Belonging to a Group

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Belonging to a Group


To explore the basic human need to belong to or choose certain groups and to examine some of the stated and unstated purposes of those groups.


In this lesson, students will look at group behaviors, dynamics, and purpose. As part of this process, students will acquire the basic skills to survey community groups and members and to identify different types of organizations, their composition, and perceived benefits to their members.

In grades 9 -12, students are motivated to examine the biological and social basis that human beings have for joining groups. This includes understanding how we define a group, choose our group affiliations, and what happens to us when we feel like outsiders or newcomers. Through inquiry in this lesson, students will address the question: What are the cultural expressions of a group, including arts and music? Students also will become aware of how the dynamics of groups change as their member numbers increase or decrease, and how groups can be agents for change.

Using this as background knowledge, students then will examine group affiliations to which they belong in terms of their own community, ethnic background, religion, common interest, sports, arts, and culture, and what benefits they derive from these affiliations.

Additionally, the lesson will help students look at why individuals who feel alienated from their culture, school, home, and society join negative, rather than positive, groups, such as gangs or cults, to give them a feeling of belonging and empowerment.

This lesson allows students to look at groups in an interdisciplinary context, including: the universal desire to belong to a group, how cultural anthropologists might conduct fieldwork in social settings such as the classroom, and how group behavior can be expressed in the context of literature, films, and poetry.

This lesson is part of a group of lessons that focus on the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. For more lessons and activities that take a closer look at the social, behavioral, and economic sciences, be sure to check out the SBE Project page.

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Planning Ahead

Before doing the lesson, read the Belonging to a Group teacher sheet for more suggestions on how to carry out this lesson. It also contains a list of books that might be useful to supplement the lesson.


As a way to stimulate students to think about group identification and group affiliation, and elicit background knowledge, conduct a structured brainstorming session.

To prepare for the lesson, have students use their Belonging to a Group student esheet to go to and review Maslow’s Human Needs. Have them specifically identify the need for love and belonging to a group based upon their own experiences.

Next, in a small group activity, have students brainstorm about what constitutes a group. Have them answer questions such as:

  • What makes up a group?
  • What kinds of groups are there in our society?
  • Who might join these groups?
  • Are groups all voluntary or are we born into them?
  • Who decides what makes up a group?
  • What do we mean by "affiliation"?

Have students create categories such as: political, cultural, ethnic, mutual interest, sports, religious, professional, and artistic. Students should list examples for each category. These examples are generic and do not have to be personal. Have them compare their group categories and ideas and add to them as a class on a chart on the blackboard or Smart Board. This will help them see the commonalties that groups have.

Frame the conversation to create an environment of respect, safety, and openness. Before having the questions become more personal, you need to have specific protocols to manage the discussion so no student’s feelings are hurt, privacy is respected, and no one feels intimidated, thereby creating an environment of safety and trust.

Set limits as to who has the floor to speak. Set a time limit for each student.

You may also want to teach warm/cool feedback and give each student an equal voice. Be sure to model these behaviors with the students. Please refer to the Belonging to a Group teacher sheet for specific instructions.


In this part of the lesson, students will study groups and group behavior more in depth to gain a deeper understanding of the larger parameters of how groups are formed, and how cultural anthropologists use their tools to examine groups in a historical context.

Begin this section by having students look at the anthropology of belonging. To do this, have students use their esheet to go to and read The Anthropology of Belonging. Once they have read this article, hold a class discussion using questions like these:

  • Why do human beings have a basic need and desire to be in a group? (We are social beings by nature and need to be in a group to survive both physically and emotionally.)
  • Why did our ancestors need to be in a group to survive? (They needed the social and physical benefits to survive in a hostile physical environment. They needed to work together to benefit the group, reproduce, protect their young, and socialize.)
  • What were consequences for our ancestors if they were social outcasts, shunned from the group? (The consequences were usually loneliness, starvation, and death, as they were unable to survive on their own.)
  • What are the differences between Eastern and Western cultures in terms of belonging to a group and the identity of the individual? (In Eastern cultures, belonging to a group and the social harmony of the group are paramount. In Western cultures, the individual is recognized more.)
  • What are the consequences of being an outcast from the main group both physically and mentally today? (Individuals suffer depression, anger, and alienation.)

