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The term social identity approach refers to research and theory pertaining to two intertwined, but distinct, social psychological theories.[1][2][3] These being: social identity theory and self-categorization theory. The social identity approach has been applied to a wide variety of fields and continues to be very influential. There is a high citation rate for key social identity papers and that rate continues to increase.[3]

Aspects of the social identity approach[]

File:SIT approach.jpg

Figure 1. The explanatory profiles of social identity and self-categorization theories.

The term "social identity approach" arose as an attempt to mitigate against the tendency to conflate the two theories,[4][5] as well as the tendency to mistakenly believe one theory to be a component of the other. Instead these theories should be thought of as overlapping in the manner demonstrated in Fig 1.[1] That is, while there are similarities, self categorisation theory has greater explanatory scope (i.e. is less focused on intergroup relationships specifically) and has been investigated in a broader range of empirical conditions. Self-categorization theory can also be thought of as developed to address limitations of social identity theory. Specifically the limited manner in which social identity theory deals with the cognitive processes that underpin the behaviour it describes.

Although this term may be useful when contrasting broad social psychological movements, when applying either theory it is thought of as beneficial to distinguish carefully between the two theories in such a way that their specific characteristics can be retained.[1]


Social Groups[]

The social identity approach has been contrasted with the social cohesion approach when it comes to defining social groups. The social identity approach posits that the necessary and sufficient conditions for the formation of social groups is “awareness of a common category membership” and that a social group can be "usefully conceptualized as a number of individuals who have internalized the same social category membership as a component of their self concept".[6]

On the topic of social groups, some social psychologists draw a distinction between different types of group phenomenon. Specifically, “those that derive from interpersonal relationships and interdependence with specific others and those that derive from membership in larger, more impersonal collectives or social categories”.[7] The social identity approach however does not anticipate this distinction. Instead it anticipates that the same psychological processes underlie intergroup and intragroup phenomenon involving both small and large groups. Relatedly, the persistent perception that the social identity approach is only relevant to large group phenomenon has led some social identity theorists to specifically reassert (both theoretically and empirically) the relevance of the social identity approach to small group interactions.[8]



Main article: Leadership

According to the social identity approach, leadership is a function of the group instead of the individual.[1][9] Individuals who are leaders in their groups tend to be closer to the prototypical group member than are followers.[10] Additionally, they tend to be more socially attractive, which makes it easier for group members to accept their authority and comply with their decisions. Finally, leaders tend to be viewed by others as the leader. In this final distinction, group members attribute leadership traits to the person and not the situation, furthering the distinction between the leader and others in the group by viewing him or her as special.[11] Consistent with this view of leadership, researchers have found that individuals can manipulate their own leadership status in groups by portraying themselves as prototypical to the group.[12]


Social identity concepts have been applied to economics resulting in what is now known as identity economics.[13][14] For example, two separate papers and a book by Akerlof and Kranton incorporate social identity as a factor in the principal–agent model. The main conclusion is that when agents consider themselves insiders, they will maximize their identity utility by exerting greater effort compared to the prescription behavior. On the other hand, if they consider themselves outsiders, they will require a higher wage to compensate their loss for behavior difference with prescribed behaviors.[15][16][14]

Related theoretical work[]

Social identity model of deindividuation effects[]

Main article: Social Identity model of Deindividuation Effects (SIDE)

The social identity model of deindividuation effects (SIDE) was developed from further research on the social identity theory and the self-categorization theory, further specifying the effects of situational factors on the functioning of processes proposed by the two theories. The SIDE model uses this framework to explain cognitive effects of visibility and anonymity in intra-group and inter-group contexts. The model is based on the idea that the self-concept is flexible and different in different situations or contexts. The theory consists of a range of different self-categories that define people as unique individuals or in terms of their membership to specific social groups and other, broader social categories based on the context of the situation. The SIDE model proposes that anonymity shifts both the focus of self-awareness from the individual self to the group self and the perceptions of others from being mostly interpersonal to being group-based (stereotyping).[17]

Research has suggested that visual anonymity not only increases negative behavior towards others, but also can also promote positive social relations. In one study, all volunteers participated individually in group discussion based on three different topics. In the visually anonymous condition, all communications between participants were text-based while in the visually identifiable condition, the communication was also supplemented by two-way video cameras. The study resulted in the findings that showed anonymity significantly increased group attraction.[17]

Intergroup emotion theory[]

