Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20/Truth in the Formation of Social Groups

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Human interaction and development are governed by our social groupings. Commonly, a social group is defined as two or more people who interact with one another, share similar characteristics, and collectively have a sense of unity. Social groups are considered to have followed a gradual evolution from need-based relations like in hunter-gatherer groups to comfort-based relations as in friendships; their existence and progression is undeniable, but how and why do they form?

Disciplines such as geography, biology, psychology and sociology have come up with different explanations for this phenomenon. While some of these are sources of contradiction, others complement one another and help us understand where truth resides in the formation of social groups.



Rivers allow for transport and therefore communication

The physical features of a location affect formation of groups in multiple ways. According to Edward C. Hayes structures like forests and swamps are barriers preventing contact between people, whereas mountain passes and rivers are ideal for intercommunication, and thus for social development: his claim being that ‘isolation tends to stagnation’[1]. Similarly, bigger groups tend to form (and thrive) around areas where food is plentiful. Another influence of geographic location is that it dictates societal norms and cultural practices such as sport and art. Just as siestas are uncommon in cool climates where daylight might be limited, figure skating is not particularly common in tropical climates. Hence it can be seen that geographical factors play an important role in determining how a given social group might appear and behave.


It is apparent that human social groupings are largely limited by who can be found in close proximity - that is, we tend to form groups with the people who happen to be around us. The regularity of interaction brought about as a result of being nearer to one another creates a sense of familiarity and comfort, thus leading to the formation of a social group[2]. This idea was documented by Theodore Newcomb and is known as the proximity principle.

Genetic Influences[edit]

Humans are biological beings; this fact alone makes biological sciences relevant to social behaviour and, therefore, to our predisposition to commit to social groups - which can be studied from an empirical point of view. Positivist approaches have been used in order to determine the molecular analyses of social interaction, including a broad array of animal models, and the use of Williams syndrome to study the influence of a selected group of genes on our social behaviour. In the first case, experiments in fruit flies concluded that genes influence the social behaviour of an individual through their effects on brain development and physiology, this linkage being sensitive to both genetic and environmental variation, and to their interaction. [3]

In the latter case, scientists used schizophrenia disorders patient-derived stem cell models to investigate the true cellular effects of our genes that influence our social behaviour, and therefore, our need to engage in a social group. This further helped scientists to identify which genes have an impact on our social behaviour and they found that common polymorphisms in the gene GTF2I found in the Williams syndrome deletion area, are associated with reduced anxiety in the general population. [4]

Although biological studies on humans relating to the formation of social groups haven’t been conclusive thus far, biology plays an incontestable part in human behaviour and therefore in all its manifestations.

The need to belong[edit]

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs[5]

The need to belong is an intrinsic motivation for humans to socially interact and be accepted, also causing phenomena such as social comparison and self-representation as a means to conform to social groups they wish to join[6]. According to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, belongingness, along with physiological, security, and esteem needs are characterised as a “deficiency need”, a basic need that must be satisfied to achieve a comfortable life[7].

The need to form social bonds and groups is part of our instincts and as important as securing necessities such as food, and shelter[8]. The phenomena can be seen in ages as early as infants, who seek to form social bonds without knowledge of their social world[9]. Furthermore, people experience a reluctance to break social bonds even when the relationship is a wholly negative experience[10]. The need to establish social bonds stems from the theory that forming social groups drastically increased survival, whether it be that it provided security in times of danger or it was easier to reproduce[11].

Solidarity and Social Cohesion[edit]

The evolution of social groups and their different types can be studied in sociology, the focus here, however, will be on what maintains these groupings.

According to Émile Durkheim, traditional societies are relatively homogenous and essentially based on kinship, age and sex. Group cohesiveness is founded on mechanical solidarity, which relies on resemblance between individuals and their conformity to traditional social norms, values and roles. Individuals who do not fit the social standards are usually excluded and depicted as the internal enemy, [12] occasionally leading to phenomena such as “witch hunts”[13]. However, as first pointed out by Durkheim and developed by Kai T. Erikson, this form of deviance can actually play an important role in keeping the social order intact. [14]
In complex societies, Division of labour often provokes the replacement of mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity. People become both more specialised and independent. Individual differences are not only tolerated they become crucial to social cohesion. [15]

As a positivist, Durkheim wanted sociology to be considered as the science which studies the objective reality of social facts. [16] However, staying neutral in sociology is challenging, his theories were undeniably influenced by the socio-historical context of his time. Additionally, as mentioned by Robert K. Merton, methods adopted from physical sciences (in an attempt to be as close to the truth as possible) aren’t always able to explain social behaviour and laws. Finally, different truths exist in sociology and theories regarding the formation of social groups, for example Neil Smelser and others [17] have criticised Durkheim for overlooking how aspects of mechanical solidarity persist in modern societies. [18]

Collating truths[edit]

Studying the formation of social groups through the perspectives of multiple disciplines, a dizzying array of often contradictory conclusions can be found. These disagreements arise from the individual “truths” of each discipline and their varying positivist and interpretivist views and allow us to observe social groups with a more holistic view.

Geography, psychology, and sociology take on a positivist attitude when regarding their "truths"; however, they tend to draw conclusions from trends in empirical data - ignoring phenomena that deviate from the trend. For example, proximity is a positive factor in social grouping, yet it can also cause social division. These holes in "truths", however, can be filled by looking at the sociological perspective of the human tendency to form social groups with people who share a commonality. On why social groups form at all Biology might answer: because it is coded in our genes to do so, with Psychology reinforcing this with evolutionary perspectives. When looking at each disciplines' conclusions at a glance, they may seem unconnected or even contradictory, but upon deeper inspection, their truths fit together to reveal a bigger whole.


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