Divide students into groups and provide each student with copies of the Creating a Group student sheet. Instruct students to use Part 1 of this sheet to help them talk about the groups they belong to: groups that are part of school, outside of school, even online groups. For example, these can be school clubs, arts groups, music groups such as band or chorus, sports teams, religious groups, interest groups, volunteer groups, and community-service groups. Once students have finished this activity, hold a class discussion about students' responses to the questions. You might want to write down the questions and student responses on a blackboard or Smart Board so that the class can notice any differences or similarities in group characteristics.

Now have students use Part 2 of their Creating a Group student sheet to create their own group as a way of transferring personal experience and background to creation of a new entity. When they create their groups, they should address the risks and benefits of belonging to the groups. Be sure to monitor the choice of group and give some guidance—in the direction of positive school- or community-oriented groups with goals. Students should try to answer these questions when creating their groups:

  • What does the group tell us about the identity of its members?
  • How easy or hard is it to drop out of the group, or join if one is slightly different?
  • Is the group open to anyone who wants to join? Does the group offer protection against outside threats or discrimination?
  • Does membership confer specialness to its members?

    (Answers may vary. Encourage students to explain their answers.)

Now lead students through a discussion about what draws people to join negative groups. First have students use their esheet to go to Principles of Social Psychology in Group Involvement by Gary Peterson.

Once students have read the resource, discuss these questions:

  • What is this website about? Does it apply to us? (It is about how some people can be drawn to and become part of a negative group. Answers may vary.)
  • Can we substitute White Supremacists or another group for Heaven’s Gate? (Yes.)
  • What draws people to groups that are negative? (These groups often provide a charismatic leader, or more perfect idol, who seems to promise a framework of love and acceptance.)
  • What compels people who are feeling alienated to join negative or "outsider" groups? (The typical recruit is young, idealistic, sometimes lonely, and often someone undergoing social and developmental transitions with all the doubts, stresses, and soul-searching that typically accompany such times. They are often seekers, unsatisfied with life as it has been, feeling overwhelmed and dislocated from the family or general community. Often people not comfortable in traditional social groups. Those at a low point in their life; having endured painful life changes, may be ripe for conversion experiences that seem to offer sudden insight, peace, and most importantly, a new social identity.)
  • Can groups affect your behavior and encourage you to engage in behaviors you might not otherwise? (Answers may vary.)

Again, have students brainstorm, without getting personal, about negative groups they have heard about in the news, gang activities, etc. As they do so, have them consider questions such as these: What is the social psychology that engages in negative group behavior or attracts people to these negative groups? What do these people find lacking in more traditional groups? How do the "outsider" groups attract their members?

Next, have students use the esheet to explore People Prefer Belonging to Groups in Which Members Can Punish Freeloaders. This resource describes a study that can help students examine some of the more surprising reasons that people prefer one group over another. In this study, the authors found that people prefer groups that can dole out punitive measures to freeloader members who are not contributing to their group. After students have read the resource, engage them in a discussion which will help them to understand what kinds of implications this might have for one group influencing the behavior of another and its members. Go on to discuss the ways that a group operates by asking questions such as the following:

  • Do you agree with the article and the general assertion?
  • Do you feel the punishment of freeloaders is unfair?
  • How do we determine who is a freeloader in our society?
  • Do all societies have the same point of view?

    (Answers may vary. Encourage students to explain their answers.)

Now have students use their esheet again to go to Fieldwork in the Classroom, where they will read about how some high-school students carried out some cultural anthropology interviews in their own school. Then, hold a class discussion using questions like these:

  • Why is it important to understand other cultures and groups?
  • As a cultural anthropologist, how would you go about gathering data on other cultures or groups? What observations would you like to make and what interview techniques would you use? What would your findings tell us?
  • Look at the interview questions the students in the article came up with. Are there any questions you would add?

