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. Major subdiscourses include:
  • 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


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.


  • Implicit Bias (Implicit Stereotype; Implicit Theory; Unconscious Bias)
  • Internalized Oppression
  • Passing

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Social Identity Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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