Social Identity Theory (Examples, Strengths & Weaknesses)

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The social identity theory explains how people develop their identities. Its main argument is that people develop their identity through interaction with society.

Examples of social identity theory include religion, sport, nation, and ethnicity affiliations that help you to construct your identity.

The social identity theory was developed by the social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner in the 1970s. 

Key Concepts in the Social Identity Theory

1. The Interpersonal-Intergroup Continuum

Tajfel and Turner proposed that an individual’s identity, or sense of the self is influenced both through:

  • Interpersonal Interaction – One-to-one interactions with other individuals
  • Intergroup Interaction – Identification with a large grouping of people, and the interaction of their grouping in turn with other groups.  

The Interpersonal-intergroup continuum refers to the degree to which interpersonal or intergroup interaction has a stronger effect on your social identity.

For some individuals, interpersonal interaction may play a dominant role in constructing their idea of the self (i.e. their identification with groups might be weak). For others, intergroup interaction might be dominant ( i.e. they may strongly identify with social groupings).

The social identity theory helps to determine where on this interpersonal-intergroup continuum would an individual’s socially constructed self lie, given specific structural factors.  (Tajfel & Turner, 1986)

2. Positive Distinctiveness (3 Ways People Construct Identities)

The group that an individual identifies with is called an in-group. Everyone outside the in-group constitutes the outgroup. 

Social identity theory works on the assumption that individuals attempt to create a positive idea of their selves. This is known as positive distinctiveness.

Thus, the association with one in-group, and distinction from the out–group, is a strategy deployed by individuals to achieve positive distinctiveness.

This pursuit of positive distinctiveness while being part of a group usually leads to 3 outcomes: 

1. Mobility

Mobility is a strategy adopted by individuals in cases where boundaries of the group they identify with are permeable. They may perceive that they can achieve greater status by identifying with a different group.

For instance, a child at middle school may perceive another group of friends to be more popular than their elementary school friends. They may therefore decide to stop associating with their old friends and spend time with their newer friends who give them higher perceived social status.

2. Creativity

Creativity is a strategy deployed by individuals when the boundaries of the in-group are more rigid and the members feel that their status is lower compared to those of the out-group.

An example is the Black is Beautiful movement that began in the USA in the 1960s, seeking to counter the deeply entrenched notion that black skin, and the black color in general, is devoid of beauty. 

Through creativity, people stay within the group but create counter-narratives as an attempt to claim higher social status for their group.

3. Competition

Competition results when the boundaries of the ingroup are relatively rigid, and the individuals feel they have the same or higher status than that of similarly located groups. An example is two competing political parties. The two groups compete to have the dominant and more powerful social identity.

Examples of Social Identity Theory

We can see examples of social identity theory in nationalism, religion, race and ethnicity, and fraternities and sororities. By studying these social groups, we can see how people use in-groups and out-groups to develop their social identities.

1. Nationalism

For most of us, our national identity is one of the most prominent strands in our construction of the self.

When we ask ourselves the question – “who am I”?  – our belonging to a nation – state is likely to be an important part of the answer.

Being and identifying as American, Chinese, British, Canadian, Indian and so on becomes so entrenched into our idea of the self that we often tend to overlook that nations and nationalism are social constructs.

Benedict Anderson called the nation an “imagined community” as its members imagine themselves to belong to the same in-group, even if no real ties holding them together might exist (Anderson, 1983).

At the same time, not everyone identifies equally strongly with the nation of their birth or with the idea of loyalty and patriotism to any nation state at all. 

For many people, loyalty to their immediate kinship or clan network (interpersonal interaction) may be more significant than a sense of belonging to the larger, more abstract nation (intergroup interaction).

2. Race and Ethnicity

Like nationalism, ethnicity and race is another grouping that commands allegiance from individuals. 

Unlike social constructs such as nation and religion, ethnicity and race have strong biological elements. They are thus examples of groups with rigid boundaries.

People cannot change their race or ethnicity the way nationality can be changed by migrating to a different country.

In multiracial, multiethnic societies, the members of a particular race or ethnic group may feel an affinity towards each other on account of their shared history, customs, traditions, and experiences. Their identification with their race or ethnicity may also influence their preference for marrying within the racial or ethnic community.

Sometimes, the pursuit of greater positive distinctiveness while identifying strongly with a race or ethnic identity can lead to competition called ethnic conflict. For example, there is currently ethnic conflict in Myanmar between Buddhists and Muslims. 

3. Fraternities and Sororities

Fraternities are all-male clubs of graduate students in the US, while sororities are their female counterparts.

Members of fraternities and sororities often find themselves bound in close social and professional relationships as a result of socializing together during their formative years in college. 

