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What are social groups and social networks?

What are social groups?

There are groups of people everywhere you go. As a person, you may belong to many different types of groups: a religious group, an ethnic group, your workplace colleague group, your college class, a sports team, etc. These groups can also be called social groups. We have something in common with others in the same group, we identify with the group, and the group can create a sense of belonging for us. A group is different from an aggregate, where people are temporarily together in a space, maybe even doing the same things, but do not identify themselves as belonging together. For example, being in a crowded supermarket or standing in line at the movie theater does not make you feel like you belong with the people doing the same thing as you. A group is also different from a category. If you are in the same category as a person, you may share similar characteristics—like age, height, or you both wear glasses, but you may not interact or feel the sense of belonging.
There are several types of social groups. These groups influence you and shape your behavior and personality. In the first part of your life, you are likely influenced fundamentally by primary groups. Your family and friends are in this group. Your family shaped your basic values in life. You feel a sense of belonging to your family. As you grow, you feel a sense of belonging expanding to friends. Primary groups give you an identity and a strong sense of self (a feeling of who you are) by providing more intimate and direct face-to-face interactions. They are primary because they are very important in shaping who you are as a person. They also tend to be close-knit groups that are mostly small and intimate, and normally long-lasting, such as family and friends.
A second type of social group is a secondary group. Secondary groups are larger, more anonymous, and impersonal compared to primary groups. They also tend to be more short-term. Such groups are often based on shared interests, hobbies, or activities. For example, forming a temporary task group to plan a holiday party at work or organizing a reading group before an exam. Oftentimes, secondary group members interact based on social statuses. If you’re a worker you may belong to a union; if you’re a student, you may be in a college class with a lot of other students; if you’re a professor, you may belong to a professional association. As you interact more with people in your larger secondary group, these groups may break down into primary groups. Stronger friendships may form between you and a few others in the class of 150 students in Statistics 101, and you then become close long-term friends who influence one another. This is an example of how secondary groups may break down into primary groups.

What groups do you identify with?

If there are so many social groups around you, think about what groups you identify with and what groups you do not feel attached to. For example, if you do not like sports, you may find that hanging out with a group of basketball fans to be very meaningless. On the other hand, if you like dogs, you may find out that hanging out with other dog-owners feels significant to you. In other words, you would identify as being a member of the dog-owner group, but you would not feel like you are a part of the basketball group. When you identify yourself as a member of a particular social group, that group would be an in-group for you. When you do not identify with that group, it would in contrast be an out-group for you.
Since you identify more with your in-group, there is something called in-group favoritism, where you may give preferential treatment to those you perceive are part of your in-group. Studies have shown that in-group favoritism occur even in in-groups that are assigned arbitrarily. In other words, you would show preference for your in-group even if you do not have strong non-arbitrary characteristics such as ethnicity, religion, or even gender. For example, in an experiment, researchers had 10 random participants do a coin toss. Those who chose heads were placed with other participants that also chose heads as a result. The other group consisted of the participants who chose tails as a result. These participants did not know each other before the experiment, and their grouping (heads or tails) was meaningless. Each participant were then asked to distribute money between the 9 other participants who are only identified by their group membership (Group Heads or Group Tails). Participants are told that after the money distribution, they would receive the total amount of money given to them by other participants. Surprisingly, the researchers found that participants, without knowing anyone personally in their same group, almost always had a tendency to give more money to in-group members than to out-group members! In short, the study shows that sometimes it takes you very little to identify yourself with a group (your in-group) and be biased against an out-group.

What are social networks?

There is some organization in our lives because of these social groups. Within these groups, we have our social networks. When you hear the term social network, you may immediately think of Facebook or Twitter. You’re right! Those are types of online social networks! Let’s think offline for a moment though. In the offline world, social networks refer to the social ties that link us together with other people. These ties include your family, friends, acquaintances, classmates, colleagues, neighbors, etc. Can you think of a spider web? The little lines of the web would represent social ties extending outwards from you to other people you know.
Look at the diagram below. This is an example of a simple social network. Each blue circle is called a node. A node represents an individual. Each line represents a social tie. Of course you may ask, how can we tell different social ties apart in a social network graphic? Some ties are stronger—like your family, and friends. Some ties are more distant—like neighbors or workplace people.
Look at the next diagram. Sometimes you will see such visual representations when trying to differentiate between social ties. For example, the node with the X on it represents you. The Y node represents a family member, say, your mother. The Z node represents a classmate. You can see that the distance from node X to node Y is shorter than from node X to node Z. You and your mother represent a close social tie, while you and your classmate represent a farther social tie. You can also see that the line between X and Y is thicker than the line between X and Z. This shows that the strength of the social tie between you and your mother is stronger than between you and your classmate. This is of course a very simplified example of a social network! Can you imagine how your Facebook social network diagram would look like with more than 1,000 friends?

So, do birds of a feather flock together?

Oftentimes by choice, people choose relationships with other people who have similar characteristics with them. This tendency is referred to as homophily. Homophily means love of the same, or simply birds of a feather flock together! Homophily is present in many social network study findings. In a social network, homophily means that individuals with similar traits are more likely to form social ties with one another, which also often impacts their actions. Similarities breed connections! For example, networks studies have found that if people in your immediate social network make unhealthy food choices, you are also much more likely to make unhealthy choices! Particularly, spouses have a very significant effect on your food selection, and of all foods, you’re most likely to share snacks and alcohol consumption patterns with your peers!

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