Humans are highly social animals.  Normally we live in groups all of our lives.  It is extremely unusual for us to be in total isolation from other people for long.  You may personally enjoy being alone.  However, your voluntary isolation probably does not last more than a few hours or days at most.  Our strong emotional need for social contact makes it possible to use solitary confinement as an effective punishment in prisons.  The threat of social ostracism can also be an effective way of curbing potentially deviant behavior.  Those who act "badly" run the risk of being rejected by other members of their social group or community.

When we are deprived of human social contact, we often seek it in substitutes such as radio and television shows, and books.  Pets also are common social substitutes for other people.  This is particularly true of dogs and other animals that enjoy interacting with us in a friendly way.

photo of a woman and her dog sleeping next to each other on the grass in a park   Dogs in the Western World
often become substitutes
for human companions.

The need for human social contact and the rewards that it can bring lead most people to become members of numerous social groups.  In fact, we are members of many groups at the same time.  We may be family members, employees of companies, citizens of towns, states, nations, and members of ethnic groups.  In addition, we often are members of clubs, vocational associations, political parties,  and religious groups.

photo of 16 family members in the Huili Tribe of New Guinea   The most important kind of
social groups in small-scale
societies are families.

This picture shows members
of an extended family in the
Huili Tribe of New Guinea

Our behavior is adjusted to and by the various groups of which we are members.  For instance, we usually act differently when we are with friends in contrast to family members or business associates.  You might share a crude sexual joke with a good friend of your own age and gender, but you probably would not do it with your grandparents or teachers.  Likewise, when interacting with your children you most likely will act in a responsible, nurturing leadership role that would be inappropriate when you are talking with your parents or your boss, since you are likely to have an inferior social status relative to them.

photo of a gray-haired man in a business suit sitting at a desk interviewing a younger woman   In this picture, who do you
suppose feels like they are
in a superior status?  What
are the clues?  Look closely.

How is this difference in
status likely to effect their

Our individual identities are greatly defined by the groups to which we belong and by our positions within them.  Think about the last time that you met a stranger at a party or at some other social gathering.  You probably asked a question to determine what group they belong to and what they do within it.  In North America, the typical question in this situation is "what do you do."  In other words, are you a student, a doctor, a lawyer, etc.  If the stranger answers "I am a student," the common follow-up questions are "what school do you go to" and "what classes are you taking" or "what is your major."  In small-scale societies that are primarily organized around kinship, the common equivalent first question for a stranger would be something like "who is your father."  In other words, what is your family or clan identity.

photo of 4 young adults in swim suits casually talking together over drinks   What do you think these
two North American couples
asked each other when they
first met on this vacation?

What were they trying to
find out about each other?

People around the world create social groups based on two broad criteria: kinship identity and non-kinship factors.  Which of these is most important depends greatly on the scale of the society.  As societies grow in size to hundreds of thousands of people, the non-kinship factors usually become increasingly important and the kinship ones less crucial.  However, even in the largest industrialized nations today, we still use kinship for creating some kinds of social groupings, but kinship has become much less important as a foundation for membership in educational, business, and government organizations.  Kinship will be explored in the next tutorial of this series, while non-kinship factors are considered in this one.

Functions of Social Groups and Institutions

In studying any society, we can observe various social groups and institutions, each with its specific functions.  It does not matter whether the institutions are related to business, religion, the legal system, or families.  They all have functions.  For instance, the primary function of a legal system is likely to be the maintenance of the social order in society.  The functions of different institutions may overlap and are likely to be interrelated in complex ways.  Complicating our understanding of them is the fact that any institution is likely to have multiple functions, some of which are more obvious than others.  In trying to discover and understand them, it is useful to think of some of the functions as being manifest and others latent.  Manifest functions are those that are obvious and easily discovered even by strangers.  In contrast, latent functions are those that are less apparent and more difficult to uncover.  If you ask people what the functions of their institutions are, most will describe the manifest ones.  They may not have even thought of all of the latent ones.  However, to get a full understanding of a society and its culture, it is essential to comprehend the latent functions as well.  In order to discover them, it is often necessary to observe their effects because people are often unaware of them.

photo of Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco   Let us see how good you are at coming
up with the functions of a common North
American icon -- the Golden Gate Bridge.
What is the manifest function of this
publicly funded and owned bridge?
What are some possible latent functions?

Click the button to see         
 how well you did.         

clickable button icon         

Golden Gate Bridge
(San Francisco)


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This page was last updated on Tuesday, June 27, 2006.
Copyright 2003-2006 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
Illustration credits