Cognitive and motivational basis of intergroup differentiation.

History and Orientation

Social Identity Theory was developed by Tajfel and Turner in 1979. The theory was originally developed to understand the psychological basis of intergroup discrimination. Tajfel et al (1971) attempted to identify the minimal conditions that would lead members of one group to discriminate in favor of the ingroup to which they belonged and against another outgroup.

Core Assumptions and Statements

In the Social Identity Theory, a person has not one, “personal self”, but rather several selves that correspond to widening circles of group membership. Different social contexts may trigger an individual to think, feel and act on basis of his personal, family or national “level of self” (Turner et al, 1987). Apart from the “level of self”, an individual has multiple “social identities”. Social identity is the individual’s self-concept derived from perceived membership of social groups (Hogg & Vaughan, 2002). In other words, it is an individual-based perception of what defines the “us” associated with any internalized group membership. This can be distinguished from the notion of personal identity which refers to self-knowledge that derives from the individual’s unique attributes.

Social Identity Theory asserts that group membership creates ingroup/ self-categorization and enhancement in ways that favor the in-group at the expense of the out-group. The examples (minimal group studies) of Turner and Tajfel (1986) showed that the mere act of individuals categorizing themselves as group members was sufficient to lead them to display ingroup favoritism. After being categorized of a group membership, individuals seek to achieve positive self-esteem by positively differentiating their ingroup from a comparison outgroup on some valued dimension. This quest for positive distinctiveness means that people’s sense of who they are is defined in terms of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’.

Tajfel and Turner (1979) identify three variables whose contribution to the emergence of ingroup favoritism is particularly important. A) the extent to which individuals identify with an ingroup to internalize that group membership as an aspect of their self-concept. B) the extent to which the prevailing context provides ground for comparison between groups. C) the perceived relevance of the comparison group, which itself will be shaped by the relative and absolute status of the ingroup. Individuals are likely to display favoritism when an ingroup is central to their self-definition and a given comparison is meaningful or the outcome is contestable.

Conceptual Model

Haslam, Alexander S. (2001), Psychology in Organizations - The Social Identitty Approach, Sage Publications Ltd, London. Chapter 2: The Social Identity Approach, pp. 26-57

Favorite Methods


Scope and Application

Social Identity Theory has a considerable impact on social psychology. It is tested in a wide range of fields and settings and includes prejudice, stereotyping, negotiation and language use. The theory has also implications on the way people deal with social and organizational change.


In further research this example is referred to minimal group studies. Schoolboys were assigned to groups, which were intended as meaningless as possible. They were assigned randomly, excluding roles of interpersonal discrimination such as history of conflict, personal animosity or interdependence. The schoolboys assigned points to anonymous members of both their own group and the other group. Conclusions were that even the most minimal conditions were sufficient to encourage ingroup-favoring responses. Participants picked a reward pair that awarded more points to people who were identified as ingroup members. In other words, they displayed ingroup favoritism.


Key publications

  • Mael, F.A. and B.E. Ashforth, Alumni and their alma mater: a partial test of the reformulated model of organizational identification. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 1992. 13(2): p. 103-123.
  • Dutton, J.E., J.M. Dukerich, Keeping an eye on the mirror: Image and identity in organizational adaptation. The Academy of Management Journal, 1991. 34(3): p. 517-554.
  • Haslam, Alexander S. (2001), Psychology in Organizations - The Social Identitty Approach, Sage Publications Ltd, London.
  • Knippenberg, v.e.a., Organizational Identification after a merger: A social identity perspective. British Journal of Social Psychology, 2002. 41: p. 233-252.
  • Smidts, A., A.T.H. Pruyn, and C.B.M.v. Riel, The impact of employee communication and perceived external prestige on organizational identification. The Academy of Management Journal, 2001: p. 1-29.
  • Scott, C.R., et al., The impacts of communication and multiple identifications on intent to leave. Management Communication Quarterly, 1999. 12(3): p. 400-435.
  • Tajfel, H. and Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of inter-group behavior. In S. Worchel and L. W. Austin (eds.), Psychology of Intergroup Relations. Chigago: Nelson-Hall
  • Turner, J. C. (1982). Towards a cognitive redefinition of the social group. In H. Tajfel (ed.), Social Identity and Intergroup Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hymans, J.E.C. (2002). Applying Social Identity Theory to the Study of International Politics: A Plea for Caution. IR and SIT paper for PPBW, January 3. Available at:
  • Hogg, M.A. & Vaughan, G.M. (2002). Social Psychology (3rd ed. ) London: Prentice Hall.

See also: Groupthink
See also Interpersonal Communication and Relations.