Social Identity Theory

Throughout the week, you probably think of yourself as a daughter/son, sister/brother, mother/father, girlfriend/boyfriend, wife/husband, friend, coworker, employee, teammate, student, partner, traveler, customer, and countless other categories of identities.

Social Identity Theory (SIT), first developed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner during the 1970s and 1980s, assumes these types of identities can influence our thoughts and  communication behaviors-when you perceive yourself as part of a group and act accordingly, a related social identity becomes salient, or is ‘activated’.

For instance, imagine you are visiting your father’s place of work for the first time. As you meet his coworkers, your social identity as a son or daughter will be activated, leading to you introducing yourself as “Charlie’s kid” and being very aware that people are looking at you in the context of being Charlie’s child.

Consider another example: you are traveling to Tokyo to represent your company at some sort of convention and at this convention you (are probably forced to) wear a name tag that has your company’s name prominently next to your name–chances are good you will think of yourself as a part of, and behave according to the image associated with, that company.

Of course, we don’t always behave according to these social identities. In fact, researchers including Tajfel and Turner describe a spectrum, or continuum, with ‘interpersonal communication’ on one end, and ‘intergroup communication’ on the other end.

The idea is that depending on the communication context, which is based on factors such as who you are talking to and in what kind of setting, you will unconsciously place yourself somewhere on this continuum.

If you are closer to the ‘interpersonal communication’ end, you will behave according to you personal identity and if you are closer to the ‘intergroup communication’ end, you will behave according to your social identity. In the Tokyo example above, if you are traveling with your romantic partner and have dinner with them later that evening, chances are high your ‘interpersonal’ identity will be more activated than your ‘intergroup’ (company associated) identity.


Why It Matters

So far, I’ve left out the category of identities many intercultural/intergroup practitioners and scholars are most specifically concerned with, and it is arguably one of the more significant ones when considering the implications of this theory…identities related to nationality, race, ethnicity, etc.

Social Identity Theory assumes that once we have internalized certain identities (e.g., ‘American’, ‘Christian’, ‘heterosexual’, ‘Hispanic’, ‘Sikh’, etc.), we unconsciously assume that those who are not a part of those identities (and thus are not a part of our groups, or ‘ingroups’) are just not as ‘good’ as we are, or are ‘wrong’, on some dimensions.

These types of thoughts might lead to racist prejudice (i.e., negative attitudes toward other races/ethnicities, etc. for no good reason), discrimination (i.e., behaving towards people of other races/ethnicities, etc. in accordance with your prejudiced views), and ethnocentrism (i.e., judging other races/ethnicities, etc. against your own beliefs/groups).

This is why SIT is important-it helps us understand the causes of these negative human attitudes and behaviors (i.e., ethnocentrism and discrimination), and learn how to work towards fixing them and making the world a more open-minded and accepting place.

Disclaimer: The above post is part of a series on intercultural/intergroup communication theories I did on a former blog.

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