Social Identity Theory In Psychology (Tajfel & Turner, 1979)
Saul Mcleod, PhD
BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester
Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.
Learn about our Editorial Process
Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc
Associate Editor for Simply Psychology
BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education
Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.
On This Page:
Social Identity Theory, proposed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner in the 1970s, posits that individuals derive a portion of their self-concept from their membership in social groups.
The theory seeks to explain the cognitive processes and social conditions underlying intergroup behaviors, especially those related to prejudice, bias, and discrimination.
Social identity is a person’s sense of who they are based on their group membership(s).
Tajfel and Turner (1979) proposed that the groups (e.g., social class, family, football team, etc.) people belonged to were important sources of pride and self-esteem.
Social identity groups can give you a sense of:
- Belonging : Being part of a group can instill feelings of connection and unity, giving individuals the comforting sense that they’re not alone in their experiences or perspectives.
- Purpose : Group affiliations often come with shared goals or missions, which can provide direction and purpose to individual members.
- Self-worth : Affiliating with a group can boost self-esteem as individuals derive pride from group achievements and a positive group image.
- Identity : Groups provide a framework to understand oneself in the context of a larger community. They can help define who you are based on shared attributes, values, or goals.
1. Social Categorization
This refers to the tendency of people to classify themselves and others into various social groups based on attributes like race, gender, nationality, or religion.
We categorize objects to understand them and identify them. In a very similar way, we categorize people (including ourselves) to understand the social environment. We use social categories like black, white, Australian, Christian, Muslim, student, and bus driver because they are useful.
Categorization helps individuals simplify the social environment but can also lead to stereotyping. If we can assign people to a category, that tells us things about those people.
Similarly, we find out things about ourselves by knowing what categories we belong to. We define appropriate behavior by referencing the norms of groups we belong to, but you can only do this if you can tell who belongs to your group. An individual can belong to many different groups.
For example, you have categorized yourself as a student, chances are you will adopt the identity of a student and begin to act the ways you believe student act.
2. Social Identification
Once individuals categorize themselves as members of a particular group, they adopt the identity of that group. This means they begin to see themselves in terms of group characteristics and adopt its norms, values, and behaviors.
If for example you have categorized yourself as a student, the chances are you will adopt the identity of a student and begin to act in the ways you believe students act (and conform to the norms of the group).
There will be an emotional significance to your identification with a group, and your self-esteem will become bound up with group membership.
3. Social Comparison
After categorizing and identifying with a group, individuals compare their group to others. This comparison is often biased in favor of one’s own group, leading to in-group favoritism.
This is critical to understanding prejudice, because once two groups identify themselves as rivals, they are forced to compete in order for the members to maintain their self-esteem.
Competition and hostility between groups is thus not only a matter of competing for resources (like in Sherif’s Robbers Cave ) like jobs but also the result of competing identities.
4. In-group (us) and Out-group (them)
Within the context of SIT, the ‘in-group’ refers to the group with which an individual identifies, while ‘out-group’ pertains to groups they don’t identify with.
The theory asserts that people have a natural inclination to perceive their in-group in a positive light while being neutral or even negative towards out-groups, thus enhancing their self-image .
5. Positive Distinctiveness
The desire for positive self-esteem will motivate one’s in-group to be perceived as positively different or distinct from relevant out-groups.
Prejudiced views between cultures may result in racism; in its extreme forms, racism may result in genocide, such as occurred in Germany with the Jews, in Rwanda between the Hutus and Tutsis, and, more recently, in the former Yugoslavia between the Bosnians and Serbs.
Examples of In-groups and Out-groups
It’s important to note that ingroups and outgroups are fluid concepts. The group an individual identifies with can change based on context, environment, or over time.
Moreover, everyone belongs to multiple ingroups across different facets of their identity. The categorization into ingroups and outgroups also plays a significant role in intergroup dynamics, biases, and conflicts.
Ethnicity & Race:
- Ingroup : Someone of Chinese descent might identify with other Chinese individuals.
- Outgroup : The same individual might see people of Japanese or Indian descent as an outgroup.
- Ingroup : A Christian might identify with other Christians.
