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Social identity

The Social Identity Approach in Social Psychology

Stephen Reicher, University of St Andrews

Russell Spears, Cardiff University

S. Alexander Haslam, University of Exeter

In M. S. Wetherell & C. T. Mohanty (Eds.) Sage Identities Handbook. London: Sage.
Author note: This was written collaboratively and authorship order is arbitrary

The social identity approach in social psychology


In this contribution we review a family of social psychological theories, most notably Social Identity Theory (SIT) and Self-Categorization Theory (SCT), which together constitute what we refer to as the Social Identity Approach. These theories are linked by their concern with the processes which surround the way that people define themselves as members of a social group – which, here, is the meaning of the term ‘social identity’. At a conceptual level, this approach serves to transform the understanding of identity in psychology. It stresses the sociality of the construct in at least three ways. First, social identity is a relational term, defining who we are as a function of our similarities and differences with others. Second, social identity is shared with others and provides a basis for shared social action. Third, the meanings associated with any social identity are products of our collective history and present. Social identity is therefore something that links us to the social world. It provides the pivot between the individual and society.

But the social identity approach should not be seen as an exercise in social theory. Within its broad framework, social identity researchers have specified detailed processes that give practical insights into the ways that groups work in society. We will address a number of these including the nature of influence and persuasion, how leadership works and the nature of group stereotypes. This work has been applied to the behaviour of many different types of groups from electorates, to crowds, to work organizations. Indeed the power of the theory is in direct relationship to its range of application.

The very richness of the theory is also a source of danger. Particular postulates can be drawn from the overall framework and developed in ways that ignore or even contradict its foundational premises. Most importantly, the social identity approach seeks to address how psychological processes interact with social and political processes in the explanation of human social behaviour. It seeks to work with, rather than to roll over, other disciplines and accepts that much of the explanation of action is not psychological at all. However there are always tendencies to overstate ones contribution and to explain everything in terms of social psychology. The history of social identity research is not innocent of such tendencies. These are not only misguided, they are dangerous. Empires generally perish by over-reaching themselves, and academic empires are no different.

For these reasons, our emphasis in this contribution is principally on the principles and tenets of the social identity approach. It is not meant as a comprehensive literature review. It is meant to provide a road map from which the reader can approach the social identity literature, can understand the questions and assumptions underlying it, can locate specific studies within the overall enterprise, and, occasionally, can evaluate whether these studies exemplify and expand social identity principles or violate them.

We start by putting the social identity approach into its historical context(s). We explain the questions and concerns that shaped its development. Next we outline the core theories themselves – SIT and SCT. We then go on to look at more recent developments of the theory, both in terms of its application to broader phenomena (such as emotions and interpersonal relations) and in terms of conceptual attempts to come to terms with the full complexity of the relationship between social identity and social reality. Finally, we explain why social identity principles sit well with other disciplines in providing a rounded explanation of human action. In sum, we seek to demonstrate that the social identity approach provides a social psychology for the social sciences.

1. Roots and influences

The social identity approach in social psychology was initiated in the early 1970’s by the work of Henri Tajfel and his colleagues on intergroup processes. One of the cornerstones to this approach is an insistence that the way in which psychological processes play out is dependent upon social context. Rather than using psychology to supercede other levels of explanation of human action, the aim is to account for when and how social structures and belief systems impact on what people do. To paraphrase John Turner, the social identity approach forces psychologists to turn their heads towards the social world. This being the case, it makes sense to start by considering how social context shaped the concerns and contours of the social identity approach itself.

Writing in the shadow of the Holocaust Hannah Arendt (cited by Judt, 2008) observed that: “the problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe”. This was true both of social psychology and social psychologists, many of whom were Jewish, including Tajfel who spent his early post-war years seeking to reunite the children of the camps with their families. The question which obsessed the discipline was how could people sanction such violence to others, simply because of their group membership.

The assumption was that those who those who hate must be hateful, authoritarian, personalities. Such individualism long dominated social psychology and was the foil against which social identity theory was developed. It assumed that any regularities of social behaviour are to be explained as either the aggregation of individual states or inter-individual interactions. However there was an alternative. Sherif’s ‘boys camp studies’ which spanned the years 1949 – 1954, demonstrated how one can induce extreme hostility by putting people in groups and then manipulating intergroup relations. Where groups exist in competition -- where the one’s gain is the other’s loss – members will feel and act negatively towards each other (Sherif, 1966). More graphically, Sherif showed how intergroup competition could transform the best adjusted of boys into what seemed like “wicked, disturbed and vicious bunches of youngsters” (p. 58) a decade before Arendt coined the term ‘the banality of evil’.

But this still left the question of precisely what conditions underlie such transformations. Intergroup competition may be sufficient to create hostility, but is it necessary? A number of studies through the 1960’s suggested not. Bias against outgroups could be found even without explicit or even implicit competition. What, then, are the minimal conditions that will produce such group bias? This was the immediate question that motivated Tajfel and Turner, to develop Social Identity Theory. While the Holocaust defined the broad intellectual framework within which the social identity approach was developed, the more immediate background was the burgeoning of social movements based on class, but also race, gender and sexuality in the upheavals of the 1960’s. Suddenly, social change was back on the agenda and the role of collective processes in producing that change could not be ignored. The events of ‘68 and their aftermath pointed to the group not only as a cause of social injustices but also as their solution.

At the same time, the bases of collective action were problematised. One could no longer presuppose that people would act in terms of some ‘objective’ aspect of their social location such as being a worker; they might equally act as a woman or as a black person. This inevitably raised questions of identity centred on actors own understanding of themselves in their social world. Such an approach is particularly clear in Emerson’s definition of national identity, endorsed by Tajfel (1978): “the simplest statement that can be made about a nation is that it is a body of people who feel that they are a nation…” (Emerson, 1960, p. 102).

These influences are clear in Israel and Tajfel’s 1972 edited volume, an unofficial manifesto for an emergent European social psychology, in which Tajfel lambasted the tendency to explain social conduct as a product of individual tendencies. Social factors, to the extent that they were invoked at all, were generally seen as secondary – what Tajfel referred to ironically as ‘social psychology eventually’. He then insisted that the key issue “is that of the relations between Man (sic) and social change” (Tajfel, 1972, p.108).

In the spirit of the times, Tajfel’s concern with change was more than a matter of scientific concern: It was also a normative commitment. As Serge Moscovici, the other leading figure of European social psychology, put it the aim was: “to see the development of a science of ‘movement’ rather than a science of ‘order’” (Moscovici, 1972, p.22). This normative commitment is critical to the social identity approach. It is precisely because collective action is the sole resource through which the powerless can challenge their subjugation that Tajfel and his successors focused on group processes. Like several others, Tajfel was interested in group-level explanations of wide-scale hostility, but, unlike the others, he remained an optimist and an activist when it came to the outcome of collective processes. This helps to explain why the concept of identity was to play such a central role in explaining the nature of these processes.

2. Social identity theory (SIT)

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