Psychology Of Social Identity Research Paper

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1. Social Identity

Social identity is those aspects of the self-concept that are derived from belonging to social groups and categories. Social identity theory was developed by Henri Tajfel and colleagues at the University of Bristol in the 1970s and 1980s. Social identity is a concept that continues to be used widely in the social psychology of intergroup relations, social influence, and the self. This research paper describes social identity theory and associated work on intergroup relations and group processes. It points to the diverse areas of research to which the theory has contributed and concludes with issues that are currently being explored.

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2. Minimal Conditions For Intergroup Bias

In the 1960s and 1970s social psychology underwent a crisis of confidence that generated a powerful critique of individualistic theorizing and research. In response, European social psychologists began to develop theories that concerned the relationship between individuals and society. Social identity connected cognitive processes of categorization with the social structure of society. Research on social identity therefore ranges from the detailed analysis of cognitive processes underlying stereotyping and prejudice to wide-ranging questions such as reactions to group disadvantage. Tajfel’s early work on social categorization included development of the minimal group paradigm. In this widely used paradigm people are randomly allocated to categories that have little meaning (e.g., A group and B group, or people who prefer Klee vs. Kandinsky). Research participants are unaware of which other individuals belong to the category, or what their characteristics might be. Evidence shows that minimal group membership is a sufficient basis for people to allocate points or money preferentially to anonymous members of their own category. They also evaluate in-group members more positively, although it seems that reward allocation and evaluations are not highly correlated. If a trivial categorization is sufficient to generate in-group bias, it can be reasoned that more significant and meaningful categorizations have substantial real-word consequences. An important theoretical implication of in-group bias in the minimal group paradigm is that ingroup bias does not necessarily have its roots in objective or realistic intergroup conflict or in personality differences or interpersonal dependency.

3. Social Identity Theory

Social identity theory (Tajfel and Turner 1979) offers an explanation for minimal intergroup bias, and also a broader statement of how relationships between real-world groups relate to social identity. According to social identity theory, there is a continuum on which identity and relationships can be depicted as purely personal and interpersonal at one extreme, and purely social, or intergroup at the other. Personal identity is derived from personality, idiosyncratic traits and features, and particular personal relationships with other individuals. A special emphasis of social identity theory is that an effective account of group and intergroup phenomena is not possible if the theory only considers personal identity and relationships. Social identity is the individual’s knowledge that he or she belongs to certain social groups together with the emotional and value significance of the group memberships. Social identity affects and is affected by intergroup relationships. The theory aims to explain the uniformity and coherence of group and intergroup behavior as mediated by social identity (see Hogg and Abrams 1988 for a detailed account).

3.1 Categorization

Categorization leads to accentuation of differences among objects in different categories, and accentuation of similarities of objects within categories. When social categorizations are salient, accentuation results in stereotypical perceptions of both categories. When people categorize one another they generally include the self in one of the categories. Attributes that are stereotypical for the in-group may then be ascribed to self, a process labeled self-stereotyping. As a result of self-stereotyping the self is ‘depersonalized.’ This means that the self and other in-group members are seen as interchangeable in their relationship to outgroup members.

3.2 Self-Categorization

Self-categorization theory (Turner et al. 1987) extends social identity theory. It proposes that the salience of self-categorization depends on a combination of the relative accessibility of the categories (i.e., the perceiver’s readiness to make use of them) and the comparative and normative fit between the social stimuli (i.e., people being perceived) and the available categories. The more that the targets are classifiable by a clear criterion (such as gender) and the more that their behavior seems to fit the category normatively (e.g., being domineering vs. considerate), the more readily the categorization will be applied. The categories will be represented in terms of prototypes based on a meta-contrast ratio that minimizes the differences within categories and maximizes the differences between categories on criterial dimensions. Categorizing self and others involves perceiving them in terms of their closeness to the relevant group prototype, rather than in terms of their unique personal characteristics. According to self-categorization theory, stereotyping of in-group members, outgroup members, and the self is a normal functional process that responds flexibly to the particular categories that are being compared. The theory therefore challenges traditional models of stereotyping as a form of bias, and of the self-concept as a stable psychological structure (see Abrams and Hogg 2001).

3.2.1 Social Influence. Depersonalization is thought to underlie social influence within groups. When social identity is salient, in-group prototypes serve as norms or reference points. For example, attraction to group members is affected more strongly by shared social identity than by interpersonal similarities (Hogg 1992). The coordinated and consistent behavior of crowd members also seems to be more explicable in terms of a shared social identity than in terms of characteristics of the individuals, resulting from a process of referent informational influence (Turner 1991). In classic social influence paradigms such as Asch’s conformity experiments, or Sherif’s norm formation experiments, people are more strongly influenced when they share a category with the source of influence than when they do not. Moreover, reactions to group deviants are much more hostile if they are deviating toward an out-group norm (Marques et al. 1998).

3.3 Motivation

3.3.1 Positive Distinctiveness. Social identity theory offers a motivational explanation for in-group bias. First, judgments about self as a group member are held to be associated with the outcome of social comparisons between the in-group and relevant outgroups. Second, it is assumed that people desire a satisfactory self-image, and positive self-esteem. Positive self-evaluation as a group member can be achieved by ensuring that the in-group is positively distinctive from the out-group. Usually group members will engage in social competition with out-groups to try to make the in-group positively distinctive. For example, in minimal group experiments, people show a consistent bias both towards maximizing in-group profit and toward maximizing differential profit in favor of the in-group, even when the total in-group profit suffers. The theory does not argue that material considerations are unimportant, but that the symbolic meaning of the group’s position relative to other groups is a powerful motivating consideration.

