Introduction to Sociology/Groups

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Introduction[edit]

In sociology, a group is usually defined as a number of people who identify and interact with one another. This is a very broad definition, as it includes groups of all sizes, from dyads to whole societies. While an aggregate comprises merely a number of individuals, a group in sociology exhibits cohesiveness to a larger degree. Aspects that members in the group may share include: interests, values, ethnic/linguistic background, roles and kinship. One way of determining if a collection of people can be considered a group is if individuals who belong to that collection use the self-referent pronoun "we;" using "we" to refer to a collection of people often implies that the collection thinks of itself as a group. Examples of groups include: families, companies, circles of friends, clubs, local chapters of fraternities and sororities, and local religious congregations.

A law enforcement official is a social category, not a group. However, law enforcement officials who all work in the same station and regularly meet to plan their day and work together would be considered part of a group.

Collections of people that do not use the self-referent pronoun "we" but share certain characteristics (e.g., roles, social functions, etc.) are different from groups in that they usually do not regularly interact with each other nor share similar interests or values. Such collections are referred to as categories of people rather than groups; examples include: police, soldiers, millionaires, women, etc.

Individuals form groups for a variety of reasons. There are some rather obvious ones, like reproduction, protection, trade, protest, and food production. But social categorization of people into groups and categories also facilitates behavior and action.[1] An example may help explain this idea:

Suppose you are driving somewhere in a car when you notice red lights flashing in your rearview mirror. Because you have been socialized into society, you know that the red lights mean you should pull over, so you do. After waiting for a minute or two, an individual in a uniform walks toward your car door. You roll down your window and the individual asks you for your "license and registration."

Because groups and categories help facilitate social behavior, you know who this individual is: a member of a law enforcement category like the police or highway patrol. In all likelihood, you do not have to question this individual as to why they are driving a special car with lights on it, why they are wearing a uniform, why they are carrying a gun, or why they pulled you over (you may ask why they pulled you over, but doing so often increases the likelihood they'll give you a ticket). In short, because you recognize that the individual driving the car belongs to a specific social category (or group), you can enter this interaction with a body of knowledge that will help guide your behavior. You do not have to learn how to interact in that situation every single time you encounter it.

In fact, sociologists have long recognized the people experience much of social life by attempting to frame situations in terms they can understand.[2] Specifically, people approach each situation by consciously or unconsciously asking "What is going on here," and seeking to coordinate their activities to the "definition of the situation" they decide upon. To accomplish this, people scan situations for information "given" (e.g., the things people do to signify who they are and what groups they belong to intentionally) and "given off" (e.g., the things people do that inadvertently signify who they are and the groups they belong to) by other people in the situation. Based on this information, people then act in ways they have been socialized to believe is appropriate for the situation. In the case above, for example, you (as the driver) would note the information given (e.g., the special car, the lights, and the uniform worn) to ascertain what was happening and who the other driver was, and then you could note the information given off (e.g., the apparent mood of the police officer based upon her or his body language, verbal language, and mannerisms) to predict (accurately or otherwise) what was about to happen to you. In so doing, you would be using the knowledge of groups at your disposal to manage the situation. Such interpretive work combined with social categorizations to smooth a wide variety of interactional and interpretive experiences.

Social Identity Theory[edit]

Social identity is a theory developed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner to understand the psychological basis of intergroup discrimination. As developed by Tajfel, Social Identity Theory is a diffuse but interrelated group of social psychological theories concerned with when and why individuals identify with, and behave as part of, social groups, adopting shared attitudes to outsiders. It is also concerned with what difference it makes when encounters between individuals are perceived as encounters between group members. Social Identity Theory is thus concerned both with the psychological and sociological aspects of group behavior. According to Tajfel and Turner, social identities are composed of three elements.

Categorization[edit]

We categorize objects in order to understand them, in a very similar way we categorize people (including ourselves) in order to understand the social environment. We use social categories like black, white, Australian, Christian, Muslim, student, and busdriver because they are useful. If we can assign people to a category then that tells us things about those people. Without an understanding of people's groups and categories, we would have a very difficult time functioning in society. Similarly, we find out things about ourselves by knowing what categories we belong to. We define appropriate behaviour by reference to the norms of groups we belong to, but you can only do this if you can tell who belongs to your group.

