Reference Groups: Important Characteristics of Reference Group!
Man is an imitative animal. The desire to imitate other individuals or groups is instinctive in him. When one finds another person progressing in life, he also desires to progress likewise. He compares himself with others and begins behaving like them in order to reach their status and position.
Such behaviour after comparison with others is called ‘Reference Behaviour’. Under such behaviour one relates oneself to the other individuals or groups and tries to adopt their values or standards. The individuals or groups whose behaviour is imitated by him are known as ‘Reference Groups.” Such imitation of behaviour is found at both the individual and group levels.
In Sociology the concept of Reference Group behaviour was given by Hayman. Later, Turner, Merton and Sheriff further elaborated this concept. According to Hayman, there are some particular individuals in a society whose standards or values become the ideals for other people and are imitated by them. Sheriff provided a psychological explanation of Reference Behaviour.
According to him, an individual in a group situation accepts the group norm but he sometimes also begins to imitate the behaviour of the distinguished people. According to Linton, in every society there are some roles and statuses which every individual seeks to achieve.
There are two reasons for Reference Group Behaviour, one, the social and economic situation; second, the psychological level of the individual or group. It has been generally observed that a poor person gives more prestige to the behaviour of rich and prosperous persons. Similarly, people with low mental level are more influenced by other people.
Sheriff has defined Reference Groups as “those groups to which individual relates himself as a part or to which he relates himself psychologically.” According to Merton, “Reference Group behaviour theory aims to systematize the determinants and consequences of those processes of evaluation and sub-appraisal, in which the individual takes the values or standards of other individuals and groups, as a comparative frame of reference.” Reference group behaviour, according to Sheriff, grows on account of psychological relations.
In the context of Reference Group Behaviour there are three kinds of members: Aspiring Members, Potential Members and Actual Members. There are some individuals who aspire to enter a Reference Group but lack the ability or capacity to so enter. Their position is one of non-member.
There are some individuals who do not have any desire to enter the other group. There are other individuals who do desire to enter a Reference Group but cannot enter it on account of some personal ideals. When persons possessed of capacity and ability to enter the other group fail to so enter, it is called negative membership. Such persons suffer from mental tension.
The following characteristics of Reference Group Behaviour may be pointed out:
(i) The individual or group considers the behaviour of the other individual or group as ideal behaviour and imitates it.
(ii) The individual or group compares himself or itself with the other individual or group.
(iii) In Reference Group Behaviour the individual or group desires to rise higher in the social scale and as such the group or individual comes to feel it’s or his defects or weaknesses.
(iv) The feeling of relative weaknesses or defects leads to the feeling of relative deprivation in the individual or group.
Thus on account of the feeling of relative deprivation an individual takes the values or standards of other individuals which leads to change in his behaviour. According to Sheriff, man is the only animal capable of Reference Group Behaviour. He can change his behaviour by assimilating the values and standards of the other individual or group.
This condition, in the words of Sheriff, “stems from man’s psychological capacity to relate himself to groups, values and goods beyond the limits of immediate surroundings within his perceptual range, and beyond the limits of the living present into the future.”
It may also be mentioned that when an individual enters from his group to the other, it takes some time for his assimilation in the other group. During this intermediate period he feels stresses and strains. Such a situation may be given the name of Grouplessness which is created by separation from his own group. While on the one hand he gets separated from his group, on the other he does not get assimilated with the other group. He is thereby faced with a situation which may be called De-grouped situation.
In an open society marked by vertical mobility the consequences of Reference Group Behaviour are functional but in a closed society marked by horizontal mobility, the consequences are dysfunctional.
The concept of Reference Group Behaviour has been criticized on the following grounds:
(i) This theory does not propound any new fact.
(ii) It only explains the behaviour but does not suggest any means to control it.
(iii) It only explains how an individual is influenced by a Reference Group, but it does not explain how the Reference Group is influenced by his entry into the group.
However, the importance of this theory lies in the fact that it tells us about group behaviour of society and informs us of the direction an individual’s behaviour may take in a particular social environment. It can also help to explain the psychological strains and stresses in the modern industrialized and complex society.