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Self & identity
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Self-categorization theory is a theory of social categorization that includes categorization of the self as a key feature. One tenet of the theory is that the self should not be considered as a foundational aspect of cognition, but rather the self should be seen as a product of the cognitive system at work.[1][2][3][4] Or in other words, the self is an outcome of cognitive processes rather than a "thing" at the heart of cognition. More generally though, self-categorization theory is better thought of "as a general analysis of the functioning of categorization processes in social perception and interaction which speaks to issues of individual identity as much as group phenomenon".[5]

The theory was developed by John Turner and colleagues, and along with social identity theory it is a constituent part of the social identity approach. Indeed, self-categorization theory was in part developed to address questions that arose in response to social identity theory about the mechanistic underpinnings of social identification.[6][7][8]

File:Rugby 2.jpg

The clear intergroup structure and rich normative content of team sports mean that such contexts are often used to illustrate self-categorization theory processes.[9][10]

Self-categorization theory has been influential in the academic field of social psychology. Beyond academia, as part of the social identity approach the theory has been applied to areas such as leadership, communication, and influence.[8][11][12]

Aspects of the theory

Levels of abstraction

File:SCT Levels of abstraction.JPG

Figure 1. A hypothetical self-categorical hierarchy for a person in an organization. The darkly shaded regions indicate those others who are included in Sam’s definition of self at different levels of abstraction. The lightly shaded regions indicate others who are compared with self at different levels of abstraction.[8]

Drawing inspiration from cognitive psychology,[13][14] self-categorization theory assumes that the self can be categorized at various levels of abstraction. In other words, humans may categorize the self as a singular “I”(personal identity), or as a more inclusive “we”(social identity). In the latter case the self will be cognitively grouped as identical and interchangeable to other stimuli within that category.[6] It is argued that it is this variation in self categorization that underpins many intergroup phenomenon,[12] including those which are described in social identity theory.[8]

To demonstrate the notion of varying levels of abstraction and inclusiveness, three types of self category are often given as examples.[6][12][7][8] The lowest level of abstraction is given as a personal self, where the perceiver self categorizes as “I”. A higher level of abstraction corresponds to a social self, where the perceiver self categorizes as “we” in comparison to a salient outgroup (them). A highest level of abstraction is represented by “we humans”, where the salient outgroup will be perhaps animals or other non-humans. A common misconception is that these three example categories represent the self categories that humans use. Instead, the theory posits that there are innumerable self categories that a perceiver may use (see, online category formation), and in particular that there are a myriad of different personal and social identities that a perceiver may invoke in his or her day-to-day life.[2][3] The misconception may also be attributable to the early writing of Turner where a singular social identity was contrasted against a singular personal identity.[15] This however predates the formal statement of self-categorization theory.


Importantly, social categorization as envisaged in self-categorization theory does not simply involve the redescription of characteristics and categories present in social stimuli. Rather, salient social categories form the basis of a social world that is enriched with meaning. This is achieved through a non-conscious process of accentuation, where differences between social categories are accentuated along with the similarities within social categories.[16][1] The resulting augmentation of social content allows the perceiver to interact with others with greater confidence and ease.

The accentuation component of self-categorization theory stems from prior research which demonstrated an accentuation effect for categorized non-social stimuli.[14] Consistent with the idea that an efficient cognitive system would, where possible, use the same systems regardless of the social or non-social nature of the stimuli,[17] self-categorization theorists have demonstrated similar effects for social stimuli.[18]

Depersonalization and self-stereotyping

According to self-categorization theory, depersonalization describes a process of self-stereotyping. This is where, under conditions of social category salience and consequent accentuation, “people come to see themselves more as the interchangeable exemplars of a social category than as unique personalities defined by their differences from others”.[13] Under these conditions a perceiver will directly base their behaviour and beliefs on the norms, goals and needs of a salient ingroup.[19][10] Importantly, depersonalization is not a loss of self, but rather a redefinition of the self in terms of group membership.[9] A depersonalized self, or a social identity, is every bit as valid and meaningful as a personalized self, or personal identity.[10] A loss of self is sometimes referred to using the alternative term deindividuation. Further, although the term depersonalization has been used in clinical psychology to describe a type of disordered experience, this is completely different from depersonalization in the sense intended by self-categorization theory authors.