Identification[edit]

We identify with groups that we perceive ourselves to belong to. Identification carries two meanings. Part of who we are is made up of our group memberships. That is, sometimes we think of ourselves as "us" vs. "them" or "we" vs. "they", and at other times we think of ourselves as "I" vs. "he or she" or "me" vs. "him or her". In other words, sometimes we think of ourselves as group members and at other times we think of ourselves as unique individuals. This varies situationally, so that we can be more or less a group member, depending upon the circumstances. What is crucial for our purposes is that thinking of yourself as a group member and thinking of yourself as a unique individual are both parts of your self-concept. The first is referred to as social identity, the latter is referred to as personal identity. In social identity theory, group membership is not something foreign which is tacked onto the person, it is a real, true and vital part of the person. Our groups make up part of who we are.

The other meaning implied by the concept of identity is the idea that we are, in some sense, the same, or identical to other people. This should not be misinterpreted, when we say that we are the same, we mean that for some purposes we treat members of our groups as being similar to ourselves in some relevant way. To take the most extreme example, in some violent conflict such as a war, the members of the opposite group - the outgroup - are treated as identical and completely different to the those people in your group - the ingroup - which is made up of distinct individuals. Thinking about individuals in one's outgroup in such a fashion allows the individual to believe that the enemy is deserving of death by dehumanizing them (more on this below). Treating people this way allows us to justify otherwise unjustifiable behavior.

Comparison[edit]

A positive self-concept is a part of normal psychological functioning. There is pretty good evidence that to deal effectively with the world we need to feel good about ourselves. The idea of social comparison is that in order to evaluate ourselves we compare ourselves with similar others. We often gain self-esteem by comparing ourselves with others in our group, particularly if we can claim membership in a prestigious group. The prestige of a group is also often created through comparisons that positively reflect on the group. In other words, people in groups choose to compare their groups with other groups in ways that reflect positively on themselves. In fact, people are motivated to see their own group as relatively better than similar (but inferior) groups (i.e., positive distinctiveness). Inversely, people in a group may minimize differences between their group and another, slightly more prestigious group so one's own group tends to be seen more favorably (i.e., negative distinctiveness).

Groups choose dimensions for comparison in order to maximize the positivity of their own group. Groups which perceive themselves to be of high status on particular dimensions will choose those as the basis of comparison. Groups of low status will minimize differences on those dimensions or choose new dimensions. For example, people from some Middle Eastern Islamic countries might regard their country as inferior to the West in terms of economic and technological advancement but might regard their way of life as being morally superior.

Intriguingly, the notion that inferior or "underdog" groups are hyper-motivated to succeed against superior groups turns out not to be true, generally. Members of a group or team will actually work harder when they are competing against a lower ranked group than when they are competing against a higher-ranked group.[3] This makes sense when framed as a status issue: the superior group has more to lose if it is defeated by an inferior team while the inferior team, if it loses, has not lost anything but rather has affirmed the existing social order. Thus, members of higher status groups work harder when competing against lower status groups.

Primary and Secondary Groups[edit]

This family from the 1970s would be an example of a primary group.

In sociology we distinguish between two types of groups based upon their characteristics. A Primary group is typically a small social group whose members share close, personal, enduring relationships. These groups are marked by concern for one another, shared activities and culture, and long periods of time spent together. The goal of primary groups is actually the relationships themselves rather than achieving some other purpose. Families and close friends are examples of primary groups

A class of students is generally considered a secondary group.

Secondary groups are large groups whose relationships are impersonal and goal-oriented. Some secondary groups may last for many years, though most are short term. Such groups also begin and end with very little significance in the lives of the people involved. People in a secondary group interact on a less personal level than in a primary group. Rather than having as the goal the maintenance and development of the relationships themselves, these groups generally come together to accomplish a specific purpose. Since secondary groups are established to perform functions, people’s roles are more interchangeable. Examples of secondary groups include: classmates in a college course, athletic teams, and co-workers.

The distinction between primary and secondary groups was originally proposed by Charles Horton Cooley. He labeled groups as "primary" because people often experience such groups early in their life and such groups play an important role in the development of personal identity. Secondary groups generally develop later in life and are much less likely to be influential on one's identity.