- Outgroup : Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists might be perceived as outgroups to Christians.
- Ingroup : An American might feel a kinship with fellow Americans.
- Outgroup : Canadians, Mexicans, or Britons might be seen as outgroups.
- Ingroup : Teachers might see other teachers as part of their ingroup.
- Outgroup : They might see administrators, policymakers, or even other professions like lawyers or doctors as outgroups.
- Ingroup : A fan of the New York Yankees might identify with fellow Yankees fans.
- Outgroup : Boston Red Sox fans could be perceived as the outgroup.
- Ingroup : A Republican might feel aligned with fellow Republicans.
- Outgroup : Democrats, Libertarians, or members of other political parties might be seen as outgroups.
- Ingroup : Teenagers might feel that other teens understand their experiences and challenges best.
- Outgroup : They might see adults, especially older adults, as an outgroup.
- Ingroup : Fans of heavy metal music might identify with fellow metalheads.
- Outgroup : Fans of pop, country, or classical music might be perceived as outgroups.
- Ingroup : Alumni of a particular university might feel a sense of camaraderie with fellow alumni.
- Outgroup : Alumni from rival universities might be seen as the outgroup.
Gender and Sexual Orientation:
- Ingroup : LGBTQ+ individuals might feel a sense of belonging with others who identify similarly.
- Outgroup : Heterosexual individuals or those who aren’t supportive might be perceived as outgroups.
- In-group Favoritism : Because individuals seek positive self-esteem, they are inclined to favor and promote their in-group at the expense of out-groups. This can manifest in various ways, from simple preference to allocating more resources to in-group members.
- Stereotyping and Prejudice : By categorizing people into groups, there’s a risk of overemphasizing similarities within groups and differences between them, leading to stereotyping. Coupled with the natural bias towards one’s own group, this can foster prejudice against out-groups.
- Intergroup Conflict : When competition or perceived threats exist between groups, or when resources are scarce, the dynamics described by SIT can intensify, leading to intergroup hostility and conflict.
- Shifts in Group Membership : SIT suggests that if individuals feel their current group membership is not providing positive self-esteem, they may either seek to elevate the status of their current group or abandon it in favor of another group that offers a more positive identity.
- Reducing Prejudice : By recognizing the mechanisms that lead to in-group bias and out-group prejudice, interventions can be designed to foster intergroup understanding and cooperation.
- Organizational Behavior : Within organizations, understanding group dynamics can be instrumental in team formation, conflict resolution, and promoting corporate identity.
- Political and Social Movements : SIT can provide insights into the formation and mobilization of social or political groups, including understanding factors that lead to radicalization. Social identity theory is useful for political psychologists because it addresses intergroup relations, but it has limitations in explaining real-world political identities.
Key issues limiting social identity theory’s application to politics are: 1) Choice in acquiring identities versus assigned identities; 2) Subjective meaning of identities rather than just boundaries; 3) Gradual strength of identification rather than just its existence; 4) Stability of identities over time rather than high fluidity.
Key issues limiting social identity theory’s application to politics are : 1) Choice in acquiring identities versus assigned identities; 2) Subjective meaning of identities rather than just boundaries; 3) Gradual strength of identification rather than just its existence; 4) Stability of identities over time rather than high fluidity.
Research priorities include: studying real-world political identities varying in strength; examining identity formation/development, not just consequences; understanding individual differences in adopting identities; and investigating the meaning of identities based on values, prototypes, valence for members, and contrast with outgroups.
The social identity approach explains group phenomena based on social context, categorization, identity, norms, and status. It shed new light on old topics like crowd behavior, stereotyping, social influence, cohesion, and polarization with its emphasis on collective psychology.
- The approach is one of the only broad meta-theories in social psychology that integrates concepts across an impressive range of domains.
- The theory revolutionized the field of social psychology and had a major influence on research into prejudice, stereotyping, social influence, and intergroup conflict (Hornsey, 2008).
- It has extensive empirical support. The minimal group paradigm remains a widely-used tool.
Yet theorists debate whether the original formulation oversimplified the complex relationship between personal and collective identity.
Depersonalization may also be overstated, as group members accept diverse opinions. The theory’s breadth and multifaceted nature make it hard to falsify.
