Self-Categorization Theory Definition

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.

Core Tenets

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.

Perceived Readiness

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.”

Crossed Categories

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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