Group Dynamics[edit]

Building on the recognition of primary and secondary groups, sociologists often focus their studies on either group dynamics, group influence (see the next section) or a combination of these two areas of inquiry. In terms of group dynamics, sociologists have long explored the ways people act in groups as a method for bridging individual and societal level forms of meaning making and activity.[4] Drawing heavily on insights from Symbolic Interaction and Structural Functionalist theories, researchers explore the ways that groups are shaped by and in turn shape societal notions of "normal" and "deviant" as well as societal patterns of inequality. At the same time, researchers explore the ways that groups are formed, negotiated, and adjusted by the actions of individual beings interacting with one another on a newfound and/or regular basis. In so doing, studies of group dynamics shed light upon some ways groups reflect, reinforce, and/or shift the ongoing reciprocal relationship between self and society.

Dramaturgy[edit]

Much research into group dynamics draws from the dramaturgical approach outlined by Erving Goffman, and refined by other Symbolic Interactionists throughout the latter part of the 20th Century. Utilizing the metaphor of the theatre, Goffman defined social life as an information game wherein people give (i.e., intentionally transmit information) and give off (i.e., accidentally transmit information) details about themselves through the emphasis they place upon the social groups to which they belong. Specifically, people spend much of their lives attempting to demonstrate and affirm their membership within groups that are well regarded while distancing themselves from groups that are stigmatized within society. In so doing, people learn a wide variety of "signifying practices" or ways of showing others who we are and what we do within group contexts, which demonstrate group membership. An average college student, for example, may decide to wear certain brands of clothing, display certain logos of sports teams, adorn zerselves with specific types of jewelry, and/or speak in certain manners all to give the impression they are a certain type of person. At the same time, others will constantly "read" the presentations and impressions generated by this college student's signifying practices to guess what type of person they are. For example, if a students is perceived to be wearing a cross, one might think ze is a Christian, or if a student is carrying a Coach bag, others may perceive ze has some money). Drawing on such information, people can then sort themselves into various groups, which may then establish specific codes of conduct and dress for members.[5]

Identity Work[edit]

Building upon Dramaturgical insights, sociologists developed the notion of "identity work," or the things people do (individually and collectively) to give meaning to themselves and others.[6] Examining the ways people constructed personal, collective, group, and social identities, researchers taking an identity work approach have outlined four generic processes whereby people give meaning to themselves and others within group contexts. First, group members must define an identity into existence. For example, as a class we all might decide to call ourselves the dragon class. Second, group members must establish a set of codes or symbolic signals that allow people to tell others they are a member of a group. In our class example, we could say that members of the dragon class always wear pink on Tuesdays, calls things that are cool "fetch", and always skip whenever we leave the classroom while pumping our fists and laughing. While we would likely need to develop other codes as time went by to further demonstrate our group identity, these initial ideas would allow us to begin showing others we are members of a group. Third, group members must establish ritual occasions or opportunities to affirm our membership in the group. In our class example, we could pick meeting times outside of class to get together on Tuesdays when we're all wearing pink, and we could applaud, laugh, or pat others on the back whenever they use the word "fetch." In such cases, we could each demonstrate to other group members that they belong while also having opportunities to remind ourselves that we belong. Finally, group members must come up with ways to police the boundaries of our group. In our class example, we would make sure to stop people when they used any term other than "fetch" to say something was cool and question group members that did not skip out of class. Specifically, we would seek to make sure others within the group behaved in the already agreed upon ways in order to make sure the group norms held. Through the combination of all these processes, we would have created a group identity and a set of norms to demonstrate that identity to others.

