Reference Groups Essay

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The term reference group denotes a cluster of social psychological concepts pertaining to the relationship between individual identities, social norms, and social control. Reference groups may constitute a group into which individuals are members, as well as those groups to which one does not belong. The utility of the term lies in its ability to provide an explanation as to how social groups influence individual values, attitudes, and behavior.

Reference groups have also been useful in understanding the development of identity boundaries, particularly concerning ethnicity and adaptation among children of immigrants. Many scholars interested in second-generation immigration highlight the tensions that exist between the ideals of two conflicting reference groups, that of the immigrant culture and that of dominant American society. The values and behaviors of each reference group provide powerful socializing forces on the children of immigrants. Thus, inquiries into identity development often seek to determine to what extent each group serves as an audience in front of whom the second generation acts to achieve acceptance.

The use of reference groups has had enormous impact on the development and use of measures in the social sciences. Self-report measures of social, psychological, and biological phenomena including attitudes, behaviors, and physical well-being invariably are influenced within a context, by social comparison. For example, inequalities in society may be as much a product of subjective interpretation involving an individual comparing his or her situation to a group or category as they are a consequence of objective, observable differences. The reference group concept has furthermore served to highlight the potential confounding effects of group comparison research, especially concerning cross-cultural studies. Building off the awareness that most people’s self-understanding results from how people compare themselves with others around them, and in particular others similar to them, the suggestion emerges that different groups have diverse standards by which evaluations are made. Moreover, shifting evaluations may occur depending on the context. Thus, analyses that seek to compare mean scores from different cultures (who invariably have different referents) risk the threat of misleading results.


  • Sherif, M. & Sherif, C. W. (1964) Reference Groups: Exploration into Conformity and Deviation of Adolescents. Harper, New York.

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