Will the real social identity please stand up?

Where does the social identity approach come from?

Awkwardly, before we can answer that question we need to have a conversation about what we mean by ‘the social identity approach’. This is because the intuitive answer, that ‘the social identity approach is based on social identity theory’, is in our view wrong.

The issue is that the phrase “social identity theory” is widely used to mean three very different things. This has led to a lot of confusion over the decades and embarrassingly has been one of the bigger impediments to progress in the field. Our solution has been to adopt one of these meanings. It is therefore important for us to explain what that meaning is, and why we have chosen it. In sum, we need to talk about the three different social identity theories.

  1. Social identity theory as a general theoretical perspective

We can actually order these versions of social identity theory in terms of how abstract they are, and we start here with the broadest. In this version social identity theory is a general collection of theorizing about our social selves and the roles that our group memberships have in guiding our sense of self and our social behaviour. From this perspective social identity theory is a massive accumulation of ongoing research. Although the founder of the social identity approach, Henri Tafjel, may have passed away in 1982, this social identity theory includes theoretical assertions made decades after that date. This version includes extensions of the original work (e.g. Michael Hogg’s uncertainty reduction perspective[1]) as well as other related social psychological theories (e.g. optimal distinctiveness theory[2]).

Unfortunately, this version of social identity theory is close to useless. This social identity theory has become an impenetrable assortment of extensions, developments, and complementary theories. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that many of the components of this version are incompatible with one another, there is just too much going on for the theory to be functional. No-one can get across all of this content, and even if they could there is no obvious way to separate the wheat from the chaff.

The existence of this version of social identity theory is probably inevitable. Social identity theory has brand recognition, and from a marketing perspective it makes sense that people would want to attach themselves and their work to it. Honestly we too would love to knock up some new twist and claim to be writing the latest version of social identity theory.

We won’t though. We promise.

  1. Social identity theory as social identity theory and self-categorization theory

Here social identity theory and self-categorization theory are combined under the banner of the earlier theory (social identity theory came first[3]). This is probably the most common version of social identity theory in academia and there is a lot of precedent for this approach. In fact, even John Turner (architect of self-categorization theory) at one stage accepted this arrangement.[4] Only briefly though, and Turner, along with his colleagues, has spent more time arguing strongly against this offhand combination of the two theories.[5][6][7]

The reason for this is that this version of social identity theory actually breeds our first version of social identity theory (above). It might sound lame, but part of the problem is referencing.

There two ways that this version of social identity theory gets referenced. Approximately half the time this social identity theory gets referenced to Tafjel and Turner (1979)[8]. Now this is a perfectly good reference. Indeed, that paper is generally regarded as the definitive statement of social identity theory.[9] That 1979 paper, however, does not cover self-categorization theory. Yet more often than not it is self-categorization theory ideas that are being used. Self-categorization theory, after all, is the broader theory. A common scenario, then, is that someone who is reading self-categorization theory content gets directed toward the 1979 social identity theory paper, only to find that those ideas are missing from the supposed source material. Frankly, this makes it look like social identity theorists are making it up as they go along. Is it any wonder then that other researchers feel emboldened to make their own claims as to what social identity theory entails?

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This is almost the opposite of ‘citogenesis’. While in citogenisis careless writers create citations, in our case careless writers give people scope to create facts.

The other standard reference for this version social identity theory is to include both Tajfel and Turner (1979) and Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher and Wetherell (1987).[10] Now this should be better, as this covers definitive sources for both social identity theory and self-categorization theory respectively. It is still a problem though. What happens here is that the reader is pointed toward both sources, but then is left to their own devices when reconciling the differences between those sources. You see, social identity theory and self-categorization theory each have a different scope, and there are some areas of disagreement. It isn’t straight forward to blend these into a singular social identity theory. So what do people do? One option is to focus on what is different, and again come away with the impression that in social identity theory anything goes. That is, social identity theory varies massively from source to source and is simply an amorphous theoretical perspective in general. The other option is to focus on what is shared, and decide that social identity theory covers only what is consistent across the two sources. Unfortunately this leaves a lot out, and you end up with an impoverished version of social identity theory. Tragically, this impoverished version now is incredibly common in introductory summaries.[11]

  1. Social identity theory as social identity theory.

This is the version adopted by leading social identity theorists and the version that we use here. This social identity theory is nothing more or less than what was articulated by Tajfel and Turner in that seminal 1979 paper. No extensions, no developments, and no ad hoc combinations of theories. Social identity theory was excellent theory then and it is excellent theory now. And if there is any confusion about what social identity theory is then we go back to that source.