A real life example may be illustrative here. Imagine that you have just joined a new religion and you are learning what it means to be a member of that group. To do this, first you will go to other members of that religion to learn what the religion means, what its people believe, what items they consider important, and what actions are allowed for members - all of these would be identity codes. After you defined yourself as a group member, you would then need to adopt some or all of these identity codes so others believe you are a member. By adopting these identity codes correctly in the presence of other group members, you would gain affirmation wherein existing group members approve of your performance of these identity codes and welcome you into the group (in some cases, there may even be a formal ceremony where you profess your membership and other group members affirm that profession). Finally, you will begin to notice that other group members (and over time you will do this to) will check on you to make sure you are doing the identity codes properly. In so doing, they will police your behavior to make sure you still belong to the group. Similar to the religious example just outlined, sociologists have noted similar processes of (1) definition, (2) coding, (3) affirming, and (4) policing in social groups as wide ranging as scientific disciplines, support groups, fraternities, sororities, sports teams, friendship groups or cliques, office or other occupational settings, social movement organizations, and classrooms to name just a few. In fact, it might be interesting for you to ask yourself how many times you have experienced and enacted these patterns in your own group memberships. In all such cases, people engage in identity work to construct, affirm, and signify membership within social groups.

Emotion Work[edit]

Similar to identity work processes, scholars have noted the tendency for people to alter their emotional expressions, experiences, and understandings in relation to group memberships. Specifically, social groups and contexts typically contain "feeling rules," or cultural understandings or scripts that provide people with clues to how one should feel, how much one should feel, and how one should display feelings within a given group or situation. When one arrives at a funeral, for example, people will expect one to be sad, appear sad, and do so in a manner that does not detract from the funeral ritual itself (though funeral norms are culture specific). Despite these expectations, one may arrive feeling happy (e.g., "I hated that dude."), appear nervous (e.g., "Can anyone tell I hated that dude?"), or become more emotional than people are comfortable with seeing (e.g., crying "OH MY BABY! OH MY BABY!" before falling on the floor or the casket). In such cases where our actual emotions do not match the feeling rules of a given group or context, we engage in what Arlie Russell Hochschild termed "emotion work," or the processes whereby people seek to manage or change their emotions to align them with normative feeling rules in a given group or context. Drawing on these insights, sociologists have outlined three main strategies of emotion work:

  • Bodily = adjusting the body to shape feelings (e.g., scratching an arm or popping a rubber band on the skin to invoke feelings)
  • Cognitive = adjusting thoughts to shape feelings (e.g., telling ourselves "I need to be happy for him" when our boyfriend is getting ready to marry that other man we don't like)
  • Discursive = using language to reframe feelings (e.g., "Oh, it was...nice" or other phrases used to hide our actual feelings about something)

Further, sociologists have outlined three main types of emotion work people do in the course of their lives:

  • Individual = working on our own emotions (e.g., college students managing anxiety at test time)
  • Interpersonal = working on the emotions of others during interactional exchanges (e.g., people in wheelchairs managing the discomfort of others in their presence)
  • Reciprocal = working with others to manage collective emotions (e.g., employees managing the negative reactions of bosses or other co-workers during tense working situations)

Self & Society[edit]

In recent years, Dramaturgical scholars have integrated many of the insights on group dynamics to demonstrate the ways groups reflect the reciprocal relationship between selves and societies. They have demonstrated that the primary codes that individuals use within groups to signify personal and collective identities rely heavily upon existing societal beliefs, values, and norms. People form groups by doing identity work that blends their personal desires with the symbolic materials provided by social structures. Similarly, people manage and maintain groups and group membership by doing emotion work that aligns their personal feelings with existing structural feeling rules. As a result, groups provide opportunities to examine the ways that selves and structures work hand in hand - to varying degrees - to continuously reproduce individuals and societies predicated upon "who we believe ourselves to be," "what we believe this says about us," and "how we feel about these details."[7]

Group Influence[edit]

The primary reason sociologists study groups is because of their power over individuals. A large body of research suggests that group membership strongly shapes the everyday behavior of individuals. Following are some of the many ways groups shape individual level behavior.

Conformity[edit]

An example of the types of cards used in the Solomon Asch line experiments.

If you've ever done something in a group that you would not do if you were alone, it's likely that you experienced conformity; your attitudes, beliefs, and/or behaviors were influenced by other people. One of the most well-known illustrations of conformity is Solomon Asch's conformity experiments. The experiment was set up as follows:

Research participants would enter a room and sit at a table with several other people (who were confederates, meaning they were actually helping with the research). The participant and confederates would be shown one card that had a reference line and another card that had three comparison lines. Subjects were required to select the comparison line that corresponded in length to the reference line.