Another feature of fraternities and sororities that makes association with them desirable is their elite nature.

Most fraternities and sororities are named after Greek letters (such as Psi Sigma Kappa). Since Greek is a classical language associated in popular imagination with high scholarly and aesthetic achievement, such groups are perceived by individuals as stepping-stones to achieving greater positive distinctiveness. 

4. Religion

Like nationalism, religious identity is also a fundamental constituent of most peoples’ idea of self.

For a large number of people across the globe, their identity as a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, or Jew is an aspect of identity that comes before their identification with a nation-state, race, or ethnicity.

Pros and Cons of Social Identity Theory

Strengths of Social Identity TheoryWeaknesses of Social Identity Theory
1. Explains Group Philanthropy – The theory demonstrates why people empathize with and therefore want to help people like them.1. Poor Predictive Power – It explains events, but doesn’t really make predictions about the future (Brown, 2000)
2. Explains In-Group Bias – The theory can explain why people preference people who look or act like them.2. Fails to Explain Group Harmony – In a liberal multicultural world order, there is a lot of group harmony that isn’t explained by this theory.

Strengths (Pros)

1. Explains Group Philanthropy

A core assumption of the social identity theory is that individuals identify with groups in order to maximize positive distinctiveness. 

This helps explain philanthropic acts undertaken by social groups such as food drives, charity, etc.

Since the primary drive behind associating with groups positive distinctiveness, it follows that individuals would want their own group to be perceived in a more positive light than others. 

2. Explains In-Group Bias

Social identity theory helps explain the formation of in-groups and out-groups, and the bias that accompanies their formation. 

An in-group is a social grouping that an individual identifies with. An out-group is all those who are not part of the in-group.

In-group bias is the natural tendency of humans to favor those within the same in-group.

For instance, members of the stonemasons, elite schools, or even secret fraternity societies might favor those belonging to their in-group when networking for business or hiring for jobs. 

Weaknesses (Cons)

1. Poor Predictive Power

Social identity theory has been criticized as being more explanatory than predictive in nature.

This means that while the theory can explain existing phenomena, it is not always very accurate in predicting future behavior (Brown, 2000).

2. Fails to Explain Affiliation Between Similar Groups

According to social identity theory, when groups have rigid boundaries and similar social status, they are likely to engage in conflict and competition.

However, this is not always true. In several cases, groups that are situated similarly in terms of social status, and which have rigid boundaries, are engaged in mutual cooperation and symbiotic behavior.

For instance, in several multi-ethnic, multi-racial societies, peaceful coexistence, rather than ethnic conflict, is the norm. 

Related Theory: Self-Categorization Theory

The self-categorization theory is closely related to, but different from social identity theory (SIT).

Proposed by John Turner, one of founding theorists of social identity theory, the self-categorization theory attempts to delineate the conditions under which an individual may begin to perceive themselves as well as others as belonging to a group. 

As opposed to this, the social identity theory focuses on the different kinds of intergroup interactions are possible once group formation has occurred 

Good to Know Information:
A fundamental assumption of the social identity theory is the idea of the social construction of the self.

In sociology, the idea of the  social construction of the self is built upon the work of Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929), George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) and Erving Goffman (1922-1982). 

Cooley gave the concept of the “looking glass self”, i.e. we build our self-image based upon what we believe other people think of us.

Developing Cooley’s ideas further, Mead built the theory of symbolic interactions (one of three core sociological paradigms), according to which individuals develop their understanding of the world, including their idea of the self by interacting with others around them.

Finally, Erving Goffman, in his influential book The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life compared human interactions to the theatrical performances, in which construct and present different selves for different situations. 

Conclusion

Social identity theory states that individuals construct at least a part of their identity through membership within social groups.

Social groups can include groupings as large as the nation, or a religion, or as small as a local hobby club. 

This can include developing an identity that is consistent with groups that they’re part of (e.g. “I’m a Christians) as well as in opposition to groups they’re not part of (“I’m not a liberal therefore I’m a conservative”).

Key concepts within the theory include: the interpersonal-intergroup continuum (which tells you the degree to which you develop your identity through group membership or personal relationships with individuals) and positive distinctiveness (3 ways people create their identities).

References

Anderson, B. (1983) Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Verso. 

Brown, R. (2000), Social identity theory: past achievements, current problems and future challenges. European  Journal of  Social  Psychology, 30, 745-778. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/1099-0992(200011/12)30:6%3C745::AID-EJSP24%3E3.0.CO;2-O

Tajfel, H. and Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In S. Worchel and W. G. Austin (eds.). Psychology of Intergroup Relations. (pp. 7–24). Nelson-Hall

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.

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