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Organizational Reference Groups: A Missing Perspective on Social Context

Barbara S. Lawrence
Organization Science
Vol. 17, No. 1 (Jan. - Feb., 2006), pp. 80-100
Published by: INFORMS
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25146014
Page Count: 21
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Organizational Reference Groups: A Missing Perspective on Social Context
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Abstract

This paper introduces and empirically explores the concept of an organizational reference group: the set of people an individual perceives as belonging to his or her work environment that defines the social world of work in which he or she engages. The concept is proposed to fill a gap in studies of social context. Scholars tend only to infer, not identify, the people an individual is aware of at work. This surmise creates no problem in groups or small organizations where everyone knows everyone else. However, it becomes troublesome in large organizations where the set of people one individual discerns may vary considerably from that of another. Social network studies of large organizations examine people an individual perceives, but focus on interpersonal communication through salient relationships. They tend to neglect the many distant others who populate an individual's social context: those known only through company newsletters or office gossip, those with whom the individual never has contact, and those who carry little immediate salience. Data from a large organization are used to explore whether organizational reference groups provide distinct, useful information about individuals' perceptions of their social context at work. The findings replicate those showing individuals' preferences for similar others, but also note previously unobserved systematic differences in the composition of close associations compared to the broader ones of organizational reference groups. Distant associations are considerably more homogeneous than close ones. Moreover, the results show that organizational reference groups illuminate career referent selection and expected achievement beyond what would be learned from a typical social network analysis.

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