Personal and Social Identity

views updated

Personal and Social Identity

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 playa process later labeled "depersonalization" by self-categorization theoryis 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.

Contextualism, Interactionism

The idea that personal and group identity can be seen in a radically contextualist and antiessentialist way was presaged by the ideas of the sociologist Georg Simmel. From a traditional self-theory perspective one might conceive of the individual self as being defined by a list of traits, as well as behaviors, roles, group memberships, and so forth. At one level it might be tempting to define "personality traits" as part of personal identity, and group memberships as part of social identity. However, following Simmel (and SCT), this would again depend on the social context. The trait intelligence could be a personal property (especially where it distinguishes the individual from other individuals), however it could also form the basis for a (situated) group identity (for example, in distinguishing intellectuals from "philistines"). Similarly, a group membership label (such as a chess player or a Scot) may be seen as a feature of personal identity when there is no systematic grouping of people with these features in common in the current social context. In an interpersonal or intragroup context (for instance, a cruise party) these group labels become features that allow individuals to see themselves as individually distinct from others, helping to define personal identity. However, when the characteristics are shared with others, and used to differentiate from an outgroup, they become group defining features of social identity.

This analysis also points to the mechanism by which social identity (but also personal identity) becomes salient. Previously, following social identity theory, social identity was regarded as being salient in intergroup contexts (such as during intergroup conflict) although this rather begs the question of what counts as an intergroup context. SCT offered a cognitive/perceptual analysis of identity salience based on Jerome Bruner's notion "perceptual readiness" (or "accessibility") and "fit" applied to categorization processes generally. Following Penelope Oakes, who further developed Bruner's concept, one source of category salience is, therefore, the degree to which a group is socially differentiated from another in terms of its attributes. For example, a group that is sociable but not intellectual would differ from a group that is intellectual and unsociable. The social comparison would be high in comparative fit (or meta-contrast, to use Turner's term) and the social category should become salient. If these group differences are associated with known stereotypes, then the social categorization would also display high "normative" fit, further enhancing the salience of group differences. For example, a group of hairdressers (sociable but not intellectual) differs from a group of chess players (intellectual but not sociable), in an expected way (stereotypically).

Importantly, as Simmel's analysis also suggests, both identities and their contents (self-or ingroup stereotypes) are highly context sensitive. Whether an Asian woman categorizes herself (or is categorized by others as such) as Asian or female may depend on the outgroup present (males or Caucasians, for example). Whether psychology students see themselves as sociable or intellectual may vary depending on whether they compare themselves with physics students or school leavers.

Social stereotypes (as shared constructs about groups) are ostensibly less applicable to the mechanisms in which personal identity (and its relevant content) is made salient, but the comparative principle remains the same. A personal identity and its particular contents will become salient through differentiating comparisons with others in the social frame of reference (individuals may see themselves as powerful and competent in comparison with their younger siblings, but the opposite in comparison with a university professor).

Commitment, Culture, and the Relation between Personal and Social Identity

This analysis also starts to reveal the close relationship between personal and social identities. From the perspective of self-categorization theory, similar processes apply in activating personal and social identities but at a different level of analysis or abstraction. Self-categorization theory distinguishes subordinate (interpersonal), intermediate (intergroup), and superordinate (supragroup or interspecies) levels of analysis. The principle of "functional antagonism" states that any given level of categorization, to the extent that it becomes salient, will inhibit other competing identities. This is seen as controversial in certain respects, suggesting that people cannot simultaneously countenance more than one identity, seemingly ruling out dual or compound identities. However, this is less problematic when salience is conceived as a relatively automatic and ephemeral process that can shift quickly with comparative context, and be overridden by conscious awareness and strategic processes. Moreover, in principle there is no limit on the complexity or idiosyncrasy of identities, and SCT explicitly eschews the sociologistic assumption that the imposed social categories (those that the researcher or experimenter prescribes or might assume are operative) are the ones that are genuinely psychologically relevant for the participant in research. This is an empirically contingent question.

This analysis suggests that context largely determines the activation of personal or social identity. It also suggests a somewhat divorced relationship between personal and social identity, enhanced by the functional antagonism metaphor. However, there are likely to be strong individual differences and individual inputs into this process, which is consistent with SCT as an interactionist theory in the sense of person-situation interaction. One important factor that is likely to determine the activation of levels of identity, and specific social identities is the concept of commitment. At the group level, commitment refers to the degree of identification with a particular group, and high identification is likely to enhance the accessibility of that self-categorization, even when the consequences of embracing this identity is negative or threatening. This is important because it is precisely when the group is threatened that it most needs its group members to support it. It is also important, however, to see group identification in a dynamic way, as an outcome of, as well as an input into, group process; otherwise, the metatheory reduces back to the individualism of personality theories.

