Social Groups

Social Groups


relatively stable aggregates of people having common interests, values, and standards of behavior, formed within the confines of a historically definite society. Certain specific interrelationships of individuals among themselves and with the society as a whole are embodied within each group: the variety of social groups corresponds to the diverse nature of these relationships.

In the book Leviathan, the English philosopher T. Hobbes provided the first clear definition of a group as “any numbers of men joined in one interest or one business.” and he differentiated groups as regular and irregular, political and private, and so on (see Izbr. proizv., vol. 2. Moscow, 1964, p. 244). The term “group” was later used by English economists, French historians, and Utopian socialists to characterize economic and political social groups. During the latter half of the 19th century, the Austrian sociologist L. Gumplowicz declared biological race to be the fundamental social group. In the early 20th century, the American sociologist C. Cooley considered the “primary groups” (family, neighbors, and friends) to be of paramount importance: in contemporary bourgeois sociology this approach has been elaborated in the theories of small groups by the Americans E. Mayo, J. Moreno. G. Homans, and others. Most bourgeois theories of social groups are characterized by the absence of a class analysis of social and group processes. Describing bourgeois sociological work on the problems of social groups, Lenin wrote: “In itself, this conception is still too indefinite and arbitrary: religious, ethnographical, political, juridical and other phenomena may also be considered as criteria distinguishing ’groups.’ There is no firm token by which particular ’groups’ in each of these spheres can be differentiated” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed.. vol. I. pp. 428–29).

Marxism developed a new historical materialist method of approach to social groups, the essence of which is to be found, first of all, in the application of the principles of the historical method to the analysis of groups: societal groups in general do not exist, rather there are groups of a historically definite society, the nature and role of which change along with the changes of social and economic formations. Second, it has been demonstrated that, under the conditions of a class-structured society, classes constitute the fundamental social groups; they exert a determining influence on all spheres of social life and the behavior of all other social groups, each of which is distinguished by its own specific features. This materialist principle constitutes the basis for the scientific analysis of social groups.

The qualitative characteristics of social groups also presuppose a certain quantitative measurement—that is. large, medium, and small social groups are distinguished. Large social groups are aggregates of people existing on the scale of society (of a country) as a whole: classes, social strata, occupational groups, ethnic communities (nations, nationalities, tribes), age groups (young people, pensioners), and the like. The membership of individuals in a large group is determined on the basis of several objective criteria. Persons belonging to a large group may not have direct contact with other members of the group, and they may not even be aware of their affiliation with it. Two principal stages of development are distinguished for large groups: the spontaneous stage (for example, “class in itself) and the organized stage (“class for itself): in the second stage, many individuals are conscious of their membership in a certain group and they are united in organizations that have as their goal the realization of the interests of the large group under consideration.

Another type of social group is the small group—families. primary production cells (the brigade), communities of neighbors, groups of friends, school classes, and the like. The specific feature of the small group is the direct contact of its members. Each small group possesses a certain structure formed under the influence of both the external environment and intragroup interpersonal relationships and manifested in the system of status (positions) and the roles of the members of the social group. The leader of the group has the highest status. Formal and informal small groups are distinguished: the former function according to preestablished (usually, officially fixed) rules, instructions, or regulations; the latter are formed on the basis of personal sympathies and antipathies. In the formal small group, informal relations are also formed among its members and the success of its functioning depends to a large extent on the correspondence to each other of the formal and informal structure of the group.

The production associations of workers of an enterprise and a territorial community (the inhabitants of a village, town, or region) may be called medium (or local) groups. The territorial communities are spontaneous group formations. Production associations are created to accomplish specific purposes, and they regulate their own membership and relations by means of a hierarchical structure of authority, formalized communications, and procedures for making decisions and adopting sanctions.

Various social groups do not form a rigid hierarchy, but have mutual influence upon each other. In a class-antagonistic society, the behavior of all groups (ethnic, demographic, small groups, and the like) is determined by the struggle of classes, and therefore the entire system of social groups proves to be, in essence, conflicting. Under socialism, however, the homogeneity of the basic social groups develops, which does not exclude the existence of social and group distinctions and contradictions. Social planning on all levels—from society as a whole to the primary cells of various groups—is called upon to play a leading role in overcoming these distinctions and contradictions.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. “Nemetskaia ideologiia.” Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 3.
Lenin, V. I. “Velikii pochin.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed.. vol. 39.
Szczépański, Jan. Elementarnye poniatiia sotsiologii. Moscow.1969. (Translated from Polish.)
Homans, G. The Human Group. New York, 1950.
Cartwright, D.. and A. Zander. Group Dynamics. 2nd ed. London,I960.
Hahn. E. Soziale Wirklichkeit und soziologische Erkenntnis. Berlin, 1965.


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