Socail Identity Theory and the Discursive Essay

From a social psychological point of view, group membership ‘is primarily a cognitive matter’. Discuss this statement in relation to social identity theory and discursive psychology. Social psychology deals with how people make sense of the social aspects of the world they live in and how they make sense of themselves and others. This sense of being and belonging is not only about themselves and others but also how and why social interactions take place and how these interactions influence individual’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

Group membership is not a definite attribution to an individual’s social identity as there are different versions of group membership. The default memberships e. g. Family and local communities and the intra group memberships eg groups that are formed with other individuals on a small scale or large scale. This could be based on an individual’s identity with a small group or it can take on a more societal dimension such an ethnicity or class.

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Group membership for the purpose of this essay, is where the individual comes together with the social. It is through social psychology that the concepts and processes are researched to access why such processes occur. Cognitive psychologists believe that categorisation is a cognitive shortcut. The way individuals stereotype and group individuals is a by product of this process. To say that group membership is primarily a cognitive matter is not wholly disputed by other avenues of research in this area.

Social identity theory (SID) and discursive psychology approach do take into account other concepts and processes of individuals’ influences to their uptake of group memberships. Social identity theory had its origins in the work by Henry Tajfel, a British based Polish psychologist in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. The social identity theory is mainly based on the distinction between personal and social identity. Turner 1982 stated that individuals have many social identities as groups that they feel they belong to.

The different in-groups individuals belong to have separate set of norms and out -groups are used for social identification and comparison. The main hypothesis of social identity is that achieving and maintaining a satisfactory identity requires group members to search for distinctions between themselves and other groups, essentially power relations comparisons to intergroups. The outcome of these intergroup comparisons will influence an individual’s self esteem. Where positive distinctiveness is unsatisfactory, individuals will seek for positive self esteem, thus using ocial mobility to pass from a lower to a higher status group. This social mobility is an individualistic approach and not a group approach. The disidentification with the lower status group is not for individual gain but more so for the benefit of the group. Social creativity is a group strategy that groups uses in order to redefine or alter elements of their group. Turning negative comparisons into positives’ or comparing the in-group with lower status out- groups which would boost self esteem.

Social identity theory looks at the interpersonal and group behaviours as separate phenomena. Individuals need to have positivity in order to maintain or enhance their self esteem. There are equal and unequal power relations and how cognition is a guide to how the social world is perceived. Tajfel, 1970; Tajfel et al. , 1971 conducted a study known as the ‘minimal group paradigm’. Participants were divided into groups. Participants were unknown to each other and identity was in the form of numbers.

The participants had to distribute money to members of their in-group but not themselves, and to the other group, the out-group members. The details were recorded in specially designed booklets. The amounts given were anonymous. The results of the study showed a strong in-group bias. The participants maximized the difference between the in-group and the out-group. The participants had no conflict of interest and there was no history or hostility between the groups.

This group’s membership is regarded as cognitive as it was minimal. This study showed that it was sufficient enough to be categorised as a group member to encourage competitive behaviour between groups. The processes that produce the distinction between group behaviour and individual’s behaviour are categorisation, social situation and comparison and belief in the in-group. Categorisations, when individuals internalize their group membership and categorise things they feel confident with. This is an aspect of their self concept.

The social situation and comparison is when individuals compare their in-group with other groups, intergroup comparison. This is required for positive self-esteem and the belief in the in-group, that it is not always necessary to compare the in-group with every out-group. The social identity theory does deal with understanding group responses to status inequality and in a natural context where there is no apparent rational or material basis intergroup conflict, but not how conflict increases negative intergroup relationships. Tajfel and Turner say hat group membership is primarily a cognitive matter as long as individuals feel that they belong to that group, therefore proposing that Social identity theory combines the cognitive with the social. The Realistic Group Conflict Theory (RCT) explored by Sherif, 1966 looks at the functional relations between social groups. Hostility and competition with inter-groups is motivated by rewards. The morale and co-operation within the intra-group is enhanced by intergroup competition. The RCT accounts for prejudice across different social situations and can highlight conflict due to economic or political changes.

RCT does not account for conflict between groups where there is no materialistic gain or reward but it can give an insight in to conflicts that arose from social histories. The social identity theory fails to do this and as described later in this essay the discursive looks at individual’s language and actions as they are being said at a particular time, and looks at situated knowledge and the conceptual depts. employed through discourse. The discursive psychology approach is a critique of the cognitive approach to group membership.

The Discursive psychology approach focuses on the details of language and examines the way social categories are constructed in discourse, and shows how some social categories are more powerful than others. Discourse is used to establish credibility of the speaker’s accounts and this is through actions as well as symbolic expressions. Moral codes, what exists here and now in the social world and epistemological order can be identified through discourse. It is this information that can give insight in to individual’s emotions and motivations and those of their in-group.

This discourse can be in unconscious or conscious expressions. Social representations of group members such as stereotype or prejudices are reproduced in society through discourse. Billig, 1985, 1987; Potter and Wetherell, 1987; Wetherell, 1996 say that the categories of prejudice are a categories of language. The producers of the language have flexibility and are not restricted to minimizing within or between category differences or similarities. Individuals are the agents through the discourse they choose to use or produce.

To a degree the social identity theory also provides individuals with a degree of agency, power relations with inter groups can cause different forms of discrimination and despite the lack of detail by Tajfel on the emotional factors relating to group membership, feelings of anger, contempt and jealously may occur towards the higher status intergroup. Billig criticises Tajfel social identity theory mainly because it lacks depth of emotion. Billig describe the social identity theory as a situated set of choices made by the researcher who had definite political commitments.

