As a conceptual extension of social identity theory, John Turner and his colleagues developed self-categorization theory. Self-categorization theory seeks to understand and explain the processes by which people form cognitive representations of themselves and others in relation to different social groups. The underlying premise behind this theory is that people place themselves and others into social categories on the basis of the underlying attributes that are particularly salient, and this process of social categorization shapes a range of attitudes, emotions, and behaviors.
As the precursor to self-categorization theory, social identity theory purported that people not only develop a sense of personal (i.e., individualized) identity through reliance upon factors that make them unique but also possess multiple social identities, based on their membership in social groups. When these social identities are made salient, individuals tend to favor persons who share membership in the applicable group (i.e., in-group members) over those from other social groups (i.e., out-group members). Although social identity theory included recognition of the fact that social identities will carry implications for both within and between-group behavior, the predominant focus of this framework centered on between-group (i.e., intergroup) processes. To explicate the cognitive processes by which people categorize themselves and others, and define themselves in terms of membership within different social groups, Turner and his colleagues developed self-categorization theory. Self-categorization theory focuses to a much greater extent on within group (i.e., intragroup) processes than social identity theory. That said, self-categorization theory and social identity theory do share considerable conceptual overlap, so much so that both theories are often collectively referred to as the social identity approach.
Depersonalization; Conceptions of Fit
One of the core tenets of self-categorization theory corresponds to the extent to which depersonalization takes place. By depersonalization, Turner and colleagues referred to the process whereby people categorize the self in terms of a particular social group (e.g., being a member of a given sports team) rather than as an individual. When this happens, people see themselves less in terms of their unique characteristics and more in terms of the social groups to which they believe that they belong (this involves a shift from “I” to “we”). It is important to note that self-categorization theory is not restricted to self-perceptions as the categorization of others is also possible. When categorizing others, the perceiver interprets an individual as a member of a larger social category rather than a unique, or individualized, entity. Self-categorization and other-categorization occurs through two primary mechanisms, namely, perceived fit and perceiver readiness.
Perceived fit corresponds to the extent to which a particular categorization aligns with how the perceiver understands and interprets his or her social world. Turner and colleagues differentiated between comparative and normative components of perceived fit. Comparative fit corresponds to the potential differences that exist within one particular social category relative to differences that might exist across different categories. For example, if a number of male and female athletes are at a party along with those (both male and female) who self-identify as being inactive or sedentary, those athletes may be more likely to identity with the social categorization of “athlete” than other categorizations that might exist, such as “gender.” Alternatively, if the differences between males and females at that same party are perceived to be more pronounced than the differences between athletes and non-athletes, people at that party may be more likely to self-categorize, and hold as being salient, identities related to being male or female. Turner referred to this as a process of meta-contrast.
Normative fit, in contrast, corresponds to the extent to which the behaviors displayed by people in a given social category align with what one would expect (i.e., what is stereotypical) of people in that social category. For example, if some of the athletes at the social gathering just described engage in behaviors that would be inconsistent with what one might expect of “an athlete” (e.g., start smoking), this may inhibit the extent to which the category athlete is salient. Conversely, if people do behave in ways that align with the expectations of that social category, and one believes himself or herself to engage in similar behaviors to those displayed by group members, this can facilitate greater alignment with that social group.
Beyond personal conceptions of fit, a secondary mechanism by which people engage in social categorization corresponds to the perceived readiness (also referred to as accessibility) of social categories. Although certain categories (e.g., age, ethnicity, and gender) tend to be very identifiable and thus accessible in most people, the perceived readiness of categories also varies between people. Specifically, this perceived readiness is heavily dependent on previous experiences, expectations, and a person’s current goals or objectives. As an example, if a person has been around athletics all of her life, as an adult she may be more likely to categorize people on the basis of activity status and engage in various behavioral processes that align with the identity of “physically active adult” (e.g., seek out and interact with other adults who are active). In a similar manner, if this woman has accrued more positive experiences in the past from being physically active in the company of other women, rather than from exercising in mixed gender contexts, she might be much more likely to seek out similar same-gendered-exercise contexts in the future, and make salient her social identity as a “physically active woman.”
