In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Identity Theory and Communication

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works
  • General Overviews
  • Relevant Peer-Reviewed Journals
  • Measures of Social Identity
  • Sources of Group Cooperation and Conflict
  • Political/Partisan Identity
  • Racial/Ethnic Identity
  • Gender Identity
  • Sexual Identity
  • Age Identity

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Communication Social Identity Theory and Communication
Charles M. Rowling
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0230


In the 1970s, scholars in social psychology began exploring the process by which individuals attach their own identity to the groups in which they associate. This gave rise to social identity theory, which rests on the notion that, through largely unconscious cognitive processes, individuals who value and closely identify with a particular social group (e.g., familial, ethnic, religious, gender, partisan, national, etc.) will tend to take on characteristics and exhibit behaviors that are consistent with positive attributes associated with that group. Social identity theory also suggests that individuals do more than merely identify with the social groups to which they belong; they also derive comfort, security, and self-esteem from these groups. As a result, group members often engage in favoritism toward their own social group and, at times, denigration of other social groups as a way to protect or enhance their own group identity. Because individuals identify with multiple groups, the concept of salience is also crucial to our understanding of social identity theory. Specifically, individuals will seek to protect or enhance a particular group identity (through words or actions) when they perceive it to be threatened or they sense an opportunity to promote or enhance it. Given the obvious import and relevance of these dynamics to various aspects of society, research on social identity theory has grown exponentially over the past several decades, especially within the social sciences. Scholars in the fields of psychology, sociology, political science, and communication, for example, have increasingly paid attention to and incorporated social identity theory into their study of everything from how politicians communicate to how people vote to how people interact with other cultures. Notably, within the field of communication, the value of social identity theory rests with its ability to explain or predict messaging and response behaviors when a particular group identity is made salient. Thus, social identity theory is a robust theoretical framework that, in recent years, has had broad appeal and application across a number of academic disciplines. With a focus on the intersection of social identity theory and communication research, this article seeks to identify the foundational works within this area of research, recognize the primary journals in which this research can be found, discuss the key concepts and terms associated with this research, and explore how social identity theory has evolved both theoretically and empirically since its inception in the 1970s.

Foundational Works

Social identity theory has its roots in earlier scholarship in social psychology, which focused on the origins and nature of intergroup conflict. Most notably, earlier studies, such as Sumner 1906, Allport 1954, and Sherif 1966, examined the sources of and relationship between ingroup loyalty and outgroup hostility, each offering a different theoretical explanation. Sumner, for example, contends that competition over scarce resources is integral to intergroup conflict, Sherif argues that cohesion and solidarity among ingroup members is directly related to antipathy toward outgroup members, and Allport suggests that ingroup attachment and outgroup hostility are not negatively reciprocally related. Within this scholarly debate Tafjel and Turner began to explore in the 1970s the underlying psychological processes involved in the development and maintenance of group identity, and how this then shapes intergroup behavior. Tajfel and Turner 1979, for example, establishes that individual identity is significantly shaped by group identity through a process of social categorization, social identification, and social comparisons. This study, which is credited with creating the field of social identity theory, actually built on the previous work Turner 1975 regarding social categorization, which suggests that ingroups seek to positively distinguish themselves from outgroup by accentuating certain attributes or achievements that favor the ingroup over other outgroups. Tajfel 1981 is a notable work because it provides valuable insights into how Tajfel’s growth and development as a scholar, as well as his collaboration with Turner and others, eventually gave rise to social identity theory. Subsequent edited volumes, including Tajfel and Turner 1986 and Hogg and Abrams 1988, further extended social identity theory, synthesizing theoretical and empirical works in social identity theory, clarifying differences between social identity theory and other psychological approaches to intergroup relations, and offering insights into potential avenues for future research. In the late 1980s, self-categorization theory, an extension of social identity theory, was introduced in Turner 1985 and further elaborated in Turner, et al. 1987. It contends that group members tend to emphasize similarities among themselves according to stereotypical attributes or prototypes rather than accentuate differences along these same dimensions between the ingroup and other outgroups in an effort to bolster ingroup identity.

  • Allport, G. W. 1954. The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley.

    Classic work on the origins and nature of discrimination. Employs a social psychological approach to examine the relationship between ingroup attachment and outgroup hostility. It suggests that these tendencies are not reciprocally related; rather, ingroup favoritism can be linked with a range of possible attitudes toward outgroups, from mild positivity to extreme hatred. Notably, intergroup contact theory is introduced here, which explores how hostile groups can improve relations via communication.

