It is frequently stated that sociology is the study of ‘groups’ (Johnson, Sociology, 1960), yet it is difficult to define this word in exact terms.
The term ‘group’ presents definitional difficulties. Sometimes it is related to a specific pattern of common action. Again, it is used to include every conceivable form of human activity.
It has been used to describe such diverse things as families, nations, crowds, sects, clubs and even a whole society.
In the elementary sense, a group is a number of units of anything in close proximity to one another such as group of trees in a forest, or group of airplanes in an airport.
Thus, the term ‘group’ is used generally to state the fact of association. It implies nothing as to the size, form, function, permanence or cohesive principle.
Definitions of social group:
In common parlance or generally, a social group is regarded as a collection of some people at a certain place. But, from sociological point of view, mere collection of people at a certain place does not constitute a group unless there is a common interest which holds its members and the social interaction through which they influence one another.
The essence of the social group is not physical closeness (as we find in physical objects) but a consciousness of joint interaction for certain purpose. This may develop at any place and at anytime. Thus, a social group comes into existence, “whenever two or more persons interact, whether in the intimacy of a family picnic or in the roar of a bargain sale, they are groups”. Social group is a mental phenomenon, rather than a physical entity.
It requires three things for its formation:
(1) Reciprocal stimulus,
(2) Response, and
(3) Mutual awareness, that is, the consciousness of interaction.
According to MacIver and Page (1949), “by group, we mean any collection of human beings, who are brought into social relationships with one another”. Bogardus (1949) writes: “A social group may be thought of as a number of persons, two or more, who have some common objects of attention, who are stimulating to each other, who have a common loyalty and participate in similar activities.” This definition, though exhaustive, applies only to small groups, the members of which come to know each other. Similarly, Ogburn and Nimkoff (1955) stated, “whenever two or more individuals come together and influence one another, they may be said to constitute a social group”.
The criterion of pattern of interaction is important which distinguishes social groups from the terms like category and aggregates which are at many times used synonymously as we find in the definition of Horton and Hunt (1964) which states, “groups are aggregates or categories of people who have a consciousness of membership and of interaction”. Let us explain what is category and aggregate. A category is any number of items (or people), which have some characteristics in common, for example, males, senior managers, graduates etc.
An aggregate or aggregation is any number of individuals who are clustered together in space. The population of Rajasthan or Assam or passengers on a train may be considered an aggregate. All groups are categories and most are aggregates but not all categories or aggregates constitute groups.
We may, thus, define social group as a number of individuals, defined by formal or informal criteria of membership, who share a feeling of unity, having similar norms, values and expectations and who are bound together in relatively stable pattern of interaction. To distinguish social groups from aggregates, sociologists generally use the criterion of feeling of unity or stable pattern of interaction as their basis of distinction.
On the basis of above definitions, the following main characteristics of social groups may be discerned:
1. Two and more than two persons.
2. Some kind of regular and conscious interaction through direct or indirect communication.
3. Some degree of reciprocity (common interstimulation and meaningful response).
4. Some common interest or some common object of attention.
5. A feeling of unity (similar norms, values and expectations).
6. Some measure of mutual awareness.
7. Common understanding.
8. Collective behaviour.
A social group is not static but dynamic, changing in activity and in form. It may seem standstill but change gradually. It has some kind of temporary or permanent structure and organisation (rules, procedures and conventions etc.).
Groups vary tremendously in size, purpose and degree of intimacy among its members. It ranges from a pair, a couple, or a dyad, a triad, a tetrad, to a national group of millions of people. Thus, groups can be classified in a wide variety of ways.
The bases of classification of groups are many and varied. Different criteria have been used by different writers, but a common classification is made on the basis of kinds of activities or functions. Other main bases of classification of groups are size, quality of social interaction that operates within groups, open or closed, voluntary or involuntary, informal or formal and temporal persistence etc. We here discuss only those types which are most often referred in sociology, viz., in-groups and out-groups, primary and secondary groups, quasi groups, reference groups and gemeinshaft and gesellschaft.