Describe two different methods that have been used to study the concept of identity, and comment on their contribution to our understanding of identity. Identity could be regarded as a fixation on thinking about who we are. A concern with our identities concentrates on what it is that makes us individuals, and so unique amongst other humans. Identity is an area of psychology principally concerned with understanding people and their lives, and can be understood as our own theory of ourselves and how we describe and define ourselves.
Theories of identity are concerned with differences among people, and aim to explain identity by defining the processes that produce it. They therefore address the issue of what it is that makes us uniquely ourselves in comparison with others. As a topic it raises questions about whether our identities stay the same and ‘fixed’ throughout our lives, or whether we evolve over time. In addressing these issues, psychologists use a variety of techniques and tools for gathering and/or analysing data when carrying out their research.
We will look at two of these methods here. Firstly, experimental methods such as those used by Tajfel and his colleagues in a series of social categorisation experiments carried out in the early 1970s. And secondly, a form of analysis known as discourse analysis often used to test theories of social constructionism. Social identity Theory (SIT) suggests that if people categorize themselves as belonging to a group, they will readily discriminate in favour of their group (the ingroup) and against others (the outgroups).
In order to better understand SIT, Henri Tajfel and a number of his colleagues began a series of studies on 14 and 15 year-old schoolboys. Their aim was to discover whether simply being a member of a particular group would create discriminatory behaviour between groups. The boys were randomly assigned groups on the basis of something superficial, as was the case in one experiment where they were each allocated a group based on their preference for a particular style of art.
They were then asked to perform a task requiring them to award points to pairs of unknown boys as follows: Pairs of boys identified as being in their ‘own’ artist’s group (the ingroup) Pairs of boys identified as being in the ‘other’ artist’s group (the outgroup) One member of each of both the ingroup and the outgroup. Tajfel et al. discovered that the boys were fair when allocating points to two members of either the ingroup or to two members of the outgroup.
When allocating points to one member of each group, however, they took the opportunity to favour members of their ‘own’ group and discriminate against members of the ‘other’ group, thus favouring the ingroup over the outgroup (as cited in Phoenix, 2007 p. 63). A striking feature of this finding is that they did this despite the fact that as individuals they had nothing to gain (since they could not award points to themselves). Tajfel and his colleagues discovered that even if differences between groups were small, intergroup discrimination still occurred.
Tajfel argued that these findings demonstrated that simply categorizing individuals into groups was sufficient to generate prejudice between the groups. He claimed that people try to maintain positive social identities in comparison with members of other groups and that we strive to have a sense of belonging to groups that we consider to have a more positive image and higher status (as cited in Phoenix, 2007 p. 64). As such, we allow outgroups to be theorized as inferior. SIT maintains that prejudice and discrimination stems from an inevitable drive towards attaining an esteemed social identity[RBB1].