When is social identity important?
Social identity theory suggests that individuals will classify themselves into varying groups in order to help form their self-identity (self-concept), through a series of comparisons between themselves and other individuals in their groups, as contrasted to individuals perceived to belong to other groups.
In simple terms, social identities help us understand where we fit in on some sort of consistent and logical basis, given our perceptions and understandings of the world.
Why do people associate with groups?
There are four main reasons people associate with groups, namely:
- to get a sense of similarity and belonging,
- to provide some degree of distinctiveness,
- to deliver a degree of status, and
- to reduce uncertainty.
Individuals will tend to associate themselves with particular groups when there is a high degree of similarity. This may be on the basis of demographics, employment, values, interests, and so on. This creates a sense of belonging, connection, and simply fitting in and thus helping to define their identity.
An important part of group classification for an individual is to perceive that each different group is quite distinct from each other – that there are clear differences between the groups. This works with the above aspect of similarity, where a person can note points in common and points of difference, in order to help form and reinforce their sense of social identity.
Typically individuals will look for an association with a group that is considered to be of high status. For example, in a workplace, an individual may see themselves as being part of “management”. In their everyday life they may see themselves as being part of “upper-middle-class”. Social status standing is usually important to individuals as it builds self-esteem, as well as helping to create power and the ability to get things done within an organization.
People seek out membership in groups as it helps them define who they are and how they fit into the world, and therefore provides a greater sense of certainty. Inside an organization, management will often provide corporate values about how the way things are done in the company. This gets a sense of what the organization is all about, which would generally pass some aspect of social identity to the employees.