This seems like a relatively straightforward task. However, choosing the correct line becomes much more difficult when the confederates choose the wrong answer. Why? Because of our tendency to conform to those around us. Thus, when Asch has the confederates choose the wrong answer, participants also chose the wrong line 37% of the time.[8][9] How do you think you would respond in such a situation?

Jason Chein and Laurence Steinberg have illustrated why people in groups are more likely to take risks (one form of conforming) using functional magnetic resonance imaging: the presence of peers heightens the benefits that result from risky decisions.[10] Participants in their research remained aware of the risks, but their brains exhibited heightened sensitivity to the benefits of succeeding. Thus, the presence of peers can facilitate risky behavior as it makes the reward more meaningful.

Social Facilitation[edit]

People often perform their best when competing with others, like in races, as a result of social facilitation. This is just one illustration of the influence of groups on individuals.

Social facilitation is the tendency for people to be aroused into better performance on simple tasks (or tasks at which they are expert or that have become autonomous) when under the eye of others,[11] rather than while they are alone (i.e., the audience effect), or when competing against another (i.e., the coactor effect).[12] Complex tasks (or tasks at which people are not skilled), however, are often performed in an inferior manner in such situations.[13] This effect has been demonstrated in a variety of species. In humans, it is strongest among those who are most concerned about the opinions of others, and when the individual is being watched by someone he or she does not know, or cannot see well.[14]

Social Loafing[edit]

Social loafing refers to the phenomenon that can occur when people in a group make less of an effort to achieve a goal than they would working alone. As a result of social loafing, groups can sometimes generate less total output than the combined performance of their members working as individuals.[15] Social loafing results from a lack of motivation when working in a group because individuals do not believe their specific contribution will be evaluated. As a result, they do not put in as much effort as they otherwise would.[15]

Deindividuation[edit]

Deindividuation refers to the phenomenon of relinquishing one's sense of identity, self-awareness, or evaluation apprehension. This can happen as a result of becoming part of a group that fosters obedience to group norms rather than an individual's norms, such as an army or mob.[16] Once this happens, individuals no longer think about themselves before they act and may, in fact, be unaware of their own actions.

Deindividuation can have quite destructive effects, like increasing the odds someone will commit a crime[17], engaging in violence,[18][19] or even over-enforce the law, such as police in riot situations.

Group Polarization[edit]

Juries can be influenced by group polarization, leading to more extreme punitive damage awards.

Group polarization refers to the finding that after participating in a discussion group, members tend to advocate more extreme positions and/or call for riskier courses of action than individuals who did not participate in any such discussion.[20]

Group polarization results from two primary mechanisms: social comparison and informational influence.[21] Social comparison refers to the drive of individuals to appear socially desirable. Informational social influence occurs when a person is in a situation where he or she is unsure of the correct way to behave. In such situations, that person will often look to others for cues concerning the correct behavior. When "we conform because we believe that other's interpretation of an ambiguous situation is more accurate than ours and will help us choose an appropriate course of action,"[22] it is informational social influence.

Group polarization has been used to explain the decision-making of juries, particularly when considering punitive damages in a civil trial. Studies have shown that after deliberating together, mock jury members often decided on punitive damage awards that were larger or smaller than the amount any individual juror had favored prior to deliberation. The studies indicated that when the jurors favored a relatively low award, discussion would lead to an even more lenient result, while if the jury was inclined to impose a stiff penalty, discussion would make it even harsher.

Diffusion of Responsibility[edit]

Diffusion of responsibility (also called the bystander effect) is a social phenomenon which tends to occur in groups of people above a certain critical size when responsibility is not explicitly assigned. A common example would be observing a minor fender-bender on a busy freeway. Most people, when they observe something like that, do not stop and do not call the police, assuming someone else will do so. This phenomenon rarely ever occurs in small groups. In tests involving groups of three or fewer, everyone in the group took action as opposed to groups of over ten where in almost every test, no one took action.

Kitty Genovese's murder is widely cited as an example of the diffusion of responsibility as numerous people observed (either heard or saw) her murder but no one called the police immediately, allowing the murderer to leave the scene of the initial attack then return to track her down and kill her and still get away.

