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. Subdiscourses include:
  • Implicit Bias (Implicit Stereotype; Implicit Theory; Unconscious 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
Associated perspectives (listed chronologically) include:
  • 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
  • Relationship Science (1930s) – 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
  • Accentuation Theory (Henri Tajfel, 1950s) – the suggestion that, when items have been classified, one amplifies similarities among items placed in the same class and amplifies differences among items place in different classes. Accentuation Theory later became a central component in Social Identity Theory.
  • Dramaturgy (Erving Goffman, 1950s) – a perspective on identity development and presentation developed around a theatrical metaphor. Dramaturgy asserts that performed identity is intricately tethered to situation – that is, timing, location, activity, and audience.
  • 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. Associated constructs include:
    • Types of social comparisons
      • Downward Social Comparison – judging oneself against someone deemed not as good
      • Lateral Social Comparison – judging oneself against someone deemed equal or on par
      • Upward Social Comparison – judging oneself against someone deemed better
    • Types of comparison groups
      • Aspirational Group – any social aggregate that one desires to join, whether well-defined (e.g., club or team) or more loosely construed (e.g., the wealthy)
      • Membership Group – any club, society, team, and other formal or informal social organization to which one might “belong”
      • Reference Group (Comparison Group) – any social aggregate used as the frame of reference. A Reference Group can be formal or informal, local or distributed, actual or invented
      • Dissociative Group – any social aggregate to which one does not wish to belong
  • Self-Presentation Theory (Impression Management) (Erving Goffman. 1960s) – a perspective focused on the unconscious processes associated with individuals’ efforts to manage others’ impressions of them
  • Self-Evaluation Maintenance Model (Abraham Tesser, 1980s) – an extension of Social Comparison Theory (see above) asserting one maintains a positive self-image by associating with others who excel in different (and less personally valued) areas and by avoiding those who excel in the same (and personally valued) areas
  • 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
  • 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)
  • 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
  • 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, a point that comes through in the consistent treatment of persons as insulated and isolated from others and whose social actions are principally calculated and mechanical in nature.

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.


  • Accentuation Theory
  • Aspirational Group
  • Common Ingroup Identity Model
  • Dissociative Group
  • Dramaturgy
  • Downward Social Comparison
  • Implicit Bias (Implicit Stereotype; Implicit Theory; Unconscious Bias)
  • Internalized Oppression
  • Lateral Social Comparison
  • Membership Group
  • Passing
  • Reference Group (Comparison Group)
  • Relationship Science
  • Self-Evaluation Maintenance Model
  • Self-Expansion Theory
  • Self-Presentation Theory (Impression Management)
  • Self-Verification Theory
  • Shared-Reality Theory (Social Tuning Theory)
  • Social Comparison Theory
  • Sociometer Theory
  • Uncertainty–Identity Theory
  • Upward Social Comparison

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Social Identity Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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