Reference Groups

views updated May 18 2018

Reference Groups

History of the concept

Clarification of concepts

Selection of reference groups

Perception of group norms and standing

Measurement procedures


Sociologists, social psychologists, and cultural anthropologists have always operated on the fundamental principles that an individual’s attitudes and conduct are shaped by the group in which he has membership and that self-appraisal and the correlative feelings and behavior flow from the individual’s location in a particular group within a social hierarchy. The evidence in support of such principles is, indeed, abundant; but, at times, faith in the principles becomes shaky in the face of contradictory examples: upper-class individuals with radical ideologies and revolutionary allegiances, those who feel deprived despite relatively advantaged positions, the products of an orthodox milieu who end up as nonconformists. Ordinary language is rich in terms that describe such individuals who do not show the stamp of their group: the renegade Catholic, the genteel poor, the Tory worker.

Through the concept reference group, our confidence in the fundamental principles has been restored and theory and research on group influences has been invigorated. In the process of self-appraisal, from many possible groups available as a framework for social comparison, individuals make their own particular selections, thus reflecting the true complexities of their social location but not necessarily the arbitrary social position to which the scientist may have assigned them. In shaping their attitudes men may orient themselves to groups other than their own. If the groups to which individuals refer themselves, their reference groups, are empirically determined, knowledge and predictions of attitude, self-evaluation, and conduct will be enhanced; the cherished principles about group influences can be protected; and an understanding of the complex processes by which men relate themselves to groups can be enriched. Such is the hope of reference group theory and research.

The fact that men may shape their attitudes by reference to groups other than their own and may shape their self-evaluations by the choice of unusual points of social comparison is perhaps the most distinctive contribution of reference group theory. To be sure, anomalous patterns of behavior may be understood without recourse to the concept. Some members of a group may depart from the modal pattern of behavior simply because of their simultaneous membership in other groups. Some individuals in a particular status may have an incongruent self image because they occupy other statuses as well, and the “status-set,” rather than the discrete status, governs the process. But even here the concept of reference group makes a distinctive contribution to what otherwise would remain problematical: Which of the multiple memberships and multiple statuses weighs heaviest with the individual, and what weights best represent their respective contributions?

History of the concept

The term “reference group” was first used by Hyman, who elaborated the concept and explored some of its properties in “The Psychology of Status” (1942). Seeking to understand the ways in which individuals ranked themselves in terms of their choice of a social framework for comparison, he first explored, by interview, the reference groups and reference individuals that subjects employed and some of the dynamics underlying such selection, and then used experimental manipulation to determine the effects of particular reference groups on self-appraisal. At about the same time, Newcomb (1943), searching to understand processes of attitude change, or lack of change, among individuals, systematically explored (by interview and repeated testing) the various ways in which students at Bennington College related themselves to the college community—in other words, chose this community as a reference group. These first systematic studies by social psychologists stimulated a few others, notably the Hartleys and Sherif, to continue research on reference groups. Sherif emphasized reference groups in his Outline of Social Psychology (see Sherif 1948), which included a summary by Newcomb of his Bennington study, rephrased in terms of the explicit concept reference group.

The concept had clarified for Newcomb various paradoxical findings. Similarly, Stouffer and his associates were led in their study The American Soldier (1949, vol. 1) to the concept of relative deprivation, a close cousin to the concept of comparative reference group, as they confronted the apparent contradictions between feelings of satisfaction or deprivation and the objective situation among groups of soldiers. They then invoked the interpretive principle that the soldier’s sense of deprivation was not dependent on any absolute level but was relative to the perceived level in the groups with which he compared himself. These ideas and concepts, however, had little prominence until Merton and Kitt (1950) synthesized and presented them in systematic form.

Certainly, in the past, one can find precursors of the ideas implicit in reference group theory. William Graham Sumner’s idea of in-groups and out-groups is a distant relation; C. H. Cooley’s discussion of selective affinity to groups outside of one’s immediate environment is an even earlier and closer relative (see Merton & Kitt 1950, pp. 101-102; Merton 1957, pp. 358-359). Cooley’s notion of imaginary conversation with an “interlocutor” anticipates the concept of reference individual and has inspired recent research which applies reference group concepts to mass communication (Bauer 1958). Cooley’s remark that “people differ much in the vividness of their imaginative sociability” (1902, p. 95 in the 1964 edition) is suggestive of later findings on individual differences in the use of multiple reference groups. In 1890, William James, in his account of the “social self,” suggested that our potential social self is developed and inwardly strengthened by thoughts of remote groups and individuals who function as normative points of reference.