False Consensus and Illusory Superiority[edit]

The false consensus effect is the tendency for people to project their way of thinking onto other people.[23][24] In other words, people often assume that everyone else thinks the same way they do. This belief is unsubstantiated by statistical and qualitative data, leading to the perception of a consensus that does not exist. This logical fallacy involves a group or individual assuming that their own opinions, beliefs and predilections are more prevalent amongst the general public than they really are. This bias is commonly present in a group setting where one thinks the collective opinion of their own group matches that of the larger population. Since the members of a group reach a consensus and rarely encounter those who dispute it, they tend to believe that everybody thinks the same way. This is done to justify one's own beliefs.

Illusory superiority is a cognitive bias in which people overestimate the degree to which they possess desirable qualities, relative to others, or underestimate their negative qualities relative to others.[25] Such over- and under-estimations serve to bolster peoples' self-esteem. People who succumb to the illusory superiority bias have inflated views of their own characteristics. Some surveys have found all, or nearly all, the participants rate themselves as above the group average. The strongest effect has been found when people rate themselves on abilities at which they are totally incompetent. These subjects have the greatest disparity between their actual performance (at the low end of the distribution) and their self-rating (placing themselves above average). The effect has been found when people compare themselves to others on many different abilities and personality traits:

  • Sorority members perceive those in their sorority as far less likely to be conceited and snobby than those in other sororities[26]
  • 53% of Dutch adults rate their marriage or partnership as better than most others; only 1% rate it as worse than most marriages[27]
  • 66% of adult Americans grade their oldest child's public school with an A or B, but 64% give the nation's public schools a C or D[28]

Groupthink[edit]

Groupthink is a term coined by psychologist Irving Janis [29] to describe a process by which a group can make bad or irrational decisions. In a groupthink situation, each member of the group attempts to conform his or her opinions to what they believe to be the consensus of the group. In a general sense this seems to be a very rationalistic way to approach the situation. However this results in a situation in which the group ultimately agrees upon an action which each member might individually consider to be unwise (the risky shift).

Janis' original definition of the term was "a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action." The word groupthink was intended to be reminiscent of George Orwell's coinages (such as doublethink and duckspeak) from the fictional language Newspeak, which he portrayed in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Groupthink tends to occur on committees and in large organizations. Janis originally studied the Pearl Harbor bombing, the Vietnam War and the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Recently, in 2004, the US Senate Intelligence Committee's Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq[30] blamed groupthink for failures to correctly interpret intelligence relating to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities.

Janis[31] provides descriptions of groupthink:

antecedent conditions of groupthink symptoms indicative of groupthink symptoms of decisions affected by groupthink
Insulation of the group Illusion of invulnerability Incomplete survey of alternatives
High group cohesiveness Unquestioned belief in the inherent morality of the group Incomplete survey of objectives
Directive leadership Collective rationalization of group's decisions Failure to examine risks of preferred choice
Lack of norms requiring methodical procedures Shared stereotypes of outgroup, particularly opponents Failure to re-appraise initially rejected alternatives
Homogeneity of members' social background and ideology Self-censorship; members withhold criticisms Poor information search
High stress from external threats with low hope of a better solution than the one offered by the leader(s) Illusion of unanimity (see false consensus effect) Selective bias in processing information at hand (see also confirmation bias)
Direct pressure on dissenters to conform Failure to work out contingency plans
Self-appointed "mindguards" protect the group from negative information

One mechanism which management consultants recommend to avoid groupthink is to place responsibility and authority for a decision in the hands of a single person who can turn to others for advice. Others advise that a pre-selected individual take the role of disagreeing with any suggestion presented, thereby making other individuals more likely to present their own ideas and point out flaws in others' — and reducing the stigma associated with being the first to take negative stances (see Devil's Advocate).

Anonymous feedback via suggestion box or online chat has been found to be a useful remedy for groupthink — negative or dissenting views of proposals can be raised without any individual being identifiable by others as having lodged a critique. Thus the social capital of the group is preserved, as all members have plausible deniability that they raised a dissenting point.

Networks[edit]

A social network is a social structure between actors, either individuals or organizations. It indicates the ways in which they are connected through various social familiarities ranging from casual acquaintance to close familial bonds. The study of social networks is called both social network analysis and social network theory. Research in a number of academic fields has demonstrated that social networks operate on many levels, from families up to the level of nations, and play a critical role in determining the way problems are solved, organizations are run, and the degree to which individuals succeed in achieving their goals.

