Understanding Social Identity

By Darine Ammache, Clinical Psychologist

Social identity refers to the part of an individual’s self-concept that is derived from their membership in social groups (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). These groups can be based on various characteristics such as race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, religion, profession, hobbies, and more. Social identity theory, proposed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner, provides a framework for understanding how individuals perceive and position themselves in relation to others based on these group memberships (Tajfel & Turner, 1979).

Social identity is a crucial aspect of human psychology because it influences how individuals define themselves and how they relate to others in their social environment. It shapes how people see themselves as part of certain groups and how they view those who belong to different groups. Social identity can lead to a sense of belonging, pride, and support from one’s in-group (the group they belong to) while potentially leading to prejudice and discrimination towards out-groups (groups they do not belong to) (Tajfel & Turner, 1979).

To better comprehend social identity and how people fit in with their peers, it’s important to grasp a few fundamental ideas:

  • In-Group Favoritism: According to social identity theory, people tend to favor their in-group peers. They may feel loyalty, collaboration, and kinship with others in the same group.
  • Out-Group Derogation: Out-group derogation is a form of prejudice and discrimination in which people may have negative attitudes and behaviors toward members of other out-groups, as opposed to in-group favoritism.
  • Social Comparison: Comparing your in-group to your out-group is a common way for people to find their social identity and boost their self-esteem. This can lead to a positive self-assessment of your group and a negative one about your out-group.
  • Social Categorization: Social identity theory suggests that people and groups of people form social categories based on commonalities. These categories form the foundation of social identity.
  • Identity Salience: Social salience refers to the degree to which a particular member of a social group is significant and important to a person in a particular situation. When a particular social identity is more prominent, it can shape behavior and attitudes.
  • Social Mobility and Social Change: Social identity isn’t static and can evolve. People may move from one social group to another or experience changes in the importance of specific social groups. Social shifts can also affect how people view their social identities and how they see themselves in relation to others.

Understanding social identity and its effects on people’s behavior and perception is essential for solving problems such as intergroup relationships, prejudice, discrimination and fostering positive social relationships. By understanding the intricacies of social identity and how it affects behavior, psychologists can create interventions and strategies to promote understanding, collaboration and harmony among different groups.


Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33-47). Brooks/Cole.

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