Social Identity Theory

Fundamentals of Social Identity Theory

Identity—often defined based on the social groups and categories to which we belong—is a concept used in everyday life to refer to our own existence as unique entities in a world made up of different groups of people, as well as to locate ourselves relative to the other people and things around us.— (Tajfel 1982)

Social identity theory (SIT) is explicitly a theory of intergroup behavior that concentrates primarily on the consequences of social identities for the behavior of people towards others who do not share the same social identities.

The theory, originally formulated by social psychologists Henri TajfelOpens in new window and John TurnerOpens in new window, is based on the premise that the social groups and categories of which we are members form an important part of our sense of self and identity.

Identity, specifically social identity, and group belongingness are inextricably linked in the sense that one’s conception or definition of who one is (one’s identity) is largely composed of self-descriptions in terms of the defining characteristics of social groups to which one belongs.

Social identity is ‘that part of the individual’s self-conceptOpens in new window which derives from his knowledge of his membership of a social group (or groups) together with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership’ — (Tajfel, 1981a:251).

This belongingness is psychological, it is not merely knowledge of a group’s attributes. Identification with a social group is a psychological state very different from merely being designated as falling into one social category or another. It is phenomenologically real and has important self-evaluative consequences.

According to social identity theory (Tajfel 1982), our identity must balance the need to be similar to our reference group with the need to be a unique individual. In other words, we need to balance our social identity against our personal identity.

Social group is ‘two or more individuals who share a common social identification of themselves or, which is nearly the same thing, perceive themselves to be members of the same social category’ — (Turner 1982:15).

Indeed, social group is a reference group that we belong to by virtue of circumstance, such as the school we attend, or a group we choose to belong to, such as our chosen profession, or even a group we aspire to belong to.

Thus, being an Australian, being a woman, being Aboriginal, supporting the Tigers, being an accountant, being vegetarian or belonging to Greenpeace are not neutral social facts about a person, but contribute importantly to how a person sees, understands and feels about themselves.

Although the importance of these types of group memberships to identity is a central tenet of SIT, the concept of identity is somewhat under-theorized, and it is not always clear why group memberships are important to identity or how this might vary with other aspects of self and identity.

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Our choice of reference group may be determined by the way we want to see ourselves, how we evaluate our self-worth and how we maintain their self-worth as equal members of their group or gang.

From an early age, children become very aware of the need for a group identity and are often afraid of dressing or acting differently from their peers for fear of victimization. As they approach their teens, they often seem torn between the need to assert their own individual identity and the need to conform to their reference group.

Distinctive or rebellious group identities often emerge at this time, with particular styles of dress and behavior. Later, new identities are forged in relation to work, parenthood, economic status and ageing and during their lives most people develop several different identities.

  • Anna has recently acquired a new identity as a nurse. With this comes a uniform, bedside manner, code of conduct, and set of expectations. But when she goes off duty and out with her friends, she assumes quite a different identity.

    Her identity as a nurse is quite different from her sister Lisa’s as a social worker. While they both assume caring roles, their respective professional groups have quite different ways of thinking and behaving.

    Anna and Lisa are able to share a lot in terms of their family and social identities, but find each other’s professional identities quite difficult to understand.

The identities we confer on others, based on stereotypical assumptions, are often rejected. For example, one 80-year-old might refer to another 80-year-old as ‘that poor old soul’ because they mentally distance themselves from being old. As a result, many older people decline to join senior clubs.

It becomes clear that, in many circumstances, people just don’t see themselves the same way that others see them. It is a mistake to assume that individuals share common attributes or have anything in common with each other just because they happen to belong to a particular age or social group, or any other group.


The reverse can also be true and we may learn to see ourselves in terms of the stereotypes conferred on us by others. These ‘self-stereotypes’ can be important in determining the way we feel about ourselves and the way we behave.

Living up to a stereotypical identity

  • In a study by Finlayson et al. (2005), low income African-American women who took part in a health survey were randomized to state their ethnic origin either before or after completing the health questionnaire. Those who were asked to state their ethnic origin before completing the questionnaire were more fatalistic about health outcomes and performed less well on assessments of their health knowledge than those who stated their ethnic origin after completing the questionnaire.

This study seems to support the view that people who are reminded of their group membership tend to behave in a manner that is consistent with the group stereotype. This may help to account for some of the differences in health-related and social behaviors shown by different social groups in the UK.

The social identity theory argues that people are motivated to think well of themselves (Tajfel, 1981a; Tajfel & Turner, 1986). Given that part of people’s sense of self is bound up in their social identities (their social group and category memberships), the theory argues that people are motivated to seek positive distinctiveness for their in-groups.

SIT has focused heavily on showing how the motivation to positively differentiate one’s group from others tends to produce ingroup favoritism and (perhaps less reliably; see Brown, 2000) outgroup derogation.

By seeing the groups that they belong to as being superior to others (at least in some aspects) people are able to bolster their social identity and enhance their self-esteem. This ‘self-esteem hypothesis’ has received support from some studies showing that increases in self-esteem follow from opportunities for positive differentiation but has also been heavily contested (see Brown, 2000, Long & Spears, 1997, and Turner, 1999, for critical discussion of the role of self-esteem in SIT).

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The Basis of Identification

Although social identities are usually thought about in terms of memberships of particular social groups, in Tajfel’s original definition his emphasis on ‘the value and emotional significance attached to that membership’ makes clear that membership alone is not sufficient for social identity.

While a person’s membership of a particular group or category may be more or less a social fact, social identity theory returns to the importance of individual psychology by emphasizing the importance of identification in moderating the consequences of social identity for the self. Thus social identity in SIT is comprised of both membership of and identification with particular groups.

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