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Social Identity refers to an individual’s sense of who they are based on which group they belong to. It basically refers to their identity in the context of a group. Henri Tajfel and his student, John Turner developed this theory in the 1970s.

social identity

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Tajfel believed that the groups that an individual belongs to are essential for building their esteem and confidence and are a part of who they are. These groups can be family, friends, work organization, non-profit company or a cricket team. These groups provided a sense of belonging and unity to the individuals.


Henri Tajfel was a social psychologist, who developed the social identity theory. He went through a traumatic time during his early years, as his family and friends were killed in the Holocaust. This might have inspired his future research on prejudice and social identity.

He believed categorization led to prejudice. His opinions were different from the views around prejudice during that time. Other psychologists believed that prejudice was a result of personality factors.

Eventually, Tajfel and his colleagues performed certain experiments to test the social identity theory. They made groups of people, who had no contact with each other prior to the study. These groups were made randomly, without considering any similarities between people.

It was found that the participants showed loyalty or preference towards their group members, even if they had no bond with them previously. They did not even receive any rewards for being loyal to their group. Just being in a group together created a sense of belonging in them.

Additionally, they preferred own group members over other groups, creating a sense of favoritism towards own group and a kind of discrimination towards other groups. There was no strict competition here but still, intergroup conflict prevailed. This study proved that group membership is a powerful phenomenon and can impact an individual’s behavior and sense of identity.

Social Identity Theory

This theory calculates certain intergroup behaviour on the root of professed status, credibility, legitimacy and permeability. The term social identity used to explain human social selves in contrast with this theory. The interpersonal behaviour will be largely influenced by the intergroup behaviour.

The major assumption of this theory is that the individuals will have the tendency to achieve and maintain a positive self-distinctiveness, which will be highly motivated by the membership in a group.

Individuals of varying interpersonal behaviour will be defined by their social identities. So the individuals in a group will have a tendency to achieve and maintain a social identity. The tendency to achieve and maintain the positive self-distinctiveness is a matter of debate.

In-Group And Out-Group

This theory gave basis for the formation of in-groups and out-groups. Individuals consider their own group as in-group and the others following beyond the group boundary as out-group.

For example, a cricket team considers its own members as in-group and the members of another team as out-group. The process of forming in-groups and out-groups requires 3 essential steps, commonly described as stages of social identity theory.

1. Social Categorization:

This process involves defining people according to their position or place in a social group, rather than their individual characteristic.

For example, seeing a person as a white woman (based on her race and gender, both social groups) and not as a hard-working person in a company. This process allows us to understand people and put them in groups to interpret the vast social world around us.

This process includes focusing on the similarities between people belonging in a particular group and glorifying the differences between them and the other groups.

For example, focusing on the similarities between women and how they are more empathetic than men. This is a true example of how people are put in boxes according to the group they belong to.

2. Social Identification:

This process involves identifying with a social group and following its principles or norms.

For example, a person belonging to a fitness group could define themselves as healthy, a believer of exercising and eating mindfully. He or she will try to follow these norms as they identify with the group of fitness strongly.

This belief and following norms makes people emotionally invested in groups and strengthens their identification with these groups. Their esteem and confidence also gets attached to these groups.

3. Social Comparison:

This process involves comparing one’s own group with other groups in the sense of competition or rivalry. People want to maintain their self-esteem, which is now attached to these groups, so they perceive their own group to be more prestigious or better than the other groups.

For example, a working woman may see herself as better than a housewife. She may belong to a group that glorifies professionalism over personal life, hence, she sees herself to be better than a housewife.

Additionally, in-group favoritism and out-group discrimination are distinct phenomena, and one does not necessarily predict the other. Both these concepts are often thought of as similar topics but are different.

Research has indicated that in-group favoritism does not always lead to discrimination of out-group. People can prefer in-group members over out-group members for events or in situations, but that does not necessarily mean that they are revolting against the out-group.

In-group favoritism does lead to negative situations such as stereotyping people or racism or sexism, but these attitudes don’t always turn into serious actions.

On the other hand, out-group discrimination is always unhealthy ideology. Since those people are unfairly treated, unjustified on basis of race, gender, religion, community etc. Also, its proven that opportunities and privileges are restricted to the out-group members, that are available for the other (in-group) members.

Social Identity Theory In Sports Context

Consider a football match, all the members in the team are playing to achieving the common objective of winning the game. As a team they have definite boundaries and as members of the team they have their own objectives to achieve because the status of the individual players varies from higher level to lower level based on their performances.

According to Social Identity Theory the individual group members may formulate strategies to increase their status. In the field, the individual players may perform to attain the high status rather than accomplishing the common objective of the group.

Positive Group/ Self-Distinctiveness Strategies

People tend to maintain a positive image of their in-groups. This positive image gives them a sense of self-esteem; hence they focus on the better traits, qualities and characteristics of these groups. For this reason, people often evaluate their in-group’s qualities to be superior or better than the out-group.

They also tend to focus more on the outgroup’s flaws than their successes. This comparison makes them feel better about their own social identity.

