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Social Identity Theory And Self Categorisation Theory Sociology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2572 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Social Identity Theory was established by Tajfel and Turner with the aim of trying to understand the psychological basis of intergroup discrimination. Tajfel and Turner (1979) tried to identify conditions which would lead members of a specific social group to behave in a biased matter towards an out-group, in favour of the in-group which they were a member of. It is seen as a discursive approach. The main principle of Social Identity Theory is that people often categorise and define themselves and others into a number of different social groups and strive to have their group valued more highly than other groups (Tajfel & Turner, 1985). Consistent with Tajfel and Turner’s (1985) claim, it is believed, by other psychologists, that social identities are formed to boost self-esteem and encourage a sense of certainty (McGregor, Reeshama and So-Jin, 2008). To explain the phenomenon of how individuals evaluate themselves and others as part of an in-group or an out-group, Social Identity Theory identifies three mental concepts: social categorisation, social identification and social comparison (TaÅŸdemir, 2011). Social categorisation relates to individuals assigning people to social categories in order to understand and identify them (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). This results in the world being divided into ‘them’ and ‘us’, or an in-group and an out-group. In the second concept, social identification, people adopt the identity of the social group they have categorised themselves into. This also involves developing an emotional attachment to one’s identification with the group and self-esteem will be closely linked to group membership (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). The final concept, social comparison, relates to an individual comparing the group they identify with with other groups. To retain one’s self-esteem, their group must be viewed in a more positive light than other groups (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). Several psychological studies have supported the fact that individuals create social categories in order to boost self-esteem. An example of this being when individuals learn that their social group is unacceptable to society, they tend to perceive the out-group as unacceptable as well (Ford & Tonander, 1998). Haslam (2001) has identified two types of strategies individuals use to boost their group’s status: social conflict and social creativity. Social conflict refers to the in-group undermining the social status of the out-group. This can be done in a violent manner or by way of protests. Social creativity relates to the in-group emphasising group features which they flourish on, by way of advertising these strengths. Haslam (2001) argues that when the in-group does not feel at risk and feel their status is largely secure they will engage in social creativity rather than social conflict. However, when members of the in-group feel threatened they will readily engage in social conflict. A core principle of Social Identity Theory is that one’s social identity is not fixed and cannot predict one’s behaviour. Instead, the context and the in-group’s salience in the context decides which aspect of an individual’s identity is influential in a situation. According to Social Identity Theory, individuals are more inclined to identify with a certain social group if they feel uncertain. Support for this claim comes from McGregor, Reeshma and So-Jin (2008). In their study, participants were required to describe personal conflicts which were caused by unresolved personal problems (uncertainty task). In an attempt to assess out-group derogation, Canadian participants read statements which were critical of Canada, written by a foreign person. The extent to which the Canadian participants disliked and disagreed with the foreigner’s statement was measured, providing an index of out-group derogation. Additionally, each participant completed a measure of structure requirement. McGregor, Reeshma and So-Jin (2008) found that individuals who sought structure and clarity were more likely to show out-group derogation after completing the uncertainty task. However, this research used participants from a Western country – the same results may not have been generated if Eastern participants took part in the study. The assumptions from these results cannot be generalised to people from different cultures. It can be argued that Social Identity Theory is effective in its claim that people have a biased perception of their own social group compared to other groups, that is, explaining in-group bias. Evidence of this can be seen in the results of Mullen, Brown and Smith’s (1992) study into the in-group bias hypothesis. Further support of the claim that identity processes underlie the in-group bias is a report illustrating that members of a social group have higher self-esteem after engaging in discriminatory behaviour (Rubin & Hewstone, 1998). Rubin and Hewstone (1998) demonstrate that people show an intergroup distinction to feel good about themselves and the social group which they identify with (Brown, 2000). Brown, Maras, Masser, Vivian and Hewstone (2001) observed that English passengers on a ferry had been refused travel by the actions of French fishermen – the out-group – and so displayed generally less favourable attitudes towards French people. This supports Social Identity Theory’s social comparison concept, in that the English passengers identified so strongly with their national group that they viewed the French in a negative light which in turn, resulted in them retaining their self-esteem.

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However, Social Identity Theory does have a number of issues which have proved problematic when trying to account for group influence. The theory assumes that a positive social identity is based on positive intergroup comparisons (Brown, 2000). It does make sense to assume that there should be a positive correlation between the strength of group identification and the level of in-group bias. This hypothesis has been tested over the years and still remains of interest to psychologists worldwide (Brown, 2000). Subsequent psychological studies investigating this correlation have shown little support for Social Identity Theory. According to Brown (2000), 14 studies were analysed and the overall correlation between group identification and in-group bias was +0.08, and while 64% of correlations were positive, the mean correlation was not very strong (+0.24). It can be argued, however, that this correlation hypothesis was not actually stated by Tajfel and Turner (1979) when they were developing the Social Identity Theory. It is clear from Social Identity Theory that people are motivated to have an in-group bias by the need to see themselves, and the group they identify, within a positive light. Thus, it can be assumed there is a causal link between intergroup distinction and self-esteem. Abrams and Hogg (1988) summarised this concept – positive in-group differentiation leads to increased self-esteem and people with low self-esteem show more differentiation in order to boost levels of self-esteem. Social Identity Theory is essentially a theory relating to group differentiation, that is, how members of a specific in-group make this group distinctive from, and better than, an out-group. Therefore, groups which see themselves as similar should be keen to show intergroup differentiation (Brown, 1984). This hypothesis has been tested vigorously over the years with different results. Some studies have generated results which contradict Social Identity Theory’s hypothesis – Jetten, Spears and Manstead (1996) found that groups that viewed themselves to hold similar attitudes and equivalent status showed more intergroup attraction and less bias then dissimilar groups (Brown, 2000). However, some studies support Social Identity Theory as they have found that intergroup similarity does lead to intergroup differentiation especially if both groups are extremely similar (White & Langer, 1999). The concept of social identity as described by Social Identity Theory could be altered by way of having a greater greater acknowledgement of the diversity of social groups that can represent one’s social identity.

