Self-category salience and online category formation

In our three part series on the predictors of self-categorization we came across the concept of self-category salience. A salient self-category was introduced as the cognitive end product of the self-categorization process, where the interaction between perceiver readiness, comparative fit and normative fit determines what self-categories come to be in use.

In this post we are going to unpack self-category salience a bit further. The reason being that a lot hinges on this particular point of the social identity approach. In fact, to not properly understand self-category salience makes much of the rest of social identity message somewhat incomprehensible.

As is often the case,[1] it’s helpful here to first talk about what self-category salience is not. Specifically, we should talk about two opposing directions where people often go astray.

1. Salient self-categories are not simply features of the social environment

Salient self-categories could easily come to be thought of as those social groups or social categories that are important aspects of the social environment. For example, some might think of gender categorization (e.g. males in comparison to females) as salient because it features prominently in discourse and societal structures; gender often informs behaviour and social interactions, as well as being embedded in our homes, workplaces, public spaces, laws, etc.

Although thinking of salience as environmental is quite reasonable, this isn’t what we are talking about when we talk about salience in the context of the social identity approach. Instead, salience in the social identity approach has a strong psychological component.  Salient self-categories are those that are currently serving as sources of self-definition, which is not just a reflection of the social groups and social categories that permeate societies. That is, salience is heavily bound up in the cognitive processing of perceivers.

To be fair, the vernacular here doesn’t really capture this emphasis on the psychological. In fact, in almost every other context it is perfectly appropriate to understand salience to be a feature of the environment. In the natural sciences for instance, where the term has its origins, salience is used to describe particularly active or animated animals, or features of the landscape that are particularly striking.

Salience also can be seen to have environmental focus in the context of argumentation; a “salient point” is one that is relevant, germane, pertinent, etc. Here the implication is that some quality inherent to an encountered premise or rationale makes it apt to a discussion.

The slightly ill-fitting nature of the term salience is something that social identity theorists are aware of;[2] salience is probably just the best of a range of available options. Craig McGarty has more recently described salience as “psychological prepotence”,[3] which might be closer to the mark, but it’s quite a mouthful for repeated use.

“Salience” is therefore here to stay, which means that we need to check that people don’t carry over the above vernacular baggage to the social identity approach.

Again then, salience in the context of social identity approach, counter to the above etymology, is a fundamentally psychological phenomenon.

But it’s not only psychological, which brings us to the opposing misconception.

2. Salient self-categories are not simply psychological phenomena

It’s also easy to think of our self-categories as things that we carry around in our minds, ready to be deployed given the right environmental cues. The idea here is that we essentially have a library of different “selves” that come to the fore at different times.

Allen McConnell’s multiple self-aspects framework is a good contemporary example of this line of thinking.[4] In that model the cognitive mechanism underpinning our sense of self is a series of possible selves that are stored in memory. These selves may be connected to one another and have overlapping semantic content, but overall they exist as units that are discrete (i.e. they are separable from other selves), as well as for the most part complete (i.e. they are ready for use in form that they are stored).


Figure 1. McConnell gives the stylised example of Rachel, who carries with her a series of stored selves including Mike’s girlfriend, daughter, being Jewish, sorority sister, and student. Each of these selves has a particular semantic content (e.g. attractive, caring, female, shy) that may or may not be shared with other selves.

Models like these might seem like they would be right up our alley. After all, they do speak to variation in self-definition, and further, the sort of possible selves suggested include those associated with social categories (e.g. being Jewish, student).

McConnell’s repertoire of selves perspective, however, is actually inconsistent with the social identity approach. This is because although social categories do feature in models of this kind, the process of social categorization does not.

Recall that arguably the central idea of the social identity approach is that we understand ourselves via cognitive categorization, which is determining who we are equivalent to and who we are different from. This is an active perceptual process, one that requires us to ascertain patterns within our social environment. This is fundamentally different to the idea that social categories are essentially pre-prepared answers about who we are; in other words, scripts to be produced as necessary and then returned to storage.

In a repertoire of selves perspective the act of determining equivalence and difference is lost from the story of the psychology of the self, and instead salient self-categories come to be thought of as those that are simply activated.

