Social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner 1979) was originally developed to explain prejudice and discrimination, and the circumstances under which societies would move from relatively cooperative and harmonious arrangements to overt conflict. The theory has since expanded enormously, and has become the basis for a general social identity approach to social psychological and communicative phenomena. This includes, but is not limited to, ethnolinguistic identity theory (Giles & Johnson 1981), communication accommodation theory (Giles & Coupland 1991), and self-categorization theory (Turner 1987). This expansion has occurred through empirical and theoretical advances that have elaborated the core idea of the theory to explain a wide range of other phenomena. Notable examples include the use of the social identity approach as a basis for understanding language expansion and language death, bilingualism and multilingualism, communicative shifts in accent and language along micro- and macro-social dimensions, language attitudes, social influence and persuasion, stereotyping, and most recently, media selection and perception.
It is rare for a social scientific theory to become so developed. In the case of social identity theory, Tajfel’s critical insight followed from a critique of early approaches to understanding prejudice and discrimination. Tajfel observed, as did others, that the common approach to understanding these phenomena rested solely on the psychology of the individual, typically motivations or putative biological needs. By focusing on the individual to the exclusion of social context, these approaches were unable to explain when groups of people would simultaneously develop prejudices, and when these prejudices might be amplified or ameliorated. Because of this, such approaches were unable to account for the critical process of social change.
According to social identity theory, people are motivated to maintain or enhance a positive sense of social identity, but the way in which this occurs is directed and constrained by beliefs about the legitimacy and stability of ingroup status vis-à-vis relevant outgroups, the degree to which boundaries between groups are thought to be permeable, and the individuals’ degree of identification with their ingroup. Combinations of these beliefs, driven by a desire for positive social identity, lead to the crystallization of three different social belief structures, namely social mobility, social competition, and social creativity. In each case, these belief structures are best understood as resulting from an intergroup struggle for power, prestige, and status. Those groups that fare well in the intergroup context are those that emerge with relatively high status, and by extension group members achieve positive social identity.
When people consider their group to have stable and legitimate low status, believe it possible to join a high-status group, and have little commitment to their ingroup, then they are likely to have social mobility beliefs. In other words, the problem of striving for positive social identity is solved by adopting an ideology based on individual movement between groups. On the other hand, people might perceive their group’s status to be low, but consider the circumstances that produce that low status to be illegitimate and unstable. If this is combined with a sense that it is not possible to shift into another group, and strong ingroup identification, such a person is likely to solve the problem of positive social identity by engaging in social competition. In other words, people with these beliefs are likely to have hostile attitudes about members of the higher-status outgroup, and may engage in social action designed to change the situation. Examples would include engaging in language revival movements, engaging in social protest, or developing prejudicial attitudes toward members of the advantaged group.
Finally, someone who believes that it is not possible to individually join another group, but who also believe that the status of their group is stable (i.e., cannot be easily changed through some form of social action), is likely to value their ingroup but avoid confrontation with an outgroup. Social, creative responses to this problem of resolving positive social identity include finding a lower-status group to make comparison with, rejecting the basis for social comparison (e.g., the slogan “black is beautiful”), or ignoring the basis for status (e.g., intelligence, competence, wealth), and focusing instead on an alternative solidarity-based dimension for defining the ingroup (e.g., integrity, benevolence, or decency).
More recent research has considered the role of the mass media in particular as affecting group vitality and the likelihood of collective action (Reid et al. 2004). Indigenous groups such as Native Americans and Hawaiians typically receive short shrift on mainstream television, and such a lack of exposure will likely have a negative impact upon subjective group vitality. Similarly, there is much evidence that minority groups, such as women and older adults, have received relatively little exposure on mainstream television. Further to the lack of media representation, the depictions that are presented are often negative and stereotypic. It is likely that such portrayals negatively impact the subjective vitality of members of such groups, both within the minority group and in the minds of non-minority group members.
There is, however, evidence that people engage with the media in ways designed to gratify social identities. In other words, people actively search for media content that provides information about the ingroup, and there is evidence that consuming such material can have a positive impact on social identity. Despite the presence of negative depictions of groups, it is possible that individuals’ active attempts to find positive ingroup images can override the effect of more mainstream depictions. Other lines of more recent research include application of this approach to under-studied groups such as those defined by disability, age, civilian– police encounters, homosexual–heterosexual interactions, and the presence and effect of intergroup relations on the Internet (see Harwood & Giles 2005).
- Giles, H., & Coupland, N. (1991). Language: Context and consequences. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
- Giles, H., & Johnson, P. (1981). The role of language in ethnic group relations. In J. C. Turner & H. Giles (eds.), Intergroup behavior. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 199–243.
- Harwood, J., & Giles, H. (eds.) (2005). Intergroup communication: Multiple perspectives. New York: Peter Lang.
- Reid, S. A., Giles, H., & Abrams, J. R. (2004). A social identity model of media usage and effects. Zeitschrift für Medienpsychologie, 16, 17–25.
- Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole, pp. 33–47.
- Turner, J. C. (1987). A self-categorization theory. In J. C. Turner, M. A. Hogg, P. J. Oakes, S. D. Reicher, & M. S. Wetherell, Rediscovering the social group: A self-categorization theory. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 42–67.