Criticisms of Social Identity Theory

Social identification theory explains the behavior of sports fans.

Social identity theory attempts to explain how and why individuals identify as members of a group, and to quantify the impact of that identification on their behavior. Some of its main concepts include inter-group comparisons, self-categorization, and optimal distinctiveness. Critics have argued that it replaces individualism with social identity, overlooks the importance of history and culture, simplifies the significance of self-esteem, and makes claims about in-group bias that are not supported by the data.

1 Minimizing Individualism

Critics have argued that social identity theory wrongly replaces the traditional notion of the individual with a nebulous concept of social identity. The sociologist Tom Posmet makes the case that in groups characterized by interpersonal relations, individuality actually plays a central role in fostering group identity and purpose.

2 Culture and History

Critics from the discipline of political science have said that social identity theory crucially overlooks the contingencies of history and culture; preferring the abstractions of theoretical psychology and sociology. Leonie Huddy has argued that identity formation is not simply the product of group designation; but rather, depends on a combination of subjective factors.

3 Self-Esteem

Sociologists have argued that the posited correlation between high self-esteem and in-group bias simplifies a complex relationship. For example, Jennifer Crocker has observed that -- in addition to personal self-esteem -- collective self-esteem plays a crucial role in moderating social identity and group boundaries. Research conducted by Christopher Aberson has suggested that the correlation tends to be less significant when high and low self-esteem individuals adopt indirect, rather than direct, bias strategies.

4 In-Group Bias

Classic social identity theory posits a correlation between high levels of group identification and in-group bias, which means that those who most strongly identify with a group -- for example, "super fans" of a sports team -- are most likely to view their group as superior to others. This hypothesis has been criticized by John Turner, who argues that group identification may not be the most important variable, and that such approaches assume that characteristics of group identity are stable rather than dynamic.

Colby Phillips' writing interests include culture and politics. Phillips received a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Oregon and a Master of Arts in philosophy from Boston College.