Human beings are social animals and are shaped by their relationship with other people. The self-identity of a person is affected by the ways in which they interact with other members of society. The manner in which a person’s identity develops is not a process that occurs within a vacuum.
People do not exist in isolation. Individuals derive a portion of their self-concept from how they exist in a mutual relationship with another person. This is the part of self-concept based on interpersonal relationships. But another part of identity and self-concept comes into existence based upon how a person experiences intergroup relationships.
A person does not derive their self-concept from interpersonal relationships and intergroup relationships in exclusive, isolated contexts. Such relationships do not exist in reality. All individuals are members of different groups, depending on gender, race, orientation, employment, skill sets and so on. Intergroup relationships exist at a level that is above interpersonal relationships.
They supersede interpersonal relationships. Interpersonal relationships exist between two people. These two people are members of groups. Their intergroup behavior, whether they are part of the same group or not, affects their interpersonal behavior. Depending on social structural factors, the behavior of individuals is influenced by a compromise between the two ends of the spectrum that is the interpersonal-intergroup continuum.
According to research carried out by Henri Tajfel and John Turner in the seventh and eighth decades of the twentieth century, intergroup behavior can be explained depending on certain factors like group status differences as they are perceived by members, how stable and legitimate those status differences are perceived as being, and the ability to move from one group to another as perceived by people.
Individual behavior becomes subject to group membership. An organization, which might be a business organization, can change individual behaviors practiced by its members. The organization can influence the self-concept of the individual, the part of their self-identity that derives from being a part of the group and the associated experiences that come with it.
The organization can thus introduce modifications to the behavior of individuals by introducing modifications to their self-concept. People adopt behaviors that are associated with the group and displayed by other members of the group. This phenomenon is enhanced when the individual’s self-esteem increases because of membership within the group.
Concept of Social Identity Theory
Social identity theory is a theory that deals with the ways in which the individual’s self-concept or the part of it that is derived from being a member of a group can be used to explain intergroup behavior. The theory offers predictions for behaviors displayed by individuals in intergroup relationships on the basis of different variables.
These include matters of group status in relation to other groups, whether the relative status of the group is permanent or temporary and if society confirms this status and if individuals are capable of leaving the group and migrating to a different group.
The primary tenet of social identity theory is that people seek to become members of groups that raise their self-esteem. This is a kind of positive reinforcement. People need to believe that the group they belong to is superior to other groups. Thus they seek to raise the status of the group that they belong. As a corollary to this, they seek to lower the status of other groups.
People conform to behaviors that are displayed by other members of the group. In the workplace, speaking in general terms, people seek to fit in with their co-workers when it comes to meeting the standards of performance expected from each member of the group.
If being a member of the group enhances the self-esteem of the employee, that they will put in a higher amount of effort because they associate their self-concept with being a member of the group, in positive terms. On the other hand, if the organization is generally accepted to be of low status, then being a member of it means that the employee is in the group that lowers their self- esteem and they will wish to remove themselves from it because it has a negative impact on their identity.
Studies suggest that individuals will even seek to maximize the positive distinctiveness of the group they belong to, that is, the in-group, even if it goes against their individual self-interest. They will work to ensure the success of the in-group over the out-group even if it means they themselves do not directly benefit on a personal basis.
Social Identity Theory in Marketing
The ways in which the behavior of individuals is driven by intergroup relationships is very significant in today’s advertisement-driven world. Advertisements do not only market products to consumers. They market a lifestyle. They offer suggestions to the consumer regarding ways in which they can improve their quality of life. As mentioned before, people are motivated by the need to increase their self-esteem.
Advertisements are often geared towards members of a specific group. There are advertisements that appeal to members of a particular gender, members of a particular nationality, or smaller groups like players of a particular sport or practitioners of a certain profession. The self-identity of the individual develops in response to members of the group the individual belongs to.
The individual adopts behaviors that are expected of them as a member of a particular group. Advertisements and marketing campaigns in general play a significant role in the development of these behaviors. If the media propagates certain models of behavior as expected of a certain group, then the members of the group will adopt it. The identity of the group, and in turn, the identity of the individual is thus heavily affected by advertising. The advertisements modify the group and the group modifies the portion of the self-concept of the individual that comes from being a member of the group.
People also decide whether or not they wish to identify themselves with a particular group based on advertising. If the media frames a particular group in ways that suggest it is a high-status group, belonging to which would heighten the self-esteem of the individual, then the individual categories themselves as part of the group, changing their self-concept as a result.
