Social Identity Theory

The other day I was attempting to learn how to go deeper with my students and their identities. I stumbled upon the idea of  Social Identity Theory. I will attempt to tie this theory into my Physical Education and Health Class. I am not an expert in this area and if you have feedback or push-back I gladly welcome it.

Social Identity Theory was created by Henry Tajfel in 1979. “Tajfel (1979) proposed that the groups (e.g. social class, family, football team etc.) which people belonged to were an important source of pride and self-esteem. Groups give us a sense of social identity: a sense of belonging to the social world.” (link)

“Tajfel and Turner’s social identity theory explains that part of a person’s concept of self comes from the groups to which that person belongs. An individual does not just have a personal selfhood, but multiple selves and identities associated with their affiliated groups. A person might act differently in varying social contexts according to the groups they belong to, which might include a sports team they follow, their family, their country of nationality, and the neighborhood they live in, among many other possibilities.” (link)

This is where the theory gets super interesting. When we see ourselves as part of a group Tajfel labels this the “in group”. The other comparable groups that we are not part of “out groups”. This creates us verse them mentality. Think of how nationalism works. I was born in the United States. I look at other countries as being the outgroups. Before I delve more into the in groups and out groups lets look at how Tajfel tells us how we break down groups and how we act upon that information once we do.

“The first is categorization. We categorize objects in order to understand them and identify them. In a very similar way we categorize people (including ourselves) in order to understand the social environment.  We use social categories like black, white, Australian, Christian, Muslim, student, and bus driver because they are useful.

In the second stage, social identification, we adopt the identity of the group we have categorized ourselves as belonging to.  If for example you have categorized yourself as a student, the chances are you will adopt the identity of a student and begin to act in the ways you believe students act (and conform to the norms of the group).  There will be an emotional significance to your identification with a group, and your self-esteem will become bound up with group membership.

The final stage is social comparison.  Once we have categorized ourselves as part of a group and have identified with that group we then tend to compare that group with other groups. If our self-esteem is to be maintained our group needs to compare favorably with other groups.” (link)

For the purpose of this blog let us look at this from a Physical Education class lens. Our students could categorize themselves in various ways. One way they could categorize themselves is by sex. We know that there at least three sexes although most of our students would fall into the male/female trap. This is one reason why dividing groups up by boys and girls are a problem. We have the issues of students who don’t identify with the sex they are born with, are intersex, or are gender non-conforming and would find the idea of being in the male/female as an issue because this is analogous to them having to choose a gender.

Let’s say that I am a teacher who doesn’t care about their students and just said boys and girls split up. What is the identity of the groups that were just separated? Society has told us that males act a certain way. They are aggressive, don’t cry, and should care about winning. If I associate myself with the male group as being the “in group” how will that impact my actions? What if I am not aggressive and hate athletics? Where does that leave my self-esteem?

When we flip the script and I am in the female group how does that impact my actions? Society tells me I should be docile and passive. How does this impact the way I interact during the activity with other girls? What labels will be put on me if I am aggressive and care about winning?

Finally, what happens when the ingroups compare themselves to the outgroup? How does this impact the female group’s self-esteem when they compare themselves to the male group? I am not looking at this from a deficit mindset either. The female group may be more athletic and better at the activity than the male group. That would positively impact their self-esteem. Would that negatively impact the males’ self-esteem?

There is so much more to social identity theory and I don’t have the time to really break it down like I should; however, this is something that we as educators should look at. How do the categories that our students identify with the impact their thoughts and actions? There is so much more to unpack when we think about race, religion, ethnicity, SES, physical ability, and all the other categories that our students own. Hopefully, this blog will make you go check out the links and start understanding how being part of a group impacts how we think and how we act.





1 thought on “Social Identity Theory

  1. edifiedlistener

    Yes, Justin, this is an incredibly useful framework for thinking about how we all form ideas about belonging and identification. And your example is spot on. I’ve been thinking about how I use language to speak to gender as a spectrum. So far my attempts feel clunky and awkward: “Please make sure your group includes all the genders.” And I explain why I am expressing it that way. It’s a process and of course there is much more in acknowledging the ways social identity influences how students see themselves in our classes and beyond. So thank you for offering the theoretical underpinnings of this effort.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s