Reference Group in Sociology: Definition, Examples & Types

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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 Matched Group Design: Definition & Examples

Definition

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.

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