Social groups

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A social group refers to a set of individuals who share, or perceive to share, some characteristic that leads to perceived unity and cohesion among those individuals and thus sets them collectively apart from other individuals. Social groups vary widely according to their duration, their size, and their goals. Two major approaches to social groups coexist. The first one is rooted in realistic conflict theory and holds that groups are defined by a degree of interdependence between group members (Sherif & Sherif, 1956). In this view, a group is a functional unit, defined by common goals and an orientation towards task resolution, an established internal structure (e.g., roles, status, hierarchy within the group), and a set of norms and values that provide the basis for normative group regulation (e.g., sanctions for behaviours that are contrary to the group’s norms). Here, group members interact with each other because they have something in common and because they value similarity with other group members on relevant dimensions. The second approach to social groups emphasizes "psychological group membership” and stands in contrast to the functional approach. This more psychological view of social groups has been developed in the wake of social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979), and holds that simple awareness of a common category membership is a sufficient condition to elicit group behaviour. Psychological group membership entails a comparison from “outgroups” (groups an individual does not identify with) and thus puts greater emphasis on differentiation between groups than the functional approach. Whereas the functional approach answers the question “Who am I similar to?”, the social identification approach asks “Who am I” and “Which group is different from mine?”. The functional view thus puts greater emphasis on within-group structure and function, whereas the social identification approach stresses the importance of between-group differentiation.

Author: Christian Staerklé


Sherif, M., & Sherif, C.W. (1956). An Outline of Social Psychology. University of Michigan: Harper.
Tajfel, H., & Turner, J.C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W.G. Austin & S. Worchel (eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33–47). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

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