Social Identity: Establishment of the «others»

Sona Nahapetyan

Identity is one of several fundamental human needs that underlie many intractable conflicts. Human needs theorists argue that conflicts over needs are fundamentally different from conflicts over interests, because interests are negotiable, whereas needs are not. One of the most common types of needs conflicts are conflicts over identity. These conflicts occur when a person or a group feels that his or her sense of self–who one is–is threatened, or denied legitimacy or respect. One’s sense of self is so fundamental and so important, not only to one’s self-esteem but also to how one interprets the rest of the world, that any threat to identity is likely to produce a strong response. Typically, this response is both aggressive and defensive, and can escalate quickly into an intractable conflict.

Identity conflicts can be especially difficult to resolve. The opponent is often viewed as evil–even nonhuman–and their views and feelings not worthy of attention. In addition, sitting down with the opponent can be seen as a threat to one’s own identity, so even beginning efforts at reconciliation can be extremely difficult. Nevertheless, identity conflicts can be moderated, or even reconciled if the parties want such an outcome and are willing to work for it over a long period of time.

The study of social identity reached its summit by the development of the Social identity theory. The developers of this theory are Henri Tajfel and John Turner. Tajfel defines social identity as “ the individual’s knowledge that she/he belongs to certain social groups together with some emotional and value significance to him/her  of the group membership”. The theory emphasizes that a self-inclusive social category of some form e.g. any type of group/team, furnishes a category-congruent self-definition that forms part of the self-concept. The social identity is developing as soon as the individual perceives this category as a social identity. The social identity itself not only describes, but also prescribes individuals’ attitudes as a part of that group. The identity development is operated by categorization and self-enhancement. The latter draws out the group boundaries by producing group normative and stereotypical actions and perceptions and allocates individuals to the contextually relevant group. By the means of the categorization we ensure that in-group stereotypes and normatic behavior mostly favor that group developed. Two underlying processes also take place: comparison and psychological distinctiveness. We compare our groups with other groups, seeing a favorable bias toward the group to which we belong. We desire our identity to be both distinct from and positively compared with other groups.

Drawing upon the works of the famous symbolic interaction theorists we shall point out the most common definition of the social identity which is our understanding of who we and other people are and also their understanding of themselves and others (including us).

Mead argues that “an individual can’t see himself/herself without seeing themselves as others see them”, Jenkins adds that “the plain representation of the identity is not sufficient and so it should be validated by the others during the social interaction”.

Realizing the importance of the fear that the process of being identified by the others, may influence the self-identification Hoffman suggests his approach of presentation of self in everyday life, which shows the opportunity of emitting signals during the interaction and making sure that they will be received and thus interpreted in an appropriate manner. By this approach Hoffman highlights the importance of the impression management strategies which author introduces as “the interface between self-image and the public-image”.

As an opposite point of view to the essentialist approach, the anthropological approach argues that an individual’s identity is multi-faceted. The definition of the identity according to Archetti can be defined as following- “the identity is an attribute that an individual or group has in or of itself and is subject to growth, decline, continuity and change… Thus an individual might have not one but a multiple number of identities. Another representative of this approach Shore enlarges the approach by the idea that “the levels of an individual’s identity can be viewed an concentric rings, with each level defining a separate identity”. Each level is also defined by some kind of boundary markers either visible symbols (appearance) or non-visual (accent). He also points out that an individual undertakes various roles in life, different aspects of their identity will become prominent depending on the position of that individual in relation to others and so as he says “each apparently minor shift from one label to another in fact conveys messages of considerable magnitude and political complexity”.

Anderson’s theory has a significant contribution to the understanding of the group identity. In his work concerning the nationalism, he refers to the nations as ‘imagined communities’. The term ‘community’ applies to the idea that the members of the specific group distinguish themselves from the members of the other group. The criteria for the ‘community development’ can be rather different such as ethnic, social, religious, racial, political or any other characteristics. The processes of the integration and differentiation are taking part in here in, other words inclusion and exclusion.

The idea of the community of being an imagined can be explained by the fact that an individual belonging to a certain grouping and sharing most of the significant values and attitudes of that group might have no direct contact with the vast majority of the group members, but he/she might have the feelings of pride and involvement only because of the knowledge of the group existence.

Famous political scientist and Marxist Anderson also develops the idea of in-groups and out-groups by presenting the establishment of the Other in an individual level and also the Collective Other in the community level. The boundaries of the Collective Other can be defined by the opposite views concerning any kind of criteria. His key idea is this-“as strong is the difference of the views and as close is the topic of differentiation  to the community criteria as negative will be the interaction with the group of the Others”.

The aforementioned idea of the possible identity change and growth leads us to the importance of understanding the factors that usually participate in the establishment of the social identity. The correlation of the identity and the group makes it worth to talk about the group dynamics and especially the role of the majority in leadership and the decision-making processes. Some of the theorists such as Finn, famous theorist of the sociology of sports, refers to the social identity as “a fundamental component of the human relationships, and that it formed by the balance of the power”. Thus, he finds it appropriate to identify the balance of the power as a major characteristic of any kind of interaction. This can be well described while talking about the majority social grouping influencing the establishment of the identity for the minority groups within the same society. So the fact of labeling a minority group is a common practice for most of the societies.

The differentiation of the people from varying ethnical or racial backgrounds can be aided by the presence of some kind of physical characteristics while other types of identities are rather hard to be recognized during the face-to-face conversation. This can become a reason for the majority group to learn more about the identity components of the opposite group for a better understanding of their group identity. In some cases this might end up with the conformity of the majority and minority groups because sometimes the reason for the differentiation is not a significant criteria.

If we pay attention to the cases where there’s no problem of majority and minority but both of the opposite groups have an equal opportunity of presenting their identity we can be witness. This can be practiced during any kind of competition, e.g. sports game where the supporters articulate the elements of their identity through their behavior. The most interesting fact is that both of the groups are similar individuals brought together in a rather close proximity. This provides them with a relatively safe environment in which they can express elements of their identity and behave in a manner that may not be socially acceptable elsewhere (singing, screaming, whistling, swearing).

As a conclusion I would like to point out that one of the major contributions to the study of social identity belongs to Hall, popular for his works in cultural studies. Being a true Marxist he has developed the idea of intergroup conflicts and emphasized the importance of the social identity in the development of these groups:

“ We should think… of identity as a “production”, which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation”.

“Social identities… are associated with normative rights, obligations and sanctions which, within specific collectivities, form roles. The use of standardized markers, especially to do with the bodily attributes of age and gender, is fundamental in all societies, notwithstanding large cross-cultural variations which can be noted.” by Giddens.


  1. Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined communities. Verso: London.
  2. Shore, C. (1993). Ethnicity as revolutionary strategy: Communist identity construction in Italy. In S. Macdonald (Ed.), Inside European identities: Ethnography in Western Europe. (pp. 27-53). Oxford: Berg.
  3. Abrams, D., & Hogg, M. (1990). An introduction to the social identity approach. In D. Abrams & M. Hogg (Eds.), Social identity theory: Constructive and critical advances (pp. 1-9). London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
  1. Finn, G., & Giulianotti, R. (1998). Scottish fans, not English hooligans!: Scots, Scottishness and Scottish football. In: A. Brown (Ed.), Fanatics! power, identity and fandom in Football (pp. 189-202). London: Rutledge
  2. Hall, S. (1990) Cultural identity and Diaspora. In J. Rutherford (Ed.) Identity: Community, culture, difference. (pp. 222-37). London: Lawrence and Wishart

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