Family as a primary group

Family plays an important role in the life of every person and society as a whole. It is no surprise that at every new stage of development in our society, with every revaluation of values, the interest in the issues of family, morality and spirituality spikes.

At the present time, in the complicated environments through which we weave our lives, the family remains a unique mediator between the interests of the individual and society and is in the epicenter of a major social upheaval. The transition to current market relations and with them the related apathy, and with the impoverishment of the general population drastically came the turnaround in the view affecting the well-being of our families and their stability and potential for proper upbringing of the young.

These, along with many other social instabilities, have led to a crisis of family values. The consequences of this crisis are bifurcations between the generations, the prevalence of reduced lifetime fertility and the growing number of single parents in the United States. If marriage, parenthood and kinship are what constitute family relations, at the present time we are witnessing a decay of this little tiny trinity. The problem is complicated by the fact that at present time, the institution of marriage is going through a transitional period. There is a certain destruction of the old traditional values of marriage, and the new have yet to be formed.

Marriage and family are increasingly becoming more about individuals and their need for intimate satisfaction and informal communication, and less about structure and support of one another. Let us pinpoint and define just where the family lays its essence within the complicated world of social institutions and in which groups, as defined by our text. In a broad sense, the concept of a social group is any social association of people, anything from peer groups to a population of a particular country.

In sociology, this concept is used in a narrower sense as "any number of people with similar norms, values, and expectations who interact with one another on a regular basis” (Schaefer, 2009, p. 107). In general, members of a society feel like they belong to a group, and are also perceived by others as members of said group.

To analyze the social structure of a society there must be items explored that appear in all elementary parts of the given society, which incorporate all of the social perspectives. For this, I have chosen what is generally accepted to be the “primary group” (Schaefer, 2009, p. 110).

The most successful definition, and essentially creation of the term, was created by “Charles Horton Cooley” who “coined the term… to refer to a small group characterized by intimate, face-to-face association and cooperation” (Schaefer, 2009, p. 110). In other words, primary groups are those in which individuals have personal interaction with one another. For example, classmates can be members of a primary group, and the rest of the student body would then be members of a secondary group.

From a social perspective of a “functionalist” for the normal operation of the human society we must consolidate certain types of social relations so that they become mandatory for members of a particular social group (Schaefer, 2009, p. 14). This primarily refers to those social relations in which, in order to obtain entry, members of a certain group must satisfy the most vital requirements needed for the successful functioning of the given group as an integrated social unit. For example, for the production of material comforts, people tend to perpetuate and secure a level of financial cushioning; this is also done for the upbringing of children, for unstrained family relationships, as well as for education and training for everyone involved.

A symbolic “interactionist” would view the family process as a consolidation of social relations and a way to establish a system of roles and statuses, prescribing certain rules of conduct in a “social network,” and in defining a system of sanctions in case of a default by any of the individuals in the process of living out and following the given rules of conduct (Schaefer, 2009, p. 16/111). Social roles, statuses and sanctions are implemented in the form of social institutions that define sustainable patterns of behavior, ideas and incentives.

Social institutions “are organized patterns of beliefs and behavior centered on basic social needs, such as replacing personnel” in the family setting (Schaefer, 2009, p. 113). Social institutions dictate how ideas and goals are perceived and defined by the system of standard social values, such as patterns of public behavior and the complicated systems of various social ties, i.e. the sets of roles and statuses through which a range of behavior is carried out and kept within certain limits.

So, within the concepts of "social institution" and "social group" there is a significant internal difference. While the social group, whether primary or secondary, is a collection of interacting individuals, the social institution is a system of social relationships and social norms that exist in a particular area of human activity.

However, it should be noted that these concepts are inseparable from each other, because a social institution is a set of relationships and systems of behavior, and is determined ultimately by the needs of people. In other words, although the social institution creates social relationships and norms, there are people for whom these relationships are linked and carried out; the family is the perfect example of a social group that puts the rules in to practice. People organize themselves into different groups using institutional rules.

Each institution includes many social groups that provide the overall institutional behavior. Consequently, institutions and social groups are interrelated, and it would be completely meaningless to separate these notions and study them separately.

So, based on the foregoing, I conclude that the family is a social phenomenon that combines the features of a social institution and a primary group. The idea of the modern family arises from the desire to satisfy purely personal needs and interests of individuals. According to structure-functionalists, "the patterns of reciprocal obligations among people and between structures of people and the greater society define family. The greater society has needs that must be met; in order to meet those needs, society creates subsets of people structured to help meet the needs of society.

