The Primary Group: Essence and Accident

Ellsworth Faris
University of Chicago


The primary-group concept has been assumed to be identified by three criteria: face-to-face association, temporal priority in experience, and the feeling of the whole for which "we" is the natural expression. But since some face-to-face groups are not primary groups (e.g., formal institutions) and since some primary groups are not face-to-face (e.g., a widely scattered kinship group), the spatial contiguity is not essential. Temporal priority is not essential, since many primary groups are formed by adults. These are accidents, the essence of the primary group being the relation which corresponds to ideas, images, and feelings of a specific and easily identified character. A family is a primary group only if these relations exist. Discipline in school and home may follow institutional forms or primary group patterns, but the family is not a primary group merely because of a common dwelling. The essence of the primary group is its functional and emotional character. Temporal priority and spatial contiguity are accidents.

The concept of primary group, while perhaps not the most important contribution of C. H. Cooley, may be the one for which he will be longest remembered. Others had spoken of the "we-group" and of the "in-group," but "primary group" is a happier phrase. In such groups, Cooley asserted, are to be found the very origins of human nature. The concept was coined at the right time and has been approved by the only effective authority, that of widespread quotation and continued use. The well-known passage reads:

By primary groups I mean those characterized by intimate face-to-face association and co-operation. They are primary in several senses, but chiefly in that they are fundamental in forming the social nature and ideals of the individual. The result of intimate association, psychologically, is a certain fusion of individualities in a common whole, so that one's very self, for many purposes at least, is the common life and purpose of the group. Perhaps the simplest way of describing this wholeness is by saying that it is a "we"; it involves the sort of sympathy and mutual identification for which "we" is the natural expression. One lives in the feeling of the whole and finds the chief aims of his will in that feeling.[1]

There appear to be three properties of the primary group expressed or implied in this statement: the face-to-face relation, the temporal priority in experience, and the feeling of the whole as expressed by "we." The importance of the primary group, as he later

( 42) shows, is that human nature arises in it, and from it the human virtues of sympathy, kindness, justice, and fair play can be shown to originate.

The use of the conception raised certain difficulties. There was no terminology provided for the groups not primary; and many writers came to speak of "secondary groups," some authors actually putting these words into the mouth of Cooley though he nowhere uses the term.[2] The tendency has been to consider secondary groups as those which depend for communication on indirect sources, such as newspapers.

A more serious question concerns the exact denotation of the concept. Attention was fixed on the face-to-face criterion to the neglect of the other differentia, and many now use the term as applying only to those who are physically present in the group relation. Implied has been the criterion of temporal priority which would limit primary groups to children, since adults have long ago lost connection with their first groups. The psychological criterion has received relatively little emphasis. There is value in a careful inquiry into the exact and definite qualities which mark off these groups from other groups.

The schoolmen made a distinction between the essence and the accident. The accident may define a concrete denoted object whose essence does not disappear when the accident is not present. Your table may be square and oaken, but being square and being matte of oak are not essential to its being a table, and hence they are called accidents. It would be a table if round or oval or if made of maple or steel. The essential properties of a table can be stated in a careful definition, giving genus and differentia; but only error results from confusing accident and essence.

How essential to the definition of a primary group is the property face-to-face? Are all face-to-face groups primary groups? Are any groups primary groups where the relations are not face-to-face? Or is the face-to-face relation an accident? Similar questions arise concerning the temporal priority implied in the words, though in usage these have occasioned only minor difficulties.

There are groups to be described at the extreme of the series in which there appears to be no doubt. An American criminal court,

( 43) with judge, jury, defendant, and counsel, are in a face-to-face nearness with none of the essential properties of the primary group as set forth in the quotation and the other passages in which Cooley uses his concept. For the court is externally controlled and governed by rules made by absent and ancient authorities. The actions are essentially institutional in character. A legislative body, even when small, or a board of directors with formal procedures, may be cited. A primary group may be as small as two, but an unwelcome bond salesman in your office does not necessarily mean that. you and he form a primary group. Nor would a delinquent student summoned into the office of his dean form with that official such a group. Without multiplying instances it may then be assumed that not all face-to-face groups are in essence primary groups.

