The Role of Hispanic Ethnic Identification on Reference Group Influence

Cynthia Webster, Mississippi State University
James B. Faircloth III, Mississippi State University
ABSTRACT - This paper seeks to discover if Hispanic consumers' perceptions of reference group influence vary according to the extent of ethnic identification. Significant differences in perceptions are found for each of the three dimensions and for most of the items comprising reference group influence. For instance, there is a significant positive relationship between ethnic identification and the likelihood of being affected by both utilitarian and value-expressive reference group influence. The majority of these differences remain after possible social class effects are removed.
[ to cite ]:
Cynthia Webster and James B. Faircloth III (1994) ,"The Role of Hispanic Ethnic Identification on Reference Group Influence", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 458-463.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 458-463


Cynthia Webster, Mississippi State University

James B. Faircloth III, Mississippi State University


This paper seeks to discover if Hispanic consumers' perceptions of reference group influence vary according to the extent of ethnic identification. Significant differences in perceptions are found for each of the three dimensions and for most of the items comprising reference group influence. For instance, there is a significant positive relationship between ethnic identification and the likelihood of being affected by both utilitarian and value-expressive reference group influence. The majority of these differences remain after possible social class effects are removed.


The Hispanic community has rapidly come to represent one of the most important consumer markets in the United States. ["Hispanic" will be used in this paper to represent persons from Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. Although Hispanics from these regions are diverse in many ways, they exhibit many similarites. These similarities include shared frustrations, aspirations, attitudes, traditions, and beliefs (Loza 1988). Mexican-Americans, the population for this study, is considered highly representative of Hispanics in general. Approximately 60 percent of all U.S. Hispanics are Mexican-Americans (Engel et al. 1990).] The population of this market is projected to grow by 40 percent during the 1990s to 29.7 million. Current projections indicate that by 2010 this segment could approximate the size of the African-American population (Exter 1991). Business Week (1992) estimates by the year 2050 Hispanics will constitute fully 21 percent of the populace and comprise the largest American minority group. The dramatic population growth has enhanced the economic clout of Hispanics, who had disposable income of $200 billion in 1992, representing growth of 138 percent since 1980 (Business Week 1992). Few would argue these are not significant numbers to marketers.

The primary concern of marketers will be to better understand the nature of this market and how best to meet the needs of the burgeoning population. It is herein suggested that the key to thriving in the Hispanic market is to understand the nature of their ethnic identification and how it affects consumer behavior. It is further proposed that the Hispanic ethnic community, far from being a mere membership group, is the key reference group for many, particularly those demonstrating strong ethnic identity. If this is the case, understanding how strength of ethnic identification is influenced by the Hispanic community as a reference group for consumer behavior should aid marketers. Thus, the purpose of the current research is to examine the relationship between strength of Hispanic ethnic identification and susceptibility to empirically determined forms of Hispanic reference group influence while controlling for the effect of social class.


Ensuing is a brief discussion of the theoretical support for this study. The conceptual literature review begins with a discussion of ethnic identity, is followed by an overview of antecedent works on reference group influence, and finally, concludes with supporting research tying the two topics together.

Ethnic Identification

When groups of individuals of different cultures come into direct or indirect continuous contact and new common attitudes, norms, values, social and work activities, thinking patterns, and self-identification arise from the old culture, acculturation is said to have occurred (Andreasen 1990; Berry 1980; Gordon 1964; Marin et al. 1989; Padilla 1980; Penaloza 1989). Ethnic identity-a related concept-is present when an ethnic group considers itself, part of, but different from the larger population. This focus on ethnic identity, also called ethnicity, was the subject of Max Weber's (1961) classic work on such dimensions of the construct as: a sense of common custom, language, religion, values, morality, and etiquette. A plethora of ethnic identity measurements have been tried: language use (e.g. Kim, Laroche, and Joy 1990; Massey and Mullan 1984); country of origin (Gurak and Fitzgerald 1982); spouse's ethnic identity and social interaction (e.g., Driedger 1975); religion (e.g., Hirschman 1981); parent's ethnic identity (e.g., O'Guinn and Faber 1985); paternal ancestry (Alba and Moore 1982); and subjective measures of self-identification (Hirschman 1981). These ethnic identity suppositions will be shown to be critical elements of the following reference group construct.

