What Is a Reference Group?

Understanding One of Sociology's Basic Concepts

A young girl mimics her mother as they apply makeup. We learn from reference groups how what is normal and how to behave.
Fabrice Lerouge/Getty Images

A reference group is a collection of people that we use as a standard of comparison for ourselves regardless of whether we are part of that group. We rely on reference groups to understand social norms, which then shape our values, ideas, behavior, and appearance. This means that we also use them to evaluate the relative worth, desirability, or appropriateness of these things.

Extended Definition

The concept of a reference group is one of the most basic of sociology.

Sociologists believe that our relationship to groups and to society at large shapes our individual thoughts and behaviors. How we relate to reference groups is central to how social groups and society exert social force on us as individuals. By looking to reference groups--be they those of race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, region, ethnicity, age, or localized groups defined by neighborhood or school, among others--we see norms and dominant values, and we choose to either embrace and reproduce them in our own thoughts, behavior, and interactions with others; or, we reject and refute them by thinking and acting in ways that break from them.

Embracing the norms of a reference group and expressing them ourselves is how we achieve important connections with others that lead to social acceptance--doing so is how we "fit in" and achieve a sense of belonging. Conversely, those of us who either can't or choose not to embrace and express the norms of reference groups that are expected of us might be seen as outcasts, criminals, or in other cases, revolutionaries or trendsetters.

Examples

Expressing reference group norms and behavior through consumption is one of the most easily visible examples of this phenomenon. In choosing what clothing to buy and wear, for example, we typically refer to those around us, like friend or peer groups, colleagues, or to stylistic reference groups, like preppy, hipster, or ratchet, among others.

We gauge what is normal and expected by paying attention to our reference group, and then we reproduce those norms in our own consumer choices and appearance. In this way, the collective influences our values (of what is cool, nice, or appropriate) and our behavior (what we purchase and how we dress).

Gender norms are another clear example of how reference groups shape our thoughts and behavior. From a young age, boys and girls receive both explicit and implicit messages from those around them and from media that dictate norms of behavior and appearance. As we grow up, reference groups shape our grooming habits on the basis of gender (shaving and other hair-removal practices, hairstyle, etc.), how we interact with others based on their gender, how we physically carry ourselves and comport our bodies, and what roles we inhabit in our personal relationships with others (how to be a "good" wife or husband, or son or daughter, for example).

Whether we are conscious of it or not, we are looking to multiple reference groups which shape our thoughts and behavior on a daily basis.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.