Case Study on Social Identity Theory

Zuneirah Omar

Social Identity Theory is a social psychological study which includes self-conception in group memberships (Hogg, 1990). This comes from the concept of social identity which is the meaning that one derives from their social group as well as the fact that they are a part of that social group (Trepte, 2006). Henceforth, this essay on Social Identity theory focuses on the lives of two students at the University of Cape Town (UCT), namely Sisanda and Andrew. Their identities during their undergraduate years of study are described and compared throughout the essay, incorporating the social identity theory, by means of a description of the theory using three concepts to describe the events that point out their group memberships. Included in these concepts is the key assumption of the theory. In order to emphasise the use of this key assumption, the identity strategies of the theory are described as well as related to the lives of the two students. Finally, together with the identity strategies are the criticisms of the strategies as well as the theory as a whole.

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Sisanda is a female from Kwazulu-Natal. She lived in a rural village with her grandmother, following this she moved to an informal settlement nearby to live with her parents. Sisanda did very well at high school and had many resources at her disposal to help her with her school work. Throughout her studies she has aimed to maintain her Zulu identity as opposed to adopting a western identity. Sisanda came to UCT in order to study and thereafter have the opportunity to return home and give back to her community, however, since she felt unwelcome by her community after leaving to study, she decided to stay in Cape Town and help improve communities here (Bangeni, 2005).

Andrew grew up in East London and then moved to a “coloured” township in Cape Town. Andrew had a lot of motivation to do well in High school in order to change his life for the better. Andrew was a very good student, despite the lack of resources that his school offered. He wanted to finish his studies and thereafter give back to his community, however during an early stage in his studies, when he was away from home and at Residence at UCT he experienced a lot of rejection from his community. Finally, Andrew has a strong ambition to maintain his home identity (Bangeni, 2005).

The events which occurred during Sisanda and Andrews time at university that have influenced or had an influence on their identities will be incorporated and elaborated further in this essay, by using the Social identity theory which will be described using three concepts. These include the individual positions, three social principles and a central assumption (De La Rey, 2003).

The individual component discussed here is self-concept. This is when an individual comprises of both, a personal and a social identity (De La Rey, 2003). In this essay we will focus mostly on Sisanda and Andrews’s social identities in order to clearly identify their group memberships, however their individual identities will be touched on briefly.

The three social principles are status hierarchy, legitimacy or illegitimacy of the status hierarchy and permeability of group boundaries and status security (De La Rey, 2003). They both came from backgrounds of a lower status in comparison to the individuals backgrounds they compare themselves to at UCT. We see this when they mention that the students at UCT have a lot of wealth and they spend a lot. They both chose to maintain their individual status identities by not giving in to spend money as easily as their colleagues do. In Andrews’s case this is evident from the beginning when he chose not to be a part of the peer group that wasn’t a part of his personal class and status identity, he chose not to be a part of the coloured group as he says they are middle class, English individuals and they tend to look down at less privileged individuals such as himself (Bangeni, 2005). Thus demonstrating how the status hierarchy influenced his identity.

Correspondingly, both Sisanda and Andrew have strong associations with their identities in relation to the languages they spoke previously, i.e. before they left home and came to UCT. The importance of speaking in their own languages, i.e. Zulu in Sisanda’s case and Afrikaans in Andrews’s case, is emphasized. Although Sisanda maintains this throughout her studies, she only speaks English when she has to in order to avoid communication problems, and takes notes in Zulu, despite her proficiency in English. Andrew on the other hand feels that English is now a major part of his identity, in addition he is learning Xhosa and Zulu (Bangeni, 2005).

Legitimacy or illegitimacy of the status hierarchy refers to whether or not the hierarchy system is deemed as fair, reasonable and just or not (Bangeni, 2005). According to Sisanda, she feels that the status hierarchy present at UCT is unjust as it puts a lot of undue pressure on herself as well as other students at the university (Bangeni, 2005). Finally, permeability of group boundaries and status security refers to the extent to which individuals are able to change their identities by moving across the social boundaries (De La Rey, 2003). In both the cases, Sisanda and Andrews, there was a lack of permeability of their group boundaries. This is seen when they both feel unwelcomed by their communities as a result of the change that they had made by moving from the community to the university.