Just as commitment to group identities can affect the social identities that are activated and used, so commitment to personal identity (or identities) can be argued to do the same. Indeed some have argued that there is a "motivational primacy" that generally favors personal identity over group identity, and, more contingently, others have argued that the personal self or identity is inherent to Western societies. The motivational primacy debate has argued that the individual self is more basic than the collective self because of evidence that people switch to a social identity when the personal identity is threatened, but not vice versa. However, this research can be criticized on a number of levels. First, the research tends to pit a generalized individual self against specific social identities, confounding comparisons. Second, as the response of high identifiers faced with threat to their group identities has shown, lack of switching when threatened can be read as evidence of commitment, and not that the identity is secondary. Some research that attempts to calibrate the general importance of personal versus social identities, although at odds with the contextualist spirit of SCT, also provides evidence that the general priority given to personal identity compared to social identity in Western countries, is not true of all categorizations and cultures.

This point serves as a reminder that there is much cross-cultural work that sheds important light on the personal-social identity distinction and the complex and contingent relation between them. Although SCT has the most explicit and perhaps radical analysis of the personal versus social identity distinction it is not the only theoretical framework or research program to address this distinction, although the terminology is not always identical. Many researchers refer to the individual versus collective self or the private versus collective self. In particular, researchers interested in cultural differences in social relations and the self, particularly between individualist and collectivist cultures, have been keen to emphasize forms of self-hood that are less individualistic, less grounded in the Cartesian notions of the preformed individual self, as separate, independent, egoistic, and so forth. However, these approaches do not always distinguish between the personal and social identity, so much as blur the boundary between the two, suggesting that in collectivist cultures the connection of the individual (qua personal identity), is much more chronically bound up with and connected to the group (the family, work relations, and other social networks). It is not clear, therefore, that the personal-social identity distinction of self-categorization theory has quite the same analytic resonance in say, Chinese culture.

In the tradition of social cognition research some of these approaches see personal and social identities as separate cognitive structures (as representing different stores or "baskets" to use the analogy of D. Trafimow et al.). This argument forms a challenge for SCT, which argues that the content of these two levels of identity is difficult to pin down because they are so context-dependent and dynamic.

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 identityas being transformed as well as being transformativeis 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.

See also Identity: Identity of Persons ; Identity, Multiple ; Person, Idea of the .


Brewer, Marilynn B. "The Social Self: On Being the Same and Different at the Same Time." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 17 (1991): 475482.

Bruner, Jerome S. "On Perceptual Readiness." Psychological Review 64 (1957): 123152.

Oakes, Penelope J. "The Salience of Social Categories." In Rediscovering the Social Group, edited by John C. Turner et al. New York: Blackwell, 1987.

Sedikides, Constantine, and Marilynn B. Brewer, eds. Individual Self, Relational Self, Collective Self: Partners, Opponents, or Strangers? Philadelphia: Psychology Press, 2001.

Simmel, Georg. The Web of Group Affiliations. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1955.

Simon, B. "Self and Group in Modern Society: Ten Theses on the Individual Self and the Collective Self." In The Social Psychology of Stereotyping and Group Life, edited by Russell Spears et al., 318335. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997.

Spears, Russell. "The Interaction between the Individual and the Collective Self: Self-Categorization in Context." In Individual Self, Relational Self, Collective Self: Partners, Opponents, or Strangers?, edited by Constantine Sedikides and Marilynn B. Brewer, 171198. Philadelphia: Psychology Press, 2001.

Tajfel, Henri. "Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations." Annual Review of Psychology 33 (1982): 139.

Tajfel, Henri, ed. Differentiation between Social Groups: Studies in the Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations. London: Academic Press, 1978.

Tajfel, Henri, and Turner, J. C. "The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behavior." In Psychology of Intergroup Relations, edited by Stephen Worchel and William G. Austin, 724. Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1986.

Trafimow, D., H. C. Triandis, and Sharon G. Goto. "Some Tests of the Distinction Between the Private Self and the Collective Self." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 60 (1991): 649655.

Turner, J. C. "Towards a Cognitive Redefinition of the Group." In Social Identity and Intergroup Relations, edited by Henri Tajfel, 1540. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Russell Spears