What people do, how they interact with others, and what they include in their lives are what helps to build a social identity. This is a framework by which and individual allows themselves to be known, basing their identity upon brands they favor, teams they support, and causes they opt to follow and perhaps even champion as their own. In many ways this type of identity is a secondary persona, a shell of sorts that helps to insulate the individual’s true self from the rest of the world. To some it is the only self, what they desire and need to function, while for others it is in fact an identity that seeks to show a different face to the public. Social identity is how the world is allowed to see an individual, and in so doing how to classify them as a person.
Social Identity Theory stems back to the year 1979 when it was first developed by Tajfel and Turner (Tajfel, 1982). This theory was brought about in order to better grasp the basis of discrimination as it occurred in groups. The attempt was initially made to see what type of minimal conditions would essentially cause the discrimination between groups. What this theory is meant to show is that an individual doesn’t just have a single self that they operate under, but instead several personas that are useful in their own manner as they pertain to different groups.
There exist different triggers within an individual’s consciousness that can be tripped
under certain conditions, thereby causing them to react and behave in different manners based
upon what environment or group setting they find themselves in. Depending upon where one
finds themselves at a given moment is what determines which social identity will reveal itself. Social identity is in effect the ideal that the individual holds as their desired self-concept that is taken from their inclusion into select groups of their choosing. In short it is the feeling one develops once they realize that they fit in somewhere, that they belong. From then on it becomes them and the group, with the rest of the world being excluded as the non-affiliated.
SIT grants that membership to a group manages to instill the type of self-categorization and esteem that allow the group to become the more important part of the individual’s life, at the expense of most others who are outside of the group. There are a great many examples that can be viewed and observed to practice such behaviors, not the least of which are motorcycle clubs, gangs, and of course high school cliques, which are at the beginning of many a social identity during the younger years. Self-esteem and assurance are generally raised once one is a part of a group, and can often be used to exclude others that are not a part of the group, leading to favoritism that is at times borderline fanatical. While in some cases the behaviors of those who become a part of an exclusive group do not necessarily change towards those who remain outside the group, there are also instances during which exclusivity carries with it the very real danger of discrimination.
Social identity is a trait that is not taken on until around adolescence, as most children
under this age are not considered old enough to be judged and pored over by the world at large.
There are few if any exceptions to this rule as the American culture and many others often regard
children as exempt from such scrutiny when it comes to their identity. At such a young age the
formation of a persona is still in development, and is not mature enough to be brought out into
the public eye. In some cases it has become unavoidable, as child stars and the like have been
almost forced into the media spotlight. Even in such cases however the welfare of the child is
always considered the first priority and must be preserved.
For adolescents and adults social identity is a means by which to establish their names,
their personalities, and of course to spread their influence as far as it might be allowed. In this regard social identity is a construct used not only to establish an individual’s persona, but to also allow it to serve as a model for others to view and perhaps even follow. Role models are created from those who wish to expand their social repertoire and reach more viewers. Such individuals can be considered the average person who seeks no attention but instead interacts with and affects the spheres of influence they feel most comfortable with. Those with greater ambition and need to be known become public faces and attain the status of being culturally significant and a part of much greater spheres of influence.
A social identity is very susceptible to the core values and ideals that an individual is given and taught in their earliest years. Who a person will be versus who they wish to be is highly dependent upon the earliest years of development and how certain milestones are reached. Social identity can begin at a very young age through either modeling or by the simple method of categorizing people into groups that are labeled as “us” and “them”, an over-generalization that allows an individual to feel more secure in the knowledge that they have selected a group to identity with and therefore base their identity around. This is prevalent with many different facets of life, and can be viewed from childhood on.
The practice of placing individuals into like-minded groups is a coping effect that allows
an individual to create clear and concise dividing lines between their own identity and that of
others. In this manner an individual can continue to develop their own selected identity in a
manner that offers less confusion and essentially less challenge. This in turn can afford greater
self-esteem and confidence in the path that is chosen and therefore create a mental stability that
aids in the cultivation of the identity and the continual maintenance that such identities require.
Considering that social identities can and do change as the individual grows, it is beneficial to
possess the self-assurance in one’s decisions so as to eliminate any unneeded stressors.
