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Published by: Nina Bilge on Mar 27, 2011
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Social identity is a theory formed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner to understand the
psychological basis of intergroup discrimination. It is composed of three elements:

• Categorization: We often put others (and ourselves) into categories. Labeling someone as a
Muslim, a Turk, or soccer player are ways of saying other things about these people.

• Identification: We also associate with certain groups (our ingroups), which serves to bolster our


• Comparison: We compare our groups with other groups, seeing a favorable bias toward the
group to which we belong...

As developed by Tajfel, Social Identity Theory is a diffuse but interrelated group of social
psychological theories concerned with when and why individuals identify with, and behave as
part of, social groups, adopting shared attitudes to outsiders. It is also concerned with what
difference it makes when encounters between individuals are perceived as encounters between
group members. Social Identity Theory is thus concerned both with the psychological and
sociological aspects of group behaviour.

Reacting against individualistic explanations of group behaviour (e.g. Allport) on one hand,
and tendencies to reify the group on the other, Tajfel sought an account of group identity that
held together both society and individual. Tajfel first sought to differentiate between those
elements of self-identity derived from individual personality traits and interpersonal
relationships (personal identity) and those elements derived from belonging to a particular
group (social identity). Each individual is seen to have a repertoire of identities open to them
(social and personal), each identity informing the individual of who he is and what this identity
entails. Which of these many identities is most salient for an individual at any time will vary
according to the social context. Tajfel then postulated that social behaviour exists on a
spectrum from the purely interpersonal to the purely intergroup. Where personal identity is
salient, the individual will relate to others in an interpersonal manner, dependent on their
character traits and any personal relationship existing between the individuals. However, under
certain conditions 'social identity is more salient then personal identity in self-conception and
that when this is the case behaviour is qualitatively different: it is group behaviour.'

The first element in social identity theory is categorization. We categorize objects in order to
understand them, in a very similar way we categorize people (including ourselves) in order to
understand the social environment. We use social categories like black, white, Australian,
Christian, Muslim, student, and busdriver because they are useful. If we can assign people to a
category then that tells us things about those people, and as we saw with the busdriver example
we couldn't function in a normal manner without using these categories; i.e. in the context of
the bus. Similarly, we find out things about ourselves by knowing what categories we belong
to. We define appropriate behaviour by reference to the norms of groups we belong to, but you
can only do this if you can tell who belongs to your group.


The second important idea is identification. We identify with groups that we perceive ourselves
to belong to. Identification carries two meanings. Part of who we are is made up of our group
memberships. That is, sometimes we think of ourselves as "us" vs. "them" or "we' vs. "they",
and at othertimes we think of ourselves as "I" vs. "he or she" or "me" vs. "him or her". That is
sometimes we think of ourselves as group members and at other times we think of ourselves as
unique individuals. This varies situationally, so that we can be more or less a group member,
depending upon the circumstances. What is crucial for our purposes is that thinking of
yourselves as a group member and thinking of yourself as a unique individual are both parts of
your self-concept. The first is referred to as social identity, the latter is referred to as personal

Just to reiterate, in social identity theory the group membership is not something foreign which
is tacked onto the person, it is a real, true and vital part of the person. Again, it is crucial to
remember ingroups are groups you identify with, and outgroups are ones that we don't identify

The other meaning implied by the concept of identity is the idea that we are, in some sense, the
same, or identical to the other people. This should not be misinterpreted, when we say that we
are the same, we mean that for some purposes we treat members of our groups as being similar
to ourselves in some relevant way. To take the most extreme example, in some violent conflict
such as a war, the members of the opposite group are treated as identical and completely
different to the ingroup, in that the enemy are considered to be deserving of death. This
behaviour and these beliefs are not the product of a bizarre personality disorder, but under these
circumstances violent behaviour becomes rational, accepted and even expected behaviour.

The third idea that is involved in social identity theory is one that we have already dealt with. It
is Festinger's (1954) notion of social comparison. The basic idea is that a positive self-concept
is a part of normal psychological functioning. There is pretty good evidence that to deal
effectively with the world we need to feel good about ourselves. The idea of social comparison
is that in order to evaluate ourselves we compare ourselves with similar others.