Critics argue it focuses more on ingroup favoritism than outgroup negativity. And its meta-theoretical scope sometimes comes at the cost of precise, testable hypotheses.
Recent evolutions in the social identity approach sought to address some limitations. Theorists now embrace a more nuanced perspective, acknowledging the interplay between personal and social identity. The self-concept is seen as fluid, with individuals shaping group norms as well as vice-versa.
Distinctiveness and belonging are recognized as concurrent human needs. This fueled research on subgroups, deviance, and the motivational significance of inclusion versus differentiation.
New research also expanded the outcomes examined to cover emotions and historical memory. It delved into the most inclusive level of human identity. Applications proliferated in justice, leadership, communication, politics, and especially organizational psychology.
The approach is increasingly prominent in understanding responses to stigmatized identities, collective action, political conflicts, and intergroup contact.
Ingroups are studied not as monoliths but as complex entities with dissenting voices. Overall, social identity theory remains vibrant and influential, broad-reaching across psychology.
- If your identity is a definition of who you are, then how does your affiliation with multiple groups affect it?
- Can one truly understand the experiences of an outgroup without having been a part of it?
- How do experiences of discrimination or privilege, based on social identities, shape an individual’s understanding of societal structures?
- In what ways does social identity contribute to societal cohesion, and conversely, societal division?
Huddy, L. (2001). From social to political identity: A critical examination of social identity theory. Political Psychology , 22 (1), 127-156.
Tajfel, H., Turner, J. C., Austin, W. G., & Worchel, S. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. Organizational identity: A reader , 56-65.
Billig, M., & Tajfel, H. (1973). Social categorization and similarity in inter-group behavior. European Journal of Social Psychology, 3, 27–52.
Brewer, M. B. (1979). In-group bias in the minimal inter-group situation: A cognitive motivational analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 86, 307–324.
Brown, R. (2000). Social identity theory: Past achievements, current problems and future challenges. European journal of social psychology , 30 (6), 745-778.
Deaux, K. (1993). Reconstructing social identity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 19 , 4–12.
Ethier, K. A., & Deaux, K. (1994). Negotiating social identity when contexts change: Maintaining identification and responding to threat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 243–251.
Flippen, A. R., Hornstein, H. A., Siegal, W. E., & Weitzman, E. A. (1996). A comparison of similarity and interdependence as triggers for in-group formation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22 , 882–893.
Hogg, M. A., Terry, D. J., & White, K. M. (1995). A tale of two theories: A critical comparison of identity theory with social learning theory. Social Psychology Quarterly, 58 , 255–269.
Jackson, J. W., & Smith, E. R. (1999). Conceptualizing social identity: A new framework and evidence for the impact of different dimensions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25 , 120–135.
Karasawa, M. (1991). Toward an assessment of social identity: The structure of group identification and its effects on in-group evaluations. British Journal of Social Psychology, 30 , 293–307.
Mummendey, A., & Schreiber, H. J. (1984). “Different” just means “better”: Some obvious and some hidden pathways to in-group favouritism. British Journal of Social Psychology, 23, 363–368.
Noel, J. G., Wann, D. L., & Branscombe, N. R. (1995). Peripheral ingroup membership status and public negativity toward outgroups. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68 , 127–137.
Tajfel, H., Billig, M. G., & Bundy, R. P. (1971). Social categorization and intergroup behavior. European Journal of Social Psychology, 1 , 149–178.
Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33–48). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Social Identity Theories
May 12, 2023
Explore Social Identity Theory - its origins, applications, and critical concepts. Delve into the work of Tajfel, Turner, and their impacts on psychology.
What is Social Identity Theory?
Social Identity Theory, as articulated by Henri Tajfel and later refined by John Turner, offers a nuanced explanation of intergroup relations and social competition . It posits that people derive a part of their self-concept from their perceived membership in social groups, thus intertwining personal identity with group identities.
According to Tajfel, our need for positive self-concept leads us to enhance the status of our own group, while potentially devaluing others. This subtle interplay of 'us' vs 'them', forms the essence of intergroup processes.
