Reference Groups in Primary Teaching: Talking, Listening and Identity
In the tradition of symbolic interactionism, the individual knows of herself both as ‘I’ and as ‘me’. The self is a social yet reflexive product, shaped by the responses of others but capable of initiating behaviour and reflecting upon it. Mature actors are self-conscious even though, paradoxically, they know themselves through their social identities. In the formation and maintenance of this reflexive relationship a crucial part is played by ‘significant others’, that is by those who have the most intimate socializing capabality for the individual. It is through the responses of, for example, parents, siblings, and teachers to the actions of the developing ‘I’ that we come to see ourselves as others appear to see us and begin to incorporate this ‘me’ into our growing concept of ‘I’. Cooley’s ‘looking glass self is both the ‘ego’ formed through perceiving how others view the ‘alter’ and the ‘alter’ shaped by the initiated actions of the ‘ego’. A distinction is also sometimes made between the self as ‘ideal’ and as ‘real’, although in this chapter I have not explored the potential of this difference. As we grow older and our range of interaction increases the ‘significant other’ is supplemented by the ‘generalized other’, a term which Mead coined to describe an individual’s understanding of the organized roles of participants within any defined situation. It does not refer to an actual group of people but to the supposed attitudes and opinions of others which are then invoked by the self for the regulation of behaviour. These views are often mediated through the beliefs and behaviours of ‘reference groups’, that is, groups which individuals use for self-evaluation and as a source of personal goals and values. Significant others are distinguished from the generalized other and from reference groups by their crucial role in early socialization and by the fact that normally they are or have been in direct contact with the person to whom they are ‘significant’. By contrast, reference groups need not be friendship or membership groups and may indeed exist only in the individual’s imagination. Their importance lies not in their physical but in their symbolic presence and their influence is transmitted by communication rather than by face-to-face contact. Membership of such a group is thus a question of
identification, not of affiliation or allegiance. Indeed, it is possible for an individual’s actions, taken in response to the norms of her reference group, to run counter to the interests of her membership group.