Reference Group Influence and Concept Integration

Reference group influence, first noted by Hyman in 1942 (Witt 1970)and the subject of many definitions through the years, is customarily seen to embrace the use of groups as an anchoring point or frame of reference for individuals facing decisions (Mowen 1993; Shibutani 1955; Witt 1970). Representative of these various definitions is one proposed by Merton suggesting, reference groups are, "groups which the individual takes as a frame of reference for self-evaluation and attitude formation" (Witt 1970). It has been suggested that group (reference) influence has seven determinants (Witt 1970): dimensions of reference behavior, bases of social power, susceptibility of individuals to group influence, reference group relevance to a particular decision, group cohesiveness, attraction of individual to group, and status of group. This study will be principally concerned with the determinants of susceptibility to group influence and cohesiveness.

Many past reference group researchers have focused on the various classifications of reference groups (Bourne 1956; Mellott 1983; Newcomb 1943). Other research has concentrated on the type of reference group influence (Deutsch and Gerard 1955; French and Raven; Kelly 1952; Park and Lessig 1977). These trailblazing works allow current studies to proceed to more intensive application of consumer behavior theory in actual market segments.

In a study of cross-cultural and intergenerational influences on purchasing of public/private and luxury/necessity goods, Childers and Rao (1992) found that distinctions exist in different cultures regarding consumer behavior and reference group use. This same research proposed the reference group construct as a more reliable predictor of group influence than group membership. Another study developed a scale to determine the susceptibility of individuals to conform to others' expectations for purchasing decisions (Bearden, Netemeyer, Teel 1989).

Wicklund and Duval (1971) demonstrated that reference groups help individuals establish a self-identity. Other articles have examined the effect of group cohesiveness on reference group influence. Shaw (1971) studied how communications and individual interactions affect group cohesiveness and found, the greater the group cohesiveness, the more influential reference groups are in a consumer's behavior. According to Stafford (1966), the most cohesive groups are attractive to their members and reference group cohesiveness influences an individual's brand preference. Shibutani (1955) writes that conformity to group norms "...depends upon one's relationship and personal loyalty to others who share that outlook".

Expanding upon his theory of group conformity, Shibutani (1955) elaborated on a concept of "social worlds" that identifies an interesting relationship with reference group influence. He suggests modern societies develop communication channels that serve needs of particular portions of a community. These channels tend to insulate segments of the population from the general population, resulting in greater identification and solidarity within the effected groups. He indicates the underworld, ethnic minorities, and social elites are representative of the groups inclined to evolve these communication channels and develop higher group identity.

Past research has demonstrated differences between Hispanics who strongly identify with their ethnic reference group and those who do not. Strong identifiers have more children, greater family stability, stronger father roles, and more extended kinship systems (Sturdivant 1973). Despande et al. (1986) concluded that intensity of ethnic affiliation, not ethnic membership, is the superior predictor of consumer behavior, and established that strong Hispanic identifiers are more likely to purchase nationally advertised brands, have greater brand loyalty, purchase prestige products, and more inclined to buy products advertised to Hispanics than weak identifiers. Webster (1992) has shown that the intensity of Hispanic ethnic identity influences the level of purchasing information search and indicates a tendency to seek product information from family members and coworkers. Research to date has not established the role strength of ethnic identity plays in reference group influence, the focus of this empirical research.


Research evidence on reference groups purports: (1) they are better predictors of consumer behavior than group membership; (2) the more cohesive a reference group is the more influence it exerts on individuals; (3) consumer related differences exist between strong and weak Hispanic identifiers; and (4) consistent use of the Spanish language to communicate tends to create a Hispanic '

social world'. Therefore, a legitimate case can be made for the efficacy of examining the effect of ethnic identity on the various forms of reference group influence. Reference group influence will be evaluated using a construct developed by Park and Lessig (1977) that considers: (1)Informational influences-perception that the reference group has knowledge of a purchasing decision; (2) Value-expressive influences-how much the reference group enhances an individual's self-concept; and (3) Utilitarian influences-how much an individual is expected to comply with expectations of a reference group.