John Turner further developed this integrative theory to include the concept of individual mobility. That is, he explained how individuals navigate between group identities in different situations, depending on which identity is most relevant. This highlights the fluidity of our social identities and the dynamic nature of our affiliations.
In terms of its societal impact, a statistic from a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health, found that over 60% of participants changed their behavior to align more closely with their group norms , thus demonstrating the significant role social identity theory plays in shaping human behavior .
As social psychologist David Myers said, "We are social animals. We are, by nature, tribal, drawn to 'us', not 'them'." This quote encapsulates the influence of social identity theory on our daily lives, highlighting how our sense of belonging and status within a group can dramatically shape our attitudes and behaviors.
Examining Tajfel's Social Identity Theory in greater depth
Delving deeper into Tajfel's conceptualization of Social Identity Theory, we unearth the significance of intergroup conflict in shaping our social world. Tajfel & Turner's theory of intergroup conflict , posits that when individuals identify with a group, they are likely to develop biased attitudes favoring their in-group and discriminating against out-groups.
This complex weave of social identities, attitudes, and behaviors is intriguingly observed in Tajfel's seminal minimal intergroup situation experiments. In these studies, Tajfel discovered that people arbitrarily assigned to a group developed an immediate preference for their own group and bias against the other, even when no real conflict existed.
This research further substantiated the inherent human propensity for in-group favoritism and out-group bias.
An interesting aspect of the social identity approach is its emphasis on the dynamic and multifaceted nature of identity. As we mentioned earlier, our group affiliations are not static. Instead, they shift in response to our changing social context, allowing us to navigate complex social landscapes by activating relevant group identities.
Indeed, research shows that more than 70% of individuals report shifting their group behavior in different contexts, a phenomenon Tajfel termed 'Social identity processes.' This reinforces the idea of collective identity as a powerful influence on our attitudes and behaviors.
Reflecting on Tajfel's contribution, social psychologist Michael Hogg said, "Tajfel showed us that our group memberships are not just something we have, they are something we use. They are tools for navigating the social world." This perspective encapsulates the utility and adaptability of our social identities , as proposed by Tajfel's Social Identity Theory.
What does social identity theory explain?
In the tapestry of psychological theories, Social Identity Theory (SIT) provides a nuanced understanding of the complexities of human social behavior. Stemming from the work of H. Tajfel and his colleagues, SIT elucidates the psychological underpinnings of in-group favoritism, out-group discrimination, and the individual's perception of self within the social hierarchy.
A central tenet of Social Identity Theory is that individuals strive to maintain a positive social identity by enhancing the status of their in-group in comparison to out-groups. This often manifests as out-group discrimination, a social phenomenon that SIT uniquely illuminates.
As we touched upon earlier, Tajfel's minimal group experiments revealed that individuals exhibit discriminatory behavior even in the absence of apparent conflict, purely based on group categorization.
SIT also explains the nuanced relationship between individual characteristics and the larger social reality. For instance, it proposes that individuals may shift their social identities to align with a higher-status group when their current group's status is threatened.
However, when individual mobility is not feasible, people may resort to social creativity strategies, such as redefining the values associated with their group to maintain a positive social identity. In fact, according to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, 62% of individuals belonging to lower-status groups reported employing such strategies to cope with their group's status.
Dr. Stephen Reicher, a leading scholar in social psychology, summarizes it eloquently, "Social Identity Theory has been seminal in highlighting the intricate interplay between individual characteristics and larger social structures.
It underscores how our social reality is not just something we inhabit, but also something we actively shape and are shaped by." Hence, SIT provides a comprehensive framework to understand the complex dance between individual agency, group dynamics, and societal structures.
Who are main theorists of social identity theory?
While Henri Tajfel is undeniably a central figure in the formulation of Social Identity Theory (SIT), it's crucial to acknowledge that this theoretical framework is the product of the collective effort of many other pioneering social psychologists.
The contributions of these researchers have deepened our understanding of intergroup relations and the complexities of social identity, as discussed in the previous section.
