Reference Groups & Role Models
This article focuses on reference groups and role models. Understanding the role that reference groups and role models play in social life is vital background for all those interested in the sociology of social interaction in groups and organizations. This article explores the sociology of reference groups and role models in four parts: An overview of the main types of reference groups including normative groups, comparison groups, and audience groups; a description of the social functions of reference groups and role models; a discussion of the main contributors to reference group and role model theory including Herbert Hyman, Robert Merton, Muzafer Sherif, and Theodore Newcomb; and an exploration of the ways that social scientists apply reference group and role model theories to consumer research.
Keywords Comparison Groups; Gender Role Self-Concept; Identity; Normative Groups; Reference Groups; Reference Individuals; Relative Deprivation Theory; Role Model; Sanctions; Social Functions; Society; Sociology
Social Interaction in Groups
Reference groups are social groups to which individuals refer when making decisions and judgments (Paynton, 1966). An individual may or may not actually belong to a reference group but he or she identifies with the group based on criteria such as status, race, class, or ethnicity. For instance, law students may consider lawyers as a reference group because they anticipate achieving that professional group status. Reference groups set and enforce standards of conduct and belief and serve as a standard against which people can evaluate themselves, their own behavior, and others. Advertisers and marketers are interested in reference groups as they allow them to better sell products to certain populations. Role models, a subfield of the reference group concept, are individuals who serve as model for behavior or social role.
Reference group concepts are used to understand achievement and performance. Sociologists study reference groups and role models to better understand the psychological basis for achievement. An individual's achievement is affected, and possibly largely determined, by the reference groups that surround him or her; achievement is also effected by socialization, role performance, and reference group identification. Reference group theory cannot explain exactly how an individual chooses a reference group and is not a single entity or explanation for the functioning of reference groups. Instead, reference group theory is comprised of concepts such as role set, role model, reference set, and preference group. Within reference groups, role models are one of the many tools used to direct and, in some instances, control individual behavior (Kemper, 1968).
Understanding the role that reference groups and role models play in social life is vital background for all those interested in the sociology of social interaction in groups and organizations. This article explores the sociology of reference groups and role models in four parts:
- An overview of the main types of reference groups including normative groups, comparison groups, and audience groups;
- A description of the social functions of reference groups and role models;
- A discussion of the main contributors to reference group and role model theory including Herbert Hyman, Robert Merton, Muzafer Sherif, and Theodore Newcomb;
- An exploration of the ways that social scientists apply reference group and role model theories in consumer research.
Types of Reference Groups
Reference groups, in the form of a group, collectivity or person, are the social mechanisms by which individual achievement is fostered. Reference groups help individuals select choices, direction, and behaviors from all possible options and influence actions and attitudes of individuals. Reference groups are classified into three types described below: Normative groups, comparison groups, and audience groups. In some instances, a person or group may represent more than one type of reference group to an individual. For example, parents may represent a normative group, comparison group, and audience group to a child.
- Normative groups refer to groups, collectivities, or people that provide an individual with a direction and guide for action based on clear values and norms by establishing clear expectations for behavior and compliance. Examples of normative groups include family, nation, employer, or spouse. Normative groups expect individuals to engage with group norms and values but do not demand compliance. In normative groups, deviance from or compliance with values and norms are weighted equally. Normative groups do not distinguish between member motivation or mood.
- Comparison groups refer to groups, collectivities, or people that provide an individual with a frame of reference to evaluate problematic and challenging issues such as the equity of one's fate; the legitimacy of one's actions; and the adequacy of one's performance. Comparison groups are further divided into different types including equity group, legitimator group, role model, and accommodator group. The equity group is used as a frame of reference to assess whether one's situation is fair and equitable in situations when the legitimacy of his or her behavior and opinions are questioned. Legitimator groups are led by opinion originators. Role models demonstrate for individuals how acts should be technically performed. They may be real, known in person, known by reputation, imagined, or historical. Individuals choose role models based on the skills, knowledge, and technique that the individual hopes to learn. The accommodator group refers to a group or person which provides the individual with direction for a complementary or parallel response. Complementary responses are appropriate for cooperative situations. Parallel responses are appropriate for competitive situations. Accommodator groups encourage individuals to adjust their behavior based on the behavior and performance of others. Comparison groups are considered to be the oldest type of reference groups.
- Audience groups refer to groups, collectivities, or people to which individuals attribute characteristics, values, and attributes. Individuals attempt to emulate the characteristics, values, and attributes that they attribute to audience groups. The audience group's characteristics, values, and attributes may be clearly expressed or a case of speculation. Audience groups and normative groups have significant differences. For instance, audience groups and normative groups employ different sanctioning groups. In addition, audience groups take no notice of the individual while normative groups require compliance from individuals.
Source of Power
Reference groups and role models get their power from the benefits, sanctions, and reinforcements they offer. Each of the three different types of reference groups, normative group, comparison group, and audience group, offer different benefits, sanctions, and reinforcements. For instance, normative groups punish individuals for deviance and advocate conformity with group values as a means of avoiding punishment. The law is a strong example of normative prescription and proscription. Normative groups, which motivate behavior through fear of punishment, are not associated with encouraging achievement. Individuals tend to be motivated toward achievement by a reward of some kind rather than the absence of punishment. Audience groups provide the promise of reward and recognition along with the potential for rejection or indifference. In contrast to normative groups and audience groups, comparison groups and role models are not associated with rewards or punishments. Role models demonstrate behavior judged high enough to avoid normative punishments and receive rewards. Role models reinforce particular high achieving behaviors.
All three types of groups may be necessary for high levels of achievement. In high achievement scenarios, normative groups establish norms and values through the threat of punishment, comparison groups demonstrate how roles should be adequately performed, and audience groups provide the motivation and desire for high-level effort and performance. Ultimately, normative groups provide norms and values, assign individuals to roles, express standards, and establish legitimacy through fear of punishment. Comparison groups provide role models and legitimation as well as demonstration for how roles should be enacted without associations with punishment or reward. Audience groups impart values and create a desire for achievement based off the promise of reward and recognition (Kemper, 1968).
Social Functions of Reference Groups
Social scientists consider reference groups and role models to be one of the strongest determinants of an individual's behavior (Mehta et al, 2001). Reference groups are believed to shape gender behavior. For instance, Social scientists have studied male reference groups to understand the extent to which men are dependent on male reference groups in forming their gender role self-concept. The gender role self-concept refers to an individual's sense of self as related to gender roles, attributes, and behavior. Social scientists have indentified three distinct reference group identity statuses each with a different effect on gender role self-concept....
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