What is social identity theory?

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Social identity theory examines the relationship between group membership and self-esteem. It has provided insights into intergroup conflict, ethnocentrism, cultural affirmation, and self-hatred, predicting both individual and group responses to an unfavorable self-concept.
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Social identity theory maintains that all individuals are motivated to achieve and maintain a positive self-concept. A person’s self-concept derives from two principal sources: personal identity and social identity. Personal identity includes one’s individual traits, achievements, and qualities. Social identity includes the group affiliations that are recognized as being part of the self, such as one’s image of oneself as a Protestant, a blue-collar worker, or a conservative. Some individuals emphasize the personal aspects in their quest for a favorable self-image, while others emphasize their social identities. Social identity theory focuses on the latter. It attempts to explain when and how individuals transform their group affiliations to secure a favorable self-concept.

Psychologist Henri Tajfel introduced social identity theory in 1978. The theory maintains that a person’s social identity emerges from the natural process of social categorization. People categorize, or classify, themselves and other people by many criteria, including occupation, religious affiliation, political orientation, ethnicity, economic class, and gender. An individual automatically identifies with some categories and rejects others. This creates a distinction between ingroups and outgroups; one identifies with the former and does not identify with the latter. A person who identifies himself or herself as a Democrat, for example, would consider other Democrats members of the ingroup and would view Republicans as members of the outgroup. Individuals inevitably compare their groups with other groups; the goal of the comparisons is to establish the superiority of one’s own group, or the group’s positive distinctiveness, on some level, such as affluence, cultural heritage, or spirituality. If the comparison shows that the individual’s group memberships are positive and valuable, then the social identities become an important part of the self. If, however, one’s group appears inferior, then one’s self-image acquires negative distinctiveness. The individual is then motivated to acquire a more satisfactory self-concept.

Enhancing Self-Concept

Tajfel and John Turner proposed three strategies that can be used to enhance one’s self-concept: “exit,” “pass,” and “voice.” The first two strategies represent attempts to validate the self. Both involve rejecting or distancing oneself from the devalued group to improve identity; both presume the existence of social mobility—an individual-based strategy for image enhancement whereby a person “exits” an inferior group or “passes” as a member of a more prestigious group. Exit involves simply leaving the group. This response is possible only within flexible social systems that permit individual mobility. Although individuals cannot always easily shed affiliations such as race or gender identity, they can openly discard other affiliations, such as “Buick owner” or “public school advocate.” If dissatisfied with an automobile, one trades it in for another; if unhappy with the public school system, one may exit and move one’s children into a private school. Pass, a more private response, occurs when individuals with unfavorable group memberships are not recognized by others as belonging to that group. A Jew may pass as a Gentile, for example, or a fair-skinned black person may pass as a Caucasian. Typically in such cases, the objective features that link the individual to the devalued group are absent or unnoticeable.

Voice, the final strategy for identity improvement, is a collective response: Group members act together to alter the group’s image and elevate its social value. Also called the “social change” approach, it is common in rigid social systems in which individual movement away from the disparaged group is impossible. It also occurs when psychological forces such as cultural and personal values bind the individual to the group. Members of such physically identifiable groups as women, blacks, or Asians might adopt the social change strategy, for example, as might such cultural or religious group members as Irish Catholics or Orthodox Jews.

Voice is a complex response. Simply recognizing that social mobility is blocked for members of one’s own group is insufficient to prompt social change activity. Two additional perceptions of the overall social structure are important: its stability and its legitimacy. Stability is concerned with how fixed or secure the social hierarchy seems. Theoretically, no social group is completely secure in its relative superiority; even groups that historically have been considered superior must work to maintain their favored position. If members of a denigrated group believe that alternatives to the current social hierarchy are possible, then they are encouraged to reassess their own value. Legitimacy, in contrast, involves the bases for a group’s negative distinctiveness. If a group believes that its social inferiority is attributable to illegitimate causes, such as discrimination in hiring practices or educational opportunities, group members will be more likely to challenge their inferior position.

