Social Identity Theory: Meaning & Applicability

One of the central ideas behind the social identity is that belonging to a community can help people feel like they have something to work toward. The communities to which individuals belong profoundly affect their sense of self and the quality of their interpersonal relationships. The sociological theory was developed as a unified framework to fill the void between the two. Early attention focused on issues of intergroup tension and relations. The original name of the theory, The Social Theory Approach to Intersectionality, came from this idea

What does Social Identity Theory Explain?

A person's sense of self and pride can be greatly influenced by the groups to which he or she belongs, according to Tajfel (1979). Our sense of place in the world improves when we have friends and neighbors nearby. We had socially divided the world into "them" as well as "us" (i.e., we put people into social groups). The foundation of stereotyping (i.e., pigeonholing) is the human tendency to classify data and process one's world into different segments. As a result, we often stretch the truth.

  • Differences between classes

  • Something that all people in a group have in common.

In this context, the terms "in-group" (our group) and "out-group" (them) are used.


There are three cognitive operations at play when we classify people as members of our group versus those who do not identify as part of it (the "in-group" or "out-group"), respectively. These follow a specific timeline, and there is a specific timeline for these events to occur.


We classify things in order to learn about and recognize them. We classify others (and ourselves) in similar ways to make sense of our social world. We put people into groups based on their race, nationality, religion, job, level of education, and employment status, to name a few. Putting people into categories allows us to learn more about them. As we saw in the cab driver example, we need categories to carry out our daily lives normally. Knowing our groups can also shed light on who we are. We determine proper conduct by comparing it to the standards of the groups to which we belong, but this assumes that we can identify fellow members of our group. Many different communities can claim a single member.

Social Identification

After deciding what kind of group we are a part of, the next step is to identify with that particular social group. For instance, if you have decided to identify as a student, you are more likely to start behaving like you think students should (and conform to the group's norms). Your sense of self-worth will be intrinsically linked to your membership in the group you feel most emotionally part of

Comparative Analysis

In the end, people compare themselves to others. People tend to compare groups after identifying with and classifying themselves as members of a particular group. Our collective pride depends on how well we perform relative to other organizations. This is fundamental to grasping prejudice, as the members of two groups that see each other as enemies must compete with one another if they are to preserve their sense of self-worth. So, rivalry and hostility between groups are caused by competition for material goods like jobs and disagreements over basic ideas like culture and identity.

Strategies for Status Improvement

The belief in individual mobility holds that people are autonomous agents who can choose to join or leave any social group they please. The system's distinguishing feature is that people can move freely between groups without being limited by their previous affiliations. This means that people's successes and failures are judged not by their race or socioeconomic status but by the merits of their efforts.

In contrast, adherents of the religion of social transformation argue that structural shifts among existing social groups are necessary for social transformation to occur. Confidence in one's place in society depends on clear distinctions between people that can be objectively verified. When people believe that the distinctions in social status between different groups are fluid, they are less likely to accept those differences as legitimate. However, when the validity of existing status differences is questioned, the assumed consistency of intercultural communication will likely weaken.

Because they focus on changing people's mental models rather than changing the status quo, social innovation strategies are classified as cognitive strategies. Still, there is evidence that these strategies could be the first step in making the needed changes in society.

Identity Crisis

When people in a group feel like no one sees them as a unique entity, they may experience a social identity threat. For example, when incorporated into larger, more inclusive groups, nations, or organizations, members of linguistic minorities who seek autonomy and workers of a small startup that is taken over by an institutional merger face a group distinctness threat. When individuals are treated as part of a community when they prefer not to be, for instance, when a female prosecutor is addressed in court as "Ms.," the threat of categorization arises. When a coach of Asian descent is not invited to join a local Asian business club because that person does not feel accepted in the group, they want to join, and this is an example of an acceptance threat.

If a group's members strongly identify with the group, their responses to identity threats will be different than if they only loosely identify with the group. How people respond to identity threats depends on the social structure (and the opportunities and limits that come with it), how much they want to belong, and how loyal and committed the group and its members are.


Reiterating what has already been said, social identity theory maintains that being a part of a social group is not a waste of time or energy, nor a mere coincidence. On the contrary, belonging to a peer group is fundamental to our identity. The "in-group" consists of the individuals with whom one feels a strong sense of belonging. At the same time, the "out-group" includes those individuals or groups that one does not consider the good company and may hold prejudices against. Both an "in-group" and an "out-group" consist of individuals with whom one does not feel a strong sense of belonging.

Updated on: 27-Dec-2022


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