We also, however, want to build this blog around self-categorization theory, which is a cousin theory to social identity theory and is also excellent social psychology theory. This is where the social identity approach comes in.

The social identity approach (or sometimes ‘social identity perspective’, or ‘social identity theorizing)  is the considered combination of social identity theory and self-categorization theory.[5] It is more of an addition of the two theories than a consolidation, with some time taken to acknowledge and address the minor discrepancies that arise. Further, when we want to leverage more recent theoretical expansions we will, as we should, clearly identify these expansions and not simply blend these into the earlier theoretical work (e.g. developments like the ‘social identity model of deindividuation effects’ get their own name[12]).

That’s what to expect in this blog, and that’s the answer to the original question. Where does the social identity approach come from? It comes from social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) and self-categorization theory (Turner et al., 1987). What are the best sources? Well we have just given you the two most important sources, but stay tuned for others.


[1] Hogg, M. A., & Williams, K. D. (2000). From I to we: Social identity and the collective self. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 4(1), 81.

[2] Brewer, Marilynn B., and Samuel L. Gaertner. “Toward reduction of prejudice: Intergroup contact and social categorization.” Blackwell handbook of social psychology: Intergroup processes (2001): 451-472.

[3] Turner, J. C., & Reynolds, K. J. (2010). The story of social identity. In T. Postmes & N. R. Branscombe (Eds.), Rediscovering Social Identity (pp. 13-32). New York: Psychology Press.

[4] Turner, J. C. (1988). Foreward. In M. A. Hogg & D. Abrams (Eds.), Social identifications: A social psychology of intergroup relations and group processes (pp. X-XII). London: Routledge.

[5] Turner, J. C. (1999). Some current issues in research on social identity and self-categorization theories. Social identity: Context, commitment, content (pp. 6-34).

[6] Turner, J. C., & Reynolds, K. J. (2001). The social identity perspective in intergroup relations: Theories, themes, and controversies. Blackwell handbook of social psychology: Intergroup processes, 133-152.

[7] Haslam, S. A. (2001). Psychology in Organizations. London: SAGE Publications.

[8] Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33-47). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

[9] Or the 1986 paper, which is essentially a reprint.

[10] Turner, J. C., Hogg, M. A., Oakes, P. J., Reicher, S. D., & Wetherell, M. S. (1987). Rediscovering the Social Group: A Self-Categorization Theory. Blackwell: Oxford.

[11] E.g. McLeod, S. A. (2008). Social Identity Theory. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/social-identity-theory.html

[12] Reicher, S., Spears, R., & Postmes, T. (1995). A social identity model of deindividuation phenomena. European Review of Social Psychology, 6, 161–198.

3 responses to “Will the real social identity please stand up?

  1. Hi Andrew and Randal,
    This is a very useful piece and one that I will certainly direct students to — so thanks for putting it together. One thing to note is that, to avoid confusion of the form you outline, I tend to refer to the second usage (i.e., theory about social identity) as •social identity theorising•. I find this to be a useful way of distinguishing between usages 2 and 3. Nice job anyway.
    Alex

    • Thanks Alex. The feedback is great and helping students (as well as academics and practitioners) navigate the literature and access the ideas is obviously a chief concern of ours.

      And yes, ‘social identity theorizing’ is another useful term for the SIT and SCT combination. In fact, I have just added it into the post. I wouldn’t want people coming away with the impression that ‘social identity approach’ is only option.

      Cheers
      Andrew

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