Reference Group

23/02/2020 0 By indiafreenotes

Sociologists use the term ‘reference group’ for such groups that individuals use as a standard for evaluating themselves and their own behaviour. These are the groups to which we psychologically identify with to which we may and may not belong but we may aspire to belong. People do not actually have to be members of the group to which they refer. Mustafa Sherif (1953) defined reference groups as “those groups to which the individual relates himself as a part or to which he aspires to relate himself psychologically”.

This definition points clearly to the importance of defining the groups with which an individual identifies, whether or not he belongs to them. These are the groups whose values, standards and beliefs guide the person in carrying out his actions and in evaluating himself.

It is not uncommon to orient ourselves to more than one reference group at a time. One’s family members, teachers, neigh­bourhood and co-workers shape different aspects of our self- evaluation. In addition, certain reference group attachments change during the life cycle. We shift reference groups as we take on different statuses during our lives. A reference group may be an actual group, a collectivity or an aggregate, a person or personifi­cation of an abstraction.

The term ‘reference group’ was coined by Herbert Hyman in Archives of Psychology (1942) to refer to the group against which individual evaluates his or her own situation or conduct. Hyman distinguished between a membership group to which people actually belong, and a reference group which is used as a basis for comparison and evaluation.

A reference group may or may not be a membership group. Later on Robert Merton and Alice Kitt (1950) refined the concept and provided a functionalist formulation of it. Their work was stimulated by Samuel Stouffer’s. The American Soldier (1949) in which the concept of relative deprivation was developed.

Merton and Kitt point out that feeling of deprivation were less related to the actual degree of hardship they experienced, than to the living standards of the group to which they compared themselves. Thus, relative deprivation is a special case of comparative reference group behaviour. Merton later distinguished reference groups and inter­action groups (in Social Theory and Social Structure, 1957).

The originator of this concept, Hyman found in his study of social class that people thought of as their status could not be predicted solely from such factors as income or level of education. To a certain extent, an individual’s self-evaluation of status depended on the group used as a framework for judgment. In many cases, people model their behaviour after groups to which they do not belong.

Quite often, an individual is torn between the demands of a membership group to which he belongs but with which he does not identify and the motivational dictates of a reference group of which he is not a member. Social psychologists have termed this position as marginality.

A familiar example is that of a principal of a private college who is officially a member of the management group but who identifies with the teachers on the college floor. This is a classic dilemma of the marginal man (principal) who seeks to join a reference group to which he is excluded and in doing so, he is rejected by the group to which he already belongs.

Characteristics of Reference Group

  1. Psychological attachment
  2. Certain norms, rules & regulations: we follow these of our own group and also that of the reference group. This gives emotional satisfaction. Sanskritisation is an example (the lower castes follow rules and regulations of higher casters).
  3. Ideal Person: Example of Mahatma Gandhi – when you read about the Mahatma you want to be like him. He is the ideal person in your view.
  4. Every person or group may have different reference group. One may like or dislike a particular group. If you like you imitate and if you don’t you don’t imitate.
  5. Reference group changes with time, situation etc. For a particular time you may have one reference group and at another time you may not like that group and do don’t make it your reference group.
  6. When he is not satisfied with the group to which he belongs he wants to join another group and so you imitate. This gives rise to ‘Marginal Man’.
  7. Mahatma Gandhi and reference group may vary from time to time therefore sometimes the reference group could become your Mahatma Gandhi.
  8. Social adjustment: When we follow the norms etc. of the reference group we are actually adjusting to that group and this leads to us adjust more easily to our society.
  9. Social control
  • Social transformation: Development a betterment of society.

Types of Reference Group

Sociologists have identified two types of reference groups as described below:

  1. Positive Reference Groups

These are the ones we want to be accepted by. Thus, if we want to be a film actor, we might carefully observe and imitate the behaviour of film actors. These are the groups, collectivities or persons that provide the person with a guide to action by explicitly setting norms and espousing values.

  1. Negative Reference Groups

These groups we do not want to be identified with, also serve as sources of self-evaluation. A person might, for example, try to avoid resembling members of a particular religious group or a circus group. A group rejected by or in opposition to ego’s own group, it is ‘the enemy’ or the negative group.

Importance and Functions of Reference Group

The concept of reference group is important for understanding socialisation, conformity, and how people perceive and evaluate themselves, especially in relation to the self.

Reference groups perform three basic functions:

(i) They serve a normative function by setting and enforcing standards of conduct and belief.

  1. Newcomb (1953) writes: “The significant thing about a reference group is, in fact, that its norms provide frames of reference which actually influence the attitude and behaviour of a person.”

(ii) They also perform a comparison function by serving as a standard against which people can measure themselves and others.

(iii) They serve not only as sources of current evaluation but also as sources of aspiration and goal attainment (as a means of antici­patory socialization). A person who chooses to become a professor or a lawyer begins to identify with that group and becomes socialized to have certain goals and expectations.