The family is one of those structures. The definition of "family" changes as the needs of the greater society change. When the greater society needs rapid population growth — after a time of war, for example — society's definition of family emphasizes heterosexual bonding, procreation and child rearing; but when the greater society is faced with over-population and the need to limit population growth, society's definition of family may be modified to include homosexual bonding and may be more supportive of childless couples” (Diem, 1997, P2).

As a primary group, the family connects the personal needs of the public interest, adapting to social relations, norms, and values that are accepted in our society. In other words, the family's personal needs are sorted and organized on the basis of accepted societal values, norms and behavior patterns and, eventually, acquire the character of the social functions such as the regulation of sex, procreation, socialization, emotional satisfaction, status, safety, and economic security.

From what I have gathered, the definition of family from a conflict perspective has been a highly discouraged and slightly controversial subject since family “is considered a sacred institution. As a result, support for research on conflict in the family has been discouraged” (Werner-Wilson, 1993, p. 6).

And it would seem that a social institution of such prominence would not have a dark side from which can leap and bound toward freedom suppressed minorities. But for the sake of this essay, let us assume that if Karl Marx were to look at the institution of marriage, he would wave his well bearded nugget side to side disapprovingly. The idea of a traditional family has roots in male supremacy, and suppression of women’s rights. If only Karl Marx was not a man of the nineteenth century, but lived in present time.

The ideal family includes: 1) a set of social values (love, for children), 2) public procedure (for the care of children, family rights and obligations), and 3) interlacing of roles and statuses (status and role of husband, wife, child, teenager, mother-in-law, brothers, etc.), with the aid of which the family exists.

Thus, the institution of family is a collection of certain bonds, rules and roles, which in practice are manifested into the activities of this individual primary group. We all know how great the importance of family is in everyday life, society and even in the political arena. After all, it is the family of each person that provides them with an inexhaustible source of love, devotion and support. The family lays foundation for morality, spirituality and tolerance. And it is the family that is recognized as the major reason for why cultural beliefs survive, are inherited and passed from generation to generation. It is a prerequisite for socialization and the lifelong study of social roles, basic education, skills, and behavior.

A healthy, strong family is the basis of stability and prosperity of any society. The family is the foundation of all social institutions vis-à-vis the development of the family is ultimately the progress of society as a whole.

But the world does not stand still, in its ever-changing atmosphere social institutions take on new meanings and the ideas of marriage and family change with the times. Marriage has ceased to be life-long and is losing its legitimacy: divorce, single parent families, broken hearts and bank accounts used to be exceptions, and are now becoming the norm.

The vast majority of professionals such as philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, economists, and students of the modern school of thought, all agree that the family is going through a real crisis. The strength of family is being tested under the weight of total catastrophic failure that our society is facing; the deep nature of which is characterized by our flailing civilization. As a primary element of society, it gives a miniature image of the same contradictions that are inherent in our cultures.

One of the most remarkable properties of the family is its flexible and dynamic form of structural organization. Thanks to the universal ability to adapt to the peculiarities of the ever-changing world, the family has developed an enormous variety of types of family structures, sometimes adapting itself beyond recognition, but while keeping unchanged its essence as a social institution and a primary group. In addition, the family is created to meet any number and range of essential human needs. The family, therefore, in contrast to other social groups defines the very meaning of integrity and adaptability.

Because of its multifunctional ability to ameliorate the physiological and psychological human needs, and its inclination toward self-organization and self-development the idea of family is able to combine all personal, collective and public interests into one little amiable ball with a gigantic potential for explosive cataclysm.

The world is not static, it changes, and with it change its social institutions, and thus the family. Clearly, the family today, like society in general, is in deep cow dung.

The strength of the family, its charm and vitality lie in the integrity that is inherent in the family idea and in the definition of the primary social group and social institution.

The present era in which we have had this great pleasure of existing is different from any other in recorded history. Today’s complex economic and social situations require a modern approach, which can often cause stress and depression, which have already become integral parts of our existence. Today is the time when the need is particularly great in having a safe retreat, a place of spiritual comfort. This safe retreat can be our family, its stability and strength can be built to withstand the widespread variability of the painful world. The family is something worth celebrating, and in celebrating ourselves we can go on further to build everything else that will try to destroy it.


  • Schaefer, R. T. (2009). Sociology: A Brief Introduction (8th edition).
  • New York: McGraw-Hill Diem, G. (1997). Formulations: The Definition of “Family” in a Free Society. Social Scientists’ definition of Family. Retrieved August 12, 2010, from
  • Werner-Wilson, R. (1993) Social Conflict Theory. Retrived August 12, 2010, from