Social identity theory (SIT) describes how individuals obtain some sense of identity from the groups that they perceive that they belong to. By classifying themselves as a group member, they perceive themselves as having distinct characteristics, which are similar to others in the group, yet distinct from individuals in other groups.
Not just a face-to-face group
In organizational behavior we are primarily interested in group dynamics and behavior from the perspective of the organization, usually where individuals know and are directly influenced by other members of the group (such as their work team and colleagues).
However, social identity theory is a broader perceptive, where individuals will see themselves as part of a larger overall group of people that they will never meet. An example here would be nationality, where someone would classify themselves and American or English as a sense of identity.
Multiple Group Memberships
It is important to note that individuals will see themselves as belonging to many groups and, therefore, will classify themselves in multiple ways. Some types of groups that could be used for social identity purposes include:
- Age group
- Marital status
- Social class
- Political persuasion
- Sexual persuasion
- Supporter of a sports team
- Involvement in a hobby, sport or activity
- Consumer of a brand
- Viewer/reader of certain types of media
- Employee of a firm
How social identity theory works
By associating themselves with a group, individuals are essentially classifying themselves on a social comparison basis – that is, they are comparing themselves to others in society. This approach to classification of people provides two benefits to the individual, namely:
- it enables them to define other people quickly into some form of logical order in their mind, and
- it provides a greater and clearer sense of self identity to the individual.
Therefore, 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, through some form of direct or indirect comparison.
Self-concept consists of two components
An individual’s self-concept – how they see themselves – is formed from a combination of two identities. The first is their personal identity, where they consider their skills, interests, personality, physical appearance in aggregate in order to form a view of themselves.
The second is the social identification, where they are comparing themselves to others in society by perceiving themselves as being members (or not) of certain groups.
Therefore, their personal identity and the social identity work together in order to develop the individual’s self-concept.
Social identity is a relative comparison
By choosing to classify yourself within (or outside of) certain groups in society, essentially you are engaging in a form of comparison. In this sense you are comparing differences between groups, not necessarily you as an individual. For example, an individual might define themselves as “young” at age 35, in comparison to elderly people. However, another individual, who may be 15 years of age, might define themselves as a “teenager” and perceive a 35-year-old as “old”.
As you can see, the classification system is based upon the individual’s perception and structure of groups. And as suggested by the above age example, over time and life experiences, it is likely that individuals will reclassify themselves as they perceive themselves as belonging to different groups at different points of time.
Social identity theory is connected to group identification
What you should be noticing from the above discussion is that there is a relationship between social identity and group identity. At times these terms are used interchangeably. This is because an individual will draw their identity from how they fit into society or into groups, generally based on their own perception and classification system.