What is Social Identity Theory?

In the late 1960s and 1970s, psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner hypothesized that intergroup relations, and the ways in which individuals categorize themselves relative to those groups, play a role in creating individuals’ positive self-image (Jackson, 2010).  They suggest that among the intangible concepts that help form a sense of identity are the social groups to which one belongs (Scott, 2011). Individuals place a value on belonging to a particular group and that value has an emotional basis (Reed, 2002).  The group may be formal or informal.  For example, a student may admire the members of a club or organization—a formal, defined group—and membership in that organization provides the student a sense of self-fulfillment and personal comfort.   Or a group could be more informal groupings such as residents of city, state, country or neighborhood, people who root for a sports team, live in a particular type of home or drive a particular type of car.   It is the individual’s perception of that group and their relation to it that is key to self-definition.

Self-definition derived from social group membership forms the basis of social identity theory (Jackson, 2010).  Social identity theory contends that individuals acquire a sense of self through their engagement in group situations (Brown, 1999).  According to the theory, individuals become part of groups or seek to join groups that will contribute to a positive self-perception, and an individual will leave a group that ceases to meet those needs for positive self-perception (Tajfel, 1974).  Groups operate within a broader society, amid numerous other groups, and the positive or negative perceptions or competition between groups impact an individual’s self-perception (Tajfel, 1974).  Social identity theory suggests that individuals strive for a positive social identity, and that positive social identity arises from judgments made between groups (Brown, 2000).  Individuals may identify themselves in multiple groups and will move between groups as internal and external perceptions of self and of the groups evolve.  As individuals join groups, they are not static within the group, they interact and evolve, taking on traits of the group, ultimately adding to their self-esteem (West & Hennessey, 1999).  Conversely, individuals construct self-identification by avoiding association with some social groups (Scott, 2007).

For a fuller discussion, refer to the Literature Review.


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