Social Identity Theory (SIT)

Social Identity Theory (SIT) - toolshero

This article explains Social Identity Theory in a practical way. After reading you will understand the basics of this powerful psychology theory.

What is Social Identity Theory?

Social identity is the part of an individual’s self-image that is determined by the groups to which an individual belongs. Social Identity Theory was formulated by social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner in 1979. The theory examines the circumstances under which social identity is more important than the identity of an individual. In addition, it describes the different ways in which social identity can influence group behavior.

An individual doesn’t just have a personal self, but multiple identities associated with their groups they’re connected to. A person can behave differently in different social contexts depending on the group to which someone belongs. Examples include membership of a sports team, family in another country with a different culture, the neighborhood in which someone lives, and many other possibilities.

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Origin of Social Identity Theory

Social Identity Theory stems from earlier work by Henri Tajfel. In it he investigated the way in which perceptual processes lead to stereotypes and prejudices. Eventually, this led him to do a series of studies referred to as minimal-group studies.

In these studies, the different participants were randomly assigned to groups. Their membership was basically pointless, yet the participants preferred the group they were assigned to.

This shows that group membership is so powerful that simply dividing people into groups is enough to make them think of themselves in terms of this particular group membership. It was also found that categorizing people in such a way led to favoritism and discrimination towards members of other groups. This confirms that conflict between groups also occurs when there is no competition between groups.

With these results, Tajfel first proposed the concept of social identity in 1972. Then Tajfel and his student Turner published Social Identity Theory in 1979.

Cognitive processes related to social identity

Social Identity Theory describes three mental processes that people go through when they classify their in- or out-group. The three processes are explained below.

Process 1: Social Categorization

The first mental process that occurs is categorization. Categorization is the process people use to organize themselves into social groups. They do this to enable themselves to understand the social world.

That understanding of the social world includes themselves, and is defined based on the groups that someone is in. In general, people tend to define themselves based on their social categories more often than on personal and individual characteristics.

Social categorization often leads to emphasizing the similarities between people in the same group and the differences between people in separate groups. People can belong to different social categories, but one or more categories will be more or less important. This depends on a person’s social circumstances. For example, person X can describe himself as a businessman, sports fan, and devoted father, but these identities only emerge when they are relevant to the social situation.

Process 2: Social Identification

The second process is social identification. This is the process of identification as a group member. By socially identifying with a particular group, people begin to behave as they believe members of that particular group should behave.

For example, a person may describe themselves as an environmental activist and live up to this by monitoring water use, recycling, and participating in climate change awareness events. These types of processes make people emotionally invested in their group membership. One consequence of this phenomenon is that their self-esteem is also influenced by the status of their group.

Social identification can lead to people showing pro-social behavior towards others. Examples include adopting a particular diet, or even adopting shared purchasing patterns such as motorcyclists. Consumers may therefore have several sub-identities that have nestled themselves in a larger identity.

Process 3: Social Comparison

The third mental process is social comparison. This is the process by which people start to compare their own group with other groups in terms of prestige and social status.

To maintain self-esteem, a person must regard their in-group as having a higher social status than an out-group. For example, a movie star sees himself in a higher social class than a classically trained Shakespearean actor. Still, a member of a group is not likely to compare himself or herself to an out-group member. The comparison must be relevant to the situation.

There are a number of things that come up when comparing an in-group to an out-of-group. Members comparing their own group to other groups tend to:

  • Prefer their own in-group over the out-group.
  • Maximize the differences between the two groups.
  • Minimize the perception of differences between group members. This increases cohesion within the group as a whole.
  • Remember more positive information about their own group and more negative information about the out-group.

Maintaining a positive social identity

In general, individuals feel motivated to feel positive about themselves and to maintain their self-esteem. The emotional investments people make in their group memberships link their self-esteem to the social status of their particular in-groups.

A positive evaluation of a person’s in-groups with relevant outside groups results in a positive social identity. If a positive evaluation is not possible, people will generally adopt one of three strategies:

Individual mobility

In the case of a person who does not rate his or her own group positively, they may try to leave the current group and join a group of higher social status. Obviously, this does not change the identity of that group as a whole, but the status of the individual can change dramatically.

Social creativity

Members of a particular social group can improve the status of their group as a whole by trying to change an element of the comparison between the two groups.

This is done by comparing the groups from a different perspective. Another option is to compare the group with another group that has a lower social status.