Social Creativity and Direct Competition

Voice challenges to negative distinctiveness take two general forms: social creativity and direct competition. Social creativity involves altering or redefining the elements of comparison. The group’s social positions and resources, however, need not be altered. In one approach, a group may simply limit the groups with which it compares itself, focusing on groups that are similar. A group of factory workers may choose to compare itself with warehouse workers or postal employees rather than with a group of advertising executives. This approach increases the chances that the outcome of the comparison will be favorable to one’s own group. The group might also identify a new area of comparison, such as bilingual fluency, in its effort to enhance group distinctiveness.

Finally, the group might recast some of its denigrated attributes so that its value is reassessed. A new appreciation for group history and culture often emerges from this process. The Civil Rights movement, an important force for social change in the 1960s, caused this to occur. In the context of that movement, the label “Negro” was replaced by “black,” which was recast by African Americans to symbolize group pride. Under the slogan “Black is beautiful,” the natural look became more valued than the traditional European American model. African Americans were less likely to lighten or straighten their hair or to use makeup to make their skin appear lighter.

Direct competition, in contrast, involves altering the group’s social position. It is often an institutional response; consequently, it encourages competition among groups. Displaced groups target institutions and policies, demanding resources in an effort to empower the group politically and economically. In the 1960s, for example, black students demonstrated for curricular changes at colleges and universities. They demanded greater relevance in existing courses and the development of Black Studies programs to highlight the group’s social and political contributions. In the 1970s, the women’s rights movement demanded economic and political changes, including equal pay for equal work, and greater individual rights for women, such as abortion rights and institutionalized child care.

In-Group Bias

Social identity theory has been used to explain several intergroup processes. Among them are the phenomenon known as in-group bias (observed in laboratory experiments) and the actions of some subordinate groups to challenge their relative inferiority through collective (voice) approaches. The response of African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s to negative perceptions of their group illustrates the latter process.

In-group bias is the tendency to favor one’s own group over other groups. In laboratory experiments, young subjects were put in groups according to simple and fairly arbitrary criteria, such as the type of artwork they preferred. The goal was to establish a “minimal group situation”: an artificial social order in which subjects could be easily differentiated but which was free of any already existing conflicts. Once categorized, subjects were asked to perform one of several tasks, such as distributing money, assigning points, evaluating the different groups, or interpreting group members’ behavior. In all the tasks, subjects repeatedly showed a preference for their own groups. They gave to in-group members significantly more points and money than they gave to out-group members—despite a lack of previous interaction among the subjects. When describing in-group members, they attributed altruistic behavior to the person’s innate virtuous and admirable qualities rather than to outside causes. When describing out-group members, however, they reversed the pattern, attributing altruistic behavior to situational factors and hostile behavior to personal character. Thus, even without any history of competition, ideological differences, or hostility over scarce resources, subjects consistently demonstrated a preference for their in-group.

Social identity theory predicts this pattern. The powerful need to achieve a positive self-image motivates a person to establish the value of his or her group memberships. Since groups strongly contribute to an individual’s self-image, the individual works to enhance the group’s image. Group successes are, by extension, the individual’s successes. Daily life offers many examples of group allegiance, ranging from identification with one’s country to support of one’s hometown baseball team. Experiments in social identity suggest that ethnocentrism, or the belief in the superiority of one’s own ethnic group, serves important psychological needs.

Study of Negative Group Self-Image

Social identity theory also explains why some subordinate groups challenge their relative inferiority through rebellion or social change while others do not. The theory predicts that individuals who are objectively bound to negatively distinct groups—by gender or skin color, for example—will have fewer options for self-enhancement. Because they are driven by the powerful need to obtain a worthy self-image, however, they are unlikely to engage in self-hatred by accepting the denigrated image imposed on them by others. Instead, they will engage in some form of voice, the collective approach to image improvement.

Psychologists studying social identity do not directly explore the historical background of a group’s negative self-image. Rather, they perform laboratory experiments and field studies designed to determine individuals’ actual perceptions of groups—how individuals identify groups and whether they see them as having a positive or a negative image. Social psychologists also attempt to measure the changes that occur in group self-image over time; they can then infer that social or political movements have affected that image. Studies involving African American children—for whom the essential identifying element, race, is a physical one—provide an example.

