Identity has been defined as, "a person's essential, continuous self, the internal subjective concept of oneself as an individual" (Reber,1995, p.355). Identity is a complex field and, as a consequence, psychologists have devised a number of theories to help people to understand it. This essay will describe an approach to identity called Social Identity Theory (SIT) which was developed by Henri Tajfel and his colleagues (Tajfel,1978). It will then move on to a discussion of how this theory can help to explain the identities of people with disabilities.
Tajfel’s interest in identity was driven by his desire to understand prejudice. SIT, the theory he was at the heart of developing, sets out to explain, “the social processes by which people come to identify with particular groups and separate themselves from others” (Phoenix, 2007, p.62).
Tajfel separated identity into two, with a personal and social component. Of these two, he concentrated on people’s adoption, or development of ‘social identities’. He defined social identity as, “that part of an individual’s self concept which derives from his knowledge of his membership of a social group (or groups) together with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership.” (Tajfel, 1978, p.63). Phoenix sees our social identities as mostly being composed of ‘self-descriptions’ that come from the characteristics that we believe are significant to the social groups to which we belong (Phoenix, 2007, p.62).
Tajfel’s work considered the part that ‘categorization processes’ played in the definition of identity (Robinson, 1996, p.101). Tajfel argued that even under ‘minimal conditions’ people categorize themselves and each other into social groups. In his now famous ‘Minimal Group’ experiments, he created a number of groups where the differences between the groups was trivial. He went on to show that merely being a member of an artificially created group was enough to promote identity with that group (the ingroup) and prejudice against others (the outgroup) (Tajfel et al, 1971).
Tajfel (1978) argued that prejudice was an inevitable side effect of our drive for positive social identities. For him, people achieved positive social identities by developing a sense of belonging to groups that they believed were distinct and had high social status. Self-esteem, and as a consequence prejudice, were bolstered by exaggerating the differences between ‘positive’ ingroups and other ‘inferior’ outgroups.
Within SIT, individuals and groups may use one of three strategies to improve their social status in relation to other groups (Phoenix, 2007). The first is through social mobility, which involves leaving behind their previous social group. The second is through ‘social creativity’ which involves promoting a ‘positive redefinition’ of a social identity. The last, social competition, seeks social change in a far more assertive fashion by “demanding alternative social arrangements based on new ways of thinking about social groups” (Phoenix, 2007, p.65).
Before moving on to a discussion of how SIT can help to explain the identities of people with disabilities it is probably worth noting the rejection of the concept of a unitary ‘disabled identity’. Keith suggests that the wide variation ‘between types of impairment and within groups of people who have the same impairment, means that there can be no one single identity shared by people with physical impairments’ (as cited in Phoenix, 2007, p.83).
The development of SIT as means to help explain intergroup discrimination leaves it relatively ill-equipped to tackle a number of the key questions about identity such as: the importance of continuity, ‘crisis’ and adolescence to identity and whether disabled people choose core identities or construct and use flexible identities.
On the first...