Social competitiveness

Members of social groups can also try to improve the status of their group by working together to improve their situation. In this case, one group competes directly with another group with the aim of reversing the social positions of the groups on one or more dimensions.

Favoritism and discrimination

Favoritism within certain social groups and discrimination are usually seen as two sides of the same coin. However, research shows that this is not necessarily the case. There is no direct relationship between the positive perception of a person’s group and the negative perception of an out-group.

Favoritism is also known as in-group bias. This is the effect where people give preferential treatment to others because they belong to the same social group.

Favoritism within a social group can lead to negative consequences such as prejudice and stereotypes, racism and sexism. Still, it doesn’t always lead to hostility toward out-groups either. Research shows favoritism and discrimination are different phenomena, and one doesn’t always have something to do with the other.

Identity crisis

The concept of an identity crisis has its origins in the studies of psychologist Erik Erikson. He believed that the formation of a person’s identity is one of the most important parts of a person’s life. He believed that the formation and growth of identity was not limited to adolescence. Instead, identity is something that shifts over a lifetime. Especially as people face new challenges and gain new experiences, the identity of the individual shifts.

Erikson believed that the identity crisis was one of the main conflicts people face. In this crisis, intensive analyses are carried out and it is re-determined how someone views themselves. Erikson defined identity itself as an observable quality of equality and continuity, combined with belief in equality and continuity of a shared world view.

In the various psychosocial stages of development, an identity crisis usually develops in the teenage years. In these years, people struggle with feelings of identity and role confusion. Such a crisis mainly arises at points in life where major changes occur. This includes:

  • Starting a new relationship
  • An end of marriage or partnership
  • A traumatic event
  • Having a child
  • Getting an illness or health condition
  • The loss of a loved one
  • The loss or start of a job

An identity crisis is common in people with mental illness such as depression, dependence, bipolar disorder, borderline disorder, or another personality disorder.

Social Identity Theory summary

Social Identity Theory is a theory that describes the circumstances under which social identity is more important than the identity of an individual and the different ways in which social identity can influence group behavior.

The theory, developed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner, describes that a person does not just have one identity, but has multiple identities associated with the groups to which he or she belongs. Examples include membership of a sports team and having friends from different cultural backgrounds.

Social Identity Theory describes three different mental processes that people go through when they classify their own in-groups and out-groups. The first process is categorization. Categorization is the process of people organizing into groups. They do this primarily to understand the social world.

The second process is identification. Because people socially identify with a particular group, they begin to behave in a way that they believe all members of that particular group should behave. Someone who describes himself as an environmental activist lives this by attending meetings about climate change, separating waste and paying attention to unnecessary water use.

The third process is social comparison. This is the process by which people compare the group they belong to with another group in terms of social status and prestige. To maintain good self-esteem, people view their own in-group as having a higher social status than the out-of-group.

Everyone tends to naturally feel positive about themselves. This is important for self-esteem. This includes having a positive feeling about the in-groups they belong to. If a positive evaluation is not possible, people will generally choose one of three strategies.

The first is individual mobility. This refers to the phenomenon of people leaving their current group and exchanging it for a group with a higher social status. Secondly, they can try to improve the status of their group as a whole by changing an element of the comparison between the two groups.

Lastly, there is the possibility to improve the status of the group by working together to improve the situation. In this case, one group directly competes with another group for the purpose of adjusting the social order.

Psychologist Erik Erikson coined the term identity crisis. He believed that the identity crisis was one of the most important problems people face in their psychosocial development. In the teenage years, a person is most prone to an identity crisis. These mainly arise at times in life when major changes occur, such as the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship.

Now it is your turn

What do you think? Do you recognize the explanation of Social Identity Theory? Do you recognize elements from this theory in daily life? What other factors do you think are important in developing a strong social identity? Do you have any tips or comments?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

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More information

  1. Stets, J. E., & Burke, P. J. (2000). Identity theory and social identity theory. Social psychology quarterly, 224-237.
  2. Hogg, M. A. (2016). Social identity theory. In Understanding peace and conflict through social identity theory (pp. 3-17). Springer, Cham.
  3. Abrams, D. E., & Hogg, M. A. (1990). Social identity theory: Constructive and critical advances. Springer-Verlag Publishing.
  4. Hogg, M. A., Terry, D. J., & White, K. M. (1995). A tale of two theories: A critical comparison of identity theory with social identity theory. Social psychology quarterly, 255-269.

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