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Personal and Social Identity

Contextualism, Interactionism, Commitment, Culture, And The Relation Between Personal And Social Identity, Caveats, Criticism, And Extensions

Although identity has deeps roots in social psychology, sociology, bridges between them (e.g., symbolic interactionism), and related disciplines, the explicit distinction between personal and social identity, within social psychology at least, can be traced to J. C. Turner's seminal article "Towards a Cognitive Redefinition of the Group" (1982). This formed the basis for self-categorization theory (SCT), in which personal and social identity is most explicitly articulated.

The concept of social identity had been developed earlier in social identity theory (SIT), a theory of intergroup relations that attempted to define a level of self-definition (social identity), that corresponded to the level of analysis of intergroup behavior in intergroup contexts. To this end Henri Tajfel conceived of an interpersonal-intergroup continuum that captured the range of situations relevant to behavior as individuals versus group members. In intergroup contexts the social identity corresponding to membership of the relevant group or social category structured perception, being, and behavior. Tajfel defined social identity as "that part of an individual's self-concept which derives from his membership of a social group (or groups), together with the value and emotional significance attached to this" (p. 63). This was an important step in showing that being and behavior did not always reflect a fixed or individual self, but that self-definition varies with social context, becoming defined at the group level in intergroup contexts. As such, SIT represented an important and welcome shift from the individualistic and essentialist analyses of intergroup relations (discrimination, prejudice, intergroup conflict) that had gone before (for instance, in terms of the authoritarian personality, frustration-aggression, and so forth). The notion that in intergroup contexts individuals see others, and indeed themselves, primarily (and in extreme cases, purely) as representatives of the salient social categories at play—a process later labeled "depersonalization" by self-categorization theory—is an important and lasting contribution of SIT.

Strictly speaking, however, social identity theory continued to conceive of social identity as part of "the" self-concept (as the quote from Tajfel suggests) and this has also tended to be how approaches to the self within social psychology generally viewed social identity or the "collective self." The contribution of self-categorization theory (SCT) was to address the issue of levels of self more directly and make an explicit distinction between personal and social (read "group level") identity, or levels of self-categorization. Although SIT had talked of interpersonal contexts, it did not refer to personal identity as such, but only to individual level behavior. Many subsequent writers and researchers have however (erroneously) attributed the notion of personal identity to social identity theory. Although it may have been there in spirit, if not in explicit form, Tajfel's interests lay primarily in developing the concept of social identity, so he bracketed this off from more general issues of self and self theory.

The consequence of the personal/social identity distinction of SCT was threefold. First it disputed the notion of a unitary or fixed self-structure ("the" self concept). Second, it explicitly avoided the privileging of either personal or group identity (group identity does not have to be nested within a more general individual self-concept), seeing them as dependent on context (an interactionist position). Third, just as there may be multiple social identities or group self-categorizations corresponding to situated group memberships, in principle there may also be multiple "personal" identities corresponding to the range of situations, roles, and relationships in which individuals find themselves.

This last point has rarely been stated and is perhaps least generally understood. Even among users of SCT, personal identity is still widely seen as a unitary construct, the global sum of the individual's characteristics, at least those residual characteristics not tied to particular group memberships. However, this more unitary conceptualization of personal identity is difficult to distinguish from more essentialist notions of personality, which treat the individual's makeup as relatively fixed, stable, and insensitive to context. From the perspective of self-categorization theory at least, there is no reason why the contextual sensitivity of group identity should not apply equally to personal identity, making personal identities just as multiple in principle (if not more so, given the limited range of social categories) than social qua group identities. From this analysis there is also a strong sense in which both social and personal identities are "social" to the degree that they may be constructed and constituted in situ by the local comparative context.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Pebi- to History of Philosophy - Indifferentism