The key assumption in social identity theory is called the positive social identity. This states that individuals will always strive to achieve the best and most positive identity and self-concept for themselves. In order to determine what is considered to be the best self-concept an individual will make social comparisons to themselves and other groups. Both Sisanda and Andrew were motivated to do well at school and achieve good marks in order to improve their lives and thus create a positive self-concept of themselves.

Furthermore, this key assumption results in the individual making use of various identity strategies in order to achieve a positive self-concept with a high status. In order achieve this positive evaluation of themselves, perceived cognitive alternatives to the group situation that they are currently a part of are required. In other words if the members of a group are not aware of the cognitive alternatives that exist then they will be unable to change their situation and achieve the positive identity they are searching for. This can occur both, on a group level or an individual level, when a cognitive alternative is not achieved. (Taylor, 1987).

On an individual level, the strategies include social mobility and intragroup comparison. Social mobility is a social system that is flexible and thus permits free movement of the individual (Taylor, 1987). Thus this is when an individual leaves a group and joins another group which provides the individual with a more positive identity. Sisanda experiences social mobility when she comes to the conclusion that her community has rejected her and as a result she will remain in Cape Town and use her degree to empower communities in this town instead of going back home to her original social group, in addition she tries to recreate her home identity at the university where she is accepted and thus this will improve her self-concept and sense of belonging. Andrew on the other hand, was also rejected by his community but he did not want to move to another group. He always wanted to maintain his home identity and this made his transition even more difficult, as a result he still remained a part of his group by participating n NGO Programmes in the community (Bangeni, 2005). However during Andrews’s studies he made use of the second strategy, which is intragroup comparison. This is when the individual compares himself or herself with other members of his or her own group (Taylor, 1987). This is seen with Andrew when he made comparisons to the other “coloured” individuals at the university who were of a higher class then Andrew and according to Andrew they looked down upon lower class individuals. This resulted in him avoiding this group, even though it formed part of the coloured group identity that he had belonged to (Bangeni, 2005). This however form part of the lesser postulation of the theory, which states that the intragroup comparison is less likely to result in an unfavourable or negative evaluation of the individual (Taylor, 1987).

Furthermore, when Andrew joined a new peer group which was of a lower social status, we cannot assume that this is social mobility as the theory states that mobility requires movement from a low-status group to a higher status group (De La Rey, 2003). Thus a criticism of this theory is that even though Andrew experienced the exit from one group and entry into another group it was not social mobility, even though ultimately he had a positive identity, to summarise this criticism one could say that this theory only focuses on improving the group’s identity and not the individuals. This is captured by stating that the social identity theory does not does not include the more realistic idea of an individual mobility strategy (Taylor, 1987).

Comparatively, the cognitive alternatives include absorption, direct challenge, creativity and redefinition of characteristics. Absorption, which according to some theorists is referred to as assimilation, refers to the idea of trying to become a part of the dominant group (Taylor, 1987). This can be achieved by trying to change you appearance, ways of living and ones behaviour in order to look or act like the members of the dominant group. In the case of Sisanda and Andrew they both share a similar change in which they tried to achieve this assimilation alternative. This is with regards to their language, they both tried very hard to maintain their language identity and started of doing this very well. However in order to be a part of the dominant group and be able to communicate and prosper at the university they needed to adopt new language strategies. Sisanda says she became tolerant towards other African languages and wants to learn Sotho and Afrikaans as these are the languages that are most prevalent amongst the dominant groups in Cape Town. Despite this she still tries to maintain her Zulu identity, she takes notes in class in Zulu, and this shows clearly how she only adopts the new languages in certain settings in order to be a part of the dominant group. Andrew on the other hand initially found it very difficult to communicate I English as he was very good in Afrikaans only, however as a result of the group that Andrew spent his time with he began to change his language. He started learning to speak Xhosa a form of slang dominant to the area and the group known as “Backstage language.” Andrew completely changed with regards to language, as he began thinking in English and no longer Afrikaans, thus he adopted a new language in order to be a part of the dominant group (Bangeni, 2005).