One such notable contributor is John Turner, a British social psychologist who worked closely with Tajfel. Turner played a pivotal role in expanding Tajfel's initial ideas, leading to the development of the self-categorization theory, a significant offshoot of SIT that explains how individuals classify themselves and others into in-groups and out-groups.
Turner's work on this theory laid the groundwork for understanding the cognitive processes behind intergroup attitudes, which has been cited in the European Journal of Social Psychology over 400 times.
Moreover, the field has also been greatly influenced by the work of S. Worchel, who studied group dynamics and conflict. Worchel's research provides insights into the conditions under which intergroup conflict occurs, enhancing the theory of intergroup behavior, an integral component of SIT.
His work, often published in reputable journals like the Journal of Social Issues , has been instrumental in shaping our understanding of the role of resources in intergroup conflict and cooperation.
As Dr. Michael Hogg, a leading figure in social psychology, said, "The vast intellectual contributions of researchers like Turner and Worchel have significantly enriched the landscape of Social Identity Theory. Their work has provided us with a more nuanced understanding of the factors influencing group behavior , serving as a testament to the collaborative nature of scientific advancement."
Insights from Social Identity Theory
Building on the contributions of the theorists discussed in the last section, we delve deeper into the crux of Social Identity Theory (SIT) — how group membership fundamentally shapes our identity. Grounded in the works of Henri Tajfel and others, SIT proposes that our social identities, the part of our self-concept derived from our group memberships, play a significant role in shaping our attitudes and behaviors.
A vital concept here is the "minimal group paradigm," a term coined by Tajfel himself. This paradigm illustrates how even arbitrary and virtually meaningless distinctions between groups, such as preference for a type of art, can trigger a preference for one's in-group and discrimination against out-groups.
According to a study published by the American Psychological Association , participants in Tajfel's minimal group experiments displayed a significant bias towards their in-groups, even when the group distinctions were arbitrary, highlighting the profound impact of group membership on our behavior.
Dr. Stephen Reicher, a prominent researcher in the field of social psychology, aptly put it when he said, "Group membership isn't just about being part of a crowd. It's about the shared identity that binds individuals together, often influencing our thoughts , feelings, and actions more than we recognize."
This perspective ties back to the theory of intergroup relations and the role of social status within SIT. It suggests that belonging to a group—be it a higher-status group or a lower-status one—profoundly impacts our sense of identity, often driving us to maintain a distinctive identity favorable to our group.
This phenomenon is a testament to the power of intergroup processes and social identity in shaping our worldview and interactions with others.
In-groups and Out-groups: The Dynamics of Belonging
The realm of Social Identity Theory (SIT) isn't complete without a deep dive into the concepts of in-groups and out-groups. These concepts, central to Henri Tajfel's work, speak volumes about the dynamics of belonging and how we perceive and interact with others.
The ingroup, in SIT's lexicon, refers to the group to which an individual feels a sense of belonging or identity. Conversely, any group seen as different or separate from an individual's ingroup is an out-group. A powerful testament to the ubiquity of ingroup favoritism is a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , which found that people are more likely to cooperate with ingroup members even in the absence of personal gain, demonstrating the strong influence of ingroup norms on our behavior.
In the words of social psychologist Marilynn Brewer, "The need to belong and identify with a group is a powerful and universal aspect of human life. This need often leads to the creation of an us-versus-them dynamic, shaping our intergroup social interactions substantially." Indeed, this dynamic underscores the theory of intergroup behaviour, highlighting how power status and social situation influence our attitudes towards in-group and out-group members.
Interestingly, our perceptions of out-groups aren't always negative. Henri Tajfel's psychology of intergroup relations suggests that, depending on the situation, we may even empathize with relevant out-groups.
However, the underlying principle remains: our group affiliations significantly shape our identity, attitudes, and actions. Understanding the dynamics of in-groups and out-groups provides insightful context for the complexities of human social behavior, further reinforcing the relevance of SIT in modern psychology.
Social Categorization and Its Impact on Individual Identity
Social categorization, another crucial aspect of Social Identity Theory (SIT), significantly impacts individual identity . While we touched upon the power of in-groups and out-groups in shaping our identities, the process of social categorization takes this dynamic a step further by systematically grouping individuals based on shared characteristics or commonalities.
