Man is an imitative animal. The desire to imitate other individuals or groups is instinctive in him. When one finds another person progressing in life, he also desires to progress like them in order to reach their status and position. Such behavior after comparison with others is called reference behavior. Under such behavior, one relates one self to the other individuals or groups and tries to adopt their values of standards. The individuals or groups whose behavior is imitated by him are known as reference groups. Such imitation of behavior is found in both the individual and group levels.
In Sociology the concept of reference group behavior was given by Hayman. Later, Turner, Merton and Sheriff further elaborated this concept.
According to Hayman, there are some particular individuals in a society whose standards or values become the ideals for other people and are imitated by them. Sheriff provided a psychological explanation of reference behavior. According to him an individual, in a group situation accepts the group norm but lie sometimes also begins to imitate the behavior of the distinguished people.
According to Lention, in every society, there are some roles and statuses which every individual seeks to achieve. There are two reasons for reference group behaviors. On the social and economic situation, second, the psychological level of the individual or group. It has been generally observed that a poor person gives more prestige to the behavior of rich, prosperous persons. Similarly, people with low mental level are more influenced by other people.
Sheriff has defined reference groups as “these groups to which individual relates himself as a part or to which he relates himself psychologically”.
According to Merton, “Reference group behavior theory aims to systematize the determinants and consequences of these process of evaluation and sub-appraisal, in which the individual takes the values, or standards of other individuals and groups, as a comparative frame of reference.” Reference group behavior, according to Sheriff grows on account of psychological relations.
In the context of reference group behavior, there are three kinds of members: aspiring members, potential members and actual members. There are some individuals who aspire to enter a reference group but lack the ability or capacity to enter. Their position is one of non-member. There are some individuals who do not have any desire to enter a reference group but cannot enter it on account of some personal ideas. When persons possessed of capacity and ability to enter the other group fail to do so enter it is called negative membership. Such persons suffer from mental tension.
The following characteristics of Reference Group Behavior may be pointed out:
(1) The individual or group considers the behavior of the other individual or group as ideal behavior and imitates it.
(2) The individual or group compares himself or itself with the other individual or group,
(3) In reference group behavior the individual or group desires to rise higher in the social scale and as such, the group or individual comes to feel its or his defects or weaknesses.
(4) The feeling of relative weaknesses or defects leads to the feeling of relative deprivation in the individual or group. Thus on account of the feeling of relative deprivation and individual takes the values or standards of other individuals, which leads to change in his behavior. According to Sheriff, man is the only animal capable of reference group behaviour. He can change his behavior by assimilating the values and standards of the other individual or group. This, condition, in the words of Sheriff, stems from man’s psychological capacity to relate himself to groups, values and goods beyond the limits of immediate surroundings within his perceptual range and beyond the limits of the living present into the future.
It may also be mentioned that when an individual enters from his group to the other it takes some time to his assimilation in the other group. During this intermediate period, he feels stresses and strains. Such a situation may be given the name of grouplessness, which is created by separation from his own group while on the one hand he gets separated from his group. On the other, he does not get assimilated with the other group. He is thereby faced with a situation, which may be called de-grouped situation.
In an open society marked by vertical mobility the consequences of reference group behavior are functional but in a closed society marked by horizontal mobility, the consequences are dis-functional.
The concept of Reference Group Behavior has been criticized on the following grounds.
(1) This theory does not propound any new fact.
(2) It only explains the behavior but does not suggest any means to control it.
(3) It only explains how an individual is influenced by a reference group, but it does not explain how the reference group is influenced by his entry on the group.
However, the importance of this theory is in the fact that it tells us about group behavior of society.