Social Organization

Social Groups, Networks, and Organizations

Primary and Secondary Groups

Primary groups are composed of individuals who share personal, lasting relationships; secondary groups are composed of individuals who interact for a specific purpose.

A primary group is a group in which members share close, personal relationships. There is often a collective sense of identity within a primary group that replaces the individuality people often feel in other groups. Members in primary groups share strong emotional and intimate connections. Primary groups are small in size, typically consisting of no more than a half dozen members. They are key agents of socialization, the process through which people learn the norms and values of their society. The members of primary groups are noninterchangeable. Common examples of primary groups are family and close friendship groups.

A secondary group is characterized by impersonal relationships among people who cooperate to achieve a common goal. People join secondary groups intentionally, for an explicit purpose. Secondary groups are larger in size than primary groups, and communication with other members may be limited. They also contribute to socialization, although they have less of an influence than primary groups. Examples of secondary groups would be a group of coworkers, a classroom of students, a scout troop, or an athletic team. Members of secondary groups sometimes transition to form a primary group. For example, people who meet at work may eventually become close friends or may marry and form a family.

Characteristics of Primary Groups Characteristics of Secondary Groups
  • Relatively small
  • Members have close relationships
  • Stronger sense of collective group identity
  • Based on emotional or intimate connections
  • Members are not interchangeable
  • Vary in size
  • Include impersonal relationships
  • Can include only weak social ties
  • Based on a goal, event, or interest
  • Often exist for a limited time period
  • People choose to belong to them

Social Networks

Social networks are webs of social ties among individuals and groups; they play a crucial role in employment opportunities for individuals.
A social network is composed of relationships between people who interact for various reasons. Social networks connect people and groups with one another, and consist of various groups such as family members, friends, work colleagues, classmates, and others. Often, family, school, and work provide the base of an individual's main social networks. Individuals become connected to the people their family members, friends, and neighbors know. Religion is also a key component of social networks for many people. Members of social networks spend leisure time together, pass along knowledge and ideas, help and advise one another, and connect one another to social and economic opportunities, including jobs.

Strong and Weak Social Ties

The ties that connect people in social networks include strong and weak ties. Strong ties exist between close friends and family members. Weak ties are not necessarily fragile ties. These are the ties between acquaintances or friends of friends. The Internet has impacted the way people develop and engage with social networks. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter allow people to connect with close friends and family, as well as with people who share similar political and social views. People connected through social networks may not necessarily communicate frequently or be deeply involved in one another's lives. However, these weak social ties function to create strong networks of individuals who work together to reach goals or develop strong social groups. For example, online groups based on an interest in video gaming, a political affiliation, or interest in a celebrity are all networks built on weak social ties, but they can play a prominent role in society. This can be seen in the impact of groups that formed in the United States after the 2016 presidential election. Facebook groups that formed in November 2016 organized the huge Women's March that took place in cities across the world on January 21, 2017. The march, and continuing action following it, occurred through the formation of enormous networks of weak ties.

Having access to many weak ties is one form of social capital, resources acquired through networks of relationships that grant access to power and opportunity. In 1973 American sociologist Mark Granovetter (b. 1943) published an influential article titled "The Strength of Weak Ties," arguing that having many weak ties provides numerous economic and social benefits and access to opportunities. His argument continues to resonate, as sociologists analyze the impacts of large networks of weak ties. For example, employment opportunities, social movements, and the spread of new ideas are all supported by large webs of weak ties.

Social Networks and Employment

Social networks can have a significant impact on people's lives, particularly in relation to employment. Social networks are a form of social capital and allow people to acquire greater amounts of both social and economic capital. For example, having a friend who works for the government may help an individual find employment. Similarly, knowing that a friend's sister is a nurse may allow an individual to connect with her for advice. Social networks are often key to the opportunities that are available to individuals and groups.

Social networks can be formal or informal. Formal social networks are organized around connecting workers and employers. Examples of formal networks include job clubs that support people looking for work, online platforms such as LinkedIn, and Facebook groups aimed at creating networking opportunities. Formal networks are characterized by people actively seeking out connections for the purpose of expanding their networks. Informal social networks involve personal, real-life relationships that take place in face-to-face contexts. Connections are made for a wide variety of reasons and are not primarily based on participants' intention to expand their networks. Both types of networks are key to the job opportunities people encounter. Informal networks are often crucial resources because they help workers bypass formal hiring procedures and higher management. For example, someone who works in a store who knows that the store needs to hire another worker might recommend a friend for the job before a job announcement is ever posted publicly. The store employee might not be the one who makes the hiring decision, but by introducing the friend to the hiring manager, the employee creates an opportunity for the friend that others do not have.

Social Networks and Social Stratification

Factors such as gender, race, and class impact social networks. Social stratification refers to the ways that society is divided and layered. Because of segregation based on gender, race, and socioeconomic status in society at large as well as within organizations, people are most likely to interact primarily with members of their own groups. Thus, the kind of support social networks can provide is shaped by the broader social structure. For example, people of color and white women are overrepresented in lower status and lower paying jobs, which affects which networks they have access to. Women can network more effectively within "pink-collar" professions, or professions in which women tend to dominate, such as teaching, nursing, and secretarial and other support roles. Jobs based in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are dominated by men. Women are at a disadvantage because there are fewer women in these fields who can serve as connections and resources to women seeking these types of jobs. Similarly, people of color occupy fewer of these kinds of jobs, and thus the networks of people of color are less able to help them enter these professions.


Organizations are groups with an identifiable membership that engages in collective action in order to achieve a desired goal.
People rely on organizations in both their personal and professional lives. An organization is a structured group with an identifiable membership that engages in collective action. Organizations are a type of secondary group created and designed to achieve specific goals. The members of the organization work together for a particular purpose. Examples of organizations include hospitals, schools, volunteer groups, political groups, clubs, and research consortiums. Once organizations start to grow in size, they adopt a more formal structure in order to meet their goals. Often they develop a hierarchical structure, characterized by levels of power, with those people and groups at the lower levels having less power and responsibility than those above them.