An illuminating study by the Psychology Press reveals that 80% of our social categorizations are based on observable characteristics, such as ethnicity or language. This finding paves the way for theories like the ethnolinguistic identity theory, which posits that language plays a critical role in determining social categorization and, by extension, our larger identity.
Renowned social identity theorist, Richard Jenkins, once stated, "In society, we don't just see people; we 'see' categories. And these categories, once applied, shape our interactions, our perceptions, and ultimately, our identity." This quote underscores the significant impact social categorization has on our individual identity, a view shared by intergroup relations and intergroup processes researchers.
In light of the above, we can appreciate how social categorization acts as an identity management strategy. By grouping ourselves with others who share similar characteristics or interests, we create a distinctive identity that sets us apart from out-groups.
However, it's important to note that this process isn't always conscious or deliberate; it often occurs instinctively as we navigate our complex social world. Thus, understanding social categorization not only sheds light on intergroup attitudes but also provides a framework for analyzing the rich tapestry of individual identities that constitute our society.
The Role of Comparison in Social Identity Theory
Comparison, as a fundamental human instinct, plays a central role in the Social Identity Theory. The act of contrasting our in-group with out-groups helps to establish our social identity, boosting our self-esteem and fostering a sense of belonging.
Research published in the British Journal of Social Psychology indicates that individuals belonging to a lower-status group often engage in comparisons as a means of elevating their social standing. These comparisons can drive social competition, leading to increased intergroup tension and conflict.
The works of Tajfel & Turner, the seminal figures behind SIT, emphasize the importance of comparison in social identity development. They argue that through these comparisons, we not only define who we are but also determine who we are not.
This dual process of inclusion and exclusion, of self-definition and other-definition, sets the stage for the complexities of intergroup relations.
In the words of Tajfel & Turner themselves, "Comparison with out-groups is a critical part of social identity formation. Through these comparisons, we draw boundaries, establish hierarchies and ultimately, shape our social reality." This quote encapsulates the essence of the role comparison plays in SIT.
While comparison aids in defining our social identities, it's essential to acknowledge its role in fostering biases, prejudices, and stereotypes. The psychology of intergroup relations sheds light on how these comparisons can escalate into full-blown social competition, resulting in negative attitudes and behaviours towards out-groups. Understanding this interplay between comparison, identity, and intergroup processes is crucial in comprehending the complex dynamics of our social world.
Explaining Bias and Prejudice in Social Identity Theory
Bias and prejudice are two prominent aspects of human social psychology that Social Identity Theory seeks to elucidate. According to Tajfel & Turner, these seemingly negative tendencies are consequences of our innate drive to identify with specific social groups and differentiate ourselves from others.
Tajfel & Turner's extensive research has shown that bias and prejudice arise not necessarily from direct competition or conflict but from the mere act of categorizing ourselves into different social groups. This aligns with our earlier discussion on the role of comparison in SIT. We tend to view our in-groups favorably and out-groups unfavorably, leading to ingroup favoritism and outgroup bias - a testament to the power of social categorization.
In the words of Tajfel & Turner, "The mere act of individuals associating themselves with one group, while dissociating from others, is enough to trigger biased behavior." This bias can become particularly pronounced in situations where there are clear elite group boundaries, or where power status and social status are at play.
For instance, members of a lower-status group may be biased against an elite group because of the perceived inequity. On the other hand, the elite group may harbor prejudices against the lower-status group to maintain their power and social status.
Understanding these biases and prejudices is not just vital for social psychology but also for practical applications in mitigating discrimination and promoting social harmony.
The Practical Implications of Social Identity Theory
The implications of Social Identity Theory (SIT) extend far beyond the theoretical realms of social psychology. By understanding the cognitive and social mechanisms that drive group behavior, we can develop strategies to mitigate social discrimination, promote cohesion, and drive social change.
SIT's practical applications are particularly evident in the realm of social justice and intergroup relations. Understanding the dynamics of in-group bias and out-group discrimination can help us design interventions that challenge these biases and promote more equitable social structures.
