Social identity theory

This article introduces Social Identity Theory (SIT). It helps us understand why people identify with a group, how that affects their affiliation and communication, and how in-group and out-group distinctions can make a difference.

Among the many identities held by people, it appears that some focus on distinguishing us as unique individuals and others emphasize what bonds us together as members of a group. Have you ever wondered why we would 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 and is not just an aggregation of individual behavior of group members. They have done some very interesting experiments to explore such questions. One of the most famous one is called Minimal Group Paradigm, which explored, as its name suggests, the minimal conditions for discrimination based on group membership.

In the experiment, people who joined the study were put randomly into groups that were 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 tend to favor those of the same artificially created group and discriminate against those of different groups. The finding of in-group favorism 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 the motivation to favor the in-group is that people could derive esteem from a group that they positively identify. They would allocate more resources to the in-group to maximize the difference between the in-group and the out-group 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. It is a particular kind of in-group favorism.

The whole process that leads to in-group favorism consists of three stages: social categorization, social identification, and social comparison. People would first categorize themselves and others into social groups based on external or internal criteria. Then people would identify with a group, invest emotionally, and change their behavior to some extent because of their membership. Finally, people would compare their groups to others in order to acquire esteem for their identified membership. Altogether this process would lead to the maximization of similarities within groups and the differences between groups.

When there is negative identification with in-groups, people would use two major strategies to achieve group esteem. If the group boundaries are permeable, people would try to get a pass to the identity that is perceived more positively. If the group boundaries are not permeable, people would either shift the compared out-group to an even “worse” one or compare on another factor on which the in-group is better than the out-group.

Social Identity Theory (SIT) is highly 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.


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/

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.

Liu, J. H. (2012). A cultural perspective on intergroup relations and social identity. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 5(3), pp. 5-7.

Recommended Citation:
Chi, R. B. (2015). Social identity theory. The SISU Intercultural Institute “Intercultural Communication” FutureLearn course reading. Retrieved from

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Intercultural Communication

Shanghai International Studies University (SISU)