Intergroup emotion theory further expands on the concept of personally significant group memberships as posed by social identity and self-categorization theories. This theory is primarily based on the concept of depersonalization and the interchangeability of the self with other ingroup members. This causes cognitive representations of the self and the group to become inevitably connected, and therefore the group obtains an emotional significance. This means that individuals not only categorize themselves as members of the ingroup but also "react emotionally when situations or events affect the ingroup".[18] For example, people often report that their group is being discriminated against, even though they feel that they personally are not subject to that discrimination.[19]


Social identity vs. interdependence[]

Some researchers have claimed that the majority of results in research using the minimal group paradigm can be derived from self-interest and interdependence and that this poses a serious problem for social identity theory and self-categorization theory, and in particular self-categorization theory’s account of social groups.[20][21] Social identity researchers have responded by suggesting that the interdependence centric analysis that has been proposed as an alternative still relies heavily on the social categorization processes detailed in self-categorization theory.[22] Moreover, they argue that researchers making the above criticisms have also significantly misinterpreted the role of sociological categories in the two theories.[22][23]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Haslam, A. S. (2001). Psychology in Organizations. London, SAGE Publications.
  2. Turner, J. C., Oakes, P. J. (1997). The socially structured mind. In C. McGarty & S. A. Haslam (Eds.), The message of social psychology: Perspectives on mind in society (pp. 355-373). Oxford: Blackwell.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Postmes, T. & Branscombe, N. (2010). Sources of social identity. In T. Postmes & N. Branscombe (Eds). Rediscovering Social Identity: Core Sources. Psychology Press.
  4. Brown, Rupert (1 November 2000). Social Identity Theory: past achievements, current problems and future challenges. European Journal of Social Psychology 30 (6): 745–778.
  5. (2010). The social identity perspective today: An overview of its defining ideas. Rediscovering social identity: 341–356.
  6. (1982). Towards a cognitive redefinition of the social group. Social identity and intergroup relations: 15–40.
  7. (1996). Who is this we? Levels of collective identity and self representations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71 (1): 83–93.
  8. Postmes, Tom (1 January 2005). Social influence in small groups: An interactive model of social identity formation. European Review of Social Psychology 16 (1): 1–42.
  9. Hogg, Michael A. (1 August 2001). A social identity theory of leadership. Personality and Social Psychology Review 5 (3): 184–200.
  10. Platow, M. J., Hoar, S., Reid. S., Harley, K. & Morrison, D. (1997). Endorsement of distributively fair and unfair leaders in interpersonal and intergroup situations. European Journal of Social Psychology, 27, 465-496
  11. Hogg, Michael A. (1 January 2000). Social identity and self-categorization processes in organizational contexts.. Academy of Management Review 25 (1): 121–140.
  12. Haslam, S. Alexander (2011). The new psychology of leadership: Identity, influence and power, New York, NY: Psychology Press.
  13. Garai, Laszlo: Identity Economics
  14. 14.0 14.1 Akerlof, George A., and Rachel E. Kranton (2010). Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages, and Well-Being, Princeton University Press, "Introduction," pp. 3–8, and preview.
  15. Akerlof, George A., and Rachel E. Kranton (2000). "Economics and Identity," Quarterly Journal of Economics, 115(3), pp. 715–53.
  16. Akerlof, George A., and Rachel E. Kranton (2005). "Identity and the Economics of Organizations," Journal of Economic Perspectives, 19(1), pp. 9–32.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Lea, Martin, Spears, R., de Groot, D. (1 May 2001). Knowing Me, Knowing You: Anonymity Effects on Social Identity Processes within Groups. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 27 (5): 526–537.
  18. Miller, D. A. (1 July 2004). Effects of Intergroup Contact and Political Predispositions on Prejudice: Role of Intergroup Emotions. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations 7 (3): 221–237.
  19. Taylor, J. A. (1978). The relationship between the contact variable and racial stereotyping in school-aged children. U South Carolina, Dissertation Abstracts International.
  20. Rabbie, J. M., Schot, J. C., & Visser, L. (1989). Social identity theory: A conceptual and empirical critique from the perspective of a behavioural interaction model. European Journal of Social Psychology, 19(3), 171-202.
  21. (1998). Intergroup relations. The handbook of social psychology 2: 554-594.
  22. 22.0 22.1 (1996). Social identity, interdependence and the social group: A reply to Rabbie et al.. Social groups and identities: Developing the legacy of Henri Tajfel: 25-63.
  23. (2001). The Social Identity Perspective in Intergroup Relations: Theories, Themes, and Controversies. Blackwell Handbook of Social Psychology 3 (1).
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