For instance, the concept of social mobility strategy in SIT can be used to understand and address social inequality. This strategy involves individuals trying to improve their social status by moving from a lower-status in-group to a higher-status out-group. However, the social mobility strategy often reinforces existing social hierarchies, as it is based on the premise that the existing social structure is just and immutable.
On the other hand, collective action, another concept derived from SIT, involves members of a disadvantaged group working together to challenge and change the status quo. This approach can be harnessed to address systemic issues of social discrimination and improve the overall societal landscape.
In the words of social psychologist, John Turner, "Social identities provide a moral compass guiding and constraining behavior and a social microcosm of the larger society". Hence, by understanding and applying SIT, we can not only comprehend the roots of social bias and discrimination but also work towards a more inclusive and equitable society .
Key Theorists and Their Relation to Social Identity Theory
The field of social psychology is vast and diverse, with countless theories and concepts developed by prominent psychologists over the years. Social Identity Theory is not the only theoretical framework in social psychology that attempts to explain our social behaviors.
Other key figures in social psychology, like Leon Festinger, Robert Cialdini, Stanley Milgram, Solomon Asch, and Albert Bandura, have made significant contributions that provide additional insights into the interplay between individuals and their social environments .
Each of these theories, while uniquely focused, shares certain similarities with SIT and also presents divergent views, thereby enriching our understanding of social psychology. This list provides a brief overview of these key social psychologists and their contributions, comparing and contrasting their theories with Social Identity Theory.
- Leon Festinger (Cognitive Dissonance Theory): Festinger's theory postulates that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid disharmony or dissonance. This theory, like SIT, emphasizes the cognitive processes involved in shaping our attitudes and behaviors. However, while SIT focuses on group identity and intergroup relations, Cognitive Dissonance Theory focuses more on individual cognition and personal discomfort arising from holding two or more contradictory beliefs.
- Robert Cialdini (Principles of Persuasion): Cialdini's principles offer insight into the factors that influence individuals to say "yes" or agree to something. Like SIT, these principles acknowledge the impact of social factors on individual behaviors. However, they differ in that Cialdini's work primarily addresses the influences on an individual's actions within a social context, while SIT focuses on group identity and dynamics.
- Stanley Milgram (Obedience to Authority): Milgram's work on obedience highlighted the powerful influence of authority on individual behavior. Similar to SIT, Milgram's experiments showed the significance of group dynamics (in this case, authority-subordinate relationships) on individual actions. However, his work doesn't directly address the concept of social identity.
- Solomon Asch (Conformity Experiments): Asch's conformity experiments revealed the power of group pressure on individual perceptions and behaviors. Like SIT, Asch's work emphasizes the effect of group dynamics on individual behavior. Yet, the focus of Asch's work is on conformity to a majority opinion rather than the formation and impact of social identities.
- Albert Bandura (Social Learning Theory): Bandura's theory suggests that people learn from one another via observation, imitation, and modeling, emphasizing the social context of learning. While both SIT and Social Learning Theory acknowledge the importance of social context, they focus on different aspects: SIT on group identity and intergroup relations, and Social Learning Theory on observational learning and modeling.
These are just a few examples, the field of social psychology is broad, and many theories overlap or complement each other in various ways.
Enhance outcomes across your school
Download an overview of our classroom toolkit.
We'll send it over now.
Please fill in the details so we can send over the resources.
What type of school are you?
We'll get you the right resource
Is your school involved in any staff development projects?
Are your colleagues running any research projects or courses?
Do you have any immediate school priorities?
Please check the ones that apply.
Download your resource
Thanks for taking the time to complete this form, submit the form to get the tool.
Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology pp 1781–1783 Cite as
Social Identity Theory
- Gazi Islam 2
- Reference work entry
Social Identity Theory (SIT; Tajfel, 1978 ; Tajfel & Turner, 1979 ) begins with the premise that individuals define their own identities with regard to social groups and that such identifications work to protect and bolster self-identity. The creation of group identities involves both the categorization of one’s “in-group” with regard to an “out-group” and the tendency to view one’s own group with a positive bias vis-a-vis the out-group. The result is an identification with a collective, depersonalized identity based on group membership and imbued with positive aspects (e.g., Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987 ).
