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The Social Identity Theory

The social identity theory was proposed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner (1979,1986), after he conducted his minimal group experiment. He suggested that humans have a strong desire to ´belong´ hence our inclination of being part of groups. This theory can be used to examine and understand prejudice within society.


Groups and Our Desire to Belong

As was mentioned earlier Tajfel suggested that we have a desire to ´belong´ to certain groups, he argued that our self-esteem is derived from our group membership and acceptance of others.

This explains why humans tend to stay and hangout in groups rather than on an individual basis, and there may also be an evolutionary aspect involved. As humans who took off from the group due to not being accepted often didn’t manage to survive.

Social Categorisation

Tajfel identifies two categorises, the in-group and the out-group. The in-group is defined as the group which we associate with the most and see ourselves belonging in, whilst the out-group is the group that contains everyone else who is not part of the in-group.

Social categorisation refers to the separation we create between the in-group and the out-group. During this stage we start using more collective pronouns with the in-group such as ´us´, ´we´, ´together´. Whilst with the outgroup we tend to use pronouns such as ´they´, ´them´. Tajfel argues that this is an automatic sorting process, and that just the mere existence of an out-group is enough to bring out discrimination and prejudice.

Social Identification

Social identification refers to the stage that involves the individual adopting the beliefs, values, norms, and social attitudes of the in-group. This may involve behaviour change in order to conform to the group’s social norms as well as changes in the actual physical appearance as the social identity starts forming (for example a person hanging around goth cultured groups may change his attitudes and physical appearance to match that.).

Social Comparison

After the social identification stage, social comparison follows. Social comparison links back to the aspect of self-esteem that Tajfel mentions. As was mentioned earlier he believes that we get our self-esteem from our sense of belonging to the in-group, however another main factor increasing our-self esteem is intergroup comparison. Tajfel argued that our self-esteem is linked to our self-concept – the better we feel about ourselves the higher out self-esteem.

Hence, if we can increase our self-esteem through group comparison Tajfel argued that these comparisons may not be that objective as we may view our group as superior to others in order to perceive ourselves as superior as well.

Tajfel also pointed out something called ‘The Quest for Positive Distinctiveness’ he described this as the fact that differences between groups are maximised and similarities are minimised in order to maintain a difference between the groups.

These cognitive processes may in turn lead to discrimination and prejudice between in-groups and out-groups, as each group perceive the other inferior to themselves.

Research into The Social Identity Theory

Research of the social identity theory comes from Tajfel’s 1970 minimal group experiment, where he worked with a class of 15-year-old Bristol schoolboys. He created in-groups and out-groups by telling each student what previous students said in a task between choosing between two paintings.

The students were then asked to allocate points to other boys and were told these points can be exchanged for cash. Tajfel found that more points were awarded to the in-group (boys who liked the same painting) then the out-group. In some scenarios boys even opted to maximise the difference even if it meant they received less points themselves!


The credibility of the minimal group experiment that the social identity theory is based on is weak. It can be argued that allocating the points privately and based on picture ratings lacks mundane realism as in reality this would never be asked. Furthermore, in real life discrimination is most likely not overt, hence also reducing the ecological validity of the study.


Social identity theory has applications to reducing prejudice in society, through increases in peoples self-esteem.

A study by Fein and Spencer (1997) found that by giving students a sense of high or low self-esteem (through false feedback from an intelligence test) it varied their options when rating someone for a job. Students with low self-esteem rated a Jewish applicant less favourably than an Italian one, whilst that was not the case for those with high self-esteem.

This can be applied to society by ensuing self-esteem is increased in school in order to prevent bullying and discrimination.



  • A strength of this theory is that it is supported by Tajfel’s minimal group experiment, which shows that social comparison is enough to trigger in-group favourite and cause prejudice against the out-group.

  • There is research support form a study by Cialdini et al. (1976) which found that after a successful football match team supporters were more likely to wear their teams logo and display it more publicly than the losing team, demonstrating some of Tajfel’s ideas of social comparison and positive distinctiveness.


  • A weakness of the social identity theory is that it may be ethnocentric, and only be able to explain western behaviour. A study by Wetherell (1982) tried to replicate Tajfel’s minimal group experiment using eight-year-old schoolchildren in New Zealand and found that the children were more generous than those in Tajfel’s study.

  • Another weakness links with the previous point, is that social identity theory does not take into account environmental factors such as culture, i.e., collectivist and individualistic cultures.

  • A further weakness is that the minimal group experiment which the theory is based on, lacks mundane realism and ecological validity as was mentioned in previous points.


References/ Further Reading:

Social Identity Theory – Wikipedia -

Minimal Group Paradigm – Wikipedia -

Cialdini et al. (1976) -

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