Optional Activity:
Working with the school media specialist, students should create a short list of different ethnic groups from different countries. You may want to choose a group from each continent. Assign a small group or pair of students to research one of the selected groups in the library. They can work with the media specialist and use all the resources available, including the Internet. Students will investigate how the group lives a life very different or similar to their own based on several factors: age, geographic location, region, culture, ethnicity, form of government, education, and local customs. How are their groups formed and is there a leader? How does their life differ from the students? How would their lives be different if they were in this group?

Assign roles and tasks to each member of the group/partnership. Either pre-select the format of the project, or give a short-list choice to students. Each student will decide on a fictional format to present his/her project: a short story, diary, short play, a song, artwork, narrated video, a poetry slam, PowerPoint, or a Hyperstudio project with text, graphics, visuals, and sound. You also can request a written report to be presented to the class.


At this point, students should be prepared to conduct an interview with a member of the group that they surveyed in the Development section, using the tools of a cultural anthropologist to determine what groups individuals identify with/join and why. This interview should include the person’s description of his/her group and what draws them to their group. These interviews can be conducted with a video camera, an audio tape recorder, and/or with a still/digital camera, as well as taking notes. This offers a multi-modal way of gathering information, processing it, creating new knowledge, and demonstrating that knowledge.

Students should create a mini-portfolio including their written reflections on what they learned in the assignment and their interviews. This can be presented in a Power Point format, a class presentation, or essay format to demonstrate the benchmark. The student will perform as the "expert" and demonstrate newly constructed knowledge.

The "Knowledge Check" section of the esheet will guide students through this process.


By selecting one area of the world that is uniquely different from the United States, students can explore what makes up groups and group affiliations and makes them distinct. For example, you can ask students to explore one African tribe or country and describe the customs and culture of that region. Have them describe differences that might lead to disharmony or even war. Have them discuss immigration from one region to another, and even to the United States. Lead a discussion and have students consider how these nations/tribes or groups maintain their individual identities while forming into nations or countries that make up Africa.

Throughout U.S. history, there have been times when immigrants were not welcome and had trouble being assimilated into the main population. There have been so many incidents of discrimination and negative stereotyping of groups, and some excellent films exist that place these issues in a context that is very relevant to high school-aged students.

Through your school media specialist, obtain a DVD or video of the films, West Side Story and Rebel Without A Cause. View them with your students to identify and discuss negative stereotyping of groups in another time period in U.S. history and the idea of alienation and prejudice against outsiders, whether they were immigrants or someone who just did not fit in. Before showing the video, have students brainstorm about what they think life was like for teenagers in the 1950s. Have them list any commonalties or differences they might have with the characters in the movie. How were teens depicted in the media? Teenagers were depicted as an actual group, distinct from adults, for the first time during this period. Have them list negative and positive images portrayed in the films.

Have students write a brief reflection/reaction to what they have seen. Conduct a group discussion comparing their pre-conceived notions, what they related to, and how different they perceive their lives to be today. Have them re-state how teenagers were depicted in the media and how accurate that depiction was. Do they relate to any particular characters? Were there any common themes? Are those themes still relevant today?

Have them discuss current gang activity in the United States and how it relates to the past. Students also can review the Language and Society PBS website, which talks a bit about language and group identity.

Research suggests that students are forming new social networks online, which presents hazards and benefits. Learning something about the sociology of groups can help students identify the differences among virtual groups, such as MySpace.com and FaceBook, and understand the potential risks and benefits of belonging to these virtual, social communities. Explore this topic by leading a class discussion using questions such as these:

  • What constitutes an online community (MySpace.com, Facebook.com, or SameSpace.com)?
  • What makes people want to join a virtual group, and why does it appeal to young people so much?
  • Have students list what online groups they belong to and why they chose them.
  • What are the drawbacks to belonging to online groups (the dangers of MySpace.com for instance)?
  • Can we predict the group behavior/characteristics of online groups by the behavior of each member?
  • Can belonging to a virtual group change a person’s behavior? How and why?
  • What are the privacy issues involved?

Grant Info
National Science Foundation
Some of the above content was created with support from the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards State Standards