Ideas in depth
Social identity theory proposes that, when acting in groups, we define ourselves in terms of our group membership and seek to have our group valued positively relative to other groups. So if we define ourselves in terms of our nationality (e.g., as American, Australian or British), we want our country to look good compared to other countries.
However, in our unequal world, many people find themselves in groups that are devalued compared to others – for instance, black people in a racist world. What do they do then?
Social identity theory argues that this depends upon two factors. The first is permeability. If we believe that we can still progress in society despite our group membership (i.e., group boundaries are permeable) we will try to distance ourselves from the group and be seen as an individual. If there is no chance of advancement (because group boundaries are impermeable), we will begin to identify with the group and act collectively with fellow group members to improve our situation.
What we do as group members depends upon the second factor: security. If we believe that the present situation is either legitimate or inevitable, we will adapt to it. We may seek to improve the valuation of our own group (e.g., by stressing new positive characteristics) but we won’t question the system itself. However, if we see the situation as illegitimate and we can envisage other ways of organizing society (cognitive alternatives) then we will act collectively to challenge the status quo and bring about social change.
- Ellemers, N., Spears, R. & Doosje, B. (1999). Social identity: Context, content and commitment. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of intergroup behaviour. In S. Worchel & W. G. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of intergroup relations (2nd ed., pp. 7-24). Chicago: Nelson-Hall.