Reference Group in Sociology: Definition, Examples & Types

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Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Information Technology, and Literacy and has a master's in counseling psychology and business administration.

A reference group is a group that we compare ourselves to for the purpose of evaluating our behaviors. Learn more about the different types of reference groups from examples and test your knowledge with a quiz.

We also recommend watching Types of Social Groups: Primary, Secondary and Reference Groups and What Is Sociology? - Definition, Themes & Careers in Sociology


Suppose you were a college freshman moving into your dorm. You notice that there are very few cars in the parking lot, but there are several bikes. You look into the open door rooms and notice that a majority of the students in your dorm have a recycling bin in their rooms and green fliers.

You ask your new roommate about the fliers and he tells you that the college is a green campus. Before your parents leave you ask them to take you to the store to buy a bicycle, a helmet, a recycling bin, and other eco-friendly items. In this example, you used the college students in your dorm room as a reference group.

A reference group is a group to which we compare ourselves. Reference groups, such as college freshmen, serve as a standard to which we measure our behaviors and attitudes. We use reference groups in order to guide our behavior and attitudes and help us to identify social norms.

For example, suppose that Susie is a 13-year-old female who transfers to a new school. Susie may pay attention to what her schoolmates wear, how they speak, where they hang out, and how they behave. Susie then takes this information and uses it in order to modify her speech, determine what she wears to school, how she does her hair, which shows to watch on television, etc.

A group that we have been a part of in the past or that we will be a part of in the future can serve as a reference group. A married man may still look to his single friends as a reference group, even though this is a group that he no longer belongs to. In the same token, a woman pregnant with her first child may use women with children as a reference group, even though she does not yet belong to this group.

It is important to note that a majority of us rely on multiple reference groups. So Susie may not only look to her schoolmates to identify social norms, but also her favorite singers to compare her body size to see if she is of normal weight.

Informal vs. Formal Reference Groups

Most reference groups are informal, which means that they are based on the group members' shared interests and goals. Informal groups are not structured with a specific goal in mind. They also interact on a very personal level. Examples of informal reference groups include:

  • Families
  • A group of local mothers
  • Peer groups

Formal reference groups have a specific goal or mission. They also have a specific structure and positions of authority. Examples of formal reference groups include:

  • Labor unions
  • Mensa, a society for people with high IQ
  • Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)

Membership vs. Disclaimant Reference Groups

Membership reference groups are those reference groups that we not only belong to, but also agree with their attitudes, norms, and behaviors. Suppose that Carol is a married woman. If Carol identifies and agrees with the attitudes and behaviors of other married women in her area and relies on them as a way to compare and modify her own attitudes and behaviors, then she is part of a membership reference group.

Disclaimant reference groups are those that we belong to, but do not agree with their attitudes, social, and behaviors. Suppose that Carol has a busy career and does not want any children. Carol finds that the married women in her area believe that all married women should stay at home and have at least one child. In this instance, the married women in her area are a disclaimant reference group.

Aspirational vs. Avoidant Reference Groups

We do not have to belong to a reference group in order for it to have an influence over us. An aspirational reference group is a group we do not belong to, but we hope to belong to in the future. Suppose Jim is high school senior who is applying for college in hopes of becoming a career psychologists. He might use established career psychologists as an aspirational reference group to determine which programs he should apply to, what his undergraduate major should be, and what societies he should join.

An avoidant reference group, also known as a dissociative reference group, is a group that we do not belong to and we disapprove of their attitudes, values, and behaviors. Suppose that Jim knows there is a gang in a rough part of town. Jim stays far away from known gang members, avoids going to that part of town, and does not participate in any of the activities the gang members participate in. In this example, the gang serves as an avoidant reference group.

Lesson Summary

Reference groups are those groups that we compare ourselves to. The reference groups that we belong to are either:

  • Informal or formal
  • Membership or disclaimant

The reference groups that we do not belong to can be either aspirational or dissociative. So the next time you find yourself comparing your weight to the supermodels you see on television, remember that this may not be the best reference group for you.

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