Social Identity Theory

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TMA.01

Part 1

Summarise two theories of identity and compare their usefulness for explaining the real world issues discussed in chapter 1, 'Identities and diversity'.

The study of identity is primarily the study of 'who we are' and 'who we are not' in comparison to other people, what makes individuals and groups of individuals unique from each other is a very controversial issue. This essay will look at two theories that aim to address this issue, namely, the Psychosocial theory and the Social Identity Theory (SIT). Whilst examining these two theories this essay will also look at their relevance to some every day issues.

The view of Psychosocial theorists is one that identity is produced simultaneously by both personal and social factors. Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson was the first theorist to view identity this way, for Erikson identity consisted of 'a conscious sense of individual uniqueness, an unconscious striving for continuity and a solidarity with a groups ideas' (Erikson cited in Phoenix, 2007, p.53). He believed that a solid understanding of who we are, how we fit in to and are viewed by society forms a core identity, which in turn will create a sense of continuity. Erikson lived through two world wars during which many people feared for their lives. This heightened sense of mortality led to identity confusion. Hence Erikson believed that 'identity crisis' was prevalent at this time.

'Identity crisis' for Erikson was a certain period of time when some young people could not create a solid 'Ego Identity' (a clear understanding of oneself) and were confused and unable to commit to a certain path, the form that this crisis took would be socially and historically variable. This lack of a solid Ego identity Erikson termed as 'role diffusion'. Erikson believed that identity was an ongoing lifelong process through eight different progressive stages ranging from birth to late adulthood, each stage encapsulated many times of crisis and conflict which he saw as normative crisis and essential to the development of identity. Although he saw the period of adolescence as the most important stage, with the majority of adolescents achieving a solid Ego identity after a socially accepted period of trials, trying out various social roles in order to find their ideal path. 'It was abnormal to be normal during adolescence' (Freud cited in Phoenix, 2007, p.56) Erikson calls this period a 'Psychosocial Moratorium'.

During this period of Psychosocial Moratorium Erikson viewed the solidarity of adolescents with groups and their ideas as important to identity, as young people struggle to find a niche in society they can often over identify with various groups. Within these groups the feelings against other groups ( outsiders ) can often become cruel or even violent if there is any threat to their sense of identity.

This identity battle between groups is addressed by the Social Identity Theory (SIT) which was developed by Psychologist Henri Tajfel. Unlike the work of Erikson, Tajfel concentrated more on the social than individual process of identity development. He considered the development of individual and group identity as being separate processes. Tajfel was a Jewish holocaust survivor, his experiences with the Nazi regime was the driving force of his studies, he wanted to know what it was that led to prejudice between different groups. Tajfel mainly focused his studies on trying to identify the minimum requirements needed in order to form group identities, which he did by studying the intergroup relations between minimal groups. These 'minimal groups' were a number of individuals with nothing really in common with each other, apart from the fact that they were categorized as being in the same group (ingroup), they also had no reason to oppose any individual or group outside their defined group (outgroup).

Tajfel found that the simple fact of being categorized within a group was enough to cause prejudice...
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