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Understanding social identity theory

This reading introduces Social Identity Theory (SIT). It helps explain why people identify with a group, how that affects their affiliation and communication, and how in-group and out-group distinctions affect relations.

Have you ever wondered why we like to form and identify with a particular group? What kind of influence does our group membership have on our intergroup behavior? Why do we often favor those who are like “us” and discriminate against those who are NOT included with us?

Psychologists believe that intergroup behavior differs qualitatively from individual behavior. They have also done some very interesting experiments to explore such questions. One of the most famous ones is called the Minimal Group Paradigm, which, as its name suggests, explored the minimal conditions for discrimination based on group membership.

In the experiment, people who joined the study were put randomly into groups invented by the experimenters. The “groups” have no real-life basis and participants did not know each other beyond their assigned group labels. Sometimes, they did not even meet or interact with each other at all. However, when asked to allocate rewards, most participants tended to favor those of the same artificially created group and discriminated against those of different groups. This finding of in-group favoritism and out-group discrimination led to the development of “Social Identity Theory” (Tajfel, Billig, Bundy, & Flament, 1971; Tajfel, 1982; Tajfel & Turner, 1986).

Social identity theory explains that derive esteem from a group that they positively identify with, therefore they favor it. They allocate more resources to the in-group to maximize the difference between their in-group and out-groups in order to achieve such identifications. This is a psychological basis for “ethnocentrism”, a common concept in intercultural communication. Ethnocentrism is a widely observed belief that one’s own ethnic group is superior to other ethnic groups.

This process of favoring one’s in-group happens in three stages: social categorization, social identification, and social comparison. (1) People first categorize themselves and others into social groups based on external or internal criteria. (2) Then people identify with a group, invest emotionally, and change their behavior to some extent because of their membership. (3) Finally, people compare their groups to others in order to acquire esteem for their identified membership. This process leads to the maximization of similarities within groups and the differences between groups.

Social Identity Theory (SIT) is widely cited for providing a basis for how we perceive and interact within and across groups. Hopefully these theoretical ideas help you in practice to better consider some of your own identity responses in certain contexts. Where might you be unconsciously ethnocentric or in-group biased to the exclusion or discrimination of out-groups?


Tajfel, H., Billig, M. G., Bundy, R. P., & Flament, C. (1971). Social categorization and intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 1(2), 149-178. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.2420010202

Tajfel, H. (1982). Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations. Annual Review of Psychology, 33(1), 1-39. doi: doi:10.1146/annurev.ps.33.020182.000245

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of inter-group behavior. In S. Worchel & L. W. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of Intergroup Relations (pp. 7-24). Chigago: Nelson-Hall.

Other Resources:
McLeod, S. A. (2008). Social Identity Theory. www.simplypsychology.org/social-identity-theory.html

Liu, J. H. (2012). A cultural perspective on intergroup relations and social identity. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 5(3), pp. 5-7. http://dx.doi.org/10.9707/2307-0919.1119

Recommended Citation:
Chi, R. B. (2015). Social identity theory. The SISU Intercultural Institute “Intercultural Communication” FutureLearn course reading. Retrieved from https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/intercultural-communication?

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Intercultural Communication

Shanghai International Studies University (SISU)