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Sociology: The Core, 6/e
Michael Hughes, Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University
Carolyn J. Kroehler
James W. Vander Zanden, The Ohio State University (Emeritus)

Social groups and Formal Organizations

Chapter Summary

Group Relationships

Groups—two or more people who share a feeling of unity and who are bound together in relatively stable patterns of social interaction—are products of social definitions—sets of shared ideas. As such they constitute constructed realities.

  • Primary Groups and Secondary Groups.  Primary groups involve two or more people who enjoy direct, intimate, cohesive relationships and are fundamental to both us and society. Expressive ties predominate in primary groups. Secondary groups entail two or more people who are involved in impersonal, touch-and-go relationships. Instrumental ties predominate in secondary groups.

  • In-Groups and Out-Groups.  The concepts of in-group and out-group highlight the importance of boundaries—social demarcation lines that tell us where interaction begins and ends. Boundaries prevent outsiders from entering a group's sphere, and they keep insiders within the group's sphere.

  • Reference Groups.  Reference groups provide the models we use for appraising and shaping our attitudes, feelings, and actions. A reference group may or may not be our membership group. A reference group provides both normative and comparative functions.

Group Dynamics

The dynamic qualities of groups make them a significant force in human life and important to sociologists.

  • Group Size.  The size of a group influences the nature of our interaction. Emotions and feelings tend to assume a larger part in dyads than in larger groups. The addition of a third member to a group—forming a triad—fundamentally alters a social situation. In this arrangement one person may be placed in the role of an outsider.

  • Leadership.  In group settings some members usually exert more influence than others. We call these individuals leaders. Two types of leadership roles tend to evolve in small groups: a task specialist and a social-emotional specialist. Leaders may follow an authoritarian style, a democratic style, or a laissez-faire style.

  • Social Loafing.  When individuals work in groups, they work less hard than they do when working individually, a process termed social loafing.

  • Social Dilemmas.  A social dilemma is a situation in which members of a group are faced with a conflict between maximizing their personal interests and maximizing the collective welfare.

  • Groupthink.  In group settings individuals may become victims of groupthink. Group members may share an illusion of invulnerability that leads to overconfidence and a greater willingness to take risks.

  • Conformity.  Groups bring powerful pressures to bear that produce conformity among their members. Although such pressures influence our behavior, we often are unaware of them.

Formal Organizations

For many tasks within modern societies, people require groups they can deliberately create for the achievement of specific goals. These groups are formal organizations.

  • Types of Formal Organization.  
    Amitai Etzioni classified organizations on the basis of people's reasons for entering them: voluntary, coercive, and utilitarian.

  • Bureaucracy: A Functional Approach to Organizations.  Small organizations can often function reasonably well on the basis of face-to-face interaction. Larger organizations must establish formal operating and administrative procedures. This requirement is met by a bureaucracy.

  • Characteristics of Bureaucracies.  
    Max Weber approached bureaucracy as an ideal type with these characteristics: Each office has clearly defined duties; all offices are organized in a hierarchy of authority; all activities are governed by a system of rules; all offices have qualifications; incumbents do not own their positions; employment by the organization is defined as a career; and administrative decisions are recorded in written documents.

  • Problems of Bureaucracy.  
    Bureaucracies have disadvantages and limitations. These include the principle of trained incapacity, Parkinson's law, and the iron law of oligarchy. If formal organization is to operate smoothly, it requires informal organization for interpreting, translating, and supporting its goals and practices.

  • Conflict and Interactionist Perspectives.  In recent years sociologists from differing perspectives—particularly the conflict, symbolic interactionist, and ethnomethodological approaches—have looked at the ways by which organizational reality is generated through the actions of people and groups of people.

  • Humanizing Bureaucracies.  Among programs that make large organizations more humane are those that allow employee participation, flextime, small work groups, and employee ownership.