Since 1950 the concept has figured in so many writings that the more recent history defies brief review. The concept appears in Australia and Israel; in studies of farmers, scientists, drunkards, and newspapermen; it has been applied to problems of mental illness, formal organization, marketing and public relations, mass communication, acculturation, political behavior, consumer behavior, and juvenile delinquency, as well as to opinion formation. This sketchy sampling conveys the wild growth, but it should also be noted that despite the general flowering, some branches have not flourished. Taking as a comprehensive outline Merton’s formulation that “…reference group theory aims to systematize the determinants and consequences of those processes of evaluation and self-appraisal in which the individual takes the values or standards of other individuals and groups as a …frame of reference” (Merton & Kitt 1950, pp. 50-51), the deficiencies as well as the accomplishments will become apparent.

Clarification of concepts

Kelley’s distinction (1952) between comparative and normative reference groups is basic; it corresponds to the two functions of reference groups as standards of comparison for self-appraisal and as the source of the individual’s norms, attitudes, and values. These two functions of reference groups may be conceived of as separate but equal in importance for study, having only the common property that the individual’s choice of a point of reference is the key to understanding both the process of self-appraisal and the formation of attitudes. The two types, however, may not always be empirically distinct; indeed, one group can serve both functions. Contained within the structure of norms in a group may be the directive that one should not compare himself with his betters, or look down on his inferiors, or even be aware of their existence. Indeed, in Hyman’s interviews (1942) some subjects claimed that they did not employ any comparative reference group whatsoever, because of ideological distaste, and the comparative groups that other subjects employed were clearly shaped by their political attitudes. Given the possible interdependence of the two types of processes, it is all the more strange that while the study of the normative reference group has been cultivated, that of the comparative reference group has been neglected. The paths that Hyman, the Hartleys, Stouffer, and Merton took are now only byways, trodden by occasional investigators (see Patchen 1961; Runciman 1961; Form & Geschwender 1962).

The equally basic distinction between reference individuals and reference groups has been neglected despite the emphasis on reference individuals as points of social comparison in the early work and the distinction’s connection to such prestigious concepts as “role-model” and the current study of personal influence and opinion leadership (see Merton 1957, pp. 302-304; Hyman 1960). The parenthetical remark by Newcomb (1952, p. 420) that “individuals acquire the approved attitudes to the extent that the membership group (particularly as symbolized by leaders . . .) serves as a positive point of reference” strongly suggests the role of the reference individual as the carrier of the reference group’s norms, but it appears to have been neglected by subsequent researchers.

For the study of normative reference groups, Newcomb’s distinction between the positive and negative types reminds us that individuals may form their attitudes in opposition to the norms of a group toward which they are negative. The concept of negative reference groups helps us to understand not only the affective tone and content of an individual’s attitude but also such formal features as the congruence and organization of his attitudes. Clearly, there are some instances in social life where to oppose the norms of a particular group— for example, the Republican party—is to be thrown into the arms of its opposite, the Democratic party. But there are many other instances where social relations between groups are not patterned in terms of polar opposites. Thus, to regard one’s parents or community as a negative reference group may provide no other directive to the individual than to choose from among the norms of the myriad groups available. Individuals who form a constellation of attitudes under such conditions may well show the consequences in terms of diffuseness of attitudes, lack of crystallization, inconsistency, etc.; however, this hypothesis remains to be tested.

The concept referent power, employed by French and Raven (1959), suggests many fundamentals of normative reference group processes. The power of a nonmembership reference group inheres essentially in the fact that the individual, by his sheer identification with the group, willingly accepts what he perceives to be its norms. By contrast, membership groups often have the power, even when the individual does not take them as reference groups, to exact conformity in behavior through brutish means or rewards and to induce attitudes through prolonged doses of socialization. Certainly, when there is no bond of identification, their influence may be attenuated, and the concept of reference group reminds us that the psychological equipment of an individual can provide some escape from victimization by a membership group. Of course, when referent power is joined to real power, the combination is unbeatable. From these distinctions flow hypotheses that the attitude held reflects the reference group, whereas the attitude expressed reflects the membership group (see Smith et al. 1956).

