Below are two brief articles that discuss the phenomenon of in-group -- out-group distinctions. The first short article focuses on the way in which the in-group -- out-group distinction helps to maintain boundaries between groups of people. In many social situations, the maintenance of such boundaries is very important.

The second article is a more detailed description of the meanings inherent in in-group -- out-group distinctions. It is one of the best discussions of this phenomenon to be found. You will have to overlook some of the outdated terminology and illustrations. Written in 1963, it predates our modern terminology with respect to ethnic/racial minorities, and our predilection for political correctness.

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Every group must have some boundaries, for there would otherwise be no way of distinguishing between members and nonmembers. Sometimes these boundaries are formal and clearly defined, with access to the group available to "members only" on the basis of specific criteria. In such cases the boundary may be maintained by symbols, such as badges, membership cards, or even secret signs. A police department, a family, or a labor union has no difficulty in maintaining boundaries, because the criteria for membership are formally defined. In other cases the boundaries are not nearly as clear. A high school or college peer group, for ex- ample, has no specific criteria for membership, and the boundary between actual members and hangers-on may be very blurred.

All groups, however, tend to maintain their boundaries by developing a strong sense of the distinction between the "we" of the group and the "they" who are outside it. People tend to regard the in-group -- any group one belongs to and identifies with -- as being somehow special. Correspondingly, they tend to regard the out-group -- any alternative group that one does not belong to or identify with -- as less worthy, and may even view it with hostility. A common way of maintaining boundaries between groups, in fact, is through some form of conflict between them. The presence of a common enemy (real or imaginary) draws members together and increases the solidarity and cohesion of the group (Coser, 1956).

An experiment by Muzafer Sherif (1956) illustrates how in-group loyalties can help to maintain group boundaries and solidarity. Sherif's subjects were eleven-year-old boys who did not know each other before the experiment began. Sherif took the boys for an extended stay at a summer camp, where they soon began to form friendship cliques. Once these groups had been formed, Sherif randomly divided the boys into two main groups and lodged them in separate cabins some distance apart. In doing so, he disrupted the cliques that had already formed, but the boys soon began to develop strong loyalties to their new groups. Next, Sherif pitted the two groups against each other in various competitive activities. The result was increasingly intense antagonism and hostility between the groups, including between those members on either side who had earlier been in the same friendship cliques. Finally, Sherif created some emergency situations, such as an interruption of the water supply, that required both groups to cooperate as a team. Within a short period, members of the two groups began to interact as a single group, their old hostilities forgotten. Sherif's experiment shows clearly how loyalty contributes to the maintenance of group boundaries, how conflict between groups heightens these loyalties, and how in-group feelings lessen and disappear once the members of different groups unite in pursuit of common goals.

Ian Robertson, from
Chapter 7, "Social Groups," in
Sociology, Worth Publishers, 1987, pp. 173-4

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In-groups and out-groups are of no specific size and may indeed be highly variable. An in-group may be as small as a family or as large as the world. And the out-group, then, is simply everybody who is not in the family or not in the world, as the case may be. An in-group is simply the "we-group," an out-group the "they-group." The in-group includes ourselves and anybody we happen to mean when we use the pronoun "we." The out-group, by subtraction, includes everybody else or, as we may somewhat paradoxically say, everybody who is excluded when we use the word "we."

When we say "we" we may mean only the members of our family, in which case only they constitute the in-group and everybody else is in the out-group. We may, however, mean those who are in our sociology class, and in this case the class is the in-group and all those who are not in the class the out-group. An in-group may be everyone who lives in our town, or everyone who goes to our university, or anyone who lives in our state, or all of us who live east (or west) of the Mississippi River, or all Americans, and so on.

In her play The Member of the Wedding Carson McCullers caught the flavor of the in-group in the following dialogue between Frankie, a girl of twelve, and John Henry, her seven-year-old cousin:

Frankie: Shush, just now I realized something. The trouble with me is that for a long time I have been just an "I" person. All other people can say "we." When Berenice says "we" she means her lodge and church and colored people. Soldiers can say "we" and mean the army. All people belong to a "we" except me.
John Henry: What are we going to do?
Frankie: Not to belong to a "we" makes you too lonesome. Until this afternoon I didn't have a "we," but now after seeing Janice and Jarvis I suddenly realize something.
John Henry: What?
Frankie: I know that the bride and my brother are the "we" of me. So I'm going with them, and joining with the wedding.'
(Copyright 1949, 1951, by Carson McCullers and reprinted by permission of the publisher, New Dirertions.)
In-groups and out-groups, in short, are not actual groups except in so far as people create them in their use of the pronouns "we" and "they." The distinction is nevertheless an important formal distinction because it enables us to construct two significant sociological principles, which we shall now proceed to examine.

