Life places us in a complex web of relationships with other people. Our humanness arises out of these relationships in the course of social interaction. Moreover, our humanness must be sustained through social interaction—and fairly constantly so. When an association continues long enough for two people to become linked together by a relatively stable set of expectations, it is called a relationship.
People are bound within relationships by two types of bonds: expressive ties and instrumental ties. Expressive ties are social links formed when we emotionally invest ourselves in and commit ourselves to other people. Through association with people who are meaningful to us, we achieve a sense of security, love, acceptance, companionship, and personal worth. Instrumental ties are social links formed when we cooperate with other people to achieve some goal. Occasionally, this may mean working with instead of against competitors. More often, we simply cooperate with others to reach some end without endowing the relationship with any larger significance.
Sociologists have built on the distinction between expressive and instrumental ties to distinguish between two types of groups: primary and secondary. A primary group involves two or more people who enjoy a direct, intimate, cohesive relationship with one another. Expressive ties predominate in primary groups; we view the people as ends in themselves and valuable in their own right. A secondary group entails two or more people who are involved in an impersonal relationship and have come together for a specific, practical purpose. Instrumental ties predominate in secondary groups; we perceive people as means to ends rather than as ends in their own right. Sometimes primary group relationships evolve out of secondary group relationships. This happens in many work settings. People on the job often develop close relationships with coworkers as they come to share gripes, jokes, gossip, and satisfactions.
A number of conditions enhance the likelihood that primary groups will arise. First, group size is important. We find it difficult to get to know people personally when they are milling about and dispersed in large groups. In small groups we have a better chance to initiate contact and establish rapport with them. Second, face-to-face contact allows us to size up others. Seeing and talking with one another in close physical proximity makes possible a subtle exchange of ideas and feelings. And third, the probability that we will develop primary group bonds increases as we have frequent and continuous contact. Our ties with people often deepen as we interact with them across time and gradually evolve interlocking habits and interests.
Primary groups are fundamental to us and to society. First, primary groups are critical to the socialization process. Within them, infants and children are introduced to the ways of their society. Such groups are the breeding grounds in which we acquire the norms and values that equip us for social life. Sociologists view primary groups as bridges between individuals and the larger society because they transmit, mediate, and interpret a society's cultural patterns and provide the sense of oneness so critical for social solidarity.
Second, primary groups are fundamental because they provide the settings in which we meet most of our personal needs. Within them, we experience companionship, love, security,
and an overall sense of well-being. Not surprisingly, sociologists find that the strength of a group's primary ties has implications for the group's functioning.
For example, the stronger the primary group ties of a sports team playing together, the better their record is.
Third, primary groups are fundamental because they serve as powerful instruments for social control. Their members command and dispense many of the rewards that are so vital to us and that make our lives seem worthwhile. Should the use of rewards fail, members can frequently win by rejecting or threatening to ostracize those who deviate from the primary group's norms. For instance, some social groups employ shunning (a person can remain in the community, but others are forbidden to interact with the person) as a device to bring into line individuals whose behavior goes beyond that allowed by the particular group. Even more important, primary groups define social reality for us by structuring our experiences. By providing us with definitions of situations, they elicit from our behavior that conforms to group-devised meanings. Primary groups, then, serve both as carriers of social norms and as enforcers of them.
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