The concept of depersonalization is critical to a range of group phenomena including social influence, social stereotyping, in-group cohesiveness, ethnocentrism, intragroup cooperation, altruism, emotional empathy, and the emergence of social norms.[13][6] For example, the influence processes predicted by self-categorization theory are founded on the idea that perceivers will be motivated to address discrepancies between themselves and other members of a salient in-group.[20][8][10]

Determinants of categorization

In self-categorization theory the formation and use of a social category in a certain context is predicted by an interaction between perceiver readiness and category-stimulus fit. The latter being broken down into comparative fit and normative fit.[1][21] This predictive interaction was heavily influenced by Bruner’s accessibility and fit formula.[22][14] A social category that is currently in use is said to be a salient social category, and in the case of a self category is said to be a salient social identity.[6] The latter should not be confused with “level of identification”, which is a component of perceiver readiness.[23]

Perceiver readiness

Perceiver readiness, which Turner first described as “relative accessibility”,[9] “reflects a person’s past experiences, present expectations, and current motives, values, goals and needs”.[1] It is the relevant aspects of cognition that the perceiver brings to the environment. For example, a perceiver who categorizes frequently on the basis of nationality (e.g. “we Americans”) will, due to that past experience, be more likely to formulate a similar self category under new conditions. Accordingly social identification, or the degree to which the group is valued and self-involving, may be thought of as one particularly important factor which affects a person’s readiness to use a particular social category.[8][10]

Comparative fit

File:SCT comparative context.JPG

Figure 2. Variation in self-categorization as a function of comparative context. In Context 1 Amy and Beth self-categorize in terms of lower-level personal identities that accentuate their differences from each other. However, in Context 2 the comparative is extended to include more different others (here men), and Amy and Beth are now more likely to define themselves in terms of a higher-level social identity. They hence appear more similar to each other. The important theoretical point here is that as comparative context is extended, people tend to self-categorize at a more inclusive, higher level of abstraction.[10]

Comparative fit determined by the meta-contrast principle, which states that a collection of stimuli is more likely to be categorized as an entity to the degree that the differences between those stimuli are perceived to be less than the differences between that collection of stimuli and other stimuli.[12][1][9] For predicting whether an individual will be categorized as an ingroup or outgroup member, the meta-contrast principal may be defined as the ratio of the average similarity of the individual to outgroup members over the average similarity of the individual to ingroup members. Importantly, this meta-contrast ratio is dependent on the context, or frame of reference, in which the categorization process is occurring.[24] That is, the ratio will be a comparison based on whichever stimuli are cognitively present. For example, if the frame of reference is reduced such that the potential outgroup members are no longer cognitively present then the individual will appear less similar to the ingroup members and be less likely to be categorized as belonging to that group.

Normative fit

Normative fit is the extent that the perceived behaviour or attributes of an individual or collection of individuals conforms to the perceiver’s knowledge-based expectations.[25] Thus, normative fit is evaluated with reference to the perceiver readiness component of the categorisation process.[26] As an example of the role of normative fit in categorization, although a collection of individuals may be categorized as an entity on the basis of comparative fit, they will only be labelled using the specific social category of “science students” if they are perceived to be hard working. That is, they fit the normative content of that category.

Online category formation

Self-categorization theorists posit “self-categorization is comparative, inherently variable, fluid and context dependent”.[1] It rejects the notion that self concepts are stored invariant structures that exist ready for application. Where stability is observed in self perception this is not attributed to stored stable categories, but rather to stability in both the perceiver and the social context in which the perceiver is situated.[1][5][9] This variability is systematic and occurs in response to the changing context in which the perceiver is situated. As an example,the category of psychologists can be perceived quite differently if compared to physicists as opposed to artists (with variation perhaps on how scientific psychologists are perceived to be).[8] In self-categorization theory contextual changes to the salient social category is sometimes referred to as shifting prototypicality.

Although the theory accepts that prior categorization behaviour will impact present perception (i.e. as part of perceiver readiness), self-categorization theory has key advantages over descriptions of social categorization where categories are rigid and invariant cognitive structures that are stored in comparative isolation prior to application. One advantage is that this perspective removes the implausibility of storing enough categorical information to account for all the nuanced categorization that humans use on a day to day basis.[1][2][9] Another advantage is that it brings social cognition in line with a connectionist approach to cognition.[27] The connectionist approach is a neurologically plausible model of cognition where semantic units are not stored, but rather semantic information is formed as a consequence of network pattern activation (both current and prior).[28][29]


In social psychology a category prototype may be thought of as a “representative exemplar” of a category.[30] Self-categorization theory predicts that what is prototypical of a category will be contingent on the context in which the category is encountered.[8] More specifically, when the comparative context changes (i.e. the psychologically available stimuli change) this has implications for how the self category is perceived and the nature of subsequent depersonalization. To continue with a prior example, when physicists are a psychologically available comparison group to psychologist, those psychologists are more likely to adopt behaviours that reflect a perception that the ingroup is comparably unscientific. However when artists are the psychologically available comparison group, those same psychologists will be more likely behave in a manner that highlights the scientific aspects of the category. To rephrase the above process in the language of the theory, self-categorization theory predicts individuals to adopt the features of a salient self category (self-stereotyping), and the content of that category that is adopted will be dependent on the present comparative context.

