December 13, 2012

Primary and Secondary Groups in the Internet Age

SternheimerBy Karen Sternheimer

I recently received an email from a student, asking me to email him PDF files of book chapters (I’m not sure which book, but maybe he wasn’t either) on several sociological topics ASAP. What made this request especially unusual is that this wasn’t my student; in fact, I had no idea who he was. Presumably he found my email address online and thought perhaps I would take the time to violate copyright laws and scan book chapters out of the kindness of my heart.

How many messages do you get from strangers? And how might your interactions differ with people based on whether you have met them or not…or other important contexts?

Sociologists note the distinction between our primary and secondary groups, but these concepts might not adequately explain our relationships in the internet age. Primary groups are those who are closest to us: our friends and family members.  These relationships tend to have the most emotional importance for us. Secondary groups are more instrumental: people we work with, do business with, or are more casual acquaintances. Where do people we encounter online fit in?

Some people develop close emotional ties to those they encounter online and establish ongoing relationships with them. While these can turn into relationships offline—especially in the case of internet dating—sometimes they do not. Others become friends on social networking sites and communicate regularly with one another that way. Can people we have never met in person be part of our primary group?

I regularly get emails from people I never met who are professional contacts. Ranging from other university employees, colleagues from other universities, or employees of publishers, such contacts are part of my everyday work life. These interactions can continue online for years before (if ever) meeting face to face. Are these people part of my secondary group? Maybe a “secondary” secondary group, set apart from people I see regularly at work or in my neighborhood.

We might also think about the distinction between these groups as at least partly delineated by the sort of requests you might make of people in each group, with special attention to status hierarchies taken into account. Would you ask a family member to borrow their car? How about a coworker? You might ask a good friend to pick you up from the airport, but probably not a clerk at a store you visit regularly. A dinner party can include members of both groups, but the tone of the party would change if it was only members of a primary group.

We might feel more (or less) pressure to oblige a request depending on whether it is from a primary or secondary group member. A family member might put off responding to another family member’s work-related request for advice, but they would probably not do so if a client asked for the same information. Likewise, it might be very unusual and vexing if someone from a secondary group asked an overly personal favor, like picking up their child from school. Although uncomfortable, if this request came from someone in a position of authority—say one’s boss—it might be harder to say no.

Requesting favors can paradoxically be a way of strengthening a relationship. Often called the Ben Franklin Effect, after Franklin found a stubborn colleague became friendlier after being asked to Catalog_bookborrow a book. Franklin argued that people often justify to themselves that if we are doing a favor for someone, they must be worth doing a favor for.

It’s not unusual for my “secondary” secondary groups regularly ask me for things, from reviewing manuscripts to helping with their research to asking me for ideas on a topic they might be writing about. I am usually happy to oblige, and in some cases enjoy being able to be part of the research process with colleagues.

This brings me back to the email from the student I don’t know. I get many of them from students I have never met—often a request for information—and am more ambivalent about responding to them.  Often students ask me to provide answers to specific questions that look a lot like exam questions. Or questions about my written work that are clearly answered in said written work. Some of these emails express sincere curiosity about my work or sociology in general and I am happy to respond.

But the Ben Franklin Effect falls short here, perhaps because of the context of the relationship. While colleagues often collaborate and provide feedback for one another (and in Franklin’s case, fellow members of the legislature do as well), but when there really is no primary or secondary—or even secondary secondary relationship—there is much less of an incentive to grant a request (especially if it involves a great deal of time or violates copyright law).

The seemingly anonymous nature of the internet makes such requests easier, since asking someone to do something can feel more risky face to face, especially if it is an unusual request. And without such forms of communication, people outside of our primary or secondary groups would rarely know who we were or how to contact us.

 How else does electronic communication make defining primary and secondary groups more complicated?

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Comments

I have found that it can go both ways. I know in some email requests I received when I served in a position on a committee, certain emails from people I had never met before included certain properties that made me associate them clearly in my secondary group (using slang/jargon that was committee/organization specific really leaps out in an email).

Although I have also received messages from students in tangentially related courses in my own field of study asking for help on topics that I definitely know but that I am not sure why I am being asked for help instead of their instructor/TA/professor. I know if I was approached in person, I would have asked why/how they knew to approach me, but over email I usually just tell them to approach the appropriate resource and am still left wondering why. In fact, it puzzles me to get an email with a request that isn't strongly laden with negative politeness approaches if I never met the person before because I get the odd feeling that I am trying to be taken advantage of by someone that could be part of my secondary group but I just have no idea!

This might sound odd, but I've made a career in my spare time of exchanging emails with intellectuals including academics, with an approximetely 60 % success rate. This is what I do instead of going for an advanced degree. Certain fields are more responisve than others, literature and the hard sciences the least so. It helps to ref the recipient's work and ask serious questions. I've had responses from Freeman Dyson and Harold Bloom among others. It's a kind of sport or adventure and I have no clue of its prevalance.

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