Social Identity Theory

Social identity theory explains why groups start to develop friction between themselves and other groups, on the basis of tiny differences.

Jonathan Swift satirised this human tendency to inter-group conflict, in his book Gulliver’s Travels, with the example of the Lilliputians who, having nothing else to fight about, went to war on the basis of how to eat a boiled egg: whether to start at the big end or the little end [chapter IV].

Henri Tajfel formalised this tendency as Social Identity Theory, which is described on the Simply Psychology website:

“Henri Tajfel proposed that stereotyping (i.e. putting people into groups and categories) is based on a normal cognitive process: the tendency to group things together. In doing so we tend to exaggerate:

1.the differences between groups

2.the similarities of things in the same group.

This is known as in-group (us) and out-group (them). The central hypothesis of social identity theory is that group members of an in-group will seek to find negative aspects of an out-group, thus enhancing their self-image.”

There is considerable empirical evidence that demonstrates social identity theory in practice.  The self-image of a group can be strengthened by belittling others.  This may succeed in boosting the group’s morale, but it also has an impact on the other groups who are being targeted.  Claire Alexander, in her book Asian Gangs, offers a detailed example of the way in which a group’s solidarity is increased when it is criticised or threatened:

“A crucial element in the creation and maintenance of peer group boundaries is their oppositional nature.  This was manifested in two distinct, though connected, ways: firstly in the imposition of a collective, [usually stigmatised], identity from outside; and secondly through the formulation of notions of inclusion and exclusion from [the young men] themselves.  This latter categorisation was posited on a dual assertion of internal loyalty and of external difference – and especially of potential threat.  These perceptions were centred on a complex and shifting matrix of alliances and antagonisms around notions of community, territory, age and personality, but they were also crucial to a sense of individual and collective security.  It is this sense, of belonging, of vulnerability, of care and responsibility – of trust – which provides a link between the group and its wider environs, between the assumption and ascription of group identity.” [pages 157-8]

The brackets have been added here because they enclose words which were particular to the context she was writing about; if one removes those words, the quotation is applicable to any ethnic group.  The potential for antagonism between groups can be exploited, as described next.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/4451.htm.