Summary: Social identity theory proposes that a person’s sense of who they are depends on the groups to which they belong.
Originators and Key Contributors: Social identity theory originated from British social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner in 1979.
Keywords: identity, ingroup, outgroup, social comparison, categorization, intergroup
Social Identity Theory
Tajfel and Turner’s social identity theory explains that part of a person’s concept of self comes from the groups to which that person belongs. An individual does not just have a personal selfhood, but multiple selves and identities associated with their affiliated groups. A person might act differently in varying social contexts according to the groups they belong to, which might include a sports team they follow, their family, their country of nationality, and the neighborhood they live in, among many other possibilities.
When a person perceives themselves as part of a group, that is an ingroup for them. Other comparable groups that person does not identify with are called outgroups. We have an “us” vs. “them” mentality when it comes to our ingroups and their respective outgroups.
There are three processes that create this ingroup/outgroup mentality:
- Social Categorization. First, we categorize people in order to understand and identify them. Some examples of social categories include black, white, professor, student, Republican, and Democrat. By knowing what categories we belong to, we can understand things about ourselves, and we can define appropriate behavior according to the groups that we and others belong to. An individual can belong to several groups at the same time.
- Social Identification. We adopt the identity of the group that we belong to, and we act in ways that we perceive members of that group act. For example, if you identify as a Democrat, you will most likely behave within the norms of that group. As a consequence of your identification with that group, you will develop emotional significance to that identification, and your self-esteem will be dependent on it.
- Social Comparison. After we categorize ourselves within a group and identify ourselves as being members of that group, we tend to compare our group (the ingroup) against another group (an outgroup). To maintain your self-esteem, you and your group members will compare your group favorably against other ones. This helps explain prejudice and discrimination, since a group will tend to view members of competing groups negatively to increase self-esteem.
There are a couple things that tend to happen in the process of comparing an ingroup to an outgroup, as mentioned above. Members of an ingroup will tend to:
- favor the ingroup over the outgroup
- maximize the differences between the ingroup and the outgroup (it is necessary to maintain that the groups are distinct if a person is favoring their group over the other)
- minimize the perception of differences between ingroup members (this increases ingroup cohesion)
- remember more positive information about the ingroup and more negative information about the outgroup
The Interpersonal-Intergroup Continuum
Another main aspect of social identity theory is its explanation that social behavior falls on a continuum that ranges from interpersonal behavior to intergroup behavior. Most social situations will call for a compromise between these two ends of the spectrum. As an example, Henri Tajfel suggests that soldiers fighting an opposing army represent behavior at the extreme intergroup end of the interpersonal-intergroup spectrum.
For more information, please see:
- In Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity, Brenda J. Allen breaks down six social identity categories: gender, race, social class, sexuality, ability, and age. This book provides an in-depth and down-to-earth analysis of these social identity categories and includes guidance on how to navigate difference more humanely.
- Social Identity and Intergroup Relations is edited by, and contains contributions from, the originators of social identity theory, John Turner and Henri Tajfel.
- Turner, J. C., & Tajfel, H. (1986). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. Psychology of intergroup relations, 7-24.
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