Reference Group Theory and Conventional Role Concept

An analysis of the life and experience of women in the Victorian age makes it clear that the role of women in the society was very much affected by various factors. It is particular characteristic feature of the age that the women of the upper class were held to high standards and they did not enjoy freedom, self determination, and other such important social features. In short, although the women in the Victorian age lived in prosperity, wealth, and luxuries, the general nature of the women were very sympathetic and difficult. It is possible to comprehend the power inequality between males and females in the Victorian age with the assistance of conventional role concept theory and the reference group theory. In this paper some of the essential questions that deal with this factor are discussed.

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Before we take up the questions, let us be clear that the reference group theory argues that the selection of reference groups is possible. “The basic premise of Reference Group Theory is that much of human behaviour is influenced, and ultimately determined by reference groups. Additionally, particular feelings and attitudes may also develop from reference group influences. At it’s core, the theory is based on the principle that people take the standards of others they deem “significant” as a basis for making self-appraisals, comparisons, and, ultimately, choices.” (Executive Summary, ‘Each to each a looking-glass reflects the other that doth pass’).

It is also important to consider the conventional role concept theory as a theoretical framework for the understanding of the Victorian woman and her role in the social system that existed there. According to the conventional role concept, individuals orient their behaviour to the norms imposed on their roles, and they orient themselves only to one role (i.e. their gender role and being a mother or daughter) instead of several roles (mother, artist, poetry writer). Both these theories are very much contributing to an analysis of how individuals are reduced to their respective role such as ‘gender role’ or servant, how they use other comparative reference groups (e.g. domestic employees) to enhance their self-esteem.

How do the reference group theory or/and the conventional role concept explain female submission?

As we understand, there are two types of group according to the reference group theory and they are normative groups which have the power to impose sanctions on an individual and comparative reference groups which an individual uses as a point of reference when he or she evaluates himself/herself or others. In the Victorian age, the upper class women were controlled by the families which had the power to impose sanctions on women and therefore, the Victorian families can be identified as the normative group in the reference group theory. “For the most part, nineteenth century families were large and patriarchal.” (Overview of the Victorian Era, Article, by Anne Shepherd).

And this patriarchal nature of the Victorian families tells the reference group of women and men in the age. “The gender history of nineteenth-century Britain can be read in two ways: as an overarching patriarchal model which reserved power and privilege for men; or as a process of determined but gradual female challenge to their exclusion… In terms of gender ideology, the accession of Victoria was something of a paradox. Traditionally, women were defined physically and intellectually as the ‘weaker’ sex, in all ways subordinate to male authority. In private life women were subject to fathers, husbands, brothers even adult sons. Publicly, men dominated all decision-making in political, legal and economic affairs.” (Votes for Women and Chastity for Men: Gender, Health, Medicine and Sexuality in Victorian England).Therefore, it is evident that women were asked firmly by the authority of the familial and social system for complete submission.

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We may also conclude that in the Victorian age, comparative reference groups were present and the women in the age used men or domestic employees as a point of reference when they evaluated themselves or other sex groups.

“In many different ways women were regarded as second class, even though Queen Victoria had been on the throne for fourteen years… No women could vote, and this would not change until 1918… At work, women had few opportunities. Work in textile factories was one of the few that women had, the other main one was domestic service… Women’s legal rights were also restricted. In 1851 a woman could not even be the legal guardian of her own children and could not retain her own property after marriage… Middle class women usually did not work. Their role in the family was to supervise the household and support their husbands. The great majority of women seem to have accepted this role.” (Were Men and Women Equal in Victorian Britain?). All of these made women consider men as their reference group. The attitude of the men towards women was instrumental in developing a different attitude of the women toward their own position ion the society. It is considerable that “the attitude of men toward women in the Victorian age was highlighted by Tennyson who wrote of women staying by the hearth with their needles whilst men wielded their swords.” (Woman’s Place is in The Home). This low estimation of the role of women in the social functioning also caused women forget their importance and look for comparative reference group among the male counterparts.

How do these (or one of these) theories explain that domestic workers in Victorian households were not used as a comparative reference group?

We have identified that the probable reference groups of the Victorian age could be the men and the domestic workers of the time. However, it is clear from an analysis of the Victorian society that the domestic workers were not used as a comparative reference group. It is mainly because the position of the workers was not highly comparable and because the high class females did not keep a essential contact with the domestic workers. The domestic workers did not form a respective group and there was the superior power of the males in the family over the self determination power of women in the Victorian age. The material possession of a domestic worker did not allocate for a descent position in the social category. “Being a servant was not a high paying job, but all servants materially helpful to visitors expected tips or ‘vails’ as they were called when a guest left. This was one of the only times that a servant could make decent money. A servant’s pay just from vails could amount to ten shillings a day, while on regular pay, they would only earn a few pounds a year.” (English Victorian Society, by Kelsey Freeman). This also affected the chances of domestic workers turn to be points of reference.

The construct of family was always unshakable in the social system and the women lived accordingly. “From childhood – which was short-lived and never clearly demarcated from adult lives – girls learned the habit of obedience, seldom criticised their parents, and submitted their wishes to family need. Families had to abide by one another to survive. Waged work brought little pleasure, and only a glimpse of independence; sexual knowledge was dangerous and a source of shame; marriage the universal expectation.” (Professor Sally Alexander, Book Review, A Woman’s Place, an Oral History of Working Class Women, 1890-1940). Therefore, there was limited opportunity for the women to identify the reference group among the domestic workers who also did not possess great social status.

