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An analysis of Social identity theory

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2072 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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This then leads me to the Social Identity Theory. Developed in 1979 by Tajfel and Turner, the theory was originally developed in order to understand the psychological analysis of intergroup conflict and discrimination.

In the Social Identity Theory, the self is reflexive in that it can take itself on as an object and can categorize, classify, or name itself in particular ways in relation to other social categories or classifications. This process is called self-categorisation in social identity theory. Through the process of self-categorisation, an identity is formed (Bauman, 2004).

The theory suggests that social categorisations are perceived as fixed tools that sector, organize, and direct the social environment, and as a result many forms of social action can be taken on by the individual. But they do not simply systematise the social world; they also offer a system of direction for self-reference: they generate and label the individual’s place in society. As a result social groups allow their members to withhold an identification of themselves in social terms. These identifications are to very large extent relational and comparative, they define the individual as similar to or different from, as well as, as better or worse than, members of other groups. It is from these definitions that we use the term social identity. With this limited concept of social identity in mind, Tajfel and Turner continue to say our argument is based on the following assumptions; ‘firstly, individuals strive to maintain or enhance their self-esteem: they strive for a positive self concept. Secondly, social groups or categories and membership of them are associated with positive and negative value connotations.’ Hence, social identity may be positive or negative according to the evaluations (which tend to be socially consensual, either within or across groups) of those groups that contribute to an individual’s social identity.

Lastly, the evaluation of one’s own group is determined with reference to specific other groups through social comparisons in terms of value-laden attributes and characteristics. Positively discrepant comparisons between in-group and out-group produce high prestige; negatively discrepant comparisons between in-group and out-group result in low prestige (Tajfel & Turner, 1979).

According to Bauman (2004), ‘A social group is a set of individuals who hold a common social identification or view themselves as members of the same social category.’ Through a social comparison process, persons who are similar to the self are categorized with the self and are labelled the in-group; persons who differ from the self are categorized as out-groups.

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The social categories in which individuals place themselves are parts of a structured society and exist only in relation to other contrasting categories (for example, black vs. white); each has more or less power, prestige, status, and so on (Hogg & Abrams, 2008). Further, these authors point out that the social categories precede individuals; Individuals are born into an already structured society. Once in society, people derive their identity or sense of self largely from the social categories to which they belong. Each person, however, over the course of his or her personal history, is a member of a unique combination of social categories; therefore the set of social identities making up that persons self concept is unique.

Human interaction ranges on a spectrum from being purely interpersonal on the one hand to purely intergroup on the other (Hornsey, 2008). A purely interpersonal interaction comprises of the public being totally individual with no consciousness of social categories. A purely intergroup interaction is one in which the public act as representatives of their groups, also when an individual’s characteristics and qualities are besieged by the salience of their group membership. It has been argued that sliding from the interpersonal to the intergroup end of the spectrum results in shifts in how people see themselves and each other. (Hornsey, 2008)

From Tajfel and Turners earlier assumptions, some related theoretical principles can be derived. First and foremost, it is clear that individuals attempt to accomplish or to uphold positive social identity. Secondly, positive social identity is based to a large extent on favourable comparisons that can be made between the in-group and some relevant out-groups. Lastly, when social identity is unsatisfactory, individuals will attempt either to leave their existing group and join a more positive group or make their existing group more positively. The basic assumption, then, is that pressures to evaluate one’s group positively through in-group/out-group comparisons lead social groups to clearly set themselves apart from each other (Tajfel & Turner, 1979)

According to Tajfel and Turner (1979), there are atleast three factors that ought to influence intergroup differences in tangible social situations. They say that first and foremost ‘individuals must have internalised their group membership as an aspect of their self-concept: they must be subjectively identified with the relevant in-group.’

It is not sufficient that others identify themselves as a group, though joint definitions by others can become, in the long run, one of the influential casual factors for a group’s self-definition. They carry on to say that secondly, ‘the social situation must be such as to allow for intergroup comparisons that enable the selection and evaluation of the relevant relational attributes.’ However Tajfel (1959) does state that ‘not all between-group differences have evaluative significance, and those that do vary from group to group.’ For instance, Skin colour is apparently a more salient attribute in the United States than in Hong Kong (Moorland 1969). Lastly, ‘in-groups do not compare themselves with every cognitively available out-group: the out-group must be perceived as a relevant comparison group. Similarity, proximity, and situational salience are among the variables that determine out-group comparability, and pressures toward in-group distinctiveness should increase as a function of this comparability.’ (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) Therefore, a group will only be compared to another group depending on their status within their society and whether or not they are worth any comparison.