We have already discussed the idea that we can gain self-esteem by comparing ourselves with
others in our group, and also that we can see ourselves in a positive light by seeing ourselves as
a member of a prestigious group. The question is, how do groups get this prestige? Tajfel and
Turner's answer is that group members compare their group with others, in order to define their
group as positive, and therefore by implication, see themselves in a positive way. That is,
people choose to compare their groups with other groups in ways that reflect positively on

Two ideas follow from this. One is positive distinctiveness. The idea is that people are
motivated to see their own group as relatively better than similar (but inferior) groups. The
other idea is negative distinctiveness, groups tend to mimimize the differences between the
groups, so that our own group is seen favourably.

The operation of these processes is subsumed within the concept of social creativity. Groups
choose dimensions in order to maximise the positivity of their own group. For example, groups


which perceive themselves to be of high status on particular dimensions will choose those as
the basis of comparison. Groups of low status will minimise differences on those dimensions or
choose new dimensions. For example, people from some Middle Eastern Islamic countries
might regard their country as inferior to the West in terms of economic and technological
advancement but might regard their way of life as being morally superior.

p. 461 "In many respects, this has been the fate of "the group" in social psychology. With its
focus on the individual, social psychology has had a difficult time accepting the group as a true
member of the flock. Although the group has been a part of social psychology since the field's
beginning (Triplett, 1898), it has occupied a rather tenuous position. Social psychologists have
scoffed at the notion of a "group mind" (Le Bon, 1895/1960). Allport (1924) observed that
nobody ever tripped over a group, an insult questioning the very existence of the group. The
rejection of the group became so complete that Steiner (1974) entitled an article, "What ever
happened to the group in social psychology?" For a time, the group was banished to the foreign
lands of organizational psychology and sociology. "But the group could not stay a stranger for
long. It wormed its way back into the fold, but its rebirth had a unique twist. Early definitions
of the group described it as a unit consisting of several individuals who interacted with each
other and occupied "real" space (Shaw, 1981). However, the born-again group was accepted
into the domain of social psychology only as a cognitive representation, a figment of the mind.
Instead of the individual being in the group, the group was now within the individual; Hogg
and Abrams (1988) stated that "the group is thus within the individual ..." (p. 19)."

p. 462 "SIT became the springboard for new approaches to understanding stereotyping
(Haslam, Turner, Oakes, McGarry, & Hays, 1992; Ng, 1989; Spears, Oakes, Ellemers, &
Haslam, 1997), prejudice (Bagby & Rector, 1992), ethnic violence (Worchel, 1999) and other
forms of intergroup relations. The perspective was applied to a host of traditional social
psychological issues such as interpersonal perception (Park & Rothbart, 1982), minority
influence (Clark & Maass, 1988), and group productivity and social loafing (Worchel,
Rothgerber, Day, Hart, & Buttemeyer, 1998)." Every article I have read in these books has
mentioned SIT and Tajfel; was that a requirement? Has SP nothing else?

p. 463 "Social identity theory presents individual identity as a point along a continuum ranging
from personal identity on one end to social identity on the other end. One's identity at a specific
time is represented by a single point on the continuum. A multitude of variables affect whether
personal identity or social identity will be most salient, and which of the many group
memberships will be most prominent on the social identity side of the equation. The
conceptualization of social identity as being composed of group membership leads to the
hypothesis that people discriminate in order to enhance the position of their ingroups relative to
that of outgroups. The motivation behind this action is to create a positive social identity
(Tajfel, 1978), reduce threats to self-esteem (Hogg & Abrams, 1990; Long & Spears, 1997), or
reduce uncertainty (Hogg, 2000; Hogg & Abrams, 1993)."

p. 464 "Our approach gives the group a clear role outside the cognitive structure of the
individual. Although we do not deny that individuals hold mental representations of groups and
that these representations can and do exert influence, we also argue that groups are entities that
exist outside the person and exert real pressure. We suggest that group dynamics has


interpersonal and intergroup components that cannot be ignored in the study of the relationship
between individual and group. Although group activities have an impact on the identity of the
individual member, the group must be examined within a true social paradigm."

p. 467 "The disintegration of the group continues into the stage of decay. At this point,
members may defect from the group. Scapegoating takes place and leaders are often blamed for
group ills. The individual focus is accelerated, and the need for the group is questioned. "In
some cases, the decay destroys the group and it ceases to exist. However, in many other cases,
the group, albeit with a different set of members, begins the process of rebuilding. A distinct
incident or threat may ignite the rebirth, or the rebuilding may be initiated by the collective
actions of a subset of the members. Whatever the reason, the group enters again into the group
identification stage, and the cycle of group development begins anew." Why do they put
everything into either stages or cycles? Why can't things not progress and just be?

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