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Evolution of the Theory

Social psychology has many classic and contemporary issues which demonstrate the complexity of this field. Social psychologists have been worked on many theories that try and seek answers to these complexities. Two of the most famous theories that have tried to establish some facts about social psychology are the social identity theory and the self categorization theory.

The self categorization theory was worked upon post the work done on the social identity theory. The social identity theory took a more robust form in the 1970’s with a more detailed and systematic version of its subject matter. It was only through the complexity arising out of the social identity theory that the self categorization theory took a more concrete form. The self categorization theory built up on the thesis of the social identity theory and also provided a broader applicability of the social identity concept.

The social identity theory provided explanations about the dynamics of intergroup relations and social conflict. The self categorization theory delved further into the realm of group processes, stereotyping and social cognition. Through an understanding of the self identity theory and the self categorization theory it can be easily deciphered that the self categorization theory is an extension of the self identity theory. Work on the two theories despite criticism about continues unabated.

For understanding the self identity theory it is essential that one understands the gist of what the social identity theory propounds.  The theory is a key to understand collective behavior; how individual impacts society and how society impacts individual minds. Based on an understanding of the social identity theory one can understand the concept of self categorization theory in amore lucid manner.

The Social Identity Theory

The minimum number of contexts that can create a disparity between two social groups is called as the minimum group paradigm. For example, there can be a separation between one set of individuals and another set of individuals based on the color of their shirts they wear or the language that they speak. Social Identity theory was stated with a view to explain this intergroup discrimination.

According to the social identity theory, social groups led to situations of discrimination and competition. Members of the same group were considered as ingroup members and all individuals outside the group were considered outgroup members. In situations which required intervention by an individual, the individual was more likely to support ingroup members rather than the outgroup members. This discrimination is a sufficient condition for the rise of competition to occur between the two groups.

The characterization of self by a person based on the values associated with the group he belongs to is the crux of social identity. As individuals identify with the values of a group there is an inherent psychological requirement for the group to be comparable with relevant outgroups. In social identification everyone wants to be identified positively as belonging to a group with better values in comparison to outgroups along any relevant dimension.

Thus, the fundamental blueprint that social identity theory laid down was that since individuals identify their self with the group they belong to there is pressure on the entire group to exceed the evaluation of other groups (outgroups) on the relevant parameters on which comparisons are being based.  This basic premise was then applied to real life intergroup relations and groups of different categories which led to the evolution of the self categorization theory.

The Self Categorization Theory

The self categorization theory or SCT propounds that at times individuals, who belong to a social group or ingroup, exclude their personal identities and behave on the basis of the established norms and understanding of the group they belong to. According to the Self Categorization Theory, group behavior is driven by adaptive functioning. Adaptive functioning can occur only when an individual belonging to a group lets the personal identity to take a back seat and work in consensus with the other individuals of the group.

There may be varied dimensions across which categories are formed. Formation of cateogories may be on the basis of goals, attitudes, ethnicities, creed, or interests. This self categorization leads to stereotyping which essentially means that all members within the group carry the same behavior that has been determined based on the dimension on which the group was formed. This self stereotyping leads to a depersonalization effect. Depersonalization means that every individual solely on the premise that he identifies with the values of the group, will let the self dissolve and behave in accordance with the implicit and explicit norms of the group. Any deviation from the norms may lead to conflict within the group and may even break the group if exceeds a threshold.

The collective behavior as self categorization theory propounds, can only be successfully derived through depersonalization of the self. Redefining self from the individual thought processes and individual differences and acceptance of shared beliefs and stereotyping help in formation of groups with a common vision and code of conduct. A proper group is not just a label based on the consistent interactions between a set of people, but is a psychological reality where everyone thinks on a mutual plane with resonating ideas and actions and stimuli to situations.

Critics have questioned this concept of stereotyping, depersonalization within collective group behaviors saying that the loss of one’s self identity in order to act and behave according to the norms established within the group to which a person belongs is a serious limitation on the use of self intelligence and self principals. They assert that if people act and respond based on what the group dynamics dictate them, then they will not be able to achieve anything based on their individual understanding of the world. It is a serious blemish to individuality according to them.

The Self Categorization Theory, in defense, says that personal and social identities are not necessarily on two opposite spectrums. They are not the opposite poles. Infact group dynamics evolve due to a larger degree of similarity in individual beliefs. Any form of discrepancies arising lead to the breaking up of the group in its earlier stages or the elimination of those members who are not in sync with the groups thought process overall. The self is categorized on many levels and factors which make for the salience for any given level need not be inversely related. The theory says that what an individual thinks about self helps him in determing his category. This means that an individual will become a part of a group only when it fits the criteria of his category. If he ends up in a group which is not his category and which he initially did not realize then the group formation is faulty and would end up breaking.

Personal identities are self identities or define the uniqueness of an individual from other people in their individual capacities. In contrast, social identity is the social categorization of self which defines the similarities between a set of individuals as opposed to other people in other social categories. Social identity is more a question of “We” versus “Them” and less of “I” and “Me”.

Thus, the key tenet of the Self Categorization Theory is that as social identity is sharpened the individual self perception fades and takes on the characteristics of the social identity.

The method by which a person gains a social identity is called a fit. There are two methods by which a fit takes place. The first is the comparative fit and the second is the normative fit.

Comparative fit is defined by the concept of meta-contrast as given by John Turner the most profound contributor to the Self Categorization Theory. A collection of stimuli over a consistent frame of reference can be categorized as an entity such that the average differences between the set of people falling in that category is less than the average difference between them and the remaining people not coming under that category. In simpler terms, this means that for a group to form the difference between individuals of a group must be less that the difference between the group as a whole and all those who are not part of the group.

For a normative fit to occur, in addendum to the condition of the comparative fit, the group must differ in the right direction on specific content dimensions of comparison. The similarities and differences between the groups must be consistent with our normative beliefs about the social category.

Using the meta-contrast principal one can understand that it is not individual stimuli but group stimuli which deciphers the possibility of a category and thus the establishment of relative differences between groups. For example, under the category “Educated people” the difference between Graduate and Post Graduate students would be less that that between Literate and Illiterate groups.

Thus, categorization is highly context dependent with large amount of perceived similarities and differences. People belonging to one category in one context may belong to another category in another context. For example, a person may be an Engineering student and differ from a student pursuing medicine but he may be an Engineering student with a degree in Computer Applications and not in Mechanical Engineering. The frame of reference thus changes manifold.

Application of the Self Categorization Theory

In 1964, there was a case of a murder and rape of one Ms. Kitty Genovese in the presence of about 38 witnesses.  However, despite the presence of so many people at the scene of crime not one had helped Ms. Kitty. This led to the application of the Self Categorization Theory to identify the interventionist behavior in bystanders and victims.

It was found out that when the victim is or seems to be an ingroup member the bystanders are more likely to intervene. This is because of the fear that they might be exposed to same fate one day in the future. At the same time when the bystanders are large in number then the possibility to intervene reduces drastically. If the bystanders are outgroup members then whatever their stance is (interventionist or non-interventionist) the bystanders are to act opposite. If the bystanders are ingroup members then whatever stance they take the bystanders are likely to follow that. This was a classic case of understanding intergroup behavior.

Conclusion

Social Identity Theory tried to explain inter-group discrimination based on the minimal group paradigm. The Self Categorization theory was built on the social identity theory. It propounds that in group behavior there is depersonalization of personal traits to propagate group behavior and the norms established by the group. Also, in a given plane of reference, the average difference between individuals within a group is less than the average difference between the group and other outgroup members.

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