The Strengths and Weaknesses of Two Psychological Approaches to Identity:
Social Identity Theory and the Social Constructionist Theories
Social Identity Theory and the social constructionist theories have been especially influential in our current understanding of human’s identity. Both have taken a different perspective to look at the subject and arrived to apparently very divergent findings. This essay will look at both explanations and outline the strengths and weaknesses of each of them.
Henri Tajfel (1919-82), a Jew survivor of the Nazi regime, developed what is now called the Social Identity Theory (SIT) in an attempt to understand the processes involved in the relationships between groups, and the causes and effects of prejudice (Hogg and Abrams, 1999, as cited in Phoenix, 2007). His theory divides identity into two separate sub-systems: personal identity and social identity. In SIT, the focus is mainly on social identity, and particularly on how people come to identify to some groups and dissociate from others. The theory tells us that if a social group membership is important for an individual, it becomes internalized as part of their self-concept and therefore, they will strive to obtain a positive sense of self-worth from that membership. To do this, they might have to construct a view of their own group as superior than the comparison groups (Barrett, 2005). Tajfel and colleagues set up a number of experiments to assess this ingroup favoritism and outgroup discrimination. They found that prejudice against the outgroup was present even with minimal groups (where membership is superficial and/or explicitly random) and where participants had nothing to gain from denying benefits to the outgroup (Phoenix, 2007). They interpreted these findings by suggesting that prejudice against outgroups was in fact a way to boost the individual’s self-esteem by making those comparison groups seem inferior. Thus, according to SIT, the drive towards a satisfying...