Social Identity Theory

One’s self-concept is the person’s idea of who they are based on who they associate themselves with, their environment and their behavior. Henry Tajfel, in 1979, developed the social identity theory whereby one’s identity is based on: social categorization, social identity, social comparison and positive distinctiveness. Tajfel believed that the groups we are in, heavily influenced our sense of who we are, and so groups lead to the development of a social identity.

Tajfel stated that social categorization ordered the environment into in-groups (group containing the individual) and out-groups (group that the individual doesn’t belong to). Social categorization allows for one to feel similar to others in the group, perceive that everyone in the out-group is the same, it also allows us to distinguish our in-group from the out-group by identifying the differences. Exaggeration of intra-group similarities and inter-group differences commonly occurs, this is called the category accentuation effect.

Tajfel’s definition of social identity is the social groups in which we identify ourselves with. He believed that by associating ourselves with the in-group members and displaying norms of the social group, we would take up the behavior displayed, which would form part of our self-concept.

Social comparison also plays a role in developing our self-concept. Tajfel states that the way we see ourselves in comparison to the people around us helps us measure our abilities and potential etc. In other words, it allows us to know how we ‘rank’ or place in social settings.

According to the social identity theory, we instinctively attempt to positively identify our selves, this is the self-esteem hypothesis. Therefore, when comparing in-groups and out-groups, we would perceive the in-group as superior – ethnocentrism.

Tajfel et al. (1971)’s study using the minimal group paradigm. This is where participants are placed as in-groups and out-groups randomly due to an arbitrary criteria eg. tossing coin. Tajfel split a sample of 48 British schoolboys into 2 groups randomly, however, the participants were told that they were separated by their preference from 2 paintings. The participants worked individually. They were then tasked with a set number of points and was asked to allocate them to in-group members and out-group members. They also followed a chart which stated that for a set amount of points allocated to an in-group member, a sum of points had to be given to an out-group member, eg. 7 points allowed for in-group and 1 point had to be given to the out-group. As the number of points distributed to the in-group increased, the difference between points given to the out- and in- group decreased, eg 14 – in and 15 -out. Tajfel found that not only did the participants allocate more points for their in-group (positive distinctiveness and in-group favoritism and out-group discrimination), in order to enhance the variability between the groups, the participants gave less points to themselves, so that they would have to give the out-group even less (category accentuation effect).

However, the social identity theory has been criticized in a number of studies. For example, the self-esteem hypothesis has been discredited by a studies proving that the increase in self-esteem drawn from the discrimination of the out-group is too short term and does not translate to one’s self-concept. Although Tajfel aimed to attribute self-concept due to situational factors, rather than dispositional factors, many argue that the formation and association of oneself to different social groups is based on their disposition.

With that said, the development of the social identity theory instigated many other studies which supports the theory. The theory helps us understand our need for belongingness, the derivation of our self-esteem and the variability in attitude displayed in different social situations. It has also notably contributed towards the understanding of how we construct our own personal identities.


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