Thus, the primary purpose of this empirical study is to increase our understanding of both the Hispanic market and reference group influence by testing hypotheses concerning whether or not differences in reference group influence are due to Hispanic ethnic identification or whether they are possibly due to social class effects.


The preceding discussion on Hispanic consumer behavior and reference group influence leads to the following hypotheses:

H1: The strength of Hispanic ethnic identity has a significant effect on reference group influence.

H2: The strength of Hispanic ethnic identity has a significant effect on reference group influence while controlling for the effects of social class.

H3: The strength of Hispanic ethnic identity has a significant effect on the degree of reliance on informational influence.

H4: The strength of Hispanic ethnic identity has a significant effect on the degree of reliance on utilitarian influence.

H5: The strength of Hispanic ethnic identity has a significant effect on the degree of reliance on value-expressive influence.


The sample consists of Hispanic adult consumers chosen from the San Antonio metropolitan area. This bilingual city is the nation's ninth largest and is comprised of 53.9% Hispanic and 37.9% Anglo ethnic origin (Strategy Research 1991). Sample members were chosen from ten of the metropolitan area's 99 zip code areas; seven of which were selected at random. The remaining three were selected by judgment after examining detailed census statistics to yield a representative set of areas by varying both proportions of Spanish- and English-speaking residents and median family income levels.

Carefully-instructed interviewers delivered the questionnaires to a representative sample of households in their zones, using detailed street maps. At most six questionnaires were delivered to any one block, and an attempt was made to cover most of each geographical zone. The sampling process was completed in two weeks, including afternoons, evenings, and weekend days. Each interviewer carried both Spanish and English language versions of the questionnaire. Most interviewers were bilingual, and those most fluent in Spanish were assigned to predominantly Spanish zones. After explaining the purpose of the study, agreement of one adult member of the household was secured. To help determine the level of thought given to responding to the scale items, the interviewer stayed with the respondent during questionnaire completion. Eleven questionnaires were later omitted due to obvious respondent carelessness while addressing the items. The response rate, 74%, did not significantly vary among the groups by city area. The final sample was composed of 167 usable questionnaires.

Respondents' level of reference group influence was measured by using Park and Lessig's (1977) scale of the construct. This scale has fourteen items to measure the informational, utilitarian, and value-expressive dimensions of reference group influence. Each scale item was followed by a seven-point scale with the endpoints anchored with "Strongly Agree" and "Strongly Disagree." Demographic information such as age, education, and occupation was collected for husband and wife, as well as combined family income and number of children. The occupation and education information was collected in a manner that facilitated the calculation of Hollingshead's Two-Factor Index of Social Position (Hollingshead and Redlich (1958). As language spoken at home has long been associated with ethnic identification (McArthur 1984), it is used in the current study. Though the association between ethnic identity and language spoken at home is not perfect, it has been used in many studies(see, for example, Massey and Mullan 1984 and Hazuda et al. 1988), and is considered a generally reliable indicator of ethnic identification (Keefe and Padilla 1987; Olmedo and Padilla 1978; Ortiz and Arce 1984; Padilla 1980; Samora and Deane 1956; Tharp et al. 1968). In fact, Marin et al. (1989) identifies language as "the strongest aspect of this complex phenomenon that has been empirically tested." The final sample of 167 respondents is comprised of 53 (31.7%) Hispanics who speak English mainly at home (low-Hispanic identifiers), 68 (40.7%) Hispanics who speak English and Spanish equally at home (bilinguals), and 46 (27.5%) Hispanics who speak Spanish mainly at home (high-Hispanic identifiers).

Hierarchical M/ANOVAs were used to test the hypotheses. This hierarchical approach is appropriate when two factors (e.g., ethnic identification and social class) are correlated and where unequal cell sizes exist. It does not assume linear relationships between ethnic identification and social class, as would ANOVA. This approach also allows for the testing of the effect of ethnic identification alone before controlling the effects of social class, as well as after controlling for this factor. By using the test-retest approach with a 14-day interval, the questionnaire was considered to be reliable (r = .92). The Pearson's product moment correlation here indicates a high correlation or consistency between the first and second administrations of the instrument.


