Group Identity Definition
Group identity refers to a person’s sense of belonging to a particular group. At its core, the concept describes social influence within a group. This influence may be based on some social category or on interpersonal interaction among group members. On one hand, if we consider the case of athletic teams, a student at a university that participates in popular forms of competition such as football or basketball may identity with his or her team during contests with rival schools (“We really rocked in the Banana Bowl Classic. We took on all comers and whipped them!”). Classic rivalries such as Michigan versus Ohio State in football or Duke versus North Carolina in basketball are excellent examples of instances that produce strong identification based on a social category.
On the other hand, students can identify with a group created to conduct experiments in an animal learning laboratory course. By working together closely, students may come to identify with their lab group (“We finally finished our lab report and I bet it ranks among the best in the class!”). Although group identification is not always based on competition, identification is based on social comparison. These examples serve as clear illustrations of the “us versus them” experience that sometimes accompanies the identification process in intergroup situations.
Group Identity Research History
Historically, social psychologists have studied social influence processes relative to whether individual or group outcomes are maximized. Dorwin Cartwright and Alvin Zander suggested that relations among individuals in a group make them interdependent on one another. Harold Kelley and John Thibaut found that relations among members of a group were more often than not a function of the basis and outcome of interpersonal exchanges. In this light, social comparison, norms of exchange, and communication can forge common bonds among group members. Friendship groups are one example of how social influence processes produce identification.
In contrast to this dynamic view, John Turner offered that self-categorization theory provided a powerful explanation of when and why members identify with groups. From this perspective, people join groups that represent unique and sometimes powerful social categories. Members are attracted to and influenced by the behaviors of such groups. Consider, for example, the political situation of Israel and the Palestinians. Being Jewish or Arabic in this part of the world comes with a set of cultural, religious, and attitudinal expectations that create consistency within each group and diversity between the two. A second example is the distinction between being a member of the Republican versus the Democratic political party.
Generally, both social influence and social categories serve to create group identity. A U.S. citizen of Mexican descent may or may not support citizenship for illegal Mexican immigrants. Discussions whereby attitudes and the consequences for immigration are revealed could serve to clarify the identity process and lead to a definitive position on the issue. Thus, some combination of both research traditions probably account for group identification depending on the circumstances.
Context and Consequences of Group Identity
Jennifer Crocker and others have demonstrated that group identity is part of how people feel about themselves. Group identity permits one to be connected to a broader slice of society. These connections may produce feelings ranging from pride to prejudice. In wars between ethnic or religious groups, individuals are prepared to die for the sake of their group identity. These powerful emotional reactions have prompted some groups to attempt to manage group identity. An unfortunate example is the use of suicide bombers by terrorist organizations.
In situations involving intergroup competition, members may distance themselves from a group when it is performing less well than others. Alternatively, when a group receives threats from factions external to the group, members may react by increasing identification to protect the value of the group. Henri Tajfel and Turner have reported that members manage threats to a group’s value by changing some aspect of how a group is compared to other groups. Michael Hogg suggests that the specific strategies a group uses are a function of how a group is organized (e.g., boundaries, composition, authority). A growing body of research indicates that social context is an important factor in the process of group identification.
Penelope Oakes contends that perceptions of similarity to other people in a given social context provide a basis for construing oneself as being part of a group. Caroline Bartel describes the nature of people’s conversations soon after the attacks of September 11, 2001. In her view, people focused on exchanging information, speculating on who was responsible and discussing how the city would handle this crisis. In this setting, the social identity of “New Yorker” became a salient and context-appropriate group to which people felt an increasing sense of belongingness in the days after the World Trade Center attacks.
Focusing on a particular type of group identity, organizational membership, Bartel investigated how experiences in community outreach affected the identity process of employee volunteers. She found that intergroup comparisons with clients (emphasizing differences) and intragroup comparisons with other members of the organization (emphasizing similarities) changed how members construed the defining qualities of their organization. Supervisors reported higher interpersonal cooperation and work effort for members whose organizational identification became stronger. These results suggest that identification processes operate in everyday work contexts.
A group identity is one of the reasons that people donate to charitable causes, support friends and family, and exhibit helping behaviors toward those with whom they identify. Alternatively, Marilyn Brewer points out that group identity, precisely by creating an “us versus them” mentality, can produce conflict, discrimination, and prejudice. One need only spend a few minutes watching the national news to see versions of group identification. U.S. citizens boycotted Aruba because of the disappearance of Natalie Holloway. In Iraq, terrorists have killed, kidnapped, and beheaded those sympathetic to U.S. efforts to establish a democracy. Finally, international soccer games often result in a sea of violence after a match. Clearly, group identity will continue to serve as an important guide to relations within a group, relations between groups, and even relations between countries.
- Bartel, C. A. (2001). Social comparisons in boundary-spanning work: Effects of community outreach on members’ organizational identity and identification. Administrative Science Quarterly, 46, 379-413.
- Postmes, T., Spears, R., Lee, A. T., & Novak, R. J. (2005). Individuality and social influence in groups: Inductive and deductive routes to group identity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 747-763.