An example of a social network diagram

Social network theory views social relationships in terms of nodes and ties. Nodes are the individual actors within the networks, and ties are the relationships between the actors. There can be many kinds of ties between the nodes. In its most simple form, a social network is a map of all of the relevant ties between the nodes being studied. The network can also be used to determine the social capital of individual actors. These concepts are often displayed in a social network diagram, where nodes are the points and ties are the lines.

The shape of the social network helps determine a network's usefulness to its individuals. Smaller, tighter networks can be less useful to their members than networks with lots of loose connections (weak ties) to individuals outside the main network. More "open" networks, with many weak ties and social connections, are more likely to introduce new ideas and opportunities to their members than closed networks with many redundant ties. In other words, a group of friends who only do things with each other already share the same knowledge and opportunities. A group of individuals with connections to other social worlds is likely to have access to a wider range of information. It is better for individual success to have connections to a variety of networks rather than many connections within a single network. Similarly, individuals can exercise influence or act as brokers within their social networks by bridging two networks that are not directly linked (called filling social holes).

The power of social network theory stems from its difference from traditional sociological studies, which assume that it is the attributes of individual actors - whether they are friendly or unfriendly, smart or dumb, etc. - that matter. Social network theory produces an alternate view, where the attributes of individuals are less important than their relationships and ties with other actors within the network. This approach has turned out to be useful for explaining many real-world phenomena, but leaves less room for individual agency, the ability for individuals to influence their success, so much of it rests within the structure of their network. For instance, social networks have been used to examine how companies interact with each other, characterizing the many informal connections that link executives together, as well as associations and connections between individual employees at different companies. These networks provide ways for companies to gather information, deter competition, and even collude in setting prices or policies. Power within organizations has also been found to be tied to social networks. Powerful people in organizations often derive their power from their degree of connectedness within the organization (i.e., the degree to which an individual within a network is at the center of many relationships) rather than from job title or statuses. Social networks also play a key role in hiring, in business success for firms, and in job performance.

The so-called rule of 150 states that the size of a genuine social network is limited to about 150 members (sometimes called the Dunbar Number). The rule arises from cross-cultural studies in sociology and especially anthropology of the maximum size of a village (in modern parlance an ecovillage). It is theorized in evolutionary psychology that the number may be some kind of limit of average human ability to recognize members and track emotional facts about all members of a group. However, it may be due to economics and the need to track "free riders", as larger groups tend to be easier for cheats and liars to prosper in.

The "six degrees of separation" model.

The small world phenomenon is the hypothesis that the chain of social acquaintances required to connect one arbitrary person to another arbitrary person anywhere in the world is generally short. The concept gave rise to the famous phrase six degrees of separation after a 1967 small world experiment by psychologist Stanley Milgram which found that two random US citizens were connected by an average of six acquaintances. Current internet experiments continue to explore this phenomenon, including the Ohio State Electronic Small World Project and Columbia's Small World Project. As of 2005, these experiments confirm that about five to seven degrees of separation are sufficient for connecting any two people through the internet.

Sociologists are interested in social networks because of their influence on and importance for the individual. Social networks are the basic tools used by individuals to meet other people, to recreate, and to find social support.[32] Recent research suggests that the social networks of Americans are shrinking and more and more people have no close confidants or people with whom they can share their most intimate thoughts.[33] In 1985, the mean network size of individuals in the U.S. was 2.94 people. Networks declined by almost an entire confidant by 2004, to 2.08 people. Almost half, 46.3% of Americans, say they have only one or no confidants with whom they can discuss important matters. The most frequently occurring response to the question of how many confidants one has was zero in 2004. The decline in confidants has been most notable among non-kin networks, putting greater emphasis on kin and spouses as social confidants. Most social confidants are similar in demographic characteristics to the person doing the sharing.[33] The implications of these findings are potentially disturbing for American society as people have smaller social support networks, which are important for both social but also health reasons.[32]

References[edit]

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  30. Senate Intelligence Committee. 2004. Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq http://intelligence.senate.gov/conclusions.pdf
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External links[edit]

Socialization · Demography