In essence social identity is the definition of a person as the member of a group, how that group operates, what their beliefs are, and how they conduct themselves in regards to others (Burke, 2006). Social identity theory, or SIT, tends to consider a group as three or more people, and studies the dynamics of the group as it pertains to others and to those within the group as well, gauging cognitive development of the individual and the group. In this manner SIT can better determine the cause and effect of solidarity upon the social identity of the group and the individual. It can also be determined how the dynamic is upheld in regards to the varying differences that each member can bring to an intergroup setting.
Oftentimes those who find themselves in minority groups within a given environment will find it far more conducive to their overall well being to form a group that is comprised mainly of those they find comfort with. In this manner they are safe and relatively secure, and can associate better with those who are like-minded and can better relate to their situation. In other cases minority members might attempt to fit into any available club that will accept them, creating an identity that is not entirely stable but offers at least a moderate amount of security in belonging. Social identity is at times a security blanket that can be used to disguise inequities or the simple fact that an individual sticks out in a crowd when they wish to blend in.
Using that logic it is reasonable to assume that most people will seek out one group or
another in order to hide away their weaknesses of character or personality flaws. In joining a
group that is like-minded and does not judge, an individual is able to create a new persona that is
without any of their more noticeable flaws, and can be judged upon what they do within that group, not on their own. The effect of hiding away in a group is not always the case, as many people will join groups to show solidarity towards their race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, or any number of other reasons. In joining that group they take on the chance of becoming someone else. They remain the same person, but are able to adopt a different set of behaviors and a different identity than they display with others.
In the cases that see individuals band together for safety and security within their own neighborhood or community it is often seen in the context of protection, sticking to their own kind as it were to remain safe. Some might see this as a gang mentality but the practice does in fact transcend such a possibility, as neighborhood watches serve the same purpose but are far less demanding and do not seek to demand as much of their members. Such extreme cases of social identity are typically in response to some kind of threat that is both local and very real, and is then noticeably stronger when said danger is more prevalent. The darker side of social identity would be exemplified by the formation of gangs and the influence that is spread by their existence.
The lighter side, and opposite of the gang scene and its many flaws, would perhaps be a neighborhood church group or neighborhood watch. Such groups tend to look after one another, spreading goodwill through their environment rather than causing others to fear them. In this regard the social identity of their members would be a very positive and uplifting presence. In any given neighborhood the social identity of its residents tend to change throughout the lifespan as people grow, develop, move on, and deal with the day to day dynamics of a community setting. There are constants that remain, but as to the social identity of a community it usually is wise to take note which group within any neighborhood, if they exist, holds the greatest sway.
Social identity is a construct that can be positive, negative, or neutral. It can protect an individual or simply give them something to do. The influence that it exerts upon the individual can be used for status, safety, or a sense of accomplishment that might be otherwise too difficult to attain alone. Defining any social identity requires a definitive context that allows for the careful and unbiased study that can examine the dynamic of the intergroup relationship and how they operate.
SIT focuses mostly on social structure and how individuals come to rely upon those identities they choose to develop. Through the behaviors that are noted and observed from studies that look into the interpersonal and intergroup relationships researchers can come to better understand the group dynamic and what drives it. While many reasons are already known and documented it is always considered necessary to maintain such observations and attempt to deduce why certain groups behave as they do and what factors go into explaining those behaviors (Hogg & Terry, 2001). Through the use of set social structures and existing studies that have created a roadmap to social identity and its many causes it is more possible now to understand the group dynamic and its effect upon the individual than ever before.
The necessity of a group dynamic in the life of an individual is typically seen for several reasons, not the least of which is security. When given the choice of being alone or joining a group many will opt for the latter rather than the former, seeing the idea of belonging to a group that might look out for them and protect them as more appealing than standing alone. The social identity created by joining a group offers solidarity and a sense of belonging that remaining alone does not necessarily provide. There are upsides and downsides to developing a few social identities, but many people do so in order to fit in to society. Human beings are typically social creatures, and as such there is every belief that a social identity is a necessity for many.
Burke, Peter J. (Ed.) Contemporary Social Psychological Theories. Stanford: Stanford University Press, (2006). Print.
Hogg, Michael A. & Terry, Deborah J. (Eds.) Social Identity Processes in Organizational
Contexts. Ann Arbor: Sheridan, (2001). Print.
Tajfel, Henri (Ed.) Social identity and intergroup relations. New York: Cambridge University
Press, (1982). Print.