Critically Evaluate Social Identity Theory

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More specifically, we want to understand our social identities and this can be achieved by acknowledging which groups we identify most with. Tajfel and Turner (1986) define this phenomenon of classification within a social context as the Social Identity Theory and it is comprised of three main parts. Zerubevel (as cited in Jenkins, 2004) states that one of the first things we do when we meet someone for the first time is try to categorise them as belonging to a certain group and to find a place for them in our “mindscapes”.

We do this by assessing the information they present to us in terms of the type of clothes they wear or the type of language they use. We try to asses a person based on many variables that we observe during our interactions with them. We are essentially evaluating everybody that we come into contact with either consciously placing them at a certain location within our mindscape or picking up on subjective eccentricities that we notice in our day to day interactions. It is in this regard that we are all trying to project an image of ourselves so that others may identify us as belonging to a certain group.

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Of course, one can be mistaken in their assessment of our character; human beings are not infallible after all. But we are able to make it easier for others to identify which social group we belong to by projecting certain aspects of ourselves in a clear and easily definable way. For example, one who identifies with the Muslim religion may wear a burkha or speak of the teachings of the Qur’an. One reason this is done, among many other reasons, is to show others that they belong to the group which ascribes to the Muslim religion.

One thing to note is that social identity is different from personal identity in that our social identity relates to the groups we belong to within our society, our personal identity, on the other hand, is more specific to our own personal experiences that have shaped how we see ourselves to be as individuals in relation to the world of others. It is in this regard that we see our personal identity as something entirely unique to us, yet our social identity is a way of locating ourselves in the world of others by associating ourselves with other like minded people and disassociating ourselves from dissimilar people.

At this primary stage we are identifying the differences and similarities within our culture and arranging them into categories accordingly. At this stage we tend to exaggerate the similarities and differences between each of the groups we identify so that it may be easier to assign individuals to certain categories or groups that we have recognized. At the second stage in our journey to uncover our social identity we asses ourselves in terms of which of these categories we identify with the most.

At this point, we separate ourselves from others and develop a sense of ‘belonging’ to a certain group. Not only does this help us to understand ourselves in more depth by acknowledging what our ideals are and what groups we wish to be associated with, it also helps us to understand what we are not. We do this by separating the different categories into two general groups. These are known as “in-groups” and “out-groups” (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). Once we have established which groups we wished to be affiliated with we can then move onto the third stage of our social identification.

This consists of comparing our in-groups to the groups of others, which we would perceive to be our out-groups. It is at this stage that a considerable bias begins to make its presence known. Human beings tend to see the group that they associate with in a more favourable light than the groups that they do not associate with. This is known as “in-group favouritism” (Turner and Tajfel, 1986) One explanation as to why this is done is that we boost our self esteem by viewing the group we belong to in a more favourable light than the group with which we have no affiliation.

This seems quite logical in that we feel a sense of pride when our group seems somewhat better or superior to other groups. One could argue that this then inflates our sense of belonging in the world if we feel that there are others who share similar values to us. This then strengthens our resolve by essentially confirming that we are engaging in the right behaviours and holding the right ideals as we associate ourselves with others who feel the same as we do. This then leads them to strengthen our tenacity of in-group favouritism by rewarding our prejudiced behaviours.

A positive outcome of this is that it can have a flow on effect to our altruistic nature as human beings and we would be more likely to help those with whom we feel a certain affiliation. It is in this regard that the Social Identity Theory can yield positive results through a framework of philanthropic behaviour and support for in-group members. The converse of this behaviour is that we see an increase in negative behaviours towards those with whom we feel have conflicting goals and essentially belong to an “out group”. This is best exemplified by the boy’s camp studies conducted by Sherif, White, and Harvey, (1955).

In this experiment a group of boys were vetted in a strenuous evaluation period prior to the commencement of the study to examine whether they had any long standing social difficulties. Only boys from middle class families whose parents remained together were included in this experiment. Twenty four boys, aged eleven to twelve, were selected to go on a camp trip. During the first stage of the experiment they were able to freely establish friendships and choose who they wished to associate with. During the second stage, the experimenters (who were disguised as camp leaders) separated the boys into two distinct groups.