Merton’s concept of anticipatory socialization is essential to this discussion (see Merton & Kitt 1950, pp. 87-88). Individuals may take as a reference group a nonmembership group to which they aspire to belong, and begin to socialize themselves to what they perceive to be its norms before they are ever exposed to its influence. The power of some reference groups thus inheres in the fact that they will ultimately be membership groups—at least such is the belief of the aspirant—and therefore can exact some conformity as the price of admission or of more comfortable passage into their ranks. Eulau (1962) advanced and then twice tested an ingenious hypothesis: that anticipatory socialization may be an effective means for learning attitudes, but not conduct, since the aspirant will have had little real opportunity to practice the skills required and to be taught the correct performance of the role.

Basic to reference group theory is the fact that individuals often have multiple reference groups. Certainly, there are some individuals who have limited capacity to use many reference groups— who lack rich “imaginative sociability.” Others, however, in appraising the many facets of the self, employ various reference groups, each specialized as a point of comparison for one particular dimension (Hyman 1942; Stouffer et al. 1949; Turner 1955). In forming the total constellation of attitudes, several reference groups may be employed, each accorded a limited jurisdiction over some specialized attitude sphere. Studies of normative reference groups have found differences in the legitimacy that individuals accord to groups promulgating norms in various spheres (Michigan …1960). There are also instances where multiple reference groups impinge simultaneously on the same sphere of comparison or the same realm of attitude, and then they may either reinforce the same outcome or produce conflicting consequences for the individual (see Stouffer et al. 1949; Merton & Kitt 1950; Form & Geschwender 1962; Patchen 1961; Rosen 1955).

Over the life span of any person, there will have been a multiplicity of reference groups, specialized less by sphere than by the life segment to which they were keyed. Some old reference groups which are long departed may be carried over in memory. On the other hand, recent groups may be cast out of mind in the zealous adoption of a still newer reference group. The relations of multiple reference groups within a sequence suggest many fascinating problems that tie into the processes of social mobility (see Merton & Kitt 1950, pp. 84-95). Discussions of social mobility often assume that the past and future reference groups conflict, since the individual presumably wishes to break his ties to the old, inferior group. Litwak, however, presented an interesting reformulation, using the concept of the “stepping-stone” reference orientation (1960). In a situation characterized by ordered change, “where integration into one group is considered to be a prerequisite for integration into a second group ... it is possible for the individual to view both his current membership group and his future membership group as reference groups, without endangering his integration into his current group and without preventing his joining a different future group” (ibid., pp. 72-73). Each group is valued by the individual as a steppingstone to help him in his advance.

The concepts reviewed in no way exhaust the literature but are those basic to any clarification of the field. Merton’s essay (1957) describes many other conceptual refinements and the extended network of connections to other branches of theory (see also Shibutani 1955; Turner 1956; Hyman 1960).

Selection of reference groups

The concept of reference group has always implied that one cannot make arbitrary assumptions about the groups to which an individual refers himself. Given the multiplicity of groups and the variability among individuals and situations, must we then, as a symposium (Foundation …1956, p. 1) put it, “determine which kinds of groups are likely to be referred to by which kinds of individuals under which kinds of circumstances in the process of making which decisions . . .”—over and over again? There will always be a large amount of empiricism needed, and the development of simple instruments to measure a person’s reference groups is of great importance. But, fortunately, research has already established certain regularities in the choices individuals make and some major factors governing selection.

Theorizing about the choice of reference groups and reference individuals is often based on simple assumptions about motivation. For example, the individual chooses a normative reference group so that in fantasy, or ultimately in fact, he can feel himself part of a more favored group. Or, facing rapid social change, the individual latches onto a reference group; thus anchored, he has a readymade perspective to order the distressing complexities of the environment (see Shibutani 1955; Eisenstadt 1954). For social comparisons, he chooses a group so as to enhance his self-regard or protect his ego. Certainly in the search for reference groups such fundamental strivings play an important part.

The pleasure principle is at work, but so, too, is the reality principle: consider, for example, Stouffer’s inference that the more advantaged soldiers felt deprived because they chose to compare themselves with others who were even better off (Stouf-fer et al. 1949). It seems plausible that the institutional arrangements gave such sharp definition and prominence to certain groups that the soldiers’ attention was drawn to them as points of comparison. Perhaps when reality is less highly structured, there is more freedom for the pleasure principle to guide the selection of reference groups.

