What is Social Identity Theory?

tdixon Social and Cultural Psychology Leave a Comment

The following is a description of Tajfel and Turner’s SIT, which could also be a model answer for an exam question: “Describe Social Identity Theory” 

What is Social Identity Theory?

Social Identity Theory (SIT) is a theory proposed by Tajfel and Turner that attempts to explain intergroup behaviour, and in particular, conflict. The theory was an elaboration on Sherif’s Realistic Conflict Theory (RCT). RCT’s major claim was that conflict between groups exists when there is direct competition for resources. SIT, however, posits that intergroup conflict can exist even when there is no direct competition for resources. The theory emerged after numerous research studies using the minimal group paradigm were conducted. SIT is comprised of four interrelated concepts: social categorization, social identity, social comparison and positive distinctiveness.

The first step in explaining intergroup behaviour is establishing groups. Social categorization describes the development of in-groups and out-groups. The results of social categorisation are three-fold: firstly, it reduces the perceived variability between the in-group members; secondly, it reduces the perceived variability between out-group members and finally it increases the perceived differences between in-groups and out-groups. The combination of these three phenomena is known as the category accentuation effect.

The second important aspect in SIT is the concept of social identity. Our social identity can be defined as our self of sense (i.e. our personal identity) and how that identity can be shaped and influenced by belonging to various groups. Our desire to have a positive view of ourselves, contributes to the next concept in the theory, social comparison.

SIT posits that humans naturally want to have a positive self-image and they want to protect and/or increase their self-esteem. In order for individuals to be able to make evaluative judgements about the group/s they belong to, it is important that they compare it to something else. This is why social comparison, according to SIT, inevitably occurs. By comparing our in-group with other out-groups we can make our in-group seem better and this will increase our self-esteem.

Through the process of social comparison, the final concept of positive distinctiveness also emerge. This basically means that groups naturally want to distinguish themselves from other groups and they want to do so in a way that makes the in-group look better. This can lead to such behaviours as in-group favoritism, conformity and stereotyping.

In summary, one of the central ideas in SIT is that conflict can exist between groups simply because those groups exist in the first place; merely belonging to a group can motivate us to want to derive a positive self-image from that group and so we may demonstrate biased and/or negative behaviours towards out-groups, which can increase the likelihood that conflict will ensue.

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