Practice Question: How can we use reference group theory to understand fashion in society ? (10 Marks) (UPSC 2014)

Approach: Introduction; Reference theory of Merton, Apply the rules or characteristics of the reference group theory to analyse the fashion(or current trends) in society; Conclusion .



Sociologists use the term ‘reference group’ for such groups that individuals use as a standard for evaluating themselves and their own behaviour. These are the groups to which we psychologically identify with to which we may and may not belong but we may aspire to belong. People do not actually have to be members of the group to which they refer. Mustafa Sherif (1953) defined reference groups as “those groups to which the individual relates himself as a part or to which he aspires to relate himself psychologically”.



As a student, for example, you belong to a group of other students with whom you continually interact. You know what kind of relationship you expect from your group members; you also know what others expect from you. In other words, the way you conduct yourself, the way you behave and relate is always being guided by the group you belong to. As a student you cannot conduct yourself unless your behaviour is being shaped by the patterned expectations of the group of students. This is what stabilises your identity as a student.

What is a reference group all about? A reference group is one to which you always refer in order to evaluate your achievements, your roleperformance, your aspirations and ambitions. It is only a reference group that tells you whether you are right or wrong, whether whatever you are doing, you are doing badly or well. So one might say that the membership
groups to which you belong are your reference groups.

Even non-membership groups, the groups to which you do not belong, may act like reference groups. This is not really very surprising. Because life is mobile and time and again you come to know of the lives and ways of those who do not belong to your group. At times, this makes you wonder and ask why it is that there are others who are more powerful, more
prestigious than you.



Merton’s understanding of relative deprivation is closely tied to his treatment of reference group and reference group behaviour. An Indian student in a prestigious university in the United States may have sufficient reasons to feel happy. He has access to a better academic atmosphere – more books, more research materials, more seminars, and so on. But if he refuses to remain contented with this academic world and thinks of an alternative scale of evaluation which values above all else a home life with his parents, brothers and sisters then his ‘happiness’ would begin to disappear. So while comparing himself with his Indian friends enjoying the intimate company of their family members, he may feel deprived. This is what makes the study of reference group pretty interesting. Men and women always compare their lot with others. This explains their restlessness and continual search for change and mobility.



(i) Positive Reference Groups:

These are the ones we want to be accepted by. Thus, if we want to be a film actor, we might carefully observe and imitate the behaviour of film actors. These are the groups, collectivities or persons that provide the person with a guide to action by explicitly setting norms and espousing values.

(ii) Negative Reference Groups:

These groups we do not want to be identified with, also serve as sources of self-evaluation. A person might, for example, try to avoid resembling members of a particular religious group or a circus group. A group rejected by or in opposition to ego’s own group, it is ‘the enemy’ or the negative group.



(i) The individual or group considers the behaviour of the other individual or group as ideal behaviour and imitates it.

(ii) The individual or group compares himself or itself with the other individual or group.

(iii) In Reference Group Behaviour the individual or group desires to rise higher in the social scale and as such the group or individual comes to feel it’s or his defects or weaknesses.

(iv) The feeling of relative weaknesses or defects leads to the feeling of relative deprivation in the individual or group.



Nonconformity to the norms of an in-group is equivalent to conformity to the norms of an out-group. But, as Merton says, non-conformity should not
be equated with deviant behaviour. There are many differences between the two.
First, unlike the criminal, the non-conformist announces his dissent. Secondly, the non-conformist is not an opportunist. They challenge the legitimacy of the norms and expectations and reject them. But the criminal does not have the courage to reject their legitimacy. He does not agree that theft is right and murder virtuous, he or she simply finds it expedient to
violate the norms and evade them. Thirdly, the non-conformists believe that they are gifted with a ‘higher morality’ and want to alter the norms of
the group accordingly. The criminal does not have, however, any such vision of morality.
The experiences of the non-conformists in the context of non-membership reference groups are likely to have structural implications for the membership group. In Merton’s view, the non-conformists are often considered to be ‘masters’. They are felt to have courage and have demonstrated the capacity to run large risks. The fact that the non-conformist “tends to elicit some measure of respect” implies that the membership group begins to become uncertain about itself, about its norms, and values. The non-conformists conformity to the non-membership group is the beginning of conflict and tension in the membership group.



In using reference group theory to study information behaviours, there are several arguments which can be made. For instance, the theory allows for common expectations regarding the socialization process into desired groups. It also explains why members of these groups are willing to adjust individualistic interest(s) in order to work on behalf of larger concerns. In this sense, we imply that this common thread of socialized norms leads to the formation of a cognitive view where, as a member of a reference group, one has confidence that the appropriate strategies employed to manage one’s life are befitting and valid.



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