The principle of similarity

Turner hypothesized that only those groups will be taken as points of comparison which are relevant to a particular aspect of self-appraisal; when a group’s standing is so high or so low that it is not meaningful to the individual, it will not be used as a comparative reference group. The similarity principle derived by Festinger (1954) in his theory of social comparison processes—that an individual chooses others who are close to his level of ability—is congruent with Turner’s “relevance principle,” as is Merton’s hypothesis (based on findings in The American Soldier) that some similarity in status attributes between the individual and the reference group must be perceived or imagined in order for the comparison to occur at all (Merton & Kitt 1950, p. 61).

The Amba of east Africa dramatically illustrate this principle. They worked for Europeans for a much lower price than for employers from another tribe, and “are quite willing to explain this state of affairs. They say that a European is on a much higher social plane, and therefore, comparisons are out of the question. Europeans are so wealthy that an increase in their wealth makes no difference in the …standing” of the Amba relative to Europeans (Winter 1955, p. 40). Qualitative evidence in Hyman’s interviews also suggested the operation of the similarity principle, or what he called “affinity,” in the choice of reference groups, but he also observed instances where contrast in status made a reference group salient.

The principle of relevance or similarity still leaves much room for the play of psychological factors. Perceived similarity is what counts, and there are many dimensions of similarity, only some of which are noted by the individual. And inside the range of similarity, in which direction will the individual then turn—toward groups which are superior or inferior to him? Turner’s college students seemed to compare themselves with higher reference groups, perhaps to their present discomfort, because they were “future-oriented,” desiring to surpass such groups in their future lives (Turner 1955).

Patchen’s study of industrial workers provides systematic evidence on the variables affecting the choice of a reference individual or reference group for economic comparisons, and fundamentally clarifies the motivational assumptions of reference group theory (1961, especially chapter 2). Men often choose reference groups which increase their present sense of relative deprivation, not only because formal institutional arrangements force such groups into attention but also, as Patchen demonstrates, because informal social influences make such groups salient. Men may choose groups above them at the price of present dissatisfaction because they are laying a claim to a future when their status will be higher and their relative deprivation diminished. Furthermore, upward comparisons are not always experienced as painful to the ego, and herein lies Patchen’s singular contribution. Comparisons along a particular dimension are not made, in his words, in a “cognitive vacuum.” Low rank—for example, on wages—may appear justifiable in light of the low-ranking individual’s and the reference group’s relatively high standing on other attributes—e.g., education or age—thus reducing the grounds for dissatisfaction. However, reference groups which are equal in respect to the relevant attributes but which are higher on the dimension of appraisal create greater feelings of deprivation. Thus the principle of similarity is specified: If the direction of choice is upward, deprivation is likely to be contained by choosing a group whose dissimilarity in other attributes legitimizes the present inferior position of the person making the comparison. However, if one selects reference groups similar on these attributes, the direction of comparison is not likely to be upward.

Normative reference groups

Research on the selection of normative reference groups is meager. The proposition that individuals identify with advantaged groups and thereby gain gratification must be qualified in terms of the societal context. Such modes of selection may be characteristic of societies with high rates of upward mobility (Merton & Kitt 1950, p. 91), or where upward mobility is a strong value or is perceived, correctly or not, to be frequent. Comparative research is clearly required.

Experimental research demonstrates that situational factors may heighten the saliency of a membership group and increase the likelihood of its being used as a reference group whose perceived norms then affect some specific sphere. Charters and Newcomb (1952) present such evidence, but they note that the salient group sometimes functions as a negative reference group. Subsequent research puts these findings in doubt, and whether such situational influences have enduring effects on the choice of normative reference groups remains unknown (Kelley 1955).

That normative reference groups are chosen in the spirit of identification perhaps also needs qualification. It may be true for the individual seeking a source of norms and values and attitudes. But what about the individual seeking a system of beliefs and knowledge? He may then choose his reference group in terms of its authority or expertness and with the full awareness that he has no bond of identification. Systematic research on such determinants of choice does not exist, since the effects of reference groups on cognitive processes has been neglected, to the detriment of the sociology of knowledge. Prospects for future research are illustrated by Carlson (1952), who demonstrated differences in the effectiveness with which rural Southern Negroes dealt with syphilitic infections, depending on their reference groups, and by the report of a seminar conducted by the Foundation for Research on Human Behavior (1959), which shows that farmers who adopted better practices chose particular reference groups (see also Deutsch & Gerard 1955; Newcomb 1946).

