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What is Social Identity Theory?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Social identity theory is a theory designed to explain how it is that people develop a sense of membership and belonging in particular groups, and how the mechanics of intergroup discrimination work. This theory plays an important role in the study of social psychology. Everyone from sports fans to students of elite colleges is influenced to some degree by social identity, and this theory explains how intergroup competition and discrimination can get so vicious that people will be driven to acts as extreme as murder or the promotion of legislation that is designed to marginalize members of other groups, such as Jim Crow laws in the American South.

Several interconnected mechanisms are at work with social identity theory. The core idea is that people tend to seek out group membership as an affirmation of self esteem, but that membership in a group alone is not enough to build an affirm self esteem. To feel better, though, people have to believe that they are in the right group, which creates the need for a positive distinction from other groups.

One of the concepts behind this theory is categorization, the idea that humans all categorize each other, sometimes subconsciously, creating a set of natural groups. Describing someone as a woman, a business person, a wheel chair user, and so forth is creating a series of categorizations. These categories play into personal identity and the perception of the identities of others. Personal identification with a specific group and the development of an ingroup mentality is also involved.

One interesting thing to note is that people can be part of multiple groups, and that the part of their identity that is most dominant can change, depending on which group they are associating with. For example, a gay man who belongs to a professional organization of surgeons may feel that the gay part of his identity is dominant when he is among other gay men, confirming his ingroup identity, and that the surgeon aspect of his identity is dominant when he is among other surgeons or in the hospital.

Comparison is also a key part of social identity theory. Once people have categorized themselves and others, they can start to compare themselves. People generally want to create favorable comparisons that make their own groups appear superior. This plays into psychological distinctiveness, the desire to be unique within a group identity, and to be viewed positively when compared to others. The gay surgeon, for example, may derive self esteem from the knowledge when when he is compared with a surgical nurse, he may be viewed as superior because of his more advanced job title.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By KrystLe Wachunas — On Oct 13, 2010

I am doing a report in English on the social identity theory.

If you know of any websites or book where I can get some information please let me know. I can only use one internet source and the others have to be from books. Thank you.

By Crispety — On Aug 06, 2010

Icecream 17- I also read somewhere that the social identity development theory states that children as young as seven might seek to play with only children of the same background.

This may lead to teasing or bullying other children that are different because of the prejudice that has developed.

By icecream17 — On Aug 06, 2010

Latte31- The psychology of social identity can also lead to positive outcomes. People that identify so closely with a specific group might develop political activism.

They might seek to engage others in what they see as problems related to their group and might seek legislative changes as a result.

They also might support candidates that have similar views regarding the issues of their group.

For example, a group of gay people might lobby Washington in order to pass laws allowing gay adoption in all states. Identifying with this cause not only brings attention to the cause also enhances the possibility of a positive outcome.

By latte31 — On Aug 06, 2010

Cafe41- I wanted to add that Henri Tajfel's social identity theory was developed after conducting many experiments.

He explained that people label themselves into a group, and prefers to associate with those people of the same characteristics.

For example, a group of violent teens might identify with gangs and therefore seek to associate themselves with this type of counterculture.

Tajel believed that this strong affinity for a particular group might lead to stereotyping and prejudice. This could be the view from the people inside a particular subgroup as well as the people on the outside looking in to this particular group.

By cafe41 — On Aug 06, 2010

There is a great book entitled, “Social Theory and the Politics of Identity” by Craig Calhoun talks about this very subject.

He explains the significance of the gay movement, the women's movement, and the civil rights movement. He writes that many of these movements gave rise to political causes identified by certain groups.

For example, the women's movement brought upon potential legislation regarding the Equal Rights amendment. Many women at the time, identified with a common struggle that pertained only to women.

Women wanted equality which meant equal pay for equal work. Although this amendment did not pass, it still brought a lot of attention to women's issues. Many women today align with this social psychology identity.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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