reference group

The term reference group was coined by Herbert Hyman inArchives 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, Continuities in Social Research: Studies in the Scope and Method of ‘The American Soldier’, 1950). Their essay was stimulated by’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 (inSocial 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.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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