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Self-categorization theory, sometimes referred to as the social identity theory of the group, seeks to explain the assumptions that need to be made about psychological group formation in order to understand social categorization studies on intergroup behavior conducted by Henri Tajfel. To do this, self-categorization theory develops the concept of social identity and the assumption of an “interpersonal-intergroup continuum” of social behavior. It draws from the ideas of group psychology, individualism, and interactionism to produce a framework for group interaction and its impact on development of the self-concept presented in social identity theory.


Self-categorization theory further develops social identity theory by noting that self-conception occurs on multiple levels of inclusiveness. Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, and Wetherell suggest that there are at least three levels of self-categorization that serve as important factors in the social self-concept. The superordinate level of the self as human being bases self-categorization on one’s identity as a human being with similarities to other humans versus alternate life forms. The intermediate level of ingroup-outgroup categorizations is based on social similarities and differences. This intermediate level focuses on the membership in social groups such as classifying oneself as African-American, male, or working class. The subordinate level of personal self-categorizations is based on differences between the person as a unique individual and other ingroup members.

According to the theory, people self-categorize “depending on whether a social categorization into ingroup and outgroup can meaningfully be applied to the current social context". In one setting, it may be more advantageous for someone to group himself according to race whereas in another setting, benefit may be derived from categorizing himself based on educational experience. People may also categorize themselves within a subset of a larger group in a nested pattern of sorts, choosing to identify with a smaller group to which positive attributes are ascribed, but dissociate from the broader, encompassing group to which negative attributes are attached. The idea is that there is a tendency for one to categorize himself in the group that will provide association with a higher status.

Where there are groups similar to the one in which a person has categorized himself, the theory asserts that the ingroup will seek to distinguish itself from the outgroup by attributing negative distinctions to the outgroup or bolstering the positive aspects of the ingroup. In this way, the member of the ingroup is able to construct a group prototype, defined as “a fuzzy set of features defining and prescribing essential properties of the group". These prototypes are based on the metacontrast principle which contends that people “maximize the ratio of intergroup differences to intragroup differences”. By establishing such a ratio of differences, the group is capable of appearing as coherent and distinct with structure and clear boundaries.

In the sense that the group prototypes describe members and their behavior, these prototypes can also stipulate appropriate behavior for ingroup members and outgroup members. This, in turn, aids in group distinctiveness and positive differentiation as a strategy for intergroup comparison. Operating upon group prototypes, members will begin to see and describe themselves in group terms rather than as an individual member. In this way, the group member has formed stereotypes of themselves within the ingroup (self-stereotyping) and stereotypes of the outgroup. This directly corresponds to the claim that self-categorization “depersonalizes perception and conduct such that members, including oneself, are not processed as complex, multidimensional whole persons but rather as embodiments of the contextually salient group prototype."

Group Psychology

The idea of group psychology came about prior to empirical testing and is highly associated with the assertions of LeBon, McDougall, and Freud. LeBon (1896) professed that mental unity is what defined a psychological crowd, not its physical proximity. He further stated that it is within this “collective mind” that the individual gets lost, as one begins to think in terms of the group instead of utilizing the individual cognitive process. The “collective mind” can be broken down into three processes: the de-individualization process, contagion, and suggestion or suggestibility. De-individualization produces a loss of personal identity and a feeling of superior power (as a member of the group) and loss of the constraint one would exhibit as an individual. Contagion is the dispersion of group emotion and action which leads to group homogeneity. Finally, suggestion or suggestibility refers to submission to the influence of contagion.

