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Types of human association
It is through seeing how human associations like families cross the boundaries of collectivities and relate to institutions that we recognise how groups persist independently of material conditions and circumstances.
There was a time when sociology was much concerned with the general classification of groups and institutions, setting out the major types of association as, say, primary and secondary, and then communal as opposed to organisational and then, again, dividing institutions into those of, say, control and communication.
But the distinction between institution and association is one of emphasis. One can either begin the study of society with certain people and asking what they do, or with certain practices and asking who engages in them.
However, except in the limiting, non-existing case of a completely closed society, in which everyone behaves the same way, the two approaches never come to the same point. Behaviour is diversified within groups and also crosses group boundaries. This is why the notion of social relation is prior to that of the group.
Membership and participation never come to the same thing. Not everyone attending the football game is a member of the club; not every club member attends. The ideal of solidarity is utopian, but also in an important sense anti-social, for how else could groups relate to and survive in the wider society except by being internally diverse and open.
We will take this issue up again in Chapter 3. For the moment, though, let us just note that, going back into prehistory, societies have been open, and the almost universal taboo on incest is the guarantee that for the vast majority of people groups must always link with other groups. Society is made up of groups or associations of all kinds, from couples, partnerships, queues, teams, networks, clubs, crowds, communities, parties, cliques, organisations, corporations, nations, movements, even to societies.
When we see such lists of groups the thing which strikes us at once is their diversity—not just in size but also in their claims on their members, in their durability and in their ‘groupness’, how tightly and exclusively they are organised. We even ask whether a crowd or a movement is a group at all; surely they are too fluid some might say. Is it not the football supporters who make the group, and the crowd is just the result of what they do, coming together on a certain occasion?
There are a number of issues here. One is the feeling that perhaps we should reserve the word ‘group’ for human beings who have a kind of touching, feeling relationship of an intimate kind. But even in the most intimate relationships people spend most of their time not actually touching and a lot of the time out of each other’s presence. Just as a social relationship does not depend on continuous presence of the parties to it, neither does the existence of a group depend on its members sharing a single place.
Even so we may still feel that the questions of fluidity and boundaries are such that it is difficult to talk of, say, the Green movement as a ‘group’. Surely movement means just that, people moving, and this is a question more of people doing things rather than merely belonging. In fact movements like the Greens or the Feminist or the International Workingmen’s Movement of the nineteenth century are closer to what we have called institutions rather than groups. Indeed movements are one of the ways in which people explore the relationship between doing and being in social life.
Whether you are regarded as member of the Green movement may be a matter of other people judging your behaviour in aiding the recycling of household waste. Whether the Green movement exists depends on the social relations of those who recycle. The constant shifts between being and doing are at their most prominent with social movements, but they characterise social life in general. The membership of groups is as much a question of construction as is the building in which a group meets.
But as with buildings the constructed character of a group does not mean it is any less real. Groups may change more rapidly than buildings, but speed is as real as stability. For good or bad, deeds are real in their course and their effects.
A great deal of sociology is concerned to document and explain the special reality of human groups and practices in their constantly changing manifestations. The scope of this concern can extend from the rise and fall of a civilisation over centuries, to the origins and course of a riot over a few hours.