The non-membership groups are called as ‘Reference groups’. The term ‘reference group’ was first introduced by H.H. Hyman. But the term ‘reference group’ was introduced into the literature on small groups by Muzafer Sheriff in his book “An outline of Social Psychology”. He used the term in contrast to the term ‘membership’. Membership groups refer to the groups to which the persons belong, while the reference group refers to a group that affects the behaviour. Man always desires to imitate other individuals or groups. When one finds other person progressing in life, he also desires to progress. He compares himself with others and begins to behave like them in order to reach their status and position.. Such behaviour after comparison with other is called ‘reference behaviour”.

According to Mujafer Sheriff, “Reference groups are those groups to which individuals relate themselves as a part to which they relate themselves psychologically.”

According to Horton and Hunt, “A reference group is any group to which one refers when making judgment on any group, whose value-judgment becomes our value judgment.”

Characteristics of Reference Group

The following are the main characteristics of ‘Reference group’.


(1) Reference groups are the conceptual groups not the actual groups, because these are non-membership groups.

(2) Relative deprivation is the kernel of reference group behaviour. For instance an Indian scientists who compares his lot with another Indian scientist settled in the United States feels deprived of many infrastructural facilities favourable to research.

(3) Anticipatory socialisation is another basic element of reference group. In order to get a membership in the reference group the individuals undergo the process of socialisation that is, take on the values and lifestyles of the group to which they would like to belong in future. Similarly the low caste Hindus irritate in an anticipation that they would be included in the high castes.

(4) Reference group need not remain the same forever. An individual may change his reference groups as he takes on different statuses in life.


(5) Reference groups are not that much significant in simple societies as they are in modern societies. In modern complex societies reference groups are abundant.

(6) In reference group behaviour one relates oneself to the other individuals or groups and tries to adopt their values and standards.