  • Hogg, M. A., and D. Abrams. 1988. Social Identifications: A social psychology of intergroup relations and group processes. London: Routledge.

    One of the earliest attempts to provide a comprehensive synthesis and analysis of the scholarship on social identity theory, focusing on how the theory differs from other social psychological approaches to intergroup relations. It then builds on previous work, exploring such topics as conformity and solidarity among ingroup members and prejudice and stereotyping toward outgroup members.

  • Sherif, M. 1966. In common predicament: Social psychology of intergroup conflict and cooperation. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

    Sherif was a pioneer in the development of realistic group conflict theory. In this study, as with his earlier works, the theory is used to suggest that intergroup competition over scarce resources creates both ingroup loyalty (stronger identification and attachment to the ingroup) and outgroup hostility (prejudice and discrimination toward the outgroup).

  • Sumner, W. G. 1906. Folkways. New York: Ginn.

    In this classic work, the author establishes the term ethnocentrism and employs structural-functional theory to explain intergroup conflict, suggesting that scarcity of natural resources serves as a primary source of conflict between groups. In the absence of such scarcity, ingroup favoritism and outgroup hostility are unlikely to manifest. Also emphasizes a negative reciprocity between ingroup and outgroup attitudes—specifically, ingroup cohesion and loyalty is largely derived from hostility toward outgroups.

  • Tajfel, H. 1981. Human groups and social categories. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This book summarizes the various studies that Tajfel and his colleagues had conducted in the lead up to and the establishment of social identity theory. This book is of particular value because it provides important insights into Tajfel’s thinking and growth as a scholar throughout this process, and how this research, spanning decades, eventually evolved into what becomes known as social identity theory.

  • Tajfel, H., and J. C. Turner. 1979. An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In The social psychology of intergroup relations. Edited by W. G. Austin and S. Worchel, 33–47. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

    This seminal study is credited with having created the field of social identity theory. Establishes the notion that individuals derive comfort, security, and self-esteem from the groups to which they belong and value; thus, individual identity is profoundly shaped by group identity. This occurs, they argue, as individuals categorize themselves into a social group (social categorization), adopt the identity of that group (social identification), and engage in comparisons with other social groups (social comparison).

  • Tajfel, H., and J. C. Turner. 1986. The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In Psychology of intergroup relations. Edited by S. Worchel and W. Austin, 7–24. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

    This is a critically important piece in the development of social identity theory during the 1980s. Most notably, it introduces ideas about strategic behavioral responses by groups when confronted with a lack of positive distinctiveness. Such group responses often include social change, social conflict, and social creativity. More broadly, this study elaborates and provides empirical support for the original work done on social identity theory found in Tajfel and Turner 1979.

  • Turner, J. C. 1975. Social comparison and social identity: Some prospects for intergroup behavior. European Journal of Social Psychology 5.1: 5–34.

    This study builds on earlier works focused on ingroup-outgroup dynamics and the process of social categorization in intergroup behavior. Its primary contribution is the idea that ingroups seek to positively distinguish themselves from outgroups, which gives rise to social competition in which ingroups engage in comparisons—emphasizing certain attributes or achievements—that favor the ingroup over other groups.

  • Turner, J. C. 1985. Social categorization and the self-concept: A social cognitive theory of group behavior. In Advances in group processes: Theory and research. Vol. 2. Edited by E. J. Lawler, 77–122. Greenwich, CT: JAI.

    This study focuses on the underlying motivations that drive individuals to self-categorize and take on or perceive to possess positive attributes associated with the ingroup. This study serves as an important step toward the establishment of self-categorization theory.

  • Turner, J. C., M. A. Hogg, P. J. Oakes, S. D. Reicher, and M. S. Wetherell. 1987. Rediscovering the social group: A self-categorization theory. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell.

    In this foundational piece, the authors clarify and elaborate the social categorization process previously articulated, but not fully developed, by Tajfel and Turner 1979. The focus is on the interplay between personal and social identity and the key innovation in this study is self-categorization theory, which postulates that individuals tend to both accentuate similarities between themselves and other ingroup members on certain stereotypical attributes associated with the group (prototypes) and exaggerate differences along these same dimensions among members of outgroups.

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