What is the Tajfel Social Identity Theory?

Social Identity Theory

Across all levels of society, we arrange and organise ourselves into groups, whether that be at work or in daily life outside of the workplace.

Prevalent in human societies for thousands of years, people have joined together to form groups and have equally divided themselves. In this article, we’re going to explore the Social Identity Theory and the process it defines.


What is Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory?

Devised in 1979 by Polish psychologist Henri Tajfel, this simple yet accurate theory explains that humans have, for much of their existence, assigned themselves to particular social groups. He argued that this is based on a sense of needing to find belonging and helps establish a sense of self. He also argued that pride and self-esteem were also two very important reasons why people assign themselves to groups.

Tajfel argued that forming stereotypes is based on the basic human instinct to categorise what we observe around us. There are two key elements that we base our stereotypes on, which tend to be:

  • The similarities between members of the group
  • The differences between the group (“We/Us”) and outsiders (“Them”)

This idea creates a sense of an “In” group and an “Out” group. At the basis of Tajfel’s theory is the idea that those in the former will try to find faults and differences in the latter, creating an increased sense of self-image for the “in”-group members. However, this can be a dangerous precedent to set and can result in discri­mina­tion and racism in the most extreme cases.


Stages of Social Identity Theory

The theory argues that the process of forming an “in”-group is divided into three main stages, being:

Social Catego­risa­tion

In order to make sense of the social environment around us, we as human beings tend to place ourselves and others into categories in order to navigate these spaces better and understand each other on a basic level. For example, we use labels to define ourselves based on our nationality, race, religion and occupation. It’s also worthy to note that this theory recognises that individuals can belong to more than one group and that we base our behavioural norms on the groups we belong to.

Social Identi­fica­tion

At this stage, those who have assigned themselves to a social group begin to identify with the group’s norms and behaviours. This is where newer group members begin to conform to the ways of the group and form a bond of self-esteem to their new identity.

Social Comparison

After establishing the group and forming an identity within that group, this is where comparison with others tends to arise. In order to maintain self-esteem, it is essential for the in-group to be looked upon favourably. Competition can come about if two groups establish a rivalry and can be based upon both competing identities and for resources.


Conclusion of Social Identity Theory

In conclusion, Tajfel’s theory on social identity is an important way to understand discri­mina­tion and prejudice between groups, which can occur both in and outside the workplace and can affect it adversely. Tajfel also put forward the idea that belonging and identifying with a group is an integral part of someone’s life and personality.

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