As Horton and Hunt have pointed out “A reference group is any group to which we refer when making judgements—any group whose value-judgments become our value-judgements”. They have further said, “Groups which are important as models for one’s ideas and-conduct norms….” can be called reference groups.
The concept of “reference group” arises essentially from the fact that any person acting in any situation may be influenced not only by his membership groups but also by his conception of other groups of which he is not a member.
These other groups exert their influence as reference groups in a purely passive or silent way, that is, simply by being thought of. They do not, of course, entirely exist as reference groups, but they are called so only from the point of view of their capacity in exerting influence. The young child in the family is interested in the reactions of everyone in the family with who it is in contact.
The family is both a membership group and a reference group for the child. But when the child becomes mature he selects particular groups which are understood here as reference groups whose approval or disapproval he especially desires.
The concept, reference groups, as distinct from membership groups, has particular relevance for modern complex, heterogeneous society with its high rates of physical and occupational mobility.
In such a complex society a person may be a member of one group but prefer membership or aspire for membership in another. In a small folk society, the distinction between membership group and reference groups is less common and may be nonexistent.
Only under certain circumstances a group may become reference group for the members of a particular social group. H.M. Johnson has mentioned four such circumstances.
(i) When some or all the members of a particular group aspire to membership in the reference group. Example, the ambitious upper-middle class people are always interested in joining the rank of upper-class people. In order to get an admission into upper-class, they may show their prejudice and even aggressiveness towards low-ranking groups.
(ii) When the members of the particular group struggle to imitate the members of reference group, or try to make their group just like the reference group at least in some respects.
The lower caste people in India who suffer from a sense of inferiority are found to be emulating some of the styles and practices of Brahmins to feel equal to them at least in some respects. Similarly, members of the minority groups may try to incorporate in their personality dominant-group standards to help better their relationship with the dominant majority group.
(iii) When the members of the particular group derive some satisfaction from being distinctive and unlike the members of reference group in some aspects. Further, they may try to maintain the difference between the two groups or between themselves and the members of the reference group.
If Whites as a status group are a reference group for Negroes, so are Negroes a reference group for Whites because both want to retain their difference. Whites want to remain unlike the Negroes and so is the case with Negroes. Similarly, Muslims may be interested in maintaining their difference with the majority community, especially in the Indian context.
(iv) When the members of a particular group consider the reference group or its members as a standard for comparison.
The teachers of a city college may always make references to the most prestigious college of the city as a measuring rod to assess their position, service condition, performance and so on. Such contemplation of reference groups may have some consequences for the moral of the group.