LeBon’s (1896) overall suggestion is that group behavior is based on emotional impulses and displays logical inferiority to the otherwise rational individual members. McDougall (1921) agreed with LeBon’s notion of the “collective mind” in which the group is cognitively inferior to the individual and further stated that the group actually degrades the individual. However, McDougall added a social aspect to the notion of the group mind, asserting that:

the individual minds which enter into the structure of the group mind…do not construct it; rather, as they come to reflective self-consciousness, they find themselves already members of the system, moulded by it, sharing in its activities, influenced by it at every moment in every thought and feeling and action…but the parts in the several individual minds reciprocally imply and complement one another and together make up the system which consists wholly of them. (p. 11)

Overall, McDougall (1921) disagreed with the notion of collective consciousness or unconsciousness and stressed that the group mind does not collectively act as a “supra-personal being outside of the individual mind”(p. 7). In other words, a group can be better or worse than its individual members, but does not exhibit a sort of hypnotic force over the members so that it is more powerful than the individuals it possesses. In McDougall’s framework, a psychological group consisted of people within the same social context that exhibit the same emotions, each person being affected by the emotion of other group members with eventual awareness of their membership in the group.

Freud’s (1921) contention correlates with some of the ideas of both LeBon (1896) and McDougall (1921). The main distinction in Freud’s theory is the entrance of eroticism in that group formation is based on sexual-emotional ties. Freud also suggested that the psychological group represented an automatic uncognizant controlling force on the members by the leader. Overall, the three researchers share the ideas that individuals act differently in groups, group behavior is based more on instincts and emotions whereas individual behavior would be based on logic, and group psychology both reflects and shapes self-perception and identity.

Apart from group psychology is the idea of individualism, an approach supported by F. H. Allport (1924). Allport rejected the idea of a group mind and the group concept as a whole. Allport suggested that there is no group psychology, only that of the individual. All groups are made up of individual members with individual psychological processes. Thus, the only way a group can exist is as an aggregate of individuals. There is, therefore, no group attittude or behavior, but attitudes and behaviors of individuals. People behave differently in groups because they alter their actions to fit the situation. This is not an influence of the group or group psychology, but rather an effect of the social context.

In his theory of social facilitation, Allport (1924) argued that “the sight and sound of others doing the same thing as oneself functioned as conditioned social stimuli to release and augment learned reaction tendencies previously existing in individuals” (p. 10). Individuals do not change to become like the group. They simply modify their normal behavior within the social construct of the group. In this way, the individual conforms temporarily to the group, but never loses their individuality.

The work of Sherif, Asch, and Lewin drew upon the ideas of group psychology and individualism. The three cognitive social psychologists rejected the concept of group mind, but supported the idea of group psychology. In other words, they agreed with McDougall (1921) that individuals are influenced psychologically in group settings and this influence results in the adoption of group norms and stereotypes by the group member. They disagreed with Allport (1924), stressing rather that the group concept lends itself to the explanation of individuals.

Sherif, Asch, and Lewin were all influenced by Gestalt psychology, which rested on the notion that the whole was different from the sum of its parts. This gives credibility to the study of group psychology and the introduction of the law of interdependence of parts which states:

when the organism is stimulated by different parts of a stimulus field, the parts fall into a functional relationship and each part influences the other parts. The result is… that the properties of any part are determined by its membership in the total functional system.(Sherif, 1936, p. 84)

Sherif’s (1936) group research centered on the premises of context, social norms and values, self-identity, and the psychological process of the formation of norms.

Asch’s (1952) interactionism study emphasized perceived flaws in Allport’s (1924) concept of individualism. Asch asserted that individualism does not properly explain the relationship between the individual and the group, failing to recognize that membership within a group enhances the individual’s personal identity. On the other hand, the stimulus-response of social interaction did not fully grasp the psychological processing that envelops human interaction and subsequent group formation.

Lewin argued that groups were not simply a sum of their parts. He viewed intragroup relations as being influential to a person’s self and further described the individual and group as interdependent.1 Lewin deemed groups to be an important variable in understanding, explaining, and changing the behavior of individuals within the group. Individual behavior, as derived from Lewin’s perspective, was “socially and psychologically transformed and determined by group membership” (p. 17).

The concepts of the group mind, individualism, and interactionism presented a problem in the area of psychology that eventually caused contemporary researchers to delve into the area of group psychology. Research focused on establishing that there is, in fact, a group that is worth empirical study and further development of framework of the group and its relation to the self-concept. This research led to the development of such theories as social identity and self-categorization.


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