Ruth Hartley’s work represents a unique program of systematic research on psychological factors that influence the selection of a membership group as a normative reference group (1956; 1957; 1960a; 1960b; 1960c). Using a large college community, she measured the degree to which students adopted their new community as a reference group, and correlated such individual differences with other characteristics. Taking on a new reference group depends on possessing an acceptant personality pattern. A particular reference group is then likely to be chosen if it is seen as fulfilling personal needs and if there is congruity between the individual’s personal values and norms and the norms and values he perceives as characteristic of the group. Thus some of the apparent effect of reference groups on the values of individuals may be spurious, since their values were prior in time and determined the choice of the reference group.

Perception of group norms and standing

For an individual to guide himself by a reference group requires some perception or cognition of its norms. Since reference groups may often be distant, nonmembership groups, perception of the true norms may be hazy and incorrect and not subject to any correction from the group. But even when membership groups function as reference groups, the visibility of group norms is not always high (Merton 1957, pp. 336-353) and varies, depending on one’s position in the group (Chowdhry & Newcomb 1952). Comparative reference group processes also require some perception or knowledge of the standing of others on the dimensions selected for comparison.

Deviation from the objective position of a group thus may be inspired by conformity to a false norm which the individual has taken to be the true norm of the reference group, and conformity to the objective norms may be the perverse fate of a “deviant” who thinks he is flouting the norms when actually he is misperceiving them. Attempts to understand the motivation of conformists and deviants must make a clear distinction between these varieties and therefore must measure the norms imputed to groups.

The environmental conditions and psychological processes that aid or obstruct perception vary greatly with the nature of the reference group. Organized groups announce their views to members and to outsiders; diffusion is aided by the mass media and spread by word of mouth. However, self-appointed communicators and the diffusion process may also distort the norms that finally reach the individual. More fundamental problems of perception must also be considered. Even organized groups do not announce all of their views all of the time: a norm may not yet have been promulgated or a fundamental value may remain implicit and taken for granted. On certain issues, the norms may be confused, not shared throughout the organization, exceedingly complex in nature, or not distinctive from those of other groups. There are even occasional groups whose fundamental value is that the individual shall be autonomous in regulating his conduct, thereby creating difficulty for those individuals seeking cues. Such are the burdens on the perceiver, but what comes to his aid is time; he has abiding loyalties to some reference groups, and what at first is dimly perceived finally takes on clarity.

Not all reference groups are organized entities. They may be vague collectivities, sprawling social categories, groups out of the dead past, or groups not yet born. Such groups are living structures only in the mind of the perceiver and do not communicate or transact behavior. Here there is relatively free rein for autistic perception of norms.

The choice of reference groups from the immediate environment, or from membership groups, or the choice of reference individuals rather than groups, may be motivated by the individual’s need to simplify his perceptual tasks. Surveys of political behavior provide relevant evidence of the choice of membership groups. Members of a given social category have greater awareness than do nonmembers that a voting norm characterizes the group; among nonmembers, awareness of the norm of such a group is greater for those whose environment contains many representatives of that group (Campbell et al. 1954; Hyman 1960). Donald Campbell reformulated the concept of the “bandwagon effect” as the influence of the voting norm of an assumed reference group, and he designed an experiment to test whether the local, state, or national reference group norm was effective (1951). But, alas, it was never carried out.

Measurement procedures

The popularity of reference group theory brings the danger, in Sherif’s words, that the concept is “becoming a magic term to explain anything and everything concerning group relations” (1953, p. 204). The concept is often invoked and the influence of a particular reference group alleged without benefit of evidence. Magical invocation must give way to scientific measurement that will lead cumulatively to knowledge on the problematics of reference group theory.

