Jun 222016

What is social identity theory?

Social identity theory (SIT) describes how individual obtain some sense of identity from the groups that they perceive that they belong to. In simple terms, social identity theory allows individuals to gather information about them and others based upon how they decide to classify themselves into various groups, which is essentially a form of comparison.

Social identity and the organization

So how does social identity theory connect to organizations? The first point is that a company, or type of organization, and the individual’s role/position in that organization are also forms of groups that the individual would perceive themselves belonging to. That is, a person might see themselves as “an employee of the bank”, or “an up-and-coming executive”, or a “key member of a project team”, or even potentially “it’s just a job, I’m not like those career people”, and so on.

As you can see, there are multiple ways of defining groups for the individual inside an organization. And depending on how this is constructed in the individual’s mind will influence how they draw identity based on this social comparison.

Performance of the group affects the individual

Once an individual defines themselves as a member of the group, then they have some vested interest in the success and performance of that group. They will draw self-esteem (or otherwise) based upon the success, reputation and perceived importance of the group. If the group goes well, then the individual sees themselves as part of a “winning team”.

This suggests that there is a relationship between the individual’s perceived group membership and their overall organizational commitment. It could be argued that if an employee strongly identifies with a group within the organization (such as, part of the marketing team) then they have a higher level of commitment to the organization, and vice versa.

Degrees of group identification

The previous section highlights a critical aspect in relation social identity theory. While individuals will classify themselves according to a group, they will vary in their degree of attachment to that group. For example, you could have a supporter of a sports team who goes to every single game, and another person who also considers themselves a supporter of the same team (hence part of the same group) but has only a minor interest in the sport and the games.

As a result, in an organizational setting, it may be necessary to measure the degree of commitment and association that individuals have within their section or within the organization overall. This is because an individual with a stronger connection and perceived association with the organization is likely to have a higher level of commitment to their role, because the group (and the associated identity) is more important to them in forming their identity.

Social identity and organizational identity

For some individuals, where they work and what they do is a key part of their overall social identity. These people tend to be more vested in the careers and gain self-esteem from their career and the places where they worked and the positions that they have held.

Whereas other individuals consider work to be part of earning money only and draw much of their social identity from groups outside of the organization.

Related topics

What is social identity theory and how does it work?

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