Conversely, a group that comes across as low-status would not be enticing and an individual would not wish to become part of it, or would wish to leave it should they already happen to be a member of the group. Additionally, if the media presents a group, for instance, the female sex, in a particular way, through advertising campaigns, then women who do not exhibit the behaviors that are shown in these ads feel reluctant to categories themselves as part of the female sex because they do not feel they are conforming. Their self-identity is negatively affected because the behaviors that they associate with positive feelings are not the behaviors generally expected of the members of the group they belong to.
Consumers may come to categories themselves as part of the same group as a company. Brand loyalty is significant here. This is customer-company identification; what brands are constantly pursuing. Bhattacharya and Sen’s 2003 research are based on how social identity theory can be used to explain why consumers become attached to certain producers of goods and services over others.
Members of an organization define themselves in the context of oneness within the organization. Members of brand communities engage in certain behaviors on a collective basis because of their attachment to a particular brand. They can define a product in terms of whether they identify with or not. Individual consumers modify their self-identity and use a brand to define themselves. Then they consider themselves part of the in-group that is made up of other consumers who identify with the brand.
When the consumer’s own self-concept is in line with the image of the brand it results in a strong connection being formed between consumer and brand. The more the consumer’s concept of themselves lines up with the image of the brand, the likelier it is the consumer will desire to become a member of the in-group of those who utilize the brand.
The brand is marketed to the consumer in a way that increases the consumer’s self-esteem because there is a link between their behaviors and a well-established image that others already identify with. Brand identification is useful for managers who can continue to develop the brand image in ways that will be appreciated by consumers who derive their self-concept from membership in the customer-company relationship.
Variables Involved in Social Identity Theory
There are a number of variables that underlie social identity theory. People modify their behavior and define their self-concept as a response to membership of a particular group in different ways and this is driven by certain factors.
1) Positive distinctiveness
People take actions that provide them with positive reinforcement. In other words, they behave in ways that will positively influence their self-concept. They join groups and modify their behavior in accordance with intergroup relations because it aids them in maintaining positive social identity. They seek to elevate the status of their own group and lower the status of out-groups.
Being a member of a high-status group makes an individual feel better about themselves and motivates them to improve the overall status of the group even further. As their self-identity is tied to the group, positive developments for the group receive positive responses from members who seek to ensure further positive developments for the group.
2) Status of the group
There are high-status groups and low-status groups. This is especially significant in the wider social context of gender issues, race issues and so on. Even when the groups concerned are business organizations, or smaller groups of employees within a particular organization, the relative statuses of groups are important.
A high-status group dominates intergroup relations between two groups. An organization that is perceived as being inferior to a rival organization is a low-status group and this affects all members of the group, whether they are direct members, that is, employees, or indirect members, that is consumers who identify with the group.
Because people are motivated to attain a positive self-concept, and that is not compatible with being a member of a low-status group, the members either disassociate themselves from the group or suffer from lowered self-esteem. A group may be low-status in a stable, lasting way or it may be possible for it to become high-status. On the other hand, a high-status group may be one permanently, or it can become low-status.
3) Migration between groups
Members of a low-status group may seek to migrate to a high-status group if the option is available to them. This kind of migration is not possible for groups like gender, race and so on, but it is very significant when it comes to the workplace.
An employee will seek to leave a low-status group or a group that does not modify their self-concept in positive ways in favor of a high-status group or a group that does enhance their self-concept positively, respectively. They will make individual mobility their priority and will try to work to secure their own interests, rather than the interests of the group.
4) Comparison between groups
This is where social competition occurs. In a scenario where two or more groups exist in a context where they compete with each other directly, members of one group will seek to ensure that their group succeeds in comparison to the out-group.
In-group favoritism becomes the priority. People actively try to secure resources for the group they belong to and deprive any out-groups of those resources at the same time. Social competition tends to occur when leaving the group is not a likely option and the status of the group is unstable. This motivates the members of the in-group to work in favor of their group.
- Because a consumer identifies with a particular brand in a way that connects their self-concept to being part of the in-group of brand users, they can react in particular ways to the success or failure of a brand. They can be reluctant to stop perusing the brand even when the quality has noticeably deteriorated, or they can disassociate themselves from the brand and identify with a high-status brand even if the previous brand improves again later.
- People tend to purchase luxury products because the group they are a part of establishes perusal of that luxury product as expected behavior, and furthermore, as something inherently positive. Celebrities, for instance, are expected to formulate their self-concept in ways that are in line with the purchase of luxury products starting from when they begin to categories themselves as celebrities.