  1. The first of these principles is that in-group members tend to stereotype those who are in the out-group. This proposition means, to use Hiller's concepts again, that we tend to evaluate personally and intrinsically those who are in our in-groups, and categorically and extrinsically those in the out-groups. In simpler language, we tend to react to in-group members as individuals, to those in the out-group as members of a class or category. We tend to notice the differences between those who are in our in-groups and to notice only the similarities of those in the out-group. To Americans of occidental origin all Chinese tend to look alike and seem quite indistinguishable from one another. Similarly, Americans tend to feel that the English have no sense of humor, that all Frenchmen are winebibbers, and that all Germans are fond of sauerkraut. All of these propositions are false. As a matter of fact, some Frenchmen are both teetotalers and prohibitionists and some Germans cannot abide the sight of sauerkraut. Nevertheless, these are the stereotypes that have arisen.

    To the American soldier and civilian alike during World War II, the Japanese was a shifty and treacherous individual, universally equipped with horn-rimmed glasses. To the Japanese the American was a hypocritical and hairy devil--hypocritical because the Americans the Japanese knew best, missionaries and salesmen, seemed to have different systems of ethics, and hairy because members of the white race have more bodily and facial hair than do other peoples. Such ethnic and nationalistic stereotypes, common in all parts of the world, result from the sociological principle just announced.

    Unfavorable generalizations, of course, are not restricted to other nationalities. In this country whites have stereotypes of Negroes, and vice versa. It is only recently that Hollywood has become aware of the injustice involved in casting Negro actors and actresses in these stereotypic molds. Many whites continue to think of the Negro male in terms of the Stepin Fetchit type--shiftless, lazy, and untrustworthy--and the Negro female in terms of the Hattie McDaniel type -the big-bosomed, cheerful Aunt Jemima who appears on the pancake packages. One could as easily stereotype the Negro in terms of Ralph Bunche, one of the most brilliant diplomats of our era, or in terms of Lena Horne, one of the most beautiful and talented of living women. But it is always the least respectable traits to be found anywhere in the out-group that tend to stick to the stereotype.

    There are political, occupational, and religious stereotypes too, to which cartoonists especially have made significant contributions. Owners and managers, for example, are fat, cigar-smoking, diamond- studded capitalists in the labor newspapers, whereas the workers are blond, brawny, upright sons of toil. Switch to a right-wing paper and the capitalists become the widows, orphans, and aged who have invested their life savings in a corporation devoted to public service, and the workers turn into agitators and racketeers. The farmer thinks the city dweller has ice water instead of blood flowing in his veins and the city dweller is sure the farmer has hayseed in his hair. All bankers are dignified and distant, all baseball players are superstitious, and all plumbers forget their tools. And so it goes. The Jew is always Shylock or Fagin and never Einstein or Jesus.

    Every in-group, in short, constructs out-group stereotypes. Social distance encourages categorization and discourages individual differentiation. The large words in the preceding sentence mean simply that all of us, the sociologically naïve and the sociologically sophisticated alike, tend thoughtlessly to react to people who are in our in-groups as individuals and to people in our out-groups as members of a class. Knowledge of the principle, however, helps to reduce its unfortunate effects and to destroy the barriers that obstruct the easy intercourse of all peoples.

  2. The second principle that follows from the in-group -- out-group distinction is that any threat, imaginary or real, from an out-group tends to intensify the cohesion and the solidarity of the in-group. This is a principle that can be illustrated on all levels and in-groups of any size. Consider, for example, a family. In the normal family, brother sometimes quarrels with brother and sister with sister. Let anyone outside the family make a slighting remark about a brother or sister, however, and the whole family bands together to repel both the remark and its author. As Mencius, the Chinese sage, said many centuries ago (so old are some of our principles), "Brothers who may quarrel within the walls of their home, will bind themselves together to drive away any intruder." Similarly, it is seldom wise to interfere in a quarrel between husband and wife. The danger is great that both of them will turn upon the peacemaker and remind him that it is a private fight.

    Or consider another situation. To gripe is human. There is no doubt that students at the University of Iowa, for example, can find many things to criticize about the way their university is administered, the way their classes are taught, and the way their athletic teams perform. But let any student from Indiana University or the University of Minnesota come to Iowa City and indulge in exactly the same criticisms and the loyal sons and daughters of Iowa will close ranks and resent the allegations.