An individual’s degree of prototypicality will also vary in relation to changes in the comparative context, and self-categorization theory expects this to have direct implications for interpersonal phenomenon. Specifically, prototypicality plays an important role in the social identity approach to leadership,[11] influence,[20] and interpersonal attraction. For example, on interpersonal attraction, self-categorization theory states that "self and others are evaluated positively to the degree that they are perceived as prototypical (representative, exemplary, etc.) of the next more inclusive (positively valued) self-category of which they are being compared".[13]

Levels of individual prototypicality may be gauged using the meta-contrast principal, and indeed it is this purpose for which the meta-contrast ratio is more often used for.[9] Furthermore, although prototypicality is most often discussed in relation to the perception of individuals within a group, groups may also be assessed in terms of how prototypical they are of a superordinate category.[31]


Out-group homogeneity

Main article: Out-group homogeneity

Outgroup homogeneity can be defined as seeing the outgroup members as more homogeneous than ingroup members.[32] Self-categorization accounts for the outgroup homogeneity effect as a function of perceiver motivation and the resultant comparative context,[7][9] which is a description of the psychologically available stimuli at any one time. The theory argues that when perceiving an outgroup the psychologically available stimuli include both ingroup and outgroup members. Under these conditions the perceiver is more likely to categorize in accordance with ingroup and outgroup memberships and is concequently naturally motivated to accentuate intergroup differences as well as intragroup similarities. Conversely, when perceiving an ingroup the outgroup members may not be psychologically available. In such circumstances there is no ingroup-outgroup categorization and thus no accentuation. Indeed, accentuation of intragroup differences may occur under these circumstances for the same sense making reasons.

Inline with this explanation it has been shown that in an intergroup context both the ingroup and outgroup will be perceived as more homogeneous, while when judged in isolation the ingroup will be perceived as comparatively heterogeneous.[16][33] This is also congruent with depersonalization, where under certain circumstances perceivers may see themselves as interchangeable members of the ingroup.[34] The self-categorization theory eliminates the need to posit differing processing mechanisms for ingroups and outroups, as well as accounting for findings of outgroup homogeneity in the minimal group paradigm.[9]


Meta-theoretical debate

The social identity approach explicitly rejects the metatheory of research that regards limited information processing as the cause of social stereotyping.[27][35][5] Specifically, where other researchers adopt the position that stereotyping is second best to other information processing techniques (e.g. individuation), social identity theorists argue that in many contexts a stereotypical perspective is entirely appropriate. Moreover, it is argued that in many intergroup contexts to take an individualistic view would be decidedly maladaptive and demonstrate ignorance of important social realities.[7][18]

Category hierarchies

Self-categorization theory emphasises the role of category hierarchies in social perception.[12] That is, much like a biological taxonomy, social groups at lower levels of abstraction are subsumed within social groups at higher levels of abstraction. A useful example comes from the world of team sports, where a particular social group such as Manchester United fans may be an ingroup for a perceiver and he or she may compare with a relevant outgroup (e.g. Liverpool fans). However, at a higher level of abstraction both social groups may be subsumed into the singular category of football fans. This is known as a superordinate category and in this context those Liverpool fans who were once considered outgroup members will now be considered to be fellow ingroup members. The new salient outgroup might instead be rugby fans. Awareness of category hierarchies has led to the development of the common ingroup identity model. This model suggests that conflict at one level of abstraction (e.g. between Manchester United fans and Liverpool fans) might be ameliorated by making salient a more inclusive superordinate ingroup.[36]

It has been noted, however, that very few social groups can be described in hierarchical terms. For example, Jewish people in Germany cannot be always considered to be a subordinate category of German’s, as there are Jewish people throughout the globe. Accordingly it has been proposed that the theory’s use of hierarchies as an organizing principle must be relaxed. The alternative proposition is that social psychologists should look to Venn like structures for descriptions of social structure.[9][37][27] The awareness of crossed cutting social categories has allowed for the development of further intergroup conflict reduction strategies.[38]

Motivation in the theory

Self-categorization theory has been described as a “version of social identity theory” that is heavily cognitive and is not attentive to many motivational and affective processes.[39] Such commentary has generated some backlash on the part of social identity researchers. It has been posited that describing self-categorization theory as a replacement to social identity theory is an error, and that self-categorization theory was always intended to be complimentary to that theory and should be viewed from that perspective.[40] It has also been argued that such commentary unreasonably discounts the unique motivational concerns that are present in self-categorization theory itself.[40]


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