Social Identity Theory


Impact of group affiliation on self-identification

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of possible identifications
  • Knowing is … group-appropriate acting
  • Learner is … a social agent
  • Learning is … aligning with a group
  • Teaching is … N/A




“Social identity” is defined as the part of one’s self-concept that’s based on affiliations with social groups. Social Identity Theory looks at such group qualities as status, permeability, and stability to understand their impact on social identity. The theory differentiates between interpersonal relationships (involving a few people) and intergroup behavior (involving clusters of interpersonal relationships), and it argues that individual behavior and sensibilities can be significantly affected by different levels of affiliation and engagement. Associated perspectives and subdiscourses include:
  • Common Ingroup Identity Model (Samuel Gaertner, John Dovidio, 1990s) – a model of how one conceives of social categories ­– that is, a perspective on the processes associated with developing personal identifications with some (i.e., forming an in-group) and not with others (i.e, forming an out-group)
  • Implicit Bias (Implicit Stereotype; Implicit TheoryUnconscious Bias) – nonconcious acts of attributing particular characteristics or habits to members of an identifiable group (distinguished, e.g., according to sex, gender, race, nationality, accent, class, etc.), typically associated with ascribing negative judgments
  • Internalized Oppression – occurs when a member of an oppressed group takes on oppressors’ biased attitudes toward that group
  • Passing – occurs when a member of an oppressed group is not perceived as a member of that group
  • Relationship Science – a transdisciplinary field of study –comprising mainly experts in Psychology, but also including experts in anthropology, biology, economics, and sociology – that focuses on the scientific study of close (and mainly intimate) interpersonal relationships
  • Self-Expansion Theory (Arthur Aron, Elaine Aron, 1990s) – a perspective founded on the premise that a primary motivation of humans is to enhance senses of self (i.e., “self-expand”) by integrating identifications with others and aspects of others’ identities into their own senses of self
  • Self-Verification Theory (William Swann, 1980s) – a perspective, based on the principle that people wish to be seen and understood as they see and understand themselves, that one actively works to be perceived by others in ways that mesh with one’s view of oneself
  • Shared-Reality Theory (Social Tuning Theory) (Charles Cooley, 1910s) – the suggestion that one tends to base one’s senses of self and social reality on beliefs about others’ perceptions, an aspect of which is the human tendency to adopt others’ attitudes or opinions on specific matters
  • Social Comparison Theory (Leon Festinger, 1950s) – the suggestion that one learns how to define oneself by comparing self-evaluations (of opinions, abilities, and other traits) to others
  • Sociometer Theory (Mark Leary, 1990s) – the perspective that self-esteem is an indicator (a “sociometer”) of social relationships. That is, one’s self-esteem is seen to be directly correlated to one’s “relational value.”
  • Uncertainty–Identity Theory ­­(Michael Hogg, 2000s) – a perspective on personal identity that asserts one identifies with groups in order to reduce feelings of self-uncertainty. That is, group identification is seen as a means to reduce self-uncertainty by helping one to what to think and how to behave.


The timing of Social Identity Theory is important for understanding its foci and limitations. It was proposed when Behaviorisms were in serious decline and Cognitivism had risen to a certain prominence. Absent in those frames were considerations of the social and the situational, and Social Identity Theory stepped into that gap. It thus represented an important shift in thinking. However, it maintained many of the assumptions of Correspondence Discourses, including the belief that individuals were mental agents (insulated and isolated from others).

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Henri Tajfel; John Turner

Status as a Theory of Learning

Social Identity Theory is principally a theory of identity, but it can also be understood as a theory of learning – one that is specifically focused on the role of social identifications in channeling and framing one’s learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Social Identity Theory is not a theory of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Some evidence was gathered in support of Social Identity Theory. It was limited, however. Coupled to the fact that its authors were not especially attentive to the complex dynamics of learning, the theory does not meet our criteria for a scientific theory.


  • Common Ingroup Identity Model
  • Implicit Bias (Implicit Stereotype; Implicit Theory; Unconscious Bias)
  • Internalized Oppression
  • Passing
  • Relationship Science
  • Self-Expansion Theory
  • Self-Verification Theory
  • Shared-Reality Theory (Social Tuning Theory)
  • Social Comparison Theory
  • Sociometer Theory
  • Uncertainty–Identity Theory

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Social Identity Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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