What’s the difference between a primary group and a secondary group?

Sociology: Primary and Secondary Groups

What’s the difference between a primary group and a secondary group?

Groups are an important element of sociology as they show how individuals link together in common bonds of relationships and goals. Groups are extremely important because as social creatures, humans need to belong with other persons and belonging to groups fulfills this need as well as providing direction and meaning for people in life. This phenomenon is generally split between primary and secondary groups. Primary groups are small social groups whose members share personal and lasting relationships. Typically, primary groups are characterized by people who spend large amounts of time together and share many activities and interests. These groups show concern and care about one another in a meaningful manner. The primary group is also characterized by its impact on the socialization process. Because family and friends are primary groups these individuals also impact the development of one’s attitudes, behavior, and social identity (Macionis, 2011).

In contrast to primary groups, secondary groups are large and impersonal social groups that are formed with a specific purpose, activity, or a specific goal. Secondary groups typically consist of members sharing relationships that have weak emotional ties and have limited personal knowledge of the members. One characteristic of secondary groups is their short lived existence such as teams in the workplace. Typically, when the goal or activity that brought the group together has been accomplished, the group dissolves.

The best way to explain the difference between primary and secondary groups is through the example of college. In college, classes form for the purpose of studying a particular subject, and when the class ends, the group dissolves. This is how a typical secondary group would work, but in contrast, a primary group can be seen as one’s immediate family. The concern for the immediate family and these relationships overrides a purpose such as a college class. The bonds holding the family group are much stronger because they are based on intrinsic ideas such as love and caring.

Sometimes secondary groups can become primary groups such as in the case of people who are thrust into relationships that require high degrees of trust such as war veterans who become friends for life despite having different backgrounds. Groups can also overlap such as family and work. This is especially true in situations of family owned businesses. Many issues stem from group interactions but often overlap with groups can be damaging such as placing too much value on a secondary group. Despite the fact that people may work at a job for many years, their relationships with other workers may not constitute a primary group value. When company’s close or people are terminated they often find themselves feeling abandoned because having placed too much value on job relationships.

Groups serve many purposes but most importantly they define people by their involvement. A person’s primary group may help define them as a family member or loyal best friend. Secondary groups help define a person in the same way and can sometimes be more important in this function. Belonging to a particular church or political group can define a person as a member and create opportunities with other members through networking. Keep in mind groups can change and depending on the situation membership can end even in primary groups when something changes the group dynamic.


Macionis, J. (2011) Society: The Basics, Eleventh Edition, by. Published by Prentice Hall. by Pearson Education, Inc.

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Vincent Triola. Thu, Jan 07, 2021. What’s the difference between a primary group and a secondary group? Retrieved from https://vincenttriola.com/blogs/ten-years-of-academic-writing/what-s-the-difference-between-a-primary-group-and-a-secondary-group