Module 4 Groups and Organization

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Everyone participates in a lot of groups. You are no different. You belong to the group of people who live with you, you belong to this class, and perhaps you belong to a religious group such as a church or temple or to a club, music group, or sports team. Do you belong to any other groups? You might add that you belong to the group of people who go to the swimming pool or beach each summer, but sociologists wouldn’t call that a group. They would call it a social aggregate, a collection of people “who happen to be in one place but do not interact with one another.” You might also say you belong to the group of people called “women” or “men” or a group called “African American,” “White,” “Hispanic,” “Asian,” or “Native American,” but sociologists wouldn’t call these groups either. They would call each of them a social category, “a number of people who have something in common but who neither interact with one another nor gather in one place.” Sociologists only use the term “social group” when they mean “a collection of people who interact with one another and have a feeling of unity.”

Groups are also different from social networks, which are “webs of social relationships that link individuals or groups to one another.” The main difference between groups and networks is that groups have boundaries—we know who is in them and who isn’t. We might be in one of our friend’s social network and not know who else is. Similarly, we might have people in our own social network we don’t even know, such as friends of friends. Networks go on and on, so there is no telling who is in your social network. Maybe you are connected to the latest American Idol or to the President of the United States through the people in your network. Of course, it should be obvious that if people who belong to social networks sometimes don’t even know they are in them that social networks do not necessarily involve feelings of unity or a sense of belonging like groups do. Networks are good for other things though, like providing us with emotional support and helping us in practical ways such as finding a job.

Groups can be really small or really large. The smallest groups only have two people in them. Sociologists call a two-person group a dyad. Sociologists have figured out that how large a group is makes a difference for how it operates. As a matter of fact, it turns out that adding just one more person to a dyad makes a difference. Unlike in a dyad, in a triad alliances can be formed; in other words, two people can gang up on the third one. Furthermore, if one person leaves a dyad, there is no longer a group. In contrast, if one person leaves a triad, there is still a group left—a dyad. This led Georg Simmel, one of the dead white men who made important contributions to sociology, to observe that dyads are not as durable as larger groups. You might be thinking, so what? Before your mind turns off because we’re discussing numbers instead of people, think about what this means for the difference between a marriage without and with children, or a treaty organization with two or three countries, or a friendship group with two or three people in it. Who knew that numbers could make such a difference? It boggles the mind.

Groups are really important because they affect the way we view the world, our sense of self, and our understanding of where we fit into the larger social scene. For example, sociologists have documented a phenomenon they call groupthink, “the tendency for members of a cohesive group to maintain a consensus to the extent of ignoring the truth.” They have documented that groups will agree that a short line is longer than a long line and that a light is moving to the left when it is moving to the right. This isn’t so scary, but what if the members of an in-group inaccurately decide that the members of an out-group are to blame for the high crime rate or terrorism or their other problems, and they set out to take revenge on them? This is when groupthink becomes really dangerous.

Groups can affect us even when we don’t belong to them. For example, let’s say that you want to become an actor. You might compare your acting ability to the people in the drama club at your high school, but you also might compare yourself to theater majors at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro or to members of the Screen Actor’s Guild. Which group you choose as your reference group, “a group that is used as the frame of reference for evaluating one’s own behavior,” will affect how you view your own potential. Comparing yourself to the members of the Screen Actor’s Guild will probably humble you even if you are the best actor at your high school, but it will probably also give you some idea of where you have work to do.

Charles Horton Cooley, another of the dead white men who were so important to the development of sociology, pointed out that some groups, which he called primary groups, are particularly important because they are crucial in socializing us and in connecting us to society. It is in these groups, such as families, peer groups, and small communities, that people develop a sense of self and what is expected of them. In primary groups, people are worried about what is good for the group, have feelings about the other people, are judged as individuals, and relate to each other as whole persons. Later sociologists introduced the idea of secondary groups. In secondary groups, people look out for themselves, do not have feelings about the other people in the group, are judged the same way as everyone else in the group, and usually are involved in only one activity together. Real groups don’t fit neatly into either of these categories—groups usually have some of the characteristics of primary groups and some characteristics of secondary groups simultaneously, but most groups tend in one direction or the other. What about the groups in which you belong?

Sociologists are particularly interested in one type of secondary group, formal organizations. A formal organization is a group “whose activities are rationally designed to achieve specific goals.” One type of formal organization is a bureaucracy. Today the word “bureaucracy” has come to mean an inefficient organization. When we think of bureaucracies, we think of such things as red-tape, convoluted automatic phone messages, and waiting forever for solutions to problems. But at the time Max Weber was writing about bureaucracies he saw them as a solution to the problems of the inefficiencies of the little, family-run businesses that existed before the Industrial Revolution. For this reason, when he listed the characteristics of a bureaucratic organization, he was trying to list how an organization should be organized so it could run efficiently. Like the list of characteristics of primary and secondary groups, Weber’s list of characteristics of bureaucracy doesn’t always match up with real world formal organizations. It is an ideal type, a benchmark against which sociologists compare reality to learn something about it. So if you compare a real world organization to Weber’s list and find out that isn’t quite the same, you would have some idea why the real world organization isn’t totally efficient.

The problem with doing this is that some sociologists think that Weber was wrong and that some of the characteristics included in his ideal type make an organization less efficient instead of more efficient. For example, researchers who were part of the Human Relations School at Harvard University in the 1930’s and some sociologists named Alvin Gouldner and Peter Blau in the 1950’s showed that Weber wrong for thinking that impersonal relationships lead to more efficiency than personal relationships. It turns out that knowing people well and having good relationships with them actually helps managers run things more efficiently. This was big news to sociologists, because they have been obsessed with efficiency since engineer Frederick Taylor introduced the notion of scientific management and did his time-motion studies. Even today, as sociologists learn more about traditional non-Western formal organizations, such as those in Japan, which are operated in ways that have some of the characteristics of primary groups, the question they ask is whether these organizations are as efficient as Western bureaucracies. Sociologist George Ritzer calls the tendency for society to become more and more efficient, “The McDonaldization of Society.” Have you noticed? Not only food is fast these days.