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The terms in-group and out-group were coined by William Graham Sumner in his classic study, Folkways (1906). Similar to Charles Horton Cooley’s (1909) notion of primary groups, in-groups are understood as those with which one is intimately connected and toward which one feels a particular sense of association and loyalty. Out-groups, on the other hand, are those from which one distances oneself and in opposition to which one defines one’s group identity. For example, women might be understood as an in-group differentiated from men as an out-group. However, in-groups and out-groups are not necessarily distinguished based on socially ascribed statuses. Indeed, following this same logic, sociologists (in-group) might be distinguished from psychologists (out-group) or people wearing pink shirts (in-group) might be contrasted with those wearing white shirts (out-group).
As far back as Emile Durkheim (1893), social scientists have suggested that social solidarity – or, in-group cohesion – is reinforced by the presence of an out-group. The presence of deviance, for example, has been interpreted as creating a situation in which people can come together and identify themselves in an ”us” versus ”them” dichotomy, and, in this sense the (physical or symbolic) presence of an out-group is said to help articulate the boundaries of group membership and to sharpen and reinforce group norms. Such concepts are not restricted to the study of deviance, per se. They also have been applied to discuss a range of (social and symbolic) boundaries related to class, ethnicity and race, gender and sexuality. Because of the ways group identities are understood as constructed and maintained relative to other groups, the concept of in-group/out-group also has been applied to explain social stratification, prejudice, discrimination, and privilege.
More broadly, the in-group/out-group distinction has been applied to talk about the sociology of knowledge. In this vein, Nancy Naples (1996) has suggested, for example, ”rather than one ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ position, we all begin our work with different relationships to shifting aspects of social life.” In other words, a number of more recent scholarship has served to complicate Sumner’s early claims concerning the durability and permanence of in-groups and out-groups and the purported necessary relationship between in-group cohesion and out-group hostility.
- Cooley, C. H. (1909) Social Organization: A Study of the Larger Mind. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.
- Durkheim, E. (1893) De la division du travail social. Les Presses Universitaires de France, Paris.
- Naples, N. A. (1996) A feminist revisiting of the insider/outsider debate: the ”outsider phenomenon” in rural Iowa. Qualitative Sociology 19: 83-106.