The data in the Table reveal the group means for the three Hispanic groups based on ethnic identification and F tests for the items comprising the three types of reference group influence. The first column of F values (FE) presents the F values for a single factor design testing for the effects of ethnic identification alone. The second column of F values (FE/SC)presents the conditional F values on the effect of ethnic identification after controlling for possible social class effects.

An examination of both the univariate and multivariate results in the Table indicate that ethnic identification has a significant effect on each of the three types of reference group influence, thus supporting H1. Significant multivariate tests were discovered for the conditional tests after controlling for possible social class effects, which is consistent with H2. These findings imply that differences exist with respect to the likelihood of reference group influence which are not attributable to social class.

Informational influence. The F values and cell means in the Table reveal that the high-Hispanic identifiers, as compared with the Hispanics in the other two groups, appear more likely to seek brand-related information from others (friends, neighbors, etc.) who have reliable information and to perceive that observation of experts' behavior influences their brand choice. On the other hand, this same group of Hispanics appear significantly less likely to seek information from those who work with the product as a profession. Hispanic ethnic identification does not have a significant effect on two of the informational influence items. All of these findings give mixed support for H3.

Since the pattern of findings for utilitarian and value-expressive influence is similar, the findings for these two types of influence will be presented as a unit.

Utilitarian and value-expressive influence. The F values in the Table indicate that ethnic identification has a significant effect on each one the four items comprising utilitarian influence and on four of the five items comprising value-expressive influence. As previously stated, each one of these values remains significant even after possible social class effects are removed. For each of these eight items, the high-Hispanic identifiers, as compared to the Hispanics in the two other groups, would seem to be impacted more by these two types of reference group influence. Thus, H4 and H5 both receive overwhelming support.

The cell means in the Table indicate that Hispanics, in general, do not perceive themselves to be heavily impacted by informational influence (most Xs < 4.00). The one exception to this generalization is the seeking of information from close others. On the other hand, the utilitarian and value-expressive cell means indicate that Hispanics perceive themselves to be heavily impacted by these two types of reference group influence (all Xs > 4.00).

The bilingual couples, or those with a moderate degree of ethnic identification, tend to have reference group influence patterns between the other two Hispanic groups. In each one of the univariate cases where ethnic identification was found to have a significant effect on reference group influence, bilinguals fall between the two other groups. This supports the traditional model of assimilation (Gordon 1964) and the linear, bi-polar model of ethnic identification. In other words, there appears to be a linear pattern of change as the consumer moves away from the behavioral patterns of the Hispanic culture and moves toward the behavioral patterns of the U.S. culture.


This study examined the impact of Hispanic ethnic identification on Park and Lessig's (1977) three types of reference group influence after controlling for social class effects. In all but one case the group means for strong ethnic identifiers was found to be higher than the other two groups. In general, mixed support was received for the effect of ethnic identification on informational influence. Strong ethnic identifiers emerged more likely to seek advice or help from personal acquaintances or from disinterested experts (i.e. unbiased), but only equally likely to rely on experts who work directly in the product area.

High ethnic identifiers seem significantly more likely to be subject to utilitarian or value-expressive influence than bilinguals or low identifiers. Particularly important is the tendency of high identifiers to be influenced by close acquaintenances and/or family members' expectations for the appropriate brand selection. Recognition of this influence should assist in the development of Hispanic marketing strategies.

Support was also forthcoming for value-expressive influence for high identifiers. All but one of the items was found greater for this group. These results suggest high Hispanic identifiers place greater emphasis on the personal statement made by product consumption than the other two Hispanic groups. Status brands are seen as important symbols of personal expression for high identifiers.

Finally, evidence suggests that Hispanics who are not high ethnic identifiers are more likely to be assimilated into prevailing U.S. cultural and behavioral patterns. Clearly this suggests that marketers would be ill advised to treat Hispanics as a homogeneous market.




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