    Dictators are adept at utilizing this principle, and many a tottering regime throughout history has been saved by the pretense that the state is menaced by a hostile force and is a potential victim of aggression. This hostile force -- this out-group -- may geographically be an external or an internal one. It was external in the case of the Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-1936). Mussolini solidified his followers and silenced his opposition by pretending -- successfully -- that the Ethiopians were a threat to the power and the glory of the Italian empire. Hitler, on the other hand, used an internal out-group for the same purpose. It was the Jews, it will be painfully remembered, who threatened the purity of the "Aryan Race" (whatever that is) and the cultural traditions of the greater Germany.

    Similar observations may be made about certain social and historical phenomena in the United States. Criticism that is tolerated and even utilized when it stems from the in-group is resented and repelled when its source is in the out-group. Thus, Southern writers may candidly examine the conditions prevailing in the land below the Mason and Dixon line, but if a Northern writer examines these with a comparable candor, his views will be resented as "Yankee interference" and will usually have the opposite of their intended effect. Indeed, voters in Southern states have often returned to office politicians whose policies they did not particularly approve simply because these policies were severely censured in Northern, and especially New York, newspapers.

    On the national level the familiar American expression "Politics stops at the water's edge" again exemplifies this in-group -- out-group principle. It has resulted in the so-called bipartisan foreign policy -- which means that, although Republicans and Democrats may criticize each other freely on domestic issues, they band together as Americans and present a united front on any issue seriously affecting the relations of the United States with other countries. The controversy between the so-called interventionists and the so-called isolationists that raged during the period of the "phony" war in Europe from 1939 to 1941 ceased abruptly when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7 of the latter year, and the issues involved became a matter of public discussion again only after the Japanese surrender in 1945.

    Allies who work together to defeat a common enemy frequently fall apart at the conclusion of a war and begin to quarrel among themselves. The case of Russia and the United States during recent years is an illustration, and Winston S. Churchill would never have made his famous iron-curtain speech at Fulton, Missouri, attacking the Russians, while the war was in progress. Indeed, the pages of history are full of similar examples.

    But one need not stop at the national level. In terms of this principle the student of sociology is able to imagine an effective resolution of the current conflict between Russia and the United States. The conflict would cease immediately in the event of a threatened invasion of this planet from outer space. An invasion from Mars, for example, would find the Russians and the Americans forgetting their differences and, as Earthmen, joining together to repel the invaders--unless, of course, the Martians turned out to be Marxians. Any threat from the cosmos itself, for example an imminent collision between the earth and another body, would have a similar effect.

    The out-group need not always be hostile. The presence even of a friendly representative of an out-group will exert a positive influence upon solidarity and cohesion. Thus, the English people in the railway compartment mentioned earlier had more in common -- namely their "Englishness" -- with an American in their midst than they would otherwise have had. The presence of a foreigner emphasized their consciousness of kind and stimulated their social interaction. Many observers have noted, similarly, that the normal English reserve broke down during the bombings of London and other cities during World War II and that total strangers initiated conversations with each other. One more facet of this interesting principle appears with the recognition that an acquaintanceship marked by relative indifference when two people are in their own home town can suddenly ripen into friendship when the two meet each other thousands of miles away in a foreign country.

    In his description of a botanist, H. G. Wells caught with considerable precision and literary impact the distinction between the in-group and the out-group.

    [The botanist] has a strong feeling for systematic botanists as against plant physiologists, whom he regards as lewd and evil scoundrels in this relation; but he has a strong feeling for all botanists and indeed all biologists, as against physicists, and those who profess the exact sciences, all of whom he regards as dull, mechanical, ugly-minded scoundrels in this relation; but he has a strong feeling for all who profess what he calls Science, as against psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, and literary men, whom he regards as wild, foolish, immoral scoundrels in this relation; but he has a strong feeling for all educated men as against the working man, whom he regards as a cheating, lying, loafing, drunken, thievish, dirty scoundrel in this relation; but so soon as the working man is comprehended together with these others, as Englishmen, he holds them superior to all sorts of Europeans, whom he regards…
    This amusing bit, of course, is highly exaggerated, but there is no doubt that it makes the point.

The in-group, in short, is our group; the out-group is everybody else. We may remind the reader, in concluding our discussion of this point, that these groups have no specific or stable size. In one reference the in-group may mean only the inhabitants of our house, in another the inhabitants of our planet. And we may state again the sociological principles that emerge from the distinction: (1) in-groups tend to stereotype out-groups, and (2) any threat, imaginary or real, from an out-group tends to intensify the cohesion and solidarity of an in-group.

Robert Bierstedt, from
Chapter 10, "Groups," in
The Social Order, McGraw-Hill, 1963, pp. 306-11