Social Identity: Belonging to a Group

Your social identity conditions how you feel, think, and act. It dictates the groups you belong to, the new ones you decide to join, and those you choose to leave.
Social Identity: Belonging to a Group

Last update: 25 April, 2021

Your personal identity depends, to a certain extent, on your social identity. In other words, it depends on the social groups you belong to. Being a member of different groups has different effects on you, both at a personal and a collective level. This is because you’re not just an individual but you live in a society where you interact with others.

In order to understand social identity, you need to distinguish it from personal identity. Personal identity consists of the characteristics that make you a unique human being. On the other hand, your social identity is the part of your self-concept that comes from being a member of a particular social group. Furthermore, it’s the emotional value and meaning that comes from being a member of a group.

Therefore, people have at least two identities. But people actually belong to more than one social group, so you have several social identities. How do these work together? Well, they don’t, because when you activate one, you deactivate the others.

A group of lego men.

How is social identity formed?

Understanding social identity starts with self-categorization. As a human, you have a tendency to categorize. This means that you sort objects in the world into categories so you can better understand them. You also categorize people. In addition, you self-categorize. In other words, you include yourself in some of these categories or groups.

When you self-categorize, you develop a preference for the category that distinguishes you from other categories. From this stems your preference for certain groups over others. You might make these decisions based on certain group values, standards, and behaviors. This means you’ve achieved group consciousness. In other words, you’re aware that you belong to a certain group and you recognize other members of the same group.

When you identify with a group, you’re not just a member of that group. In fact, it also affects you psychologically on different levels. It’s a multidimensional phenomenon. At the individual level, it has cognitive, emotional, and motivating effects.

Social identity and group membership

The two most important cognitive effects are self-categorization and the importance of belonging to the group. Self-categorization, which we’ve already explained, can sometimes lead to depersonalization. This occurs when you redefine yourself in terms of your membership to a particular group. In other words, your actions and decisions will depend on your role in the group.

Identifying with a group can evoke certain feelings and emotions. Overall, they tend to be positive. For example, you might feel love, concern, and devotion to other members of your group. Furthermore, everyone has a need to belong, and, more specifically, to belong to a group. This is the need that motivates you to join and identify with a group.

“I feel like an outsider, and I always will feel like one. I’ve always felt that I wasn’t a member of any particular group.”

 -Anne Rice-

Collective identity

When you define yourself as a member of a group, you believe your membership is important. You also consider that the other members of the group share your beliefs, feelings, and behaviors. This is a psychological phenomenon known as collective identity. Collective identity provides meaning to a group.

There are six characteristics of collective identity:

  • The feeling of a common goal.
  • The perception of the group as unique and different from other groups.
  • Coordination of activities of the members of the group.
  • Shared beliefs, attitudes, norms, and values.
  • Concern for the well-being of the group and willingness to make sacrifices for its benefit.
  • The continuity of the group over time.

The context

Identities are also affected by context. For example, they might be associated with certain territories. They can also relate to certain cultures and languages. In addition, there’s a phenomenon known as collective memory. This is the story of how a particular group was formed and how it’s evolved over time.

Finally, there are social beliefs. These beliefs arise from shared experiences. They distinguish a group from other groups. These beliefs form the concept of “ethos”, which refers to the coherent and systematic knowledge of a society.

As you can see, social identities are complex, as identifying with a group involves much more than just a feeling of belonging to that group. For this reason, social identities are different and some people see certain aspects of a social identity as more important than others.

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  • David, O., & Bar-Tal, D. (2009). A sociopsychological conception of collective identity: The case of national identity as an example. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 13(4), 354–379. doi:10.1177/1088868309344412