Social Identity Theory: Definition and Examples

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  • 0:05 Two Aspects of Social…
  • 1:31 Variables in Social…
  • 3:44 Social Identity Theory…
  • 4:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rob Wengrzyn

Rob has an MBA in management, a BS in marketing, and is a doctoral candidate in organizational theory and design.

We all have conceptual thoughts about who we are and what our own identity is. Those same thoughts can apply to our self concepts when we look at the groups we belong to and our own internal self identity. In this lesson we will explore these aspects and delve deeper into social identity theory.

Two Aspects of Social Identity Theory

I need you to do a little exercise with me. Please hang in there, as it will help us to understand the two basic parts of social identity theory, and help us develop a starting point that will help us understand the concept.

First, take a moment to think about the self-conception you have about yourself. Think about your personal skills and abilities and how they shape how you view who you are. The feeling you get when you look at who you are as it relates to these aspects and how that makes you feel about yourself.

Next, take a moment to picture yourself with a group of people that have not succeeded as a team. Think about how you feel about being in that team. Next, I want you to picture yourself with a team or a group that has succeeded. Think about how you feel being part of a team like that.

The reason for this exercise is that generally it's understood that people think poorly of themselves when they are on a team that did not succeed, and better about themselves when they think of being on a team that did succeed.

What you have just done in these two exercises is work through the parts of social identity theory, which states that an individual's self-conception is based on a) personal or self-identity, and b) collective identity. The personal aspect or self-identity refers to our personal qualities (our skills and abilities), while the collective aspect deals with all the qualities we think we have from being part of a group.

Variables in Social Identity Theory

It would be easy to say that each of us develops our social identity solely on the individual and collective aspects of this theory, but it's a little more complicated than that. There are additional pieces of this puzzle that help us understand and work through our social identity. You see, it can and does change, and there are mechanisms in place to help us with that changing viewpoint, driven mostly by how we rationalize the perspective that we have.

First, we have similarity, or more specifically, our ability or desire to exaggerate the similarities between us or our group, and exaggerate the differences between us or other groups. This concept helps us rationalize our internal perspective compared against others. Possibly the best way to think about this is how sports fans identify with their teams. Fans that follow a team that just won the Super Bowl could somehow match their characteristics to that of the winning team, while also exaggerating the characteristics of the losing team and their fans. 'See, us New York Giants fans never quit like Patriots fans'.

Taking this from a different viewpoint, we have a distinctiveness, or how unique a person feels they are or how distinctive they think the group is. People, at times, strive to be unique or want to belong to clubs or groups that are unique, exclusive and thus distinctive. This gives the individual a sense of pride that they stand alone from (or in some ways above) the people around them.

Think of members of a country club and how they feel distinctive because they belong to an exclusive group. As it relates to social identity theory, a person can even strive to be distinct within the group they are in, so it's not limited to just individual-to-individual or group-to-group. This same aspect also ties to status as it directly relates to how a person or group is viewed in a socially stratified setting.

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