They made sure that the two groups had no contact with each other during this stage as each group had their own sleeping areas and participated in various camp activities separately. They were asked to choose a name for their specific faction so that group cohesion would develop. During this stage group hierarchies and social norms started to develop within each group. The third stage of the experiment comprised of competition between the two groups, (now known as the Rattlers and the Eagles), in which they were asked to compete against one another for various prizes.

The winners obtained the rewards and the looser were not awarded anything. The results of this study showed that with the introduction of competition for resources, the members of the Eagles and the Rattlers became increasingly hostile towards members of their respective out groups. This study seems to illustrate what should be somewhat evident in everyday life, that when two groups are competing for the same resource and they are essentially negatively interdependent upon each other, conflict will generally increase.

This is known as the Realistic Group Conflict Theory and is in line with the notion of a favourable outlook upon those who belong to ones in-groups and a negative outlook on those who belong to an out-group and are essentially competing for ones resources (Sherif et al. , 1955). This can be extended to examples of prejudice that arises when immigrant workers are viewed negatively by people who consider them to be part of an out group and feel that they have to compete with the immigrants for jobs.

However, an interesting difference between Social Identity Theory and the Realistic Group Conflict theory is that there needn’t be any inter-group conflict in order for this discriminatory effect to occur. In a study conducted by Tajfel (1970) a group of adolescent boys were asked to complete a computer task. They were then given a list of participants who had scored similarly to them on the same computer tasks and a list of participants who had completed the same task but their scores were different from their own. They were then asked to assign money to different participants from each list.

It was shown that the participants who received the two lists of test scores allocated more money to those participants who had scored similarly to them than the participants who had not. In the control condition, where no test score information was given, the money was allocated among participants relatively evenly. The key thing to note is that in this experiment, no personal information was shared. In the condition where test score information was given the only identifier was an ID number. No information such as gender, name or age was given.

This just goes to show that inter-group discrimination can occur with minimal information. Tajfel (1970) coined this phenomenon the “minimal group paradigm” in that all it takes for one to exhibit discrimination between groups is a small amount of information. This is especially interesting because it essentially deflates the key idea of the Realistic Group Conflict Theory in that you could still site that a competition for resources between two groups is sufficient to cause a conflict, yet this experiment shows that there needn’t be any establishment of social groups in order for this effect to occur.

All that one needs to show a discriminatory effect on an out group is something seemingly insignificant, such as an ID number. Usually when conflicts between groups occur one can attribute it to the differing societal values and norms of each of the social groups, yet this study illustrates just how a small difference in test scores can insight the same amount of prejudice as a difference in religious beliefs.

We can see that something such as race or religion would be cause for imbalanced assessment of a person’s character if their association to a particular group conflicted with your alliance to your own group. Thus when understanding the Social Identity Theory, particularly with reference to the minimal group paradigm, we can see just how much of a prejudicial effect a seemingly insignificant difference between two or more groups can have. However, we are not all destined to be shackled into a discriminatory evaluation system because of our differences.

It should be noted that there was a fourth stage in the boys camp experiments which aimed to repair the damage it had caused and tried to unite all members from both groups by introducing tasks that were so big that they had to complete them together. For example they had to work together to help erect a fallen water tower that the experimenters had conveniently placed in the way of their convoy. Once all competitions were eradicated and the boys were forced to work together, the discrimination between the two groups dissipated (Sherif et al. 1955). This seems to show that inter group discrimination may be somewhat transitory so long as there is not competition for limited resources. It inevitably goes to show that although we as human beings can be somewhat prejudiced in our assessment of others if we evaluate them as belonging to a group which has conflicting goals to our own, with the introduction of unifying tasks we may bind together to achieve a greater good and put our prejudice aside for the time being.

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