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Personal and Social Identity

Caveats, Criticism, And Extensions

One criticism that is sometimes leveled at the self-categorization analysis of group identities in particular (but by implication also personal identity) is its cognitive and perceptual focus, and a consequent neglect of motivational and affective processes. Second, constructionist themes that recognize individual and collective activity around defining identities and bringing them to life are also relatively neglected. It is worth pausing to consider these issues.

The (individual) self-literature identifies a series of self-motives or needs (such as self-evaluation and self-enhancement, but also accuracy motives, such as self-verification) that can be evoked to complement and question a purely perceptualist reading of personal and social identity. Self-motives such as accuracy and self-verification are well captured by the emphasis in SCT on social reality as a basis for social perception and stereotyping. Self-evaluation and self-enhancement motives are less clearly apparent in SCT although enhancement and positive distinctiveness motives at the group level are well addressed in social identity theory. SIT proposes that, at least to the extent that people internalize their social identities and identify with the group to some degree, that they will strive for a positive group distinctiveness in which their own group is seen as distinct and better than a comparison group.

This idea has been operationalized as the self-esteem hypothesis, which has generated much research but remains somewhat controversial because it is not clear whether the positive group distinctiveness premise can or should be reduced to the more individualistic concept of self-esteem. Social identity theory does predict that groups will tend to differentiate themselves most strongly from similar outgroups in order to gain or maintain group distinctiveness. This raises potentially interesting conflicts with SCT, which seems to imply intergroup differentiation resulting from group difference (i.e., comparative fit, meta-contrast).

Marilynn Brewer's optimal distinctiveness theory (ODT) is another theoretical approach to personal and group identity that addresses distinctiveness motives. ODT defines distinctiveness here in terms of relative group size rather than in relation to the similarity of out groups as in SIT. It argues that distinctive groups simultaneously address the need to be included and to differentiate oneself from others, with the result that relatively small (distinctive) groups are best placed to address both these needs.

Whereas social identity theory and optimal distinctiveness theories provide a motivational dimension to group being behavior, primarily around distinctiveness processes, intergroup emotion theory (IET) attempts to introduce a more differentiated analysis of the emotional relations between groups that colors the nature of intergroup relations and the specific behaviors (or action tendencies, to use the language of emotion theorists) evoked by particular intergroup relationships (i.e., governed by an appraisal or status or power differences). As such, once again there is an attempt to extend the analysis of emotion operating at the interpersonal level (and this relation to personal identity) to the intergroup level as applied to social identity. This analysis suggests that as members of groups, individuals have emotional reactions to other people in terms of their group memberships. This analysis has been helpful in informing the subtly different forms of discrimination and prejudice that can occur, in terms of anger, contempt, envy, schadenfreude, and so forth.

Another criticism that can be leveled at the cognitive-perceptual emphasis of SCT, but also many related approaches to group identity within social psychology, is the danger of reifying social categories (and thus self-categorizations). Even though social categories are seen as radically tied to context and comparison in SCT, there seems little room for the agents (individuals and indeed groups) in determining categorizations that appear to predefine comparisons. The agency of individuals in helping to construct and shape identities, to negotiate these in context, and to change their position and meaning through collective struggle is not always captured through the perceptualist prism of theorizing. Once again, this is more clearly addressed in social identity theory, which was conceived as a theory of social change, and indeed where Tajfel conceived of social identity (in addition to the substantive definition offered earlier) as an intervening variable in the process of social change.

However, it could be argued that the nature of social identity—as being transformed as well as being transformative—is not fully acknowledged or theorized in the social identity approach. This is perhaps not so surprising because self-categorization theorists in particular have tended to define their project in opposition to radical versions of social constructionism, which, in line with postmodernist thinking, seem to question the social reality that is such a strong basis of the social identity approach. However, some theorists in the SIT/SCT tradition have tried to show that social categories and social identities are not givens but are often contested and fought over, especially in contexts of political conflict and struggle. This can then radically transform the meaning of social identities, and indeed can have implications for personal identity (one's sense of oneself abstracted from the group context). In other words, it is possible to think of social and personal identities not just as descriptive statements of comparative content in the status quo ("being"), but prescriptive attempts to change one's context and indeed the meaning of self or identity ("becoming"), that themselves become transformed through social action.


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Russell Spears

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Pebi- to History of Philosophy - IndifferentismPersonal and Social Identity - Contextualism, Interactionism, Commitment, Culture, And The Relation Between Personal And Social Identity, Caveats, Criticism, And Extensions