Only a brief summary of research procedures is possible in this article. A person’s reference groups have been measured by such simple and yet predictive questions as those on subjective class identification (Centers 1949). When this “self-location question” is combined with a question on class awareness, prediction of attitudes is improved (Michigan …1960, chapter 14). Other simple questions on the importance of a series of groups for the individual can predict his attitudes (see Hyman 1960). Strength of attachment to one of a series of possible normative reference groups has been measured by a forced-choice instrument developed by Melikian and Diab (1959). Ruth Hartley’s elaborate instrument to measure the acceptance of a normative reference group has high reliability and has been validated (1956). The type of comparative reference groups that individuals normally employ has been studied by direct questions (Patchen 1961), by the spontaneous group references that individuals make in the course of surveys on personal satisfaction (Stern & Keller 1953), and by applications of Kuhn’s “Who Am I?” test, which elicits spontaneous definitions of the self and its incorporation into various social categories (see Mulford & Salisbury 1964).

Perception of the norms of a reference group is measured by having the subject estimate the opinion of various other groups or individuals or indicate his lack of awareness of any norm (New-comb 1943; Kaplan 1955). Centers (1953) reversed this procedure by presenting subjects with statements of beliefs or norms and asking them to impute the belief to some group. Perception of the differentiated norms within a complex group has been examined in surveys of political behavior and in Ruth E. Hartley’s battery on “perceived cohesive-ness” of a reference group; the perceived clarity and perceived uniqueness of norms, as well as the legitimacy an individual accords to a reference group exercising a norm in a particular sphere, have been measured by simple batteries of questions (for a summary, see Hyman 1960). Experimental techniques to study the influence of reference groups on the behavior of a communicator have been developed by Zimmerman and Bauer (1956) and by Pool and Shulman (1959). Experiments to test the effects of manipulating such variables as the saliency of reference groups have also been designed (Charters & Newcomb 1952).

Current investigators have no excuse for neglecting existing measurement procedures. But they also have an obligation to refine these methods. As Newcomb has remarked: “…the concept of reference group is almost unique among the tools available to the social psychologist.... It is a variable intimately associated with that central problem of social psychology: the relating of self to society. The hand-to-hand advancement of reference-group theory and of the research procedures which can make it possible would therefore seem to be one of social psychology’s greatest needs” (1951, p. 92).

Herbert H. Hyman

[Directly related are the entriesAttitudes; Identity, psychosocial; social psychology; socialization; Status, social. Other relevant material may be found inCaste, article onthe concept of caste; Delinquency, article onthe study of delinquency; and in the biographies ofCooley; James; Stouffer; Sumner.]


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Runciman, W. G. 1961 Problems of Research on Relative Deprivation. Archives europeennes de sociologie 2:315-323.

Sherif, Muzafer 1953 The Concept of Reference Groups in Human Relations. Pages 203-231 in Conference in Social Psychology, University of Oklahoma, 1952, Group Relations at the Crossroads. Edited by Muzafer Sherif and M. O. Wilson. New York: Harper.

Sherif, Muzafer; and Sherif, Carolyn W. (1948) 1956 An Outline of Social Psychology. Rev. ed. New York: Harper. → Muzafer Sherif was the sole author of the first edition.

Shibutani, Tamotsu 1955 Reference Groups as Perspectives. American Journal of Sociology 60:562-569.

Smith, M. Brewster; Bruner, Jerome S.; and White, Robert W. 1956 Opinions and Personality. New York: Wiley.

Stern, Eric; and Keller, Suzanne 1953 Spontaneous Group References in France. Public Opinion Quarterly 17:208-217.

Stouffer, Samuel A. et al. 1949 The American Soldier. Studies in Social Psychology in World War II, Vols. 1 and 2. Princeton Univ. Press. → Volume 1: Adjustment During Army Life. Volume 2: Combat and Its Aftermath. See especially Volume 1.

Taft, Ronald 1952 Minority Group Behavior and Reference Group Theory: A Reply to Emery and Katz. Australian Journal of Psychology 4:10-23.

Turner, Ralph H. 1955 Reference Groups of Future Oriented Men. Social Forces 34:130-136.

Turner, Ralph H. 1956 Role-taking, Role Standpoint, and Reference-group Behavior. American Journal of Sociology 61:316-328.

Winter, E. H. 1955 Bwamba Economy: The Development of a Primitive Subsistance Economy in Uganda. East African Institute of Social Research, East African Studies, No. 5. Kampala (Uganda): The Institute.