Now category activation approaches are very common in social psychology, but thinking of our self-categories as merely activated undermines a critical message of the social identity approach: that our self-categories are always informed both by social reality and perceivers’ particular perspectives; corresponding to fit and perceiver readiness respectively.

Stereotyping and socail reality

For those who want to delve into the dual influence of social reality and particular perspectives, and the implications thereof, we highly recommend Stereotyping and Social Reality by Penny Oakes, Alex Haslam, and John Turner (1994)

This is why we have, in the context of perceiver readiness, laboured on the metaphor of social categories as things that are built; constructed by perceivers using the raw materials of the social environment that they find themselves in. This is also why we spent time elsewhere on the fact that in the social identity approach relative accessibility was replaced by perceiver readiness; relative accessibility being an aspect of self-categorization theory that painted a category activation picture.

Online category formation

When we think of salience we should think of it as taking up a kind of middle ground. Salient self-categories aren’t simply “out there” in the world to be passively accepted, nor are they simply “in here” as a kind of psychological baggage. Salience sits in between.

It is for this reason that social identity theorists often refer to the perceiver readiness by comparative and normative fit interaction as a process of “online category formation”.[5][6][7] The message of online category formation is that in each instance that a self-category is being used that self-category is actually formed anew. That is, it comes into existence in that moment, and once it ceases to be used then it also ceases to exist.

Online category formation is important because it allows self-categories to be informed by the current social environment of the perceiver, which is a point usually made in the context of comparative fit. That is, if comparative fit is part of the self-categorization process then self-categories must be able to be responsive to changes to the social frame of reference and to the subsequent shifts in the experienced meta-contrast.

Said otherwise, if ‘who we are’ is driven by discernible patterns among people’s characteristics and behaviour, then ‘who we are’ must be expected to change as people within the present context change, or as people arrive or leave.

Online category formation is thus the natural implication of salience being produced by the interaction between perceiver readiness and the two components of fit. Our self-categories must have a fluid quality to them.

The activation of past self-categories, from among a repertoire of selves, doesn’t meet this criterion. This is because there is no pathway by which those self-categories can be informed and updated according to changes to the present social context. They instead exist as static expectations, if anything positioned in contrast to social reality.

Again, the particular role of social reality in self-categorization, and social categorization more generally, is a key message of the social identity approach; one that distinguishes it from a lot of other social psychological perspectives.

Indeed, a lot rests on the ideas of social context sensitivity and perceiver perspective taking. It saves a lot of strife therefore when people get self-category salience right at the outset.



[1] Billig, M. (1996). Arguing and thinking: A rhetorical approach to social psychology: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Oakes, P. J. (1987). The salience of social categories. In J. C. Turner, M. A. Hogg, P. Oakes, S. Reicher & M. S. Wetherell (Eds.), Rediscovering the social group: A self-categorization theory (pp. 117-141). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

[3] P. 111, McGarty, C. (1999). Categorization in social psychology: Sage Publications Ltd.

[4] McConnell, A. R. (2010). “The multiple self-aspects framework: Self-concept representation and its implications.” Personality and Social Psychology Review.

[5] McGarty, C. (1999). Categorization in social psychology, Sage Publications Ltd.

[6] Brown, P. M. & J. C. Turner (2002). The role of theories in the formation of stereotype content. Stereotypes as explanations: The formation of meaningful beliefs about social groups. C. McGarty, V. Y. Yzerbyt & R. Spears, Cambridge University Press: 67-89.

[7] Reynolds, K. J. and J. C. Turner (2006). “Individuality and the prejudiced personality.” European Review of Social Psychology 17(1): 233-270.

2 responses to “Self-category salience and online category formation

  1. Hi Andrew,

    Great — I just Tweeted this (and added a Figure from our forthcoming book “The new psychology of health: Unlocking the social cure”)

    Bye for now Alex

    Alex Haslam School of Psychology University of Queensland

    • Thanks Alex.

      And presumably the new book will be a sequel to The New Psychology of Leadership. I’ll be excited to see what the trilogy will be.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s