Originally developed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner to understand the psychological bases of intergroup discrimination, social identity theory seeks to explain the psychological and social bases for intergroup behavior and has more recently been used to also understand intragroup processes. Social identity theory can be used in the contexts of multicultural counseling, research, and practice to understand the processes by which individuals develop and maintain social identities and groups. The theory includes three core elements: social categorization, social identification, and social comparison. Social identity theory proposes that individuals engage in a natural process of categorizing their social world into “us” and “them.” Individuals strive for a positive self-concept and maintain and enhance their self-esteem through their memberships in social groups. Individuals derive positive valuation from their ingroup (i.e., members of the group to which they belong) through engaging in social comparison of their group with other groups. To enhance their self-concept, individuals view their social groups as unique and of higher status than other groups.
Individuals naturally categorize their social environment into those in their ingroup and those in outgroups. Tajfel and Turner suggest that this simple categorization is sufficient to trigger ingroup favoritism and out-group discrimination. That is to say, individuals need only be aware that an outgroup (i.e., those with whom they do not share group membership) exists for them to engage in intergroup competition with those whom they perceive are part of their outgroup.
Individuals engage in categorization because it helps to simplify the social environment. Therefore, individuals will categorize people according to how similar and different they are to each other. Furthermore, individuals will accentuate these perceived differences in a stereotyped fashion, viewing people as more similar to or more different from them than they actually are.
Individuals are thought to have multiple levels of identity that define who they are. On the most basic level, individuals define themselves according to individual personality traits and interpersonal relationships, and this is referred to as personal identity. Through social categorization, individuals also understand themselves as members of social groups and derive social identity from these group memberships. Specifically, social identity includes those aspects of a person’s self-concept that are based on their perceived membership in social groups (e.g., Black, Catholic, university student).
Social Comparison and Positive Distinctiveness
To have a positive self-concept and social identity, individuals engage in social comparison with other groups and view themselves as better than and different from members of other groups (i.e., with positive distinctiveness). The dimensions along which individuals of one group differentiate themselves from other groups depend on the social context. For example, race is a salient attribute with which ingroup and outgroup members are defined in the United States, whereas it may not be a relevant attribute in other countries. For social comparison to take place, outgroups must be seen as similar enough to the ingroup to make social distinctions relevant, and all groups must agree that the attribute of distinction is of importance.
It has been argued that regarding one’s ingroup with positive distinctiveness is essentially a form of intergroup competition because the goal of such a comparison is to assert the group’s superiority over an outgroup. As such, social identity theory has been widely used to understand intergroup discrimination and conflict, as well as social changes that involve an individual’s desire for mobility into a more positively regarded social group or a group’s efforts to assert positive distinctiveness.
Social Identity Theory Implications
Social identity theory aids in our understanding of intergroup social phenomena, such as stereotyping and discrimination, as well as intragroup social phenomena, such as differentiation of members within the group and within-group effects on individual attitude change.
Stereotypes and Discrimination. When social identity is salient, an individual perceives his or her group to be normative and holds attitudes and behaviors consistent with perceived group norms. Self-enhancement results in individuals viewing their group favorably while holding negative stereotypes about the outgroup. Intergroup behavior can thus be understood as the collective action of individuals of an ingroup who behave similarly and treat outgroup members similarly, viewing them as stereotypically homogeneous.
Social groups organize into status hierarchies as a result of social comparison. According to social identity theory, when individuals do not derive a positive social identity from a particular group membership, they will strive to leave this group and/or act to make their group more positively distinct.
Individuals who strive for upward social mobility try to dissociate from members of the ingroup that they perceive as lower in the status hierarchy and display preferences for members of a higher-status group. An example of this phenomenon is internalized racial oppression, involving self-hate among racial minorities and their desire to emulate mainstream
White Americans. Mobility out of a lower-status group is considered an individual rather than a group endeavor, and while possibly changing the status of an individual, such individual mobility does not change the status of the groups.
Rather than attempting to leave their existing groups, some members of lower-status groups may instead try to make their group more positively distinct. They can do this by redefining how their group is being compared with others. For example, lower-status groups may attempt to emphasize another dimension for social comparison, one that casts a more positive light on them. Lower-status groups may also change the values of attributes assigned to their group from negative to positive. For example, whereas being African American was perceived to be negative, the Black nationalism movement in the 1960s and 1970s, proclaiming that “Black is beautiful,” redefined being Black as positive. In addition, lower-status groups may select a different outgroup as a comparative frame of reference. This usually involves selecting a comparison group that is perceived to be of lower status than the group. These processes by which members of lower-status groups attempt to make their group more positively distinct are collective actions that attempt to change the status of the group as a whole.
Another way that an ingroup may assert their positive distinctiveness is by attempting to change the status position of their group along the valued dimension of comparison. For example, the civil rights movement was an attempt by minorities to change their status position in the United States through fighting for more rights. The result of social competition changes the status hierarchy as a whole. When competition occurs over scarce resources, social competition will lead to conflict between higher-status groups, who wish to retain their resources and social position, and lower-status groups.
More recently, social identity theory has been applied to better understand how individuals organize themselves within groups. When individuals define themselves with a social identity, they construct and conform to the ingroup norms. However, few groups exist where all members are entirely homogeneous. According to social identity theory, differentiation among members of an ingroup may be allowed, with the nature of such differentiation dependent on the social context in which group norms are agreed. Members of a group may agree that heterogeneous roles among members are allowed or even necessary for the group to enhance its positive distinctiveness. Individuals are allowed a level of optimal distinctiveness, or the freedom to balance the desire to be part of a group while maintaining individuality, so long as there remains a greater perceived difference between, rather than within, groups. For example, a basketball team comprises players who all identify as members of the same team, but each player contributes to help the team win games.
Attitude change is internalized by individuals through their self-categorization as group members. For example, Jim Sidanius and his colleagues have found that ethnic minority college students’ membership in ethnic organizations increases not only their sense of ethnic identity but also their perceptions of discrimination.
Social identity theory informs our broad understanding of the complex social processes through which individuals interact with others as individuals and as group members. This perspective is shaped entirely by the sociocultural context in which individuals and groups reside.
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- Sidanius, J., Van Laar, C., Levin, S., & Sinclair, S. (2004). Ethnic enclaves and the dynamics of social identity on college campuses: The good, the bad, and the ugly. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 96-110.
- Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. (1986). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In S. Worchel & W. G. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of intergroup relations (2nd ed., pp. 7-24). Chicago: Nelson-Hall.