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How Does the Social Group Shape the ‘frame of Reference’ Through Which Individuals Understand the World?

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3. How does the social group shape the ‘frame of reference’ through which individuals understand the world?


Word count: 1917

Understanding of the world by individuals derives from their thoughts and actions, and is retained as real by these (Berger and Luckmann 1966:33). This reality comes into sight already established by socially constructed objects, which shape individuals’ ‘frame of reference’ from their childhood. Therefore, various social groups begin to influence individuals’ complex set of assumptions, beliefs, values and preferences from the start of their lives and continue doing so as individuals interact within those groups. This essay will introduce the concept of habitualisation, institutionalisation and the theory of framing to facilitate the argument about three social situations, which can change an individual’s opinion within a group. It will first consider some crucial ‘autokinetic’ experiments conducted by Asch (1956) and Sherif (1937) and some real world studies demonstrating that diverse group pressures may provoke humans tendency to conform and subsequently alter individual’s ‘frame of reference’. It will then go on to describe collective Bennington study (Bidwell et al. 1968) and Goffman’s work (1961) displaying how social isolation can contribute to forming an individual’s ‘frame of reference’. The third part refers to the study by Posner (2004) about the political salience of cultural difference between Chewas and Tumbukas to demonstrate how intergroup competition for scarce resources can affect people’s beliefs and attitudes.

To begin an argument we need to consider the theory of framing by Lindenberg (1993) in integration with Kahneman and Tversky’s prospect theory (1979), which illustrate how an interpretation of an action situation can influence the selection of beliefs, attention to particular situational aspects, etc. They explain that our goals actively influence the focus of our attention, describing a goal as a desired state of affairs by an individual. Therefore, a goal would ‘frame’ an action situation by mobilizing appropriate pieces of knowledge, beliefs and would induce an individual to pay undeviating attention to certain aspects. Kahneman and Tversky (1984:349) added that the ‘frame of reference’: “is largely determined by the objective status quo, but it is also affected by expectations and social comparisons.” It is important to note that the ‘objective status quo’ doesn’t particularly mean the best state of affairs as people are infamously poor processors of information and are subject to various cognitive biases, which influence their decision-making. Kahneman and Tversky (1984) also noted that people jump to conclusions based on limited information presented to them. Keeping all this in mind will aid my explanation of how social groups can affect an individual’s ‘frame of reference’.

“All human activity is subject to habitualisation” (Berger and Luckmann 1966:70). Even an unsocial individual that lives on his own would habitualise his activity, whether it can be obtaining food or making a fire. This is of course also evident in any social activity where choices for every action are narrowed down and meanings become ingrained as routines thereby shaping an individual’s ‘frame of reference’. Processes of habitualisation come before any institutionalisation and as stated by Berger and Luckmann (1966:73), institutionalisation is incipient in all social activities. Institutions govern human behaviour by constructing predefined ‘frames of reference’, which depend on social location. It is important to note that the dominant source of social control is obtained from the existence of an institution alone. As we know, agglomerations of institutions are called societies and therefore the majority of the individuals that are born within them have their “frame of references” shaped by those societies, through family, school, religion, media and etc. This is the general idea of how individual’s beliefs and attitudes are shaped by social groups and further I will discuss social conditions and settings that make individuals to have their ‘frames of reference’ shaped by social groups.

Even after individuals’ beliefs and attitudes have been shaped as a process of institutionalisation, they are still constantly under pressure of various social groups within which they interact. These group pressures alongside with individuals’ cognitive biases induce them to conform and subsequently alter their ‘frames of reference’. Sherif (1937) in his ‘autokinetic’ experiments demonstrated that subjects’ estimates began to converge as they performed the same task in groups. Hence, individuals altered their ’frames of references’ to fit the norms of the group. Sherif (1937) concluded that essentially people tend to conform because our most fundamental attitudes and understandings about the world are socially governed and conditioned. Although this is a legitimate argument, it isn’t sufficient enough to conclude that people simply conform due to reality being socially constructed. Solomon Asch (1956) by carrying out similar experiments and post-experimental interviews insisted that in the face of social influence the subjects had conformed regardless of their personal opinion. After considering these studies I’ve have found out that individuals might conform due to informational social influence in the case where they convinced themselves that their perceptions must be somehow wrong. Furthermore, the level of conformity was sensitive to the size of the group and the number of allies with the same opinion (Asch 1956). Normative social influence was also persistent in these experiments and individuals conformed because they didn’t want to be lone dissenters. Ross, Nisbett and Gladwell (2011) noted that substantial conformity was shows in Asch’s experiments considering the ease of the task and the relative lack of group power. Taking this into the account we can expect even higher levels of conformity in everyday life. For example, people were afraid to resist bizarre social and political orthodoxy of McCarthyism in the US or rapid rise of Nazism in Germany. Pressures to uniformity imposed by the assurance of social recognition and danger of exclusion forced people to follow the majority and adapt their beliefs and attitudes to opinion of the masses.

The second social situation that enables groups to shape individual’s ‘frame of reference’ is social isolation, defined as a state in which individuals have very little or no communication with the wider society. I will consider a classic set of Bennington studies (Bidwell et al. 1968), which investigates reasons for a drastic shift in political and social attitudes of young women entering the college with primarily conservative Republican views and graduating with predominantly liberal attitudes. As described in the studies, it’s clear that women’s ‘frame of reference’ changed due to their pressures to conformity, but these pressures were achieved in particular due to Bennington being a close-knit community, which was isolated in substantial regards from the surrounding community. However, Newcomb (Bidwell et al. 1968) observed that there was a minority whose attitudes remained to be Republican mainly because they continued to be tied to their families and the social isolation wasn’t substantial enough to alter their ‘frames of reference’ significantly. Hence, Bennington classmates and professors didn’t become a primary reference group for that minority and therefore they weren’t seeking social acceptance of the majority. It is interesting to note that as it was discovered in the two follow up studies 25 (Bidwell et al. 1968) and 50 (Glenn et al. 1993) years later, the majority of women remained liberal with 73% of Bennington graduates choosing the Democratic candidate over the Republican one. This indicates that the embedded norms persisted. As we can see, social isolation enables a group to become a primary reference group for individuals, which puts conformity pressures on individuals and empowers that group to shape people’s ‘frames of reference’. Total institutions use social isolation to shape individuals’ attitudes and beliefs. Mental hospitals considered in Goffman’s work (1961) employ this particular activity in orientating their patients’ ‘frames of reference’. Their aim is to invade every aspect of a patient’s activity and build a new self, subsequently removing memories rooted in his/her earliest years. Goffman (1961) notes that: “the self arises not merely out of its possessor’s interactions with significant others, but also out of the arrangements that are evolved in the organisation of its members.” Therefore, social isolation allows controlling and arranging every activity of individuals: eating, sleeping, habits and etc. Controlling these activities fosters to orientate individuals’ ‘frames of reference’.



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