Social Identity theory details certain strategies which appeal to achieve and maintain the described positive self-distinctiveness. The group status hierarchy and the permeability of the boundaries plays a major role in the choice of strategies.

If, for some reason, people cannot maintain this positive image of their group, they tend to follow these strategies:

  1. Individual Mobility: When a group is not being beneficial to an individual or is under a lot of scrutiny in a negative sense, an individual might choose to leave this group and join another group that has a better social status or privilege. This might be done to support an individual’s esteem.
  2. Social Creativity: This strategy involves sticking to the in-group and trying to better their image through certain tactics. The tactic can be comparing the in-group with a lower out-group in order to make the in-group look better. Another tactic is to change the initial way of comparing groups and suggesting a new way of social comparison that would make the in-group look superior. These tactics help in changing how people perceive the in-group.
  3. Social Competition: Another strategy is to compete with another group in order to win back the positive image. If the in-group wins the competition or situation, they will be seen as winners, and thus, will be perceived as more likeable. This strategy is likely to be followed when changing groups is not allowed. This strategy has received the most attention from different theorists.

Consequences Of Social Identity

1. Stereotyping:

As we know, social identity theory states that people identify themselves through their groups (gender, race, ethnicity, teams). Their social identity becomes ingrained with their esteem and confidence. They create a us-vs-them mentality through this identity.

To feel secure and confident, people engage in intergroup comparisons and favor their own group over other groups by highlighting and focusing on in-group strengths and out-group failures. This tendency can give rise to stereotypes.

For example, men identifying with their gender and highlighting their ‘physical strength’ and male privileges as a group could lead to gender stereotyping. It could make them feel they are superior.

Another example could be white people identifying with their race and believing it to be superior to other races, leading to discrimination.

2. Prosocial Behaviors:

One good consequence of social identity is engaging in prosocial activities. When people identify with a non-profit organizational group or charitable company, they could perform prosocial behaviors such as donating food or clothes, educating the underprivileged, etc.

3. Identity Threat:

People belonging to groups can experience various types of identity threats due to their social identity.

a). When the competence or intelligence of a group is challenged, an individual belonging to that group can feel group-status threat. He or she can also feel a threat when the morality of the group is questioned.

For example, there are 2 groups competing in a science quiz. The prize is something both the groups’ desire. Now, if one group wins with all the points and the team that loses gains zero points, they are likely to feel group-status threat.

b). Categorization threat is felt when individuals are perceived by their group identity instead of their self-identity during times when they would want to be addressed by self-identity.

For example, when an individual who happens to be Chinese by race and a designer by profession is participating in a fashion competition, is seen as a distinct individual in a group, because of his race, and not by his talent or profession.

c). Group distinctiveness threat can be experienced by individuals when their group is not given special attention for being unique or different from other groups.

d). Individuals experience acceptance threat when they expect to be included and accepted in a particular group they identify with, but the group fails to accept or include them.

For example, a student who likes to rap wants to join a rap club in his college. But the club refuses to accept him. This could lead to acceptance threat in that student.

e). Stereotype threat refers to a threat or fear that people experience when they feel that they are at risk for conforming to a stereotype about their group.

For example, there is a stereotype that women are more emotional or sensitive than men. Now, in a business context, women can feel scared to express any feelings, as they could be stereotyped. They would just be seen as women, and not anything more.

How Can SIT Be Used To Explain Intergroup Conflict?

Social identity theory attempts to explain intergroup conflict. Intergroup conflict basically refers to fights or conflicts between groups. When people identify strongly with a group, they are willing to engage in a conflict with another group, if there is a need to protect their in-group or their social identity.

For example, wars between countries. These conflicts can occur due to competition and winning resources and sometimes, even without competition. Identifying strongly with a group can make people want to engage in any level of conflict.

Strengths Of Social Identity Theory

  • Social Identity Theory has provided the differentiation between social and personal identities.
  • It can also be used to explain concepts such as in-group bias, conformity, stereotype threat and intergroup conflict.
  • Ethnocentrism, favoritism and stereotypes can also be explained using social identity theory.

Limitations Of Social Identity Theory

  • It has low ecological validity, meaning it can be applied in real life, in very few situations.
  • It can describe certain human behaviors but cannot necessarily predict them.
  • It does not consider other factors such as social contexts (poverty), cultural differences and expectations, etc.
{ 2 comments… add one }
  • David Sheets January 8, 2016, 8:55 am

    The explanation of social identity theory was a very small aspect of the conceptualization of the ideals associated with the theory. For example, an individual will perceive of an affiliation to membership within a group of similar interest and characteristics. When addressed as an individual, the person will interpret and respond according to how the implication affects the group. The perspective of in-group/out-group addresses issues of unionization, school yard bullying, parents versus children, etc. The theory is a hybrid between the initial social identity component and social categorization. As an individual, a person does not neglect associated interest or membership with those of similar world perceptions.

  • Abdemageed Muhammed October 7, 2018, 6:39 pm

    This theory give the individual’s ability to explain himself among groups

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