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Reference Groups

Reference Groups

Author: Zach Lamb

Identify the characteristics of reference groups.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. Welcome to Sociological Studies. In today's lesson, we're going to discuss this idea of reference groups. Now reference groups come in two categories-- groups that we already belong to and the groups that we aspire to belong to. Reference groups then, combining these two, are social groups with which we identify and to which we aspire to belong. And reference groups guide and shape our behavior by thinking about how the people within the reference group would think about our behavior.

So suppose that you're a religious person and you're in a marriage that isn't working and you're thinking about getting a divorce. You might think about how your religion, and the religious community, the people in your religious community, your church, how they would view you getting a divorce. And you'd ask yourself, what are they going to think? And you might use this to think through your own thoughts and feelings.

So whenever you ask yourself about "they," what "they" might think, you're asking yourself this question about a reference group. The "they" is the reference group. So you had your religion when you're thinking about getting a divorce. What other reference groups might you have? Well, you're certainly probably going to have your family. You're going to think about how your family is going to react to you getting a divorce. What might they think?

You'll think about if your family's going to accept or reject your reasoning. Are they going to support your view on why the marriage needs to end? And you're certainly going to use your friends or your peer group as a reference group when thinking about getting this divorce. You'll certainly try to put yourself in the shoes of your friends. How are your friends going to view me? How are they going to view my reasoning? Are they going to support me?

The important takeaway point, then, the important thing to realize from this discussion is that we humans are not making decisions in isolation. As the divorce example illustrates, many reference groups are involved in the thought process. We use ideas, expectations, and norms of others in the reference group to help think through our own lives and our own decision making.

But so far, this divorce example has only taken consideration of the groups to which you already currently belong. So I mentioned, you use your family, or you might use your religious group, if you have one, and your friends, and maybe even your children. You're going to use these. You already belong to these groups.

So you're using then reference groups to which you already belong, but recall I said there are also reference groups that we use to which we don't belong. To places we maybe want to get. We value their opinion, so we use them as a reference group. And we call this then future opportunities. You'll reference groups to which you might want to belong in the future.

For instance, my girlfriend is a math teacher and she just finished college. She worked really hard in college, had to work a couple of retail jobs on top of college, and she wanted to take a year off and just work a job that was less demanding, she felt, than teaching. I brought in this idea of reference groups to show her that maybe this wasn't such a good idea. Because I pointed out, using the reference group of her future employers, people who were going to be looking at her resume, potentially interviewing her, asking her questions, I said, what are they going to think of you taking this year off when they see this gap on your resume?

That reference group then is going to influence her behavior now, because she decided maybe they might look negatively on my year off and they might think that I lack the conviction, or desire, or even ambition to teach relative to somebody who doesn't take that time off and goes right into teaching. So in this way, then, we could use that reference group to help us think through our current situation even though we don't belong to them now, but somehow hope to be in that group in the future.

And likewise, for myself, I'm in the process of applying, trying to craft a compelling application for a Ph.D. study in sociology. And so I'm using academic professionals already in sociology as my reference group. I'm constantly thinking about, when I'm writing, how are they going to view this sentence in my personal statement?

What are they going to think of my GRE scores? Are they good enough or they low? Do I need to re-take them? What is somebody going to think of me teaching you at Sophia here. Should I include this in my personal statement? Is this going to be a valuable contribution? What is the reference group going to think?

So then to help make this concrete with a visual, I have you here in the middle and a couple of hypothetical reference groups to which you might feel you subscribe or value their opinion. Your family, obviously, your friends, and your future goals, future groups you might like to belong to. You're certainly going to use them as a reference group. Importantly, even children if you have them, serve as a reference group. I'm not a parent but a lot of parents I've talked to say that maintaining their honor and their good worth, and merit in the eyes of their children is very important. So if this is important to you, your children are going to be a primary reference group for you.

These are just ones that came to my mind. Can you think of any others that I missed? What reference groups do you feel that you use in your life to help you think? I challenge you to think about that. Maybe jot down a list of reference groups that you use in your day-to-day life. I hope you enjoyed this lesson. Have a great rest of your day.

Terms to Know
Reference Groups

A social group with which people identify and to which they refer when evaluating themselves and their behavior.