In the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education , which mandated school desegregation, social scientists presented evidence that educational segregation produced feelings of inferiority in black children. Support was drawn in part from a 1947 study by Kenneth Clark and Mamie Clark, in which they compared the preferences of black and white children between the ages of three and seven for dolls with either dark or fair skin tones. Approximately 60 percent of the black children said that the fair-skinned doll was the “nicer” doll, the “nicer color” doll, or the doll they “preferred to play with.” The dark-skinned doll, by contrast, “looked bad.” Based on a combination of this negative self-image and the fact that African Americans are objectively bound to their group by their race, social identity theory impacted race relations by predicting collective action for social change.

Collective Activity and Positive Self-Identity

The Civil Rights movement embodied that collective, or voice, activity, and it offered blacks a new context within which to evaluate black identity. Results from studies performed in the 1970s suggest that, indeed, there was a significant rise in black self-esteem during that period. A replication of the Clarks’ study by other researchers showed a clear preference for the dark-skinned doll among black children. Later analyses of comparable doll studies showed that such preferences were most common among young subjects from areas with large black populations and active black pride movements.

A positive self-image may also emerge when social and cultural themes and historical events are reinterpreted within a group. A group’s cultural image may be emphasized; its music, art, and language then become valued. To continue using the African American example, in the twentieth century, black music, which once had been the music of the oppressed—work songs and spirituals—evolved into a music that communicated ethnic identity in a new way. Blues and jazz became a focus of group pride; jazz, in particular, become renowned worldwide. The acceptance of jazz as a valuable art form by people of many races and nationalities illustrates another frequent outcome of activity for generating a positive self-concept: It often initiates a response from the larger society that improves the group’s relative position in that society.

Personal and Intellectual Origins

Social identity theory evolved from a series of experiments conducted in England at the University of Bristol in the 1970s. Originated by social psychologist Tajfel, the theory represents the collaborative efforts of Michael Billig, John Turner, and several other European associates over a decade-long period.

Like many social science theories, social identity theory has both personal and intellectual origins. Tajfel’s own identity as a European Jew who survived World War II contributed significantly to his desire to understand conflicts between groups. His early work in the psychology of prejudice and his personal distrust of reductionist or oversimplified models of psychological processes laid the foundation for the theory. Other concepts, including stereotyping, values, ethnocentrism, and the social psychology of minorities, became incorporated into the theory; these themes contributed to the attractiveness of the theory in Europe, a region recognized for its religious, linguistic, and social diversity and for the conflicts this diversity has caused.

Related Group Research

Group processes have long been emphasized in American social psychology, but the main thrusts have varied over the years. The work of Kurt Lewin in the late 1940s, for example, focused on leadership in small groups; research in the mid-1950s examined the relationship of intergroup contact to prejudice and discrimination. In the late 1950s, Muzafer Sherif studied intergroup relations in socially created groups that he and his colleagues observed in real-life settings for extended periods of time. In the 1960s, however, internal conflicts in the field of social psychology led to the development of two distinct subdisciplines: sociological social psychology and psychological social psychology. Intergroup relations began to seem too sociological a topic for psychologists to study. This split, coupled with a renewed emphasis on studying individual cognitive function, resulted in the displacement of intergroup studies in American social psychology in the 1970s.

Social identity theory revived American research on intergroup relations in the early to mid-1980s. Following more than a decade of political and social turmoil in the United States, social psychologists were looking for better ways to understand conflict between groups. They began to ask new questions and to adopt a wider variety of methodologies, including surveys and field studies. Race, class, and gender were recognized as critical psychological variables. The “group member,” an individual with a sociocultural history that affected social behavior, became accepted as a respectable research subject. Social identity theory provided both theorists and researchers with a broad paradigm from which to investigate intergroup conflict, group identification, ethnocentrism, hostility, and social change strategies.

The three central psychological processes—motivation, emotion, and cognition—are incorporated into social identity theory in a logical and sophisticated manner. Earlier social psychological theories usually emphasized one or two of those processes. Both comprehensive and complex, the theory offers a way of understanding a wide range of psychological topics.


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