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Social identity theory offers a social psychological explanation of intergroup prejudice, discrimination, and conflict. Its origins lie in the work of Henri Tajfel (Tajfel & Turner 1979) and his associates who have been instrumental in the development of a distinctly European approach to psychology. For Tajfel, the key to understanding prejudice, discrimination, and intergroup conflict is found in an individual’s social identity as defined by group membership. Social identity theory rejects explanations based on individual defects of physiology, personality, or attitude. In this regard, it represents a challenge to more traditional psychological theories and has generated nascent interest among sociologists. Tajfel’s experimental findings on group affiliation and personal bias were first published in the 1960s and, since then, social identity theory has generated an immense body of empirical research in support of its basic hypotheses. Over the years, social identity theory has been elaborated and extended to encompass issues of group leadership, organizational psychology, deviance, and political action. Today, social identity theory stands as one of the most influential theoretical perspectives within psychological social psychology.
The empirical starting point for understanding social identity theory is found in a series of laboratory experiments that have come to be known as the minimal group paradigm. The objective in this early research was to identify the minimal conditions required to produce favoritism toward one group and discrimination against another. In the minimal group design, subjects are randomly assigned to one of two groups that they believe were established on the basis of a trivial preliminary test (e.g., whether one underestimated or overestimated the number of dots on a screen). The conditions are such that there is no history or prior knowledge of the group or of other group members, there is no interaction among or between group members, other group members cannot be heard or seen, no competition of any sort is ever established, and the only differentiating factor is the perception that there are two distinct groups. Results from studies using the minimal group paradigm consistently show favoritism toward one’s own group and bias against another group (usually measured in terms of reward distribution to group members and member attitudes toward the in-group and the out-group). Thus, on the basis of a purely cognitive discrimination of groups as defined by simple category distinctions, the seeds of inter-group conflict are sown.
Social identity refers to an individual’s subjective understanding of group membership. It is a cognitive category that includes emotional and evaluative associations. Social identity can be as simple and fleeting as a label employed in a psychology experiment or as complex and encompassing as national, religious, or ethnic affiliations. While an enormous body of empirical research has established that the salience of a social identity (psychological commitment to a group) leads to prejudice, discrimination, and conflict between groups, we also know from this same research tradition that these basic associations are not universal. Not all group commitments for all individuals lead to the same type of bias. Perhaps the most valuable contribution of social identity theory is that it provides a framework for predicting when and how group bias occurs.
The distinguishing feature of social identity theory is its explanation of the psychological foundation of intergroup prejudice, discrimination and conflict. In contrast to the symbolic interactionist tradition in sociology where self, identity, and personhood are seen as inherently social at all levels, social identity theory argues that group identity is formed psychologically. In other words, the psychology of group behavior is assumed to be qualitatively different from the psychology of interpersonal behavior. While this ontological distinction provides social identity theory with the conceptual language needed to understand prejudice, discrimination, and conflict as ordinary, adaptive, and functional interactions of group behavior, critics have argued that it has led to the adoption of an overly restricted understanding of the social dimension of identity.
- Brown, R. (2000) Social identity theory: past achievements, current problems, and future challenges. European Journal of Social Psychology30: 745-78.
- Ellemers, N., Spears, R., & Doosje, B. (1999) Social Identity. Blackwell, Oxford.
- Hogg, M. A. (2006) Social identity theory. In: Burke, P. J. (ed.), Contemporary Social Psychological Theories. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.
- Tajfel, H. & Turner, J. C. (1979) An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In: Austin, W. G. & Worchel, S. (eds.), The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations. Brooks/Cole, Monterey, CA, pp. 33-47.
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