But do any groups not face-to-face have the properties of the primary group? There is reason to think so. A kinship group widely scattered in space, communicating only by letter, may be characterized by a common feeling of unity, exhibit "a certain fusion of individualities in a. common whole," and be accurately classed as a primary group. A woman student has recorded an experience in which she "fell in love" with a woman author, wrote long letters to her, and was influenced by her profoundly and for many years, although the two had not ever seen each other at the time the account was written. Was not this a primary group? Historic friendships like that of Emerson and Carlyle did not rest on physical presence, nor indeed so originate. Comrades in a cause, if there is esprit de corps, often form primary groups independent of spatial separation. These seem to be genuine primary groups.

The problem, then, is whether primary group is a spatial concept or whether other criteria must be sought. This inquiry will lead us to a more fundamental question: the validity of the group concept itself. Is a group a mere aggregation of individuals and therefore a mere name, or does it denote specific sociological things to be defined, classified, and studied?

The differences of opinion on this issue are old and familiar, and no solution of the problem is attempted here. A clear statement of the point of view can he made and should be kept in mind by any who may wish to profit by this discussion. The word "group" is used by some. writers to indicate merely the aggregate of the indi-

( 44) -viduals which make it up. This is the proper usage which statistics employs. The ages of divorced persons can be grouped into classes, averages figured, and relations with other aspects calculated. Such a group is a mere collection of units, and the averages are abstract symbols denoting the generalized character of these units. But the sociological group involves consensus, concert, communication. The statistical group exists for the statistician; the sociological group exists for its members. In the former the individuals constitute the group; in the latter the group makes its members. The vigorous attack on the group concept which Allport and others have made seems to neglect this distinction. The reader will find a discussion of those opposing views easy of access.[3]

I should like to raise the further question of the degree to which a sociological group can be defined in strictly objective terms. To what extent is a group to be called objective, and to what degree must subjective attitudes and images be assumed as essential? Is the sociological group an experience or organization of experiences? A primary group may, indeed, be described by an onlooker after observing movements and sounds; but he may be only interpreting the symptoms, leaving the very essence of the group life unnoticed, or else misinterpreting what he has seen and heard. Strictly behavioristic accounts of group life cannot take account of what the members of the group feel or think.

"The sort of mutual identification and sympathy for which `we' is the natural expression," suggests that Cooley did not mean to make the face-to-face relation the essence and sine qua non of the primary group. And if the primary group is characterized by the "we-feeling," we must look to subjective criteria and cannot depend wholly on mere observation, externally attempted. The appeal must be to experience and not confined to behavior.

Behaviorism is professed by many who do not accept the extreme forms of the statement. There are left-wing behaviorists, right-wing behaviorists, and those who occupy the center. But it would be accurate to characterize all forms of behaviorism as motivated by a desire to be objective. There is a tendency to minimize and sometimes to deny the importance of the inner subjective aspects of ex-

( 45) -perience. Left-wing behaviorists deny the very existence of consciousness, but even right-wing members of this school seek to phrase their facts in terms of movements that can be observed. Only thus, do they feel, can we have an objective science.

Cooley saw things differently. Since the movements of our muscles, when we glow with pride or long for friends, offer no set pattern, he insisted on the importance of the imagination and the feelings.' When a man falls in love or gets religion, the nervous currents are so inaccessible compared with the images and feelings and resultant attitudes that he considered these latter facts as basic and central. Those who know their Cooley will recall his bold statement that the solid facts of social life are the facts of the imagination. My friend is best defined as what I imagine he will do and say to me on occasion. Cooley taught that to understand human nature we must imagine imaginations. In his last book he quotes Holmes as saying that when John and Tom meet there are six persons present. There is John's real self (known only to his Maker), John's idea of himself, and John's idea of Tom, and, of course, three corresponding Toms. Cooley goes on to say that there are really twelve or more, including John's idea of Tom's idea of John's idea of Tom. And if this be thought a fanciful refinement, he insists that a misconception of this last type, when Germany made a fateful decision, was possibly the reason she lost the war. In these "echoes of echoes of echoes" of personality we have an a fortiori consideration of the importance of the subjective aspect of conduct.

Whether Cooley be correctly interpreted as meaning that the primary group is defined in essence as characterized by a certain kind of feeling is a matter of literary exegesis. The considerations advanced indicate this to be the logical conclusion. If there be group consciousness, esprit de corps-a feeling of "we"-then we have a primary group which will manifest attitudes and behavior appropriate and recognizable. The face-to-face position is a mere accident. Groups of friends and neighbors form primary groups, but the essential quality may be present in groups where spatial contiguity is lacking. The Woman's International League for Peace and Freedom has some hundreds of idealistic pacifists scattered over the world, most of whom have never seen each other. But they are comrades in the cause, are conscious of an enveloping sense of the whole group,

( 46) think and speak and feel in terms of "we," and answer the definition of a primary group. We have shown, on the other hand, that many face-to-face groups lack this quality.