One of the responses of the theory was the idea that people have a need for positive social identity which requires them to establish a positively valued distinctiveness for their own group compared to other groups (Turner & Reynolds 2004). This aim for differentiation is to maintain or achieve dominance over an out-group to some extent.

The Social Categorisation theory developed by Turner and colleagues after Tajfel’s death in 1982, the theory grew from early social identity work, returning to the categorisation process that was considered fundamental to the Social Identity Theory. But rather than seeing interpersonal and intergroup activity as opposites, the advocates of the Social Categorisation Theory characterised identity as functioning on different levels of breadth. The critical contribution of self categorisation theory is that it links social categorisation to self conception. ‘The core idea is that we categorise ourselves just as we categorise others, and thus we depersonalise ourselves.’ (Hogg, 2004)

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The self categorization began with the insight that Tajfel’s opinion of difference between interpersonal and intergroup performance could be described by a parallel and under-lying distinction between personal and social identity (Turner, 1982). The basic idea was that self perception or self conception varies between personal and social identity and that as one moves from defining self as an individual person to defining self in terms of social identity, group behaviour becomes possible and emerges (Turner & Reynolds, 2004). Therefore, when a shared social identity is psychologically active or significant there is a depersonalisation of self perception such that people’s views of their joint and common similarities are enhanced. Furthermore, a fundamental point of Self-categorization theory which has been central to the analysis of stereotyping and other group phenomena is that when we see ourselves as “we” and “us” in contrast to “I” and “me”, this is common and ordinary self experience in which individuals describe themselves in terms of others who exist outside of the self and is therefore not purely personal Social identity is a combined self, not a “looking-glass” self – it is not an “I” as perceived by the group, but a “we” who are the group and who define ourselves for ourselves.(Turner & Onorato, 1999)

Turner and colleagues (DATE) nominate three different levels of self-categorisation that are important to the self-concept: ‘the subordinate category of the self as human being (or human identity), the intermediate level of the self as a member of a social in-group as defined against other groups of humans (social identity), and the subordinate level of personal self-categorisation based on interpersonal comparisons (personal identity).’ (Turner, 1999)

Hornsey (2008) carries on saying, ‘one of the cornerstones of the Social Categorisation Theory is the notion of depersonalisation. Proponents of the Social Categorisation theory argue that people cognitively represent their social groups in terms of prototypes. When a category becomes salient, people come to see themselves and other category members less as individuals and more as interchangeable exemplars of the group prototype’ (208 book)

The group identity not only describes what it is to be a group member, but also prescribes what kinds of attitudes, emotions and behaviours are appropriate in a given context. The notion of depersonalisation was assumed to underpin a range of group processes such as cohesion, influence, conformity and leadership.

Turner (2005) see’s the categorisation process as the casual driver of power and influence. From this perspective he carries on to say, ’embodying the prototype of the in-group is what maximises influence, influence is the basis of power, and power leads to control over resources.’ This is a reversal of the traditional approach to power, which suggests that control over valuable resources is what defines power, power allows for influence, and mutual influence leads to the formation of psychological groups. (211 book)

Hogg (2000) has elaborated on the role of group distinctiveness in providing social meaning, arguing that, ‘many group processes – including identification, assimilation to norms, and intergroup bias – are partially underpinned by a need to reduce one’s subjective uncertainty about what to say, do, think, and feel.’ (215 book)

Social identity can be a very important aspect of our self-concept. For example, Citrin, Wong and Duff (2001) report a study found that 46 per cent of Americans felt being an American, a social identity, was the most important thing in their life.

People often use limited perceptual cues to categorise other people. I.e. what someone looks like, how they speak, what attitudes they express, and how they behave. Generally we first try out categories that are readily accessible to us because we so often use them. According to Hogg and Vaughan (2008), ‘when a categorisation becomes psychologically salient, people’s perception of themselves and others become depersonalised.’ What this means is that people no longer consider themselves or others as unique multidimensional persons but as simple embodiments of the category prototype.

The social identity approach, now one of the most significant theories of group developments and intergroup relations globally, has redefined how we think about group mediated occurrences and has extended its reach well outside the limitations of social psychology. (Hornsey-205)


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