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Types of Social Groups: Primary, Secondary and Reference Groups

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  1. 0:07 Social Groups
  2. 0:49 Primary Groups
  3. 2:36 Secondary Groups
  4. 4:10 Reference Groups
  5. 5:19 Lesson Summary
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Taught by

Erin Long-Crowell

The study of social groups is a main focus of many sociologists. In this lesson, we define social groups and differentiate between several different types including primary, secondary, and reference groups.

Social Groups

Social groups are everywhere and are a basic part of human life; everywhere you look there seems to be groups of people! A main focus of sociology is the study of these social groups. A social group consists of two or more people who regularly interact and share a sense of unity and common identity. In other words, it's a group of people who see each other frequently and consider themselves a part of the group. Except in rare cases, we all typically belong to many different types of social groups. For example, you could be a member of a sports team, club, church group, college class, workplace, and more.

Primary Groups

No two groups are created equal. Each typically has its own purpose, culture, norms, etc. Sociologists differentiate between several different types of social groups. In this lesson, we'll discuss primary groups, secondary groups, and reference groups. Primary groups are those that are close-knit. They are typically small scale, include intimate relationships, and are usually long lasting. The members of primary groups feel a strong personal identity with the group.

The nuclear family is an example of a primary social group
Nuclear Family Illustration
The nuclear family, which consists of a pair of adults and their children, is a good example. Members of a nuclear family typically interact on a daily basis. For them, the family is an important source of identity and purpose. Love and affection bind the family members together, and their relationships are enduring. Even when members move away from each other, they are still a part of the family.

Although the nuclear family is considered the ideal primary group by some sociologists, it is not the only example. Many people are also a member of a group of close friends. This group is usually small, and the relationships are still close-knit and enduring, so it is also a primary group. The term 'primary' is used with these groups because they are the primary source of relationships and socialization. The relationships in our primary groups give us love, security, and companionship. We also learn values and norms from our family and friends that stay with us for most, if not all, of our lives.

Secondary Groups

Secondary groups are another type of social group. They have the opposite characteristics of primary groups. They can be small or large and are mostly impersonal and usually short term. These groups are typically found at work and school. An example of a secondary group is a committee organized to plan a holiday party at work. Members of the committee meet infrequently and for only a short period of time. Although group members may have some similar interests, the purpose of the group is about the task instead of the relationships. Sometimes, secondary groups become pretty informal, and the members get to know each other fairly well. Even so, their friendships exist in a limited context; they won't necessarily remain close beyond the holiday party.

A classroom project group is an example of a secondary social group
Classroom Social Group
Other common examples of secondary groups are class project groups, college classes, sports teams, work teams, and neighborhoods. All of these groups are only temporary - even if they last for a year - and the relationships within the group are fairly shallow and typically touch-and-go. Of course, there are times when we do meet people in secondary groups that become a part of one of our primary groups. This demonstrates that the distinction between primary and secondary groups isn't always absolute or concrete. You may meet your best friend at work or school in a secondary group, and he or she then becomes a member of your primary group.

Reference Groups

The last type of group we'll discuss in this lesson is a reference group. Reference groups are groups that we look to for guidance in order to evaluate our behaviors and attitudes. They are basically generalized versions of role models. You may or may not belong to the group, but you use its standards of measurement as a frame of reference. For example, if a teenager wants to know if she is slim enough, she may use supermodels as a reference. Or, if a recent college graduate is unsure if an offered salary is fair, he may use the average starting salary of graduates from his school as a reference.

Frequently, people hope to be identified with their reference groups (especially if they aren't members of them), so they try to act like those they think typify these groups. If your reference group is a particular athletic team, you will dress, speak, and act quite differently than if your reference group is a local wine club. So, a reference group helps to shape not only a person's expectations and outlook but also appearance and style.

Lesson Summary

A social group consists of two or more people who regularly interact and consider themselves a part of the group. Sociologists differentiate between several different types of social groups. Enduring primary groups are those that are close-knit and intimate and are typically small scale. Most of our primary groups consist of family and close friends. The nuclear family, which is a pair of adults and their children, is considered the ideal primary group. Secondary groups are those that are more impersonal and temporary. Most of our secondary groups are from work and school. Finally, reference groups are those that we look to for guidance when evaluating our own behaviors and attitudes. They act as a role model to which we can compare ourselves.

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