3.3.2 The Self-Esteem Hypothesis. The motivational component of the theory, sometimes described as the ‘self-esteem hypothesis,’ has been scrutinized in some detail (Abrams and Hogg 2001). Two corollaries of the hypothesis are that expression of in-group bias should maintain or increase self-esteem, and that lowered self-esteem should motivate the expression of in-group bias. These hypotheses only relate to the specific evaluations of self as a group member immediately before and after judgments or allocations have been made toward the in-group and the out-group. However, few empirical tests have adhered to these requirements, and the evidence supporting them is weak or mixed. Evidence does suggest that people with higher personal self-esteem are more likely to show in-group bias and favoritism. As a consequence of theoretical and practical difficulties of the self-esteem hypothesis, other motivational processes have been suggested. Brewer (1981) has proposed that people seek optimal distinctiveness, such that they have some assimilation to a group, but the group has some distinctiveness from other groups. Hogg and Abrams (1993) have suggested that people are motivated to reduce uncertainty, and that clarification of group membership, adherence to group norms, and associating positive group features with the self are ways to achieve this. However, apart from conformity to pre-existing biased in-group norms, there seems to be no strong alternative candidate to the self-esteem hypothesis as an explanation for in-group bias.

3.4 Social Structure

A second component of social identity theory explicitly addresses the status relationships among groups. To maintain or enhance social identity, people may engage in a variety of strategies. The choice of strategy will depend on perceptions of the relationship between their own and other social groups. The boundaries between groups may be viewed as permeable or impermeable, the status differences as legitimate or illegitimate, and the nature of these differences as being stable or unstable. When status differences are seen as legitimate and stable, the differences between groups are secure. If group boundaries are permeable, the individuals may have a social mobility belief structure. In this situation they may strive to improve their identity by moving to the higher status group. For example, it is possible to go from school to university by passing the relevant entrance examinations. Social mobility belief structures are strongly endorsed by Western individualistic democracies, in which individual effort and ability are viewed as the basis for the allocation of social goods and resources. When boundaries between groups are viewed as impermeable (e.g., that between men and women, or between blacks and whites), members consider that their social identity can only be improved if the social relationship between the groups changes (a social change belief structure). When the social structure is viewed as illegitimate and/or unstable, the intergroup relationship is ‘insecure,’ and it becomes possible to imagine cognitive alternatives to the status quo. Members of lower status groups will engage in social competition with higher status groups to evaluate and reward their own group more positively. In the absence of cognitive alternatives, group members may still find ways of conferring positive distinctiveness on the in-group, using a social creativity strategy. Social creativity strategies include comparing the groups on new (in-group favoring) dimensions, trying to re-value the existing dimensions of comparison so recasting ingroup attributes positively, and engaging in comparisons with other, lower status, out-groups. There is considerable evidence from experimental tests of the theory that these strategies are adopted (e.g., Ellemers et al. 1999).

3.5 Language

Social identity has been studied widely in natural intergroup settings. One important area of research is language use and maintenance. Language is an important marker of social identity. For example, use of the matched guise technique, in which the same speaker delivers a passage using different accents or dialects, has revealed that judgments of in-group and out-group speakers reveal clear in-group favoritism. Moreover, speakers’ accents converge or diverge depending on whether they view the relationship positively. The ability of a group to sustain its language may reflect its ethnolinguistic vitality, which is a function of the perceived status, demography, and institutional support that it has (Giles and Johnson 1987). Finally, there seems to be a linguistic intergroup bias in which people describe positive in-group and out-group attributes in more abstract terms using more specific terminology (Semin and Fiedler 1991).

3.6 Collective Behavior

A second significant area of research is collective behavior and protest. Traditional theories, such as relative deprivation or frustration–aggression theory, have depicted mass protest, rioting, and revolution as products of frustration or dissatisfaction felt by individuals. However, research has shown that social protest and mobilization is predicted by the perception of deprivation of the group relative to other groups. In turn, collective action is more likely when group members feel there is no legitimate alternative, no possibility of social mobility, and when they identify strongly with their group. Some evidence suggests that collective action is usually a last resort, but other evidence suggests that participation in collective action is likely when people identify strongly with their group (Kelly and Breinlinger 1996).

3.7 Organizational Behavior

Social identity is also highly relevant to organizational behavior. Commitment to organizational goals and willingness to contribute to organizational activities, as well as lowered absenteeism and turnover intentions, have all been shown to be associated with higher identification with organizations (Ashforth and Mael 1989, Tyler and Smith 1998). Moreover, people’s endorsement of leaders seems to be affected at least as much by the leader’s perceived prototypicality (representativeness of the specific in-group norm) as by how effective or stereotypically leader-like the person is.

4. Critical Comments And Future Directions

The concept of social identity is widely accepted in social psychology and has contributed to a large volume of research (Robinson 1996). Current work is moving away from the idea that group members are primarily motivated by self-enhancement, and examines the idea that people may be motivated to reduce uncertainty or find meaning from their group memberships. In addition, identification may be manifested in different ways (Deaux 1996), and there are individual differences that affect people’s behavior, such as differences in how strongly they identify with particular groups, differences in their social dominance orientation, and differences in their willingness to express prejudice. It seems that the strength with which people identify with groups, and the degree of threat to social identity, can moderate the relationship between group status and intergroup bias (Ellemers et al. 1999). Current work is also examining the cognitive processes that affect the self–group relationship. For example, some researchers argue that the self is the primary psychological unit and that it simply extends to include in-groups, in contrast to the idea that the self can be redefined by salient self-categorizations. Recent research also shows evidence of a rapprochement between social cognition approaches to intergroup relations and the social identity perspective (Abrams and Hogg 1999).


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