Tajfel was a survivor of the holocaust but his experience of this was never highlighted in his studies or researches. In the discursive psychological approach emotions are within social and discursive interactions. Actions and words can show emotions and in order for an emotion to be understood, a specific word does not need to be used, e. g. to understand the emotion of hatred a person does not necessarily have say ‘hate’ but through discourse and actions the emotion of hatred may be evident. Discourse can reveal underlying structures and strategies.

Individual and group representations are acquired, used and changed through language. Ideologies are above all discursive instantiated within discursive actions (Billig, 1991). Categories’ of ideology is framed in language through shared stereotyping and shared social explanations of events. It is these shared ideologies that can be examined within discursive interactions. Discourse is used in the formation and change of ideologies. Through discourse, ideologies may be made somewhat explicit and therefore conveyed and normalized or legitimatised.

Sometimes different interpretative repertoires are used in discourse and discursive psychologists need to adopt realistic epistemologies in response, to deal with the differences presented in order to recognise the different functions of the discourse or actions used. Tajfel’s social identity theory did not want ideologies to be regarded as individual or interpersonal dynamics and he failed to develop the emotional aspects of group processes. He regarded individual’s behaviour as intentional, thoughtful and grounded in rational principle. Billig 1997, views language as both expressive and repressive.

Individuals may use language that is repressed as an object of temptation. E. g. Bigotry. The extreme version of disidentification is dehumanisation and a bigot may take pleasure in the act of hatred whilst also avoiding individual reductionism. The emotion within the hate talk is what is within the bigotry. The dominate groups and individuals may represent themselves as the victims through stories or accounts of social events. Model building though explanations of actions and autonomous social practices through their own personal accounts.

The cognitive approach to group membership excluded this psychological component. Konrad Lorenz, 1974, 1976 described the ‘Blood and Guts model as an innate aggressive instinct. A source of irrationality, central to human nature. Tajfel rejected this. He did not link social events to individual motives. Tajfal did not view prejudice as an emotional or motivational factor but as a cognitive interpretation prejudgement. He did say that being prejudiced required an emotional investment and to be prejudiced involved a split between emotion and cognition.

The Social identification model viewed stereo typing as a cognitive shortcut, whereby individuals can make sense and judgements about other group’s member. Individuals assimilate to groups that have categories available to them culturally; it is this already available in-group that sets the pattern of prejudgement and stereotyping. The discursive approach looks at the discourse used and the way in which it is used at that time. The language of stereotyping is in relation to actual social interactions. Billig does not view the motive to preserve a positive self image as cognitive.

Social positions and categories are discursively formed and reformed through the interactions between group members and social situations. An individual may not describe themselves as racist but in order to get their point across and preserve a positive self image uses language like ‘I am not racist but, they are taking all our jobs”. Such discourse could be seen as a defence, an accusation or a justification for their opinion or action. Social cognitions may relate to discourse through models, as individuals often through discourse rely on a fixed schema to construct a model of a situation or to update an existing model.

These schemas may consist of all ready well known events or categories. Discourse is not enough on its own to get a full representation of the cognitive representations and processes between in-groups and out-group nor does it give enough detail of social situations or actions. Discourse does give a representation of individuals and groups at a particular time, and can be used to find out about underlying processes that are socially situated but only when the discourse used is used as a true representation.

Discourse can look at the interplay between situated interactions in the processes of societal reproduction and social cognition. Group ideologies, prejudices and bigotry through discourse can show group dominances and social structures in society. The discursive psychology can be used as a continuation of the cognitive approach along with the Social identity theory presented. Self evaluations and self enhancement motives are less evident in the social identity theory or as a basis for social perception or stereotyping.

The social identity theory does account for enhancement and positive distinctiveness motives. Through the use of discourses individual’s emotions and motives can be combined to the other elements of other theoretical perspectives, such as the cognitive, social identity theory and the Realistic Group Conflict Theory to give a more in-depth insight to group membership. (Word count 2025) References: Billig, M. (1985) ‘Prejudice, categorisation and particularisation: from a perceptual to a rhetorical approach’, European Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 5,pp. 79-103 Billig, M (1987) Arguing and Thinking, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press Billig, M (1991) Ideology and Opinions, London, Sage Billig, M (1997) ‘The dialogic unconscious; psychoanalysis, discursive psychology and the nature of represssion’, British Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 36,pp, 139-59. Lorenz, K (1974) Civilized Man’s Eight Deadly Sins, London, Methuen Lorenz, K. (1976) Behind the mirror, London, Methuen Potter, J and Wetherell, M. (1987) Psychology Discourse and Social, London, Sage Sherif, M and Sherif, C. W. V. 1956) An Outline of Social Psychology (revised edn), New York, Harper ; Row Tajfel, H (1969) ‘ Cognitive aspects of prejudice’, Journal of Biosocial sciences, Supplement no. 1, pp. 173-91 Tajfel, H (1969) ‘ Cognitive aspects of prejudice’, Journal of Biosocial sciences, Supplement no. 25, pp. 79-97 Turner, J. C. Hogg, M. A. Oakes , P. J. Reicher, S. D. and Wehterell, M. S. (1987) Rediscovering the Social group: A Self-Categorisation Theory, Oxford, Blackwell. Wetherell, M (1996) ‘ Constructing social identities: the individual/social binary in Henri Tajfel’s social psychology’ in Robinson (ed) (1996).


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