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

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

Sociology: Primary and Secondary Groups

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.

The Importance of Primary Groups

A primary group is defined as a relatively small social group in which member relationships are characterized by closeness, shared culture, shared activities, and long term commitment to relationships for the sake of the relationship such as family and friends (Macionis, 2011). Primary groups members typically spend large amounts of time together and share personal and lasting relationships. These groups show concern for one another in a meaningful manner and impact the the socialization process such as family and friends helping to shape one’s attitudes, behavior, and social identity (Macionis, 2011).

Primary groups are often viewed with a focus on family but a primary group does not necessarily have to be a family. Having a primary group helps to form a role that is free of conflict and strain with continuing support, and trust. The family is a common recurring example that reflects the importance of having a primary group for providing ongoing support in life. While this is an extremely important point, a strong family is not a determining factor or necessity to be a normal functioning member of society. Having a primary group similar to family can and does suffice is some cases such as in the case of individuals who lose families early in life and find support through friends and role models. This example shows primary groups are relative to a person’s position and not fixed such as through family associations. While some people who don’t associate their biological family as their primary group, there are others who don’t have a primary group at all and may suffer from this absence. Without role models and a primary group, people struggle to find support and a solid foundation from which they can grow and it becomes difficult to take risks that may enhance their life without a support system.

The Importance of Secondary Groups

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.

Purposes of Group

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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Triola Vincent. Thu, Jan 07, 2021. What’s the difference between a primary group and a secondary group? Retrieved from

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