Social Identity Theory Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 22 November 2016

Social Identity Theory

Summarise two theories of identity and compare their usefulness for explaining the real world issues discussed in chapter 1, ‘Identities and diversity’.

The study of identity is primarily the study of ‘who we are’ and ‘who we are not’ in comparison to other people, what makes individuals and groups of individuals unique from each other is a very controversial issue. This essay will look at two theories that aim to address this issue, namely, the Psychosocial theory and the Social Identity Theory (SIT). Whilst examining these two theories this essay will also look at their relevance to some every day issues.

The view of Psychosocial theorists is one that identity is produced simultaneously by both personal and social factors. Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson was the first theorist to view identity this way, for Erikson identity consisted of ‘a conscious sense of individual uniqueness, an unconscious striving for continuity and a solidarity with a groups ideas’ (Erikson cited in Phoenix, 2007, p.53). He believed that a solid understanding of who we are, how we fit in to and are viewed by society forms a core identity, which in turn will create a sense of continuity. Erikson lived through two world wars during which many people feared for their lives. This heightened sense of mortality led to identity confusion. Hence Erikson believed that ‘identity crisis’ was prevalent at this time.

‘Identity crisis’ for Erikson was a certain period of time when some young people could not create a solid ‘Ego Identity’ (a clear understanding of oneself) and were confused and unable to commit to a certain path, the form that this crisis took would be socially and historically variable. This lack of a solid Ego identity Erikson termed as ‘role diffusion’. Erikson believed that identity was an ongoing lifelong process through eight different progressive stages ranging from birth to late adulthood, each stage encapsulated many times of crisis and conflict which he saw as normative crisis and essential to the development of identity.

Although he saw the period of adolescence as the most important stage, with the majority of adolescents achieving a solid Ego identity after a socially accepted period of trials, trying out various social roles in order to find their ideal path. ‘It was abnormal to be normal during adolescence’ (Freud cited in Phoenix, 2007, p.56)

Erikson calls this period a ‘Psychosocial Moratorium’.

During this period of Psychosocial Moratorium Erikson viewed the solidarity of adolescents with groups and their ideas as important to identity, as young people struggle to find a niche in society they can often over identify with various groups. Within these groups the feelings against other groups ( outsiders ) can often become cruel or even violent if there is any threat to their sense of identity.

This identity battle between groups is addressed by the Social Identity Theory (SIT) which was developed by Psychologist Henri Tajfel. Unlike the work of Erikson, Tajfel concentrated more on the social than individual process of identity development. He considered the development of individual and group identity as being separate processes. Tajfel was a Jewish holocaust survivor, his experiences with the Nazi regime was the driving force of his studies, he wanted to know what it was that led to prejudice between different groups.

Tajfel mainly focused his studies on trying to identify the minimum requirements needed in order to form group identities, which he did by studying the intergroup relations between minimal groups. These ‘minimal groups’ were a number of individuals with nothing really in common with each other, apart from the fact that they were categorized as being in the same group (ingroup), they also had no reason to oppose any individual or group outside their defined group (outgroup).

Tajfel found that the simple fact of being categorized within a group was enough to cause prejudice against another group. ‘It is the subjective feeling of belonging to a group which is important in SIT rather than membership as defined by outsiders or simply sharing some characteristics with other group members’ (Turner cited in Phoenix, 2007, p.63). The SIT theory suggests that the status of an individual’s group identity can directly affect a person’s individual identity, and that the need to belong to a high status group is paramount to a sense of high self esteem.

Therefore groups are continuously striving to be dominant and superior, in doing so dominant groups will often inflict prejudice and discrimination against inferior groups as a means to increase their members self esteem. likewise individuals of inferior groups will strive to increase their self esteem by attempting to increase their status by means of ‘social mobility’ ( move to a higher status group). Some groups will often try to affect social change in order to improve their social status by means of social creativity,(redefining their social status in a more positive way) or social competition, ( revolutions and civil wars).

Both the Psychosocial and SIT theories of identity are relevant in different ways when considering real life issues, one of which being the embodied identities of people with physical disabilities. Embodiment is a factor in both theories, SIT considers embodiment (of physically impaired people) as a category for discrimination whilst the Psychosocial theory is concerned with the continuity of one’s body to function as an issue of identity. People becoming physically impaired later in life will have a heightened sense of identity, this can be explained by both theories. Psychosocial theorists would see this as a break in the continuity which is central to this theory leading to an identity crisis, whilst in the context of SIT the change in social status by being categorised in a minority group would be the explanation.

In summarising the theories of Erikson and Tajfel it can be clearly seen that both approached the complexity of identity in very different ways, both drawing from their own life experiences as a focus for their studies. Although they both draw different conclusions each theory has some relevance to the identity of physically impaired people, this reinforces the view that there is no single answer to the question of identity.


Phoenix, A. (2007) ‘Identities and Diversities’, in Miell, D. and Thomas, K. (eds) Mapping Psychology, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Part 2

The aim of the study is to research the importance of work for identity. The researchers propose to recruit participants by putting a poster in a job centre inviting unemployed people to volunteer to be interviewed about their employment history. People who express interest will be given a date and time for an interview and asked to sign a consent form. They will be offered a small payment (£5) for completing the interview. When they attend the interview, they will be told that the interview will be video-recorded and later transcribed (i.e. the questions and answers written down) for the researchers to analyse. They will be promised confidentiality.

The ethics committee does not grant approval, for several reasons. One is that in the proposed study the researchers do not adequately obtain the informed consent of the participants, as required by the British Psychological Society.

1. Explain the problems with the proposed study concerning informed consent. (150 words)

Informed consent was not adequately obtained as it was not clearly stated as to why the research was being done nor was it made clear as to how the interview would be structured (use of a video tape, questionnaire, etc) It was not made completely clear as to how the data will be used and for what purpose. There was also no explanation of the fact that after the interview had been transcribed, further consent would be needed before it could be used.

2. Explain three of the other ethical problems raised by the proposed study. (200 words)

a. There was no mention of the participants right to withdraw at any time which should be done at the point of first contact. It should also be explained that if they did decide to withdraw during the interview that the payment they received would not be withdrawn. This was not made clear and the statement could easily be read as if there will be no payment unless the interview was completed.

b. Participants should not be promised confidentiality as a number of people would probably see the data given in order to analyse it. Instead they should have been promised anonymity whereby not only their name will be removed but any clues to their identity too. If this is not possible then consent would be needed for disclosure.

c. It should have been made clear that before signing a consent form participants would be given the choice as to what questions they wish to answer and given the option to refuse to answer any questions they were uncomfortable with.

3. Suggest a possible improvement to the study and explain the ethical problem(s) this would address. (150 words)

The participants could have been informed that they can view the data collected at the end of the interview and that they have the opportunity then to withdraw any information they were unhappy or uncomfortable about making public. This would help to uphold the dignity of the participant, in case in hindsight they had revealed something about themselves that they wanted to keep private.

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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

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  • Date: 22 November 2016

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