If our reasoning be sound, it follows that not every family is a primary group and that a school group may or may not be so defined. A domestic tyrant with commands, threats, and punishments may conceivably assemble his subjects around a table thrice daily in a group that lacks the essential qualities of the primary group. Likewise, a teacher may sometimes be the leader of a primary group; but one who has alienated the children may be hated or may be treated abstractly as a mere outsider and functionary in a company where there is no feeling of "we" and thus no primary group.

The correlative of the primary group is not a group whose members are separated or one where the communication is by indirect media. Rather is the primary group to be contrasted with the formal, the impersonal, the institutional. Its importance consists in the fact that primary relations give rise to the essentially human experiences, so that human nature may be said to be created in primary group relations. The more completely the relations are mechanized, the more fractional the contacts become and the less effective in generating the sentiments which are distinctly human. If children in home and school are to be made to participate in the culture of their people, it is necessary that the home and school be primary groups, and the mere fact that they meet face-to-face with the members of the family or the school system is not sufficient to give it the essential character.

This is not to say that the primary group is a value concept and therefore superior to other types of groups. Human institutions are erected to meet human needs, and these needs may be better satisfied by institutions than by primary group relations. Indeed, primary group relations may intrude in a disorganizing manner, as when a police officer refuses to arrest a man because he is a friend. Here belong much of the corruption, bribery, nepotism, and "graft" of our modern life. Formal and institutional groups cannot perform their function unless the distinction between them and the primary group be kept with scrupulous clarity. Moreover, there is no sharp dividing line between the two clear types. There are marginal cases and transitional forms, and critical experiences can alter either or

( 47) both of them; but there need be no vagueness if the essential qualities of each are accurately stated.

If the argument so far be sound, we now see that the primary group can be destroyed, utterly destroyed, even though face-to-face relations continue. This is more frequently observed in family disruptions but can be observed in other types of primary groups. Former intimate relations may become purely formal, even legal, relying on fixed forms or external regulations. In the primary group one does more or less what he pleases; in institutions one follows the rules. In congenial, intimate friendship there can be no set regulations, no set formulas; for in this relation life is free-flowing, spontaneous, and interpenetrating. Friendship has never built an institution, nor can it, for the primary group withers and (lies in an atmosphere of legality. Formal and external relations are different. Men stand on their rights, appeal to authorities, declare the motion out of order, insist on the sum nominated in the bond, sue for the terms of the contract.

Thus a primary group is at once more and less than an assemblage of people. An assembly may become united in an exalted moment till every member is aglow with the consciousness of the whole, but such a consciousness is possible, as we have shown, when distance intervenes. It may be unilateral, just as unrequited love may be. But the experience is real, describable, and very important. Moody, in "Gloucester Moors," wrote of drinking in the beauty while he thought of his brethren in the city, oppressed in body, mind and purse; and he said:

Who has given me this sweet
And given my brother dust to eat?

And it would seem to be untenable to deny the reality and importance of this momentary expression of a lifelong identification with a whole class which characterized the life of this poet.

So-called "secondary contacts" have nothing to do with the case Contacts by letter, printed journal, book, telegraph, telephone, radio, may have any quality from an abstract promulgation of a harsh law to a throbbing message which unites and intensifies a bond between comrades. Even in large and scattered groups-particularly those we call "social movements"-the struggle for liberty, freedom, justice, or any great cause may call into existence the very experi-

( 48) -ences and relations which we are able to find in the primary group.

That Cooley so held is clear in his statement that democracy and Christianity are the outgrowth of the primary group and are its ultimate expression and flower. It is clear from his discussion that he did not mean the institutions, for the church is not Christianity, nor is democracy the same as the state. But, if conceived ideally, Christianity is expressed in love, sympathy, and loyalty by those who consider themselves members of an encompassing whole of which they are part and in which "we" is the golden word. The attitude and feeling are the essence; the space and position are but accidents.