Direct challenge refers to the opposition of the dominant group by challenging them (Taylor, 1987). Sisanda showed signs of this strategy when she defended her Zulu culture amongst other groups as a result of ethnic stereotypes. Sisanda realized that this strategy did not work well in the case as she was going to lose her status amongst the members of the dominant group and as a result she maintained her Zulu identity on her own, and developed an identity of learning the other languages and ways of the culture, by means of social mobility as described previously (Bangeni, 2005). Andrew did not adopt this strategy in his time at university.

Creativity is when one develops new ways in which they compare their group to others (Taylor, 1987). Andrew used this strategy by spending a lot of his time with individuals with both linguistic and economic disadvantage, and thus comparing himself and his group to them and as a result it created a more positive self and group concept for Andrew, instead of making a comparison to a more dominant group of greater advantage which would not help improve his self and group concept (Bangeni, 2005). Sisanda, on the other hand did not adopt this strategy.

Finally, a strategy that was not adopted by both Sisanda and Andrew during their time at the university is the redefinition of characteristics. This is when the group redefines characteristics of the group that were previously evaluated as negative characteristics, in order to evaluate them in a more positive light now (Taylor, 1987).

As seen here not all strategies were used by both the students that were discussed. The reason for this is because there is a sum of strategies, but there is no concrete solution with regards to which strategy one may prefer or prioritise over another strategy. The adoption of the strategies also depends on the level of motivation by the individual and the group, as well as their motivation to adopt one strategy over another (Taylor, 1987). A further critique of this theory is with regards to the non-cognitive alternatives that were mentioned. If one cannot achieve social mobility, they will achieve intragroup comparisons. However the theory does not look at social mobility from a psychological perspective in that the individual mentally associates themselves with another group but does not physically leave the group (Taylor, 1987).

Furthermore Social Identity Theory makes the assumption that everyone views the dominant group as one that would result in a positive identity, whereas this is not always the case (Hogg, 1990). This is seen throughout Sisandas story as she maintains her Zulu Identity even when it is not the dominant group.

In conclusion, Sisanda and Andrew have many group identities including, their Zulu and Coloured culture, they are both students at UCT, the courses they have taken up, their social groups and cultural backgrounds amongst many others. The main identity that they have taken up is their language and culture identity and as time progresses their new identity as a student at UCT. They both come from less dominant groups in comparison to the groups they encounter at UCT and this results in the students adopting various identity strategies in order to create a more positive self and group concept and identity. By adopting these strategies they follow the key assumption and that is that they strive to create and maintain an identity that is of a more positive regard (Taylor, 1987). The strategies they adopted resulted in a change in their identity and as a result their group membership’s as well individual identities were changed and new identities were formed in most cases. Finally criticisms of the theory were made, and from this we come to understand the central ideas of this theory by using examples which put it into perspective and context.

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Bangeni, B., & Kapp, R. (2005). Identities in transition: Shifting conceptions of home amongst black South African university students. African Studies Review, 48(3), 1 – 19.

De La Rey, C. & Duncan, N. (2003). A social psychological perspective. In N, Duncan. & K, Ratele, Social psychology. Identities and relationships (pp. 45 – 66). UCT Press.

Hogg, M. (1990). Social identity theory. In P. Burke, Contemporary social psychological theories (pp. 111-136). California: Stanford University Press.

Taylor, D. & Moghaddam, F. (1987). Social identity theory. In D, Taylor. & F, Moghaddam, Theories of intergroup relations: international social psychological perspectives, second edition (pp. 59 – 84). Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Trepte, S. (2006). Social identity theory. In J, Bryant. & P, Vorderer, Psychology of entertainment (pp. 256-262). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

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