Social Identity and Reminiscence (1 of 3)

I’ve been neglecting my blog for a while. The main reason for this is that I’m in the middle of a part-time MSc in Psychology and that has taken up much of my life. I’ve learnt lots from the course so far (which is nice) and some of it is relevant to this blog/project, so I’ve finished the first year with a list of topics to try to digest and write about.

First up is some of the material that I’ve encountered in Social Psychology. It seemed that trying to put it all into one blog post would produce an overly long piece of text so I’ve opted to break it up. This post is intended as an introduction/reminder of the social identity approach. The following couple of posts will look at the relevance of this topic to reminiscence.

The social identity approach (SIA) combines two accounts of social behaviour – Social Identity Theory (SIT) and Self-Categorisation Theory (SCT). SIT seeks to explain why members of one group discriminate against another, whilst SCT seeks to explain why subjects identify with groups and why they act as if group identities matter to them (Turner & Reynolds, 2010, 19). Most reviews work historically and present them in this order. However, I find it helpful to begin with SCT.

SCT states that self-categorisations are social representations of the individual-in-context. (Turner, Oakes, Haslam & McGarty, 1974 & 2010, 292). Self-categorisation can occur at varying levels of abstraction, on a continuum from personal (relating to self-actualisation and esteem) to social/group-oriented (relating to social self-esteem and achievement of shared goals) (Haslam, 2004, 67-68). These levels of self-categorisation are equally valid and authentic expressions of the psychological process generally experienced as the self (ibid., 288).

Many cognitive resources, including long-term knowledge, implicit theories, cultural beliefs, and social representations, are used to create the needed self-category (ibid., 293). Self-categorisation is comparative, inherently variable, fluid and context dependent. The self is not a fixed mental structure but the expression of a dynamic process of social judgement (ibid., 293). With this absence of a core, or enduring, self, SCT offers, what feels like, a radical understanding of identity. Note this was originally proposed in the mid-70s and much more recent work seems to confirm this idea of the elusive self.

The variation in how an individual uses categories depends on their accessibility to that person and the fit to the situation they find themselves in. The ‘accessibility’ of a category reflects an individual’s “past experiences, present expectations and current motives, values, goals and needs” (ibid., 289). Categories ‘fit’ when they provide optimal distinctiveness compared to others and to match up with socially shared meanings.

The categories will be more or less ‘salient’ depending on the context. In situations where a shared, social identity is salient then individual self-perception tends to become more depersonalised, i.e., people see themselves more as the interchangeable representatives of some shared social group. Manipulating the categories that are salient to individuals has been shown to change their behaviour (Haslam, Haslam, Jetten, Bevins, Ravenscroft & Tonks, 2010).

SIT sees social behaviour on a continuum from interpersonal to intergroup behaviour. A ‘group’ (social identity) is any collection of individuals who perceive themselves to be the same social category and share some emotional involvement in this common definition (Tajfel & Turner, 1978 & 2010, 180).

In relevant situations, people will not interact as individuals but as members of their ‘ingroup’, standing in certain defined relationships to the ‘outgroup’ (ibid., 175).

SIT argues that individuals strive to achieve, or maintain, positive social identity (ibid., 181). For this, the ingroup must be perceived as positively differentiated or distinct from the relevant outgroups (Tajfel, 1978 & 2010, 120).

Identifying a group’s distinctiveness leads group members to polarise their group behaviour towards some form of group prototype. Group members learn prototypical characteristics of the group through a variety of ways, such as ‘norm talk’ and by looking to highly prototypical members or leaders (Hogg, van Knipperburg & Rast, 2012).

When social identity is unsatisfactory, individuals will strive either to leave their existing group and join some more positively distinct group (‘social mobility’) and/or make their group more positively distinct through a range of mechanisms (‘social change’) (Tajfel & Turner, 1978 & 2010, 181).

The process of identifying groups is done by individuals and the ‘dimensions’ along which each individual makes these comparisons and categorisations are those which are meaningful to each individual at a particular point in time (Tajfel, 1978 & 2010, 119).


Haslam, C., Haslam, S. A., Jetten, J., Bevins, A., Ravenscroft, S., & Tonks, J. (2010). The social treatment: the benefits of group interventions in residential care settings. Psychology and aging, 25(1), 157-167.

Hogg, M. A., van Knippenberg, D., & Rast III, D. E. (2012). The social identity theory of leadership: Theoretical origins, research findings, and conceptual developments. European Review of Social Psychology, 23(1), 258-304.

Tajfel, H. (1978 & 2010) Social Categorisation, Social Identity and Social Comparison. In T. Postmes, & N. R. Branscombe (Eds.). Rediscovering social identity (pp.119-128). New York: Psychology Press.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J.C., (1978 & 2010). An Integrative Theory of Intergroup Conflict. In T. Postmes, & N. R. Branscombe (Eds.). Rediscovering social identity (pp.173-190). New York: Psychology Press.

Turner, J.C., Oakes, P.J., Haslam, S.A., & McGarty, C. (1994 & 2010). Self and Collective: Cognition and social context. In T. Postmes, & N. R. Branscombe (Eds.). Rediscovering social identity (pp.287-300). New York: Psychology Press.

Turner, J.C., & Reynolds, K.J., Reynolds. (2010). The Story of Social Identity. In T. Postmes, & N. R. Branscombe (Eds.). Rediscovering social identity (pp.13-32). New York: Psychology Press.



About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in social psychology. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Social Identity and Reminiscence (1 of 3)

  1. Pingback: Social Identity and Reminiscence – SIT – (3 of 3) | holding the moment of holding

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