Zimmerman, Claire; and Bauer, Raymond A. 1956 The Effect of an Audience Upon What Is Remembered. Public Opinion Quarterly 20:238-248.

reference group

views updated May 23 2018

reference group The term reference group was coined by Herbert Hyman in Archives of Psychology (1942), to apply to the group against which an 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. A reference group may or may not be a membership group. Theodore Newcomb (Personality and Social Change, 1943) used reference groups to help explain the changing values and attitudes of students at Bennington, a liberal women's college. Many of the women who came from politically conservative backgrounds developed increasingly liberal attitudes over the course of their college careers, as they came to identify more with the college faculty, and less with their family of origin and home communities. The girls who changed most, according to Newcomb, were those ‘characterized by independence from their parents, a sense of personal adequacy in social relations, and modifiability of habits in achieving their goals’. Here, the college is regarded as a positive reference group, but one might view the parents as a negative reference group for their somewhat rebellious offspring.

In these early uses reference group was not well defined, nor was it linked in any clear way to social psychological and sociological theory. One distinction that is commonly made is that between functionalist studies, which highlight the functions of reference groups either in providing a normative standard or a comparative reference-point, and the symbolic interactionist approach which views reference groups as shared world-perspectives providing meaning to the self.

Robert Merton and Alice Kitt provide a systematic functionalist formulation of the concept in their classic ‘Contribution to the Theory of Reference Group Behaviour’ (in R. K. Merton and and P. F. Lazarsfeld ( eds.) , Continuities in Social Research: Studies in the Scope and Method of ‘The American Soldier’, 1950
). Their essay was stimulated by Samuel Stouffer 's The American Soldier (1949)
, which reported that soldiers' feelings 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. Merton and Kitt point out that relative deprivation is a special case of comparative reference group behaviour. Merton later distinguishes reference groups and interaction groups (in Social Theory and Social Structure, 1957). The latter are a more general part of the individual's social environment— but neither set normative standards for the individual nor serve as a standard of comparison. He also specifies the circumstances under which an individual will select a membership or a non-membership group for normative reference, and claims that non-membership groups are likely to be chosen in highly mobile societies. Thus, an aspiring individual may emulate the life-style and attitudes of the local élite, in the hope of raising his or her own status. In a much-cited study of Relative Deprivation and Social Justice (1966), W. G. Runciman argues that attitudes to inequality (including people's feelings of relative deprivation) are a function of their restricted reference groups, although this argument has been criticized since it is clear from Runciman's evidence that the causal relationship in question could equally well run in the other direction.

The interactionist conception of reference group flows from George Herbert Mead's idea of the generalized other. According to Mead, in the acquisition of a self people move through very specific role-playing in the play and game stages of self-development (for example assuming roles of parents and peers); but in the later stages—known as the generalized-other stage—are able to assume the attitude of their whole community towards themselves. The generalized other thus serves both as a major anchorage in the wider social world and as a mechanism of social control. People come to see the world from the perspective of those who share their world in the wider community. From this starting-point Tamotsu Shibutani developed the idea that reference groups were in fact perspectives: ‘a reference group becomes any collectivity, real or imagined, envied or despised, whose perspective is assumed by the actor’. It is, in other words, ‘a group whose outlook is used by the actor as the frame of reference in the organization of his perceptual field’ (‘Reference Groups as Perspectives’, American Journal of Sociology, 1954
). More recently, this idea has been extended in the ‘social world perspective’ of Anselm Strauss and his colleagues (Studies in Symbolic Interactionism, 1978), in an attempt to capture ‘universes of discourse’ which transcend particular groups—such as ‘medical worlds’ or ‘gay worlds’.

The question of the usefulness of the concept of reference group is still unanswered. Some critics claim it raises more issues than it solves. One of the basic problems is that we do not know what determines which group an individual will select or when. Indeed, it seems likely that a person will employ a variety of different reference groups at different times, and with respect to different goods. Another problem therefore concerns the degree of specificity or generality of reference groups. A study may indicate that a person's political orientation is influenced by his or her college peers, but it is not clear whether the same reference group is also likely to influence that person's views on (say) sexual morality or religion. However, although the concept of reference group may lack rigour and precision, it does seem to provide useful insights into social behaviour and continues to be widely used in the explanation of (for example) patterns of wage-bargaining and religious affiliation.

group, reference

views updated May 29 2018

group, reference See REFERENCE GROUP.