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A secondary group is a form of social group that tends to be formally organized or highly structured and based on predominantly impersonal or role-based instrumental (task oriented) interactions that are of a nonpermanent nature. Examples of secondary groups include the impersonal relationship between salesclerk and customer in a department store; large lecture courses at popular universities; and complex organizations such as the American Sociological Association. Furthermore, the bureaucratically organized form of complex organization is commonly held up as the classic epitome of the secondary group.
The work of Charles Horton Cooley (1909) and Ferdinand Tonnies (1963) set the tone for the consistent application of the concept in sociology. In Social Organization (1909) Cooley presents the forms, functions, and attributes of the social units he called ”primary groups.” However, Cooley did not develop a term for those social units which were not primary groups. As a result, the conventionally accepted set of attributes and characteristics of secondary groups have simply been extrapolated from Cooley’s expression of primary groups. Or in other words, knowing what primary groups are, secondary groups by corollary are that which primary groups are not. As a result, sociologists continue to define the concept of secondary group simply in relation to the associated concept of primary group. To Cooley’s credit, both his explicit definition of primary groups and the associated implicit definition of secondary groups have withstood the test of time. In addition, Ferdinand Tonnies’s (1963) expression of the dualistic conception of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft sought to explain the relationship between community and social organization. Accordingly, Tonnies’s explanations and assumptions regarding the forms, attributes, and characteristics of Gesellschaften – including but not limited to short-term and impersonal relationships – have become closely associated with the conventional definition of secondary groups.
- Cooley, C. H. (1909) Social Organization: A Study of the Larger Mind. Scribner’s, New York.
- Tonnies, F. (1963)  Community and Society. Harper & Row, New York.