (terrorist groups).
  • Hugo J. Zee: The Guyana Incident. Some Group Dynamic Considerations. In: Max Rosenbaum (Ed.): Compliant Behavior. Human Science Press, New York 1983, pp. 229-242 (cult-like groups).
  • Richard Martinus Emge: The individual and the organized group (= treatises of the humanities and social sciences class of the Academy of Sciences and Literature in Mainz. Born in 1956, No. 8).

Individual evidence

  1. Bernhard Schäfers (Ed.): Introduction to group sociology. History - theories - analyzes. 3rd, corrected edition, Wiesbaden 1999, ISBN 3-494-02251-8 , pp. 20/21.
  2. Entry: group. In: Wilhelm Bernsdorf u. a. (Ed.): Dictionary of Sociology. Volume 2. Fischer, Frankfurt 1972, ISBN 3-436-01439-7 , p. 314.
  3. ^ Henri Tajfel , John C. Turner: The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behavior. In: William G. Austin, Stephen Worchel (Eds.): Psychology of Intergroup Relations. 2nd Edition. Nelson-Hall, Chicago 1986, pp. 7–24, here p. 15 ( view of quotations in the Google book search); Quote: "We can conceptualize a group, in this sense, as a collection of individuals who perceive themselves to be members of the same social category, share some emotional involvement in this common definition of themselves, and achieve some degree of social consensus about the evaluation of their group and of their membership in it. ". Henri Tajfel: Social Identity and Intergroup Behavior. In: Social Science Information. Volume 13, April 1974, pp. 65-93.
  4. Horst-Joachim Rahn : Successful team leadership. 6th edition. Windmühle, Hamburg 2010, ISBN 978-3-937444-66-6 , p. 10.
  5. Wilke: outside world. 1976.
  6. ^ Hartmann Tyrell: Between Interaction and Organization I: Group as a system type. In: Friedhelm Neidhardt (Ed.): Group sociology. Perspectives and materials (= Cologne journal for sociology and social psychology. Special issue 25). WDV, Opladen 1983, pp. 75-87, here p. 83.
  7. ^ Friedhelm Neidhardt : The inner system of social groups. In: Cologne journal for sociology and social psychology. Volume 31, 1979, pp. 639-660, here p. 651.
  8. ^ Friedhelm Neidhardt: The inner system of social groups. In: Cologne journal for sociology and social psychology. Volume 31, 1979, pp. 639-660, here p. 644.
  9. ^ Friedhelm Neidhardt: The inner system of social groups. In: Cologne journal for sociology and social psychology. Volume 31, 1979, pp. 639-660, here p. 648.
  10. ^ Friedhelm Neidhardt: The inner system of social groups. In: Cologne journal for sociology and social psychology. Volume 31, 1979, pp. 639-660, here p. 656.
  11. ^ Hartmann Tyrell: Between Interaction and Organization I: Group as a system type. In: Friedhelm Neidhardt (Ed.): Group sociology. Perspectives and materials (= Cologne journal for sociology and social psychology. Special issue 25). WDV, Opladen 1983, pp. 75-87, here p. 80.
  12. Tajfel, Jaspar, & Fraser 1984: 3
  13. after Wilke 1976
  14. ^ Neidhardt: The inner system of social groups , 1979
  15. Niklas Luhmann : Social Systems. Outline of a general theory. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1984, pp. ??.
  16. Günter Dedie: The power of nature laws. Emergence and collective abilities from elementary particles to human society . tredition, 2014, ISBN 978-3-8495-7685-1 .