Self-Categorisation Theory also focuses on the concept of intergroup differentiation as a function of identity (TaÅŸdemir, 2011). Self-Categorisation Theory is seen as a cognitive theory of behaviour within intergroup contexts and offers explanations about the cognitive processes underlying an individual’s self-categorisation and intergroup differentiation processes (Turner, 1999). The theory is seen to be a more elaborate, extended version of the original Social Identity Theory (TaÅŸdemir, 2011). Turner et al. (1987) argue that Self-Categorisation Theory deals with the social-cognitive basis of intergroup behaviour. Self-Categorisation Theory explains how people form a self-identity in terms of the social categories which they belong to. This also leads to people discriminating between their own category members and people in other categories. The meta-contrast principle explains this process. The meta-contrast principle explains that any number of individuals in a certain situation are likely to categorise themselves as a social group when they view differences amongst each other less than the differences between themselves and others in the same situation (Turner, 1985). For that reason, when inter-group differences are more stark than intra-group differences (high meta-contrast ratio), it is believed that people define themselves based on their membership of social groups and they differentiate between the in-group and out-group (Turner, Oakes, Haslam & McGarty, 1994). Self-Categorisation Theory states that when individuals identify with a social group, they experience depersonalisation. That is, they perceive every member of their group as interchangeable on a certain level (Turner et al., 1957). Self-categorisation cognitively assimilates the individual to the in-group prototype and so depersonalises self-conception (Hogg and Terry, 2001). Therefore, it is assumed that each group member, including the individual themselves, share the same values and morals and so they tend to adhere to group norms (Hogg and Reid, 2006). According to Hogg and Terry (2001), this transformation of self-identity is the process which underlies group phenomena as it brings self-identification in line with the relevant in-group prototype in a certain context. Many psychologists, such as Simon (2004) and Deaux (1993) have challenged this assumption of depersonalisation. A study was conducted by Swann, Gomez, Seyle, Morales and Huici (200) who found a contradiction to the assumption of depersonalisation. In their study, individuals who felt their personal and social identities were linked did not adhere to the norms of the in-group. Instead, they engaged in rebellious behaviour to protect their group even when their identity was threatened. Self-Categorisation Theory promotes the idea that when people self-categorise themselves, they tend to think of themselves more as a member of a social group, rather than as individuals. This includes them believing that they share the same characteristics associated with their group and they behave in ways that they feel members of their group should act. This process is called self-stereotyping (Mackie, Smith and Ray, 2008). As result of this, self-categorisation increases similarity in the in-group. This is because every member of the social group takes on attributes which are seen as characteristic of the group and so every member develops identical qualities. One could argue, therefore, that Self-Categorisation Theory provides an insight into the fact that the group has become part of one’s self. Support of this comes from a study by Smith and Henry (1996) who found that group members perceive themselves as like their social group.

Although both theories, Self Identity Theory and Self-Categorisation Theory, are different, one could ague that they are similar to an extent. This is because both theories explore how identities are internalised and are used by individuals to define themselves. However, there are several differences between Social Identity Theory and Self-Categorisation Theory and the way in which they account for group influence. Self-Categorisation Theory focuses more on the cognitive processes of categorisation in a social context whereas Social Identity Theory offers a more discursive approach. Discursive psychologists have been critical of Social Identity Theory over the years. They criticise the theory’s assumption that group conflict and differentiation is caused by a worldwide psychological process. Additionally, they feel that the theory is limited as it does not have ecological validity since much of the research into the theory is conducted in Western cultures. There has been an intercultural study conducted by Wetherell (1996) who found that children who come from other cultural backgrounds do not discriminate between groups, unlike North American children. Self-Categorisation Theory does not place as much emphasis on the role of self-esteem, unlike Social Identity Theory. Social Identity Theory emphasises the process of self-categorisation into a group and Self-Categorisation Theory emphasises the process of self-stereotyping and identifying oneself based on a social group. According to Taylor and Moghaddam (1994), Self-Categorisation Theory ignores socio-structural factors and is devoid of the passion involved in real-life conflicts. The theory describes humans in the image of thinking machines. Therefore, one contrast between Social Identity Theory and Self-Categorisation Theory is that the latter can be criticised for not paying enough attention to motivational and affective issues. One flaw of Self-Categorisation Theory is that it concentrates on identity formation in adults but no attention has been given to the development of identity in infants. There has however been research into this, using the main principles of Self-Categorisation Theory and applying it to children (Barrett, Wilson and Lyons, 1999). One could therefore argue that Self-Categorisation Theory is not efficient when it comes to explaining group influence on children. A success of Social Identity Theory is that other psychologists have used its principles in an attempt to explain extremist social movements. Reicher, Haslam and Rath (2008) explained how the ideas promoted by Social Identity Theory were able to explain Nazism.

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In conclusion, it is clear that both theories share similarities, but there are also a number of differences between the two. Self-Categorisation Theory has a more cognitive approach to group influence whereas Social Identity Theory has a more discursive approach. Further research into Social Identity Theory could involve people from Eastern countries to give the theory more ecological validity as currently, the majority of studies have used Western participants. Self-categorisation theory focuses too much on the formation of identity and group influence in adults and so more research could be done on children to see if the same assumptions apply.


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