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How do these (or one of these) theories explain that men became a comparative reference group only to some extent?

We have realized that men in the Victorian era were used as comparative reference group. However, it is not factual to generalize the statement to the general nature of things, for men became comparative reference group only to a certain extent. In other words, men turned to be a point of reference only in certain areas and there were several other areas in the Victorian life where they could not act as reference points. One of the most obvious reasons for this factor is that women considered men not as comparative beings but as superior class and the patriarchal society contributed to this position. Thus, it is clear why women did not consider men as points of comparative reference. In short, when women in the Victorian age evaluated their position as against the position of the patriarchal power, men formed comparative reference group and when they were treated as superior sect, there was no scope for men being comparative reference group.

Is there literature available which criticises the reference group theory or the conventional role concept theory?

The scope of a complex era as the Victorian age is obviously more than the limited sphere of any particular theoretical framework or specified perspectives. On the one hand, the power relations that existed in the age may be addressed using the reference group theory or the conventional role concept theory. However, on the other hand, it is pertinent to understand the age as much more complex and vast and the theoretical framework finds wanting in addressing several issues such as the women’s reformation, the new spirit and the changing concepts etc. “For much of this century the term Victorian… conveyed connotations of “prudish,” “repressed,” and “old fashioned.” Although such associations have some basis in fact, they do not adequately indicate the nature of this complex, paradoxical age that saw great expansion of wealth, power, and culture.” (Victorian England: An Introduction).

Is there feminist literature addressing these theories?

Feminism includes various concerns and aspects under its head and any theory that is related with the understanding of women’s position and status are covered by it. “Feminism is grounded on the belief that women are oppressed or disadvantaged by comparison with men, and that their oppression is in some way illegitimate or unjustified. Under the umbrella of this general characterization there are, however, many interpretations of women and their oppression, so that it is a mistake to think of feminism as a single philosophical doctrine, or as implying an agreed political program. (James, Susan. 2000. “Feminism in Philosophy of Mind: The Question of Personal Identity.” In The Cambridge Companion to Feminism in Philosophy, ed., Miranda Fricker and Jennifer Hornsby. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p 576) There is ample space for feminism in addressing the reference group theory or the conventional role concept theory. As these theories dealt with the power relations, there is greater possibility that feminism takes up the arguments raised by them. The reference group theory addressed the selection of reference groups but failed to incorporate the gradual development of the feminist consciousness in the Victorian women and there is no evidence of the inclusion of women’s role in these theories.

“The extreme inequities between men and women stimulated a debate about women’s roles known as “The Woman Question.” Women were denied the right to vote or hold political office throughout the period, but gradually won significant rights such as custody of minor children and the ownership of property in marriage. By the end of Victoria’s reign, women could take degrees at twelve universities. Hundreds of thousands of working-class women laboured at factory jobs under appalling conditions, and many were driven into prostitution. While John Stuart Mill argued that the “nature of women” was an artificial thing, most male authors preferred to claim that women had a special nature fitting them for domestic duties. (Summary, The Victorian Age: Review).

In the Victorian age, the position of women was much low and even the women of the upper class was not easy. “Though the life of an upper class woman might seem easier and more secure than that of a lower class woman, it was not always so. Land, titles, and money were inherited by the closest male relative–typically the older son, but if there was no older son then it would go to a more distant relation. Only the small amount of money set aside as a woman’s marriage dowry went to an unmarried woman after the death of her father. As a result, many mothers and daughters were left extremely poor after the death of their husband and father.” (Women of Victorian England).

Now to tell about the area of feminist theory, it deals mainly with all areas that concern the female suppression by the males and two of the two focal groups of feminism is also the two different kinds of groups used reference group theory. “In many of its forms, feminism seems to involve at least two groups of claims, one normative and the other descriptive. The normative claims concern how women ought (or ought not) to be viewed and treated and draw on a background conception of justice or broad moral position; the descriptive claims concern how women are, as a matter of fact, viewed and treated, alleging that they are not being treated in accordance with the standards of justice or morality invoked in the normative claims. Together the normative and descriptive claims provide reasons for working to change the way things are; hence, feminism is not just an intellectual but also a political movement.” (Normative and Descriptive Components, Topics in Feminism).

Bibliography

Executive Summary, ‘Each to each a looking-glass reflects the other that doth pass’. Web.

Overview of the Victorian Era, Article, by Anne Shepherd. Web.

Votes for Women and Chastity for Men: Gender, Health, Medicine and Sexuality in Victorian England. Web.

Were Men and Women Equal in Victorian Britain? Web.

Woman’s Place is in The Home. Web.

English Victorian Society, by Kelsey Freeman. Web.

Professor Sally Alexander, Book Review, A Woman’s Place, an Oral History of Working Class Women, 1890-1940. Web.

Victorian England: An Introduction. Web.

James, Susan. 2000. “Feminism in Philosophy of Mind: The Question of Personal Identity.” In The Cambridge Companion to Feminism in Philosophy, ed., Miranda Fricker and Jennifer Hornsby. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p 576.

Summary, The Victorian Age: Review. Web.

Women of Victorian England. Web.

Normative and Descriptive Components, Topics in Feminism. Web.

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