Human life is essentially dramatic. Personality arises as, and because, we play rôles in our social intercourse. The process of reflection in which we define for ourselves the meaning of what we have said and what others have said and clone to us is also a dramatic event. We become conscious of ourselves when we realize that we are acting like another. Our personality is shaped by the definition of our acts which we receive from others. We respond to them in our imagination and build up not only our virtues and vices but the awareness of them. And here arises the transcendent importance of the primary group. Only in the primary-group relation is this type of influence directly effective and positively formative. Strictly mechanical relations approximate absent-mindedness, hostile relations tend to generate opposing attitudes, but in the primary group the, seeds of a culture live and bear fruit. And the group is a relation between members, not an aggregation of units. The sociologic group can only be described by references to the experiences of if members.

The considerations advanced have been essentially theoretical; but there are practical applications of the theory, as, indeed, there are of all theories. For the primary group with its looseness of organization, and its free-flowing influence, being the matrix in which human nature takes form, the type of control that characterizes the primary group is uniquely its own. The family has always been considered the essential type of a primary group, and yet it has been shown that the family only belongs in this category when there is a certain type of organization present. It is possible to trace the politi-

( 49) -cal and governmental patterns of control within the historical period as they have come into the family relationship. The patriarchal family, with a benevolent despot or a malevolent one, who is at the same time lawgiver, judge, jury, and executioner, is not the original form of the family; and indeed contemporaneous families all over the preliterate world can be found where this particular type of control and relationship is absent. When the pseudo-political forms have been imported into the family, it no longer retains its essential character as a primary group. The control is to some degree transferred from this particular locus to other groups into which the children can find their way. The family has lasting influence over its members in the degree in which it retains its character as a primary group. It loses its essential type of control when, through ignorance of this particular principle, another type of control is substituted.

Entirely analogous phenomena may be observed in our American schools. The kindergarten as it is now conducted is essentially primary group, with the types of control and of relationships such as have been described. The same thing can be said of the very earliest grades, but tradition has decreed that, as the child matures, the essentially informal type of control shall be superseded by one more definitely institutional, with the result that the attitudes and ideals which the teacher is set to transmit often fail more or less completely to be derived from that particular source. Any objective examinations of the high schools in American life at the present day will bear out this statement and illustrate this principle. The opinions, the standards, and the ideals of the teachers are transmitted to the students of the high schools only to a fractional degree, and it is the contention here that the explanation lies in the loss of the essential nature of the primary-group relation in the traditional type of control which the high school has adopted. What happens is a matter of common observation and universal knowledge. The adolescents seek and form primary groups of their own which have a definite isolation from their elders. Primary groups ranging from little circles of friends to definitely predatory boys' gangs illustrate again the principle we have here set forth. From the point of view of the mental hygiene of children and adolescents, what parents and teachers need to do is to "go to school to the gang" and learn what their methods are; and when this instruction has been well profited by,

(50) it will be found that the control of the gang is essentially the control of the primary group and that the school and home have lost the essential character of it.

We cannot fully describe the primary group by concentrating all our attention upon harmony and intimate personal relations, for these have their most intense manifestations when they are contrasted with the hostility and conflict of other similar groups which give esprit de corps and unity and are the occasion of morale in the primary group. The hostile group is not the opposite of the primary group; it is, to a certain extent, the condition of its existence. If there were only one primary group, there would not be any at all, because group consciousness only occurs over against the consciousness of another contrasting or opposing group. Hostility and loyalty, then, are two aspects of a definite relation, and the essential character of the primary group must be sought in its free-flowing, unrestricted character.

It is, as we have shown, in the institution that we find the essential opposite of the primary group, where the forms are fixed, the rules prescribed, the offices laid down, and the duties set forth with definite clarity and relative inflexibility. The person is no longer acting freely but is acting in an office, performing a definite institutional function. When an institution operates in its typical character, the functionary manifests a minimum of personal relations. An institution might almost be defined as a social device to make emotion unnecessary. But the primary group has as an essential element in it the emotional character which binds its members into a relation.

The nature of the primary group, then, lies not in its parts but in its organization. It depends not upon its spatial contiguity but upon its functional interrelation. It can be described neither by statistical enumeration nor by spatial measurement. More is involved than separate elements. In addition to space there is also time. The primary group cannot exist without memories; it cannot endure without purposes. No mechanical or spatial description is adequate. It is a changing organization of functional activities tending toward an end, influenced by its past and guided by its purposes and its future. It is not a mechanism; it is a part of life.


  1. Social Organization (1909), p. 23.
  2. Even von Wiese and Becker do this as late as 1932. See Systematic Sociology, p. 225.
  3. See "Group and Institution," in Burgess, Personality and the Social Group (Chicago, 1929), pp. 162 -80.

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