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Reference groups: A missing link in career studies

Type of publication Peer-reviewed
Publikationsform Original article (peer-reviewed)
Author Grote Gudela, Hall Douglas T.,
Project Beyond organization and self: The importance of reference groups in career transitions
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Original article (peer-reviewed)

Journal Journal of Vocational Behavior
Title of proceedings Journal of Vocational Behavior


Careers unfold within and are bound by multiple social contexts. Newer career concepts have postulated a growing need for personal agency in overcoming structural constraints, especially organizational and occupational boundaries. As a consequence, research has focused more on the individual than on contextual factors. In order to answer recent criticism of this unbalanced view we argue that the impact of reference groups needs to be better understood, both as social drivers of agentic behavior and as social constraints that, for instance, reduce the permeability of boundaries. Drawing on identity theories and social network literature we suggest a classification of reference groups in which social domains (e.g., organization, occupation, family, friends), types of groups (known people, abstract social categories), and functions (normative, comparative, supportive) are distinguished. The reference group classification is employed to discuss extant career research and to propose three directions for future research: a) Fuller consideration of different social domains beyond the employing organization for a more complete understanding of social influences in contemporary careers; b) Exploration of the possibly growing relevance of abstract social categories as referents, especially for subjective career success; c) Systematic analysis of the interaction between normative, comparative, and supportive functions of individuals' social networks. Across these themes, possible negative influences of reference groups and effects of imposed rather than chosen referents are also to be considered. Implications of the suggested research for better understanding the interaction between structure and agency in shaping careers and career identity are discussed.