Exploring Group Processes with the Social Identity Approach

Patriotic fans on The Mall by Not Enough Megapixels. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Patriotic fans on The Mall by Not enough Megapixels. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As I continue to read about human-wildlife conflict, one of the themes that has emerged repeatedly is social identity (Hoon Song, 2000; Lute, Bump, & Gore, 2014; Marchini & Macdonald, 2012; Naughton-Treves, Grossberg, & Treves, 2003).

For example, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids; Breitenmoser et al. (2010) write about a case involving lynx (Lynx lynx) in Switzerland. Frustrated over the decline in roe deer populations, hunters in the northwestern Alps began to illegally kill the cats. But when the story broke, a puzzling dynamic emerged. Support for lynx conservation rose in Zurich, but it plummeted in the NW Alps. In fact it fell so far that multiple attempts were made to strip legal protections from lynx (Breitenmoser et al., 2010).

Breitenmoser et al. (2010) wrote that this was because residents of the NW Alps allied themselves with hunters and sheep herders. Clearly that is what happened, but why? And why did that lead to such antipathy towards lynx?

In order to understand cases like this, I have turned to one of the cornerstones of social psychology: the social identity approach. While many theories belong to this lineage, the two most prominent are social identity theory and self-categorization theory.

When it became known that hunters were illegally killing lynx in Switzerland, public opinion on lynx conservation became polarized. Why? Lynx in snow by Cloudtail. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
When it became known that hunters were illegally killing lynx in Switzerland, public opinion on lynx conservation became polarized. Why? Lynx in snow by Cloudtail. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Social Identity Theory (SIT)

Social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) emerged from a series of experiments known as minimal group paradigms (Hornsey, 2008; Tajfel & Turner, 1979). In these studies, participants were arbitrarily assigned to bogus groups. They were given sets of matrices with squares representing in-group and out-group members, and then asked to divide some sort of token (e.g. points) between them.

Even under such meaningless conditions, participants regularly displayed in-group bias. Further investigation revealed that their strategy was not to maximize the in-group’s profits; but to maximize the difference between the two groups. Participants were willing to harm themselves in order to avoid helping the out-group (Haslam, Reicher, & Reynolds, 2012; Tajfel & Turner, 1979).

These findings led to a series of ideas that have been refined over the years. SIT’s premises include:

Tajfel's Theory of Social Identity by Delusion23. CC BY 3.0
Tajfel’s Theory of Social Identity by Delusion23. CC BY 3.0
  • People form groups with similar others through a process of social categorization. Those group memberships that are important to the self make up one’s social identity (Haslam et al., 2012; Rodgriguez, 2015).
  • Each group has its own norms, which are standards of conduct and belief that help them remain unique (Cinoğlu & Arikan, 2012; Haslam et al., 2012; Hornsey, 2008).
  • Our social identity forms part of our self-concept. Since we desire a positive and secure self-concept, we are motivated to maintain the positive distinctiveness of the groups we are attached to (Haslam et al., 2012; Hornsey, 2008; Rodriguez, 2015). That is, we attempt to maximize their status and uniqueness in comparison to relevant out-groups.
  • When a group’s positive distinctiveness is threatened, several strategies can be employed to enhance it. The most noteworthy of these occurs when group boundaries are experienced as impermeable, and when the lower-status group perceives the dominant group’s position to be insecure and/or illegitimate.
    • Under these conditions, the subordinate group will work to change the system in a way that increases their status. Unless the dominant group creates new criteria for evaluating themselves, they will try to prevent this.
    • Depending on the norms of the groups involved (and likely historical factors), their actions might result in discrimination; if not overt conflict (Tajfel & Turner, 1979).
Self-Categorization Theory (SCT)

Building off of SIT, self-categorization theory (Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987) takes a closer look at how people conceptualize their group memberships (Hornsey, 2008). It contains the following principles:

  • There are three levels of identity.
    • The subordinate level refers to our personal identities, and it is defined by comparisons with other individuals.
    • The intermediate level contains the various groups we belong to. It makes up our social identities, and is determined by comparisons with other groups.
    • The superordinate level is the most inclusive of all. The best example of this is humanity as a whole (Hornsey, 2008).
  • The level that is most prominent at a given time depends on the situation.
  • Individuals picture their various affiliations in terms of prototypes, which are cognitive representations that contain the norms of one’s in-groups (Hornsey, 2008).
    • Those members who best represent a group’s prototype are those who exercise the most influence within it (Haslam et al., 2012).
    • When a particular identity is activated, depersonalization takes place. This means there is greater pressure to conform to the group prototype, and to view fellow in-group members as exemplars of those ideals (Hornsey, 2008).
A good example of depersonalization. Group of webmaster of Social communication section of Don Bosco Sihanoukville, Cambodia by Povtula. Wikimedia Commons.
A good example of depersonalization. Group of webmaster of Social communication section of Don Bosco Sihanoukville, Cambodia by Povtula. Wikimedia Commons.
  • When comparisons with relevant out-groups become salient, deindividuation and polarization occur.
    • Deindividuation is similar to depersonalization, except that it is directed towards out-groups. It leads in-group members to perceive these ‘others’ not as individuals, but as representatives of the in-group’s understanding of the out-group’s prototype (Haslam et al., 2012).
    • Polarization refers to the extremitization of group norms in order to maximize distinctiveness. For example, consider a group who moderately dislikes large predators. When comparing themselves to a group of animal lovers, they will favor such creatures even less. But when confronted by a group who advocates eradication, they will become more sympathetic towards large carnivores (Hogg, Turner, & Davidson, 1990).
  • The more strongly one identifies with their in-group, the more pronounced the above effects should be (Hogg, Turner, & Davidson, 1990).

The social identity approach has been used to explain a wide range of phenomena. It has increased psychology’s understanding of ethnocentrism (Tajfel, 1982), bullying (Jones, Manstead, & Livingstone, 2009; Ojala & Nesdale, 2004), agricultural practices (Fielding, Terry, Masser, & Hogg, 2008), and more.

But I am most interested in wildlife conservation. So when I revisit this topic, I will highlight research that has applied the above principles to relevant domains.

Further Reading:

Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S. D., & Reynolds, K. J. (2012). Identity, influence, and change: Rediscovering John Turner’s vision for social psychology. British Journal of Social Psychology, 51, 201-218. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8309.2011.02091.x.

Hogg, M. A., Turner, J. C., & Davidson, B. (1990). Polarized norms and social frame of reference: A test of the self-categorization theory of group polarization. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 11(1), 77-100. http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/s15324834basp1101_6.

Hornsey, M. J. (2008). Social identity theory and self-categorization theory: A historical overview. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(1), 204-222. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2007.00066.x.

McLeod, S. (2008). Social identity theory. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/social-identity-theory.html.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W.G. Austin & S.Worschel (Eds.), The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations (pp. 33–47). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.


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