In 1982 I was in my second year as a part time psychology student at Macquarie University. At that time I was working full time in a marketing role with an oil company and I was struggling to find any relevance (or real interest) in psych courses like Adolescent Development or Personality II. Until, that is, I enrolled in a course delivered by two new recruits to Macquarie’s Psych faculty, a husband and wife team who had recently arrived from the UK – Doctors John Turner and Penny Oakes. Turner and Oakes delivered a challenging course that covered topics such as social identity, self categorization, power, social influence, and stereotyping. Their teaching and research seemed to me to be revolutionary. No other course resonated so strongly. Turner and Oakes were exotic, exceptionally learned and, I thought, seemed to have better answers to the conundrum of human behaviour than any of the other courses I was studying. John Turner’s book, Rediscovering The Social Group: A Self Categorisation Theory was a revelation and remains a prized possession. What I was discovering through the courses and readings was directly applicable to my work and life.
I found out later, that I was not the only one to be hooked by Turner and Oakes. Alex Haslam was an undergrad psych student at Macquarie at the time and he subsequently went on to do his PHD under Turner. Alex is now one of the preeminent researchers and authors in the social identity approach and his mentoring and academic supervision of my efforts in SIA is something for which I am extremely privileged.
Over the years I remained sporadically in contact with Penny Oakes (now at Australian National University) and I have continued to study the ideas that she and John introduced to me so many years ago. I now use the principles of the social identity approach in my teaching in leadership and influence at Macquarie Graduate School of Management and it is key to my consulting work in leadership, M&A’s and organisational change. The social identity approach has, through its extensive body of research and researchers, grown to be the theory in social psychology with genuine practical relevance to the human issues that beset our societies and organisations – issues such as leadership and coercion, cooperation and conflict, pluralism and assimilation and, power and influence.
The social identity approach is one of the more complex fields in psychology but also one of the most vibrant. In this blog our ambition is to provide you with an accessible source for understanding the social identity approach and its real-world applications. Stick with us, there’s a lot to tell.
I found my passion for the social identity approach as an outcome of my ongoing PhD candidature at the Australian National University. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to not only have been exposed to this theoretical perspective, but also immersed in a particular research environment where the presence of leading social identity theorists is par for the course. This has, of course, been hugely helpful to my own research efforts. There I am looking at how the theory and meta-theory of self-categorization theory can enrich our understanding of non-self social categorization. For me the social identity approach is one of the healthiest areas of social psychology, and is perhaps social psychology’s best hope for meaningful relevance outside academia.
Which brings me nicely to my primary reason for contributing here; I, like many others, feel that it is high time that the fruits of over 40 years of high quality social psychological research find their way outside university walls. We are at a stage where the insights of the social identity approach can part of the common dialog on topics such as leadership, influence, collective action, power, knowledge, empathy, cooperation, etc. This means making the social identity approach accessible to a non-academic audience, while simultaneously remaining true to the tenets of the approach in all its complex glory. No easy task, but one well worth pursuing.
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