The previously given example highlights an additional complexity of social categorization. Under certain circumstances, categories can become crossed such that an emergent subcategory develops. In the case of the woman just described, the categories of physically active people and women have been crossed to result in the creation of a new salient category, namely that of physically active women. The use of crossed categories offers some promise for mitigating intragroup hostilities within sport and exercise settings. As an example, if an ethnic minority baseball player is introduced into a baseball team composed of members from the ethnic majority, the fact that this minority member shares category membership with his teammates along at least one dimension (i.e., all are baseball players) may contribute to his integration within the team (assuming that this shared membership is recognized). Cross categories, however, also suggest the possibility of contributing to further stereotyping and discrimination by allowing for the successes of subcategory members to be discarded or downplayed (such as when one is perceived as playing well for a girl) as well as tokenism (whereby a single cross categorized group member is used as evidence, or a token, for a lack of prejudice within a sports club or organization).
Why Do We Engage in Social Categorization?
We are predisposed to engage in processes of social categorization primarily for two reasons. First, engaging in social categorization reduces the cognitive demands placed upon the perceiver. It is relatively taxing to interpret each person encountered as an individual rather than a member of one or more social categories. Such individuation does happen. It, however, requires one to be motivated and able (i.e., not cognitively depleted) to engage in such effortful processing. A second reason that we engage in categorization is to try to reduce uncertainty regarding our place in the social world. Specifically, through reliance upon social categorization, a substantial amount of information can be ascertained about others, which in turn can inform our expectations (i.e., reduce uncertainty) for any future interactions.
A principle common to social identity theory and self-categorization theory is that individuals interpret the social groups they are a part of positively, and they do so in order to promote a sense of self-worth. In a related manner, individuals are generally attracted to others with whom they share membership in a given category and repelled by those with whom they do not share category membership. There is a growing body of evidence supporting the notion that the extent to which people self-identify as being similar to, or different from, others within physical activity (PA) contexts (i.e., groups), on the basis of various social categories, influences their attraction to, and level of involvement within, that group. For example, when people perceive themselves to be similar to others within a particular PA group, in terms of age, they report higher levels of adherence to the group. Consistent with this relationship between age similarity and program involvement, across the adult age spectrum people report a relative dislike of being physically active in groups where the other group members are either much older or younger than themselves (i.e., other members are “unlike me”) and a positive preference for exercising in groups comprised of others their own age (i.e., other members are “like me”). Taken together, these findings suggest that the categorization of age is particularly salient within PA groups, as it not only corresponds to their general exercise preferences but also predicts their PA adherence behaviors within group settings.
As an extension of these studies, there is also evidence to suggest that, among people who like to exercise within group settings, there exists a general preference for exercising within gender-segregated (i.e., same-gender) groups rather than within gender-integrated (i.e., mixed-gender) groups. This preference is particularly pronounced among people who are overweight (i.e., body mass index
≥ 25). From the perspective of self-categorization theory, the results of this research suggest that within mixed-gender classes the social category of weight status becomes particularly heightened such that comparative fit is notably poor for overweight individuals. When offered the opportunity to exercise within same-gender classes, however, weight status becomes a less debilitative and pronounced personal categorization. People can instead benefit from the unity that appears to develop when they self-categorize primarily on the basis of gender.
Self-categorization theory specifies the process by which the self and others are placed into broader social categories. Such categorization is sensitive to both the immediate context (e.g., comparative fit) and personal history (e.g., perceived readiness). It has recently been applied to exercise group settings through examination of the relation between the demographic composition of the group and program involvement. It should be noted, however, that although it is likely equally applicable to sport teams, it has rarely been considered within this context.
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