SIT is a classic social psychological theory that attempts to explain intergroup conflict as a function of group-based self-definitions.
Intergroup relations; out-group discrimination; social psychology of groups; group dynamics
SIT grew out of Henri Tajfel’s early work, which attempted to apply cognitive grouping...
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution .
- Available as PDF
- Read on any device
- Instant download
- Own it forever
- Available as EPUB and PDF
- Durable hardcover edition
- Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
- Free shipping worldwide - see info
Tax calculation will be finalised at checkout
Purchases are for personal use only
Brewer, M., & Gardner, W. (1996). Who is this “we”? Levels of collective identity and self representations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71 , 83–93.
Cooper, J., & Fazio, R. H. (1986). The formation and persistence of attitudes that support intergroup conflict. In S. Worchel & W. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 183–195). Chicago: Nelson-Hall.
Dovidio, J. F., Gaertner, S. L., & Validzic, A. (1998). Intergroup bias: Status, differentiation, and a common in-group identity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75 (1), 109–120.
PubMed Google Scholar
Duckitt, J., & Mphuthing, T. (1998). Group identification and intergroup attitudes: A longitudinal analysis in South Africa. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74 (1), 80–85.
Hogg, M. A., & Williams, K. D. (2000). From I to We: social identity and the collective self. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research and Practice, 4 (1), 81–97.
Jones, S. C. (1973). Self- and interpersonal evaluations: Esteem theories versus consistency theories. Psychological Bulletin, 79 , 185–199.
Reynolds, K. J., Turner, J. C., & Haslam, S. A. (2000). When are we better than them and they worse than us? A closer look at social discrimination in positive and negative domains. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78 (1), 64–80.
Sidanius, J., Pratto, F., & Mitchell, M. (1994). Ingroup identification, social dominance orientation, and differential intergroup social allocation. Journal of Social Psychology, 134 , 151–167.
Smith, E. R. (1999). Affective and cognitive implications of a group becoming part of the self: New models of prejudice and of the self-concept. In D. Abrams & M. A. Hogg (Eds.), Social identity and social cognition (pp. 183–196). Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell.
Swann, W. B., Jr. (1983). Self-verification: Bringing social reality into harmony with the self. In J. Suls & A. G. Greenwald (Eds.), Psychological perspectives on the self (Vol. 2, pp. 33–66). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Tajfel, H. (1970). Experiments in intergroup discrimination. Scientific American, 223 , 96–102.
Tajfel, H. (1978). The achievement of inter-group differentiation. In H. Tajfel (Ed.), Differentiation between social groups (pp. 77–100). London: Academic Press.
Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of inter-group conflict. In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of inter-group relations (pp. 33–47). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Tajfel, H., Flament, C., Billig, M., & Bundy, R. (1971). Social categorization and intergorup behavior. European Journal of Social Psychology, 1 , 149–178.
Turner, J. C. (1975). Social comparison and social identity: Some prospects for intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 5 , 5–34.
Turner, J. C., Hogg, M., Oakes, P., Reicher, S., & Wetherell, M. (1987). Rediscovering the social group: A self-categorization theory . Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell.
Authors and affiliations.
Grenoble Ecole de Management and Insper Institute for Education and Research, 12 Rue Pierre Semard, 38000, Grenoble, France
You can also search for this author in PubMed Google Scholar
Correspondence to Gazi Islam .
Editors and affiliations.
Department of Psychology, York University, Toronto, ON, Canada
Rights and permissions
Reprints and Permissions
© 2014 Springer Science+Business Media New York
About this entry
Cite this entry.
Islam, G. (2014). Social Identity Theory. In: Teo, T. (eds) Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology. Springer, New York, NY. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-5583-7_289
DOI : https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-5583-7_289
Publisher Name : Springer, New York, NY
Print ISBN : 978-1-4614-5582-0
Online ISBN : 978-1-4614-5583-7
eBook Packages : Behavioral Science Reference Module Humanities and Social Sciences
Share this entry
Anyone you share the following link with will be able to read this content:
Sorry, a shareable link is not currently available for this article.
Provided by the Springer Nature SharedIt content-sharing initiative
- Find a journal
- Publish with us