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Social Identity: The “We” Aspect of Our Self Concept

Abstract

There are fundamental questions about his existence that man has asked ever since time immemorial. Questions that center around who we are, what our purpose is and where we are going. Man has also strived towards understanding himself, because if he cannot demystify the person that he is, how can he proceed to understand the world around him?

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This has led to the evolution of the idea of ‘self concept’. Understanding what self concept is means that other than analyzing our own thoughts and feelings, we also have to analyze how our social groups shape our self concept because we are an extension of these social groups.

Introduction

Myers (2008) defines social identity as the way in which people within a given social setting relate, what kind of awareness they have of each other in relation to themselves, and how this awareness influences their actions within their given social setting and beyond.

When the reference is made to ‘self’, what comes to mind is that conscious recognition of one’s distinctiveness as an entity separate from the immediate environment (Aronson, Wilson & Akert, 2007, 2004). Individuals think of themselves in many different ways, but the most common are by having ‘self-concept’ and ‘self esteem’. Self concept is the half of self that is considered cognitive, i.e. the thinking half, while self esteem is termed as the emotive aspect of self, which translates to the feelings an individual may have, and the individual’s sense of self-worth or value.

Definition of self concept

Self concept, according to Myers (2008) is the way in which we think and how we assess ourselves as individuals. Self concept has got a lot to do with self awareness, how conscious are we of our own being and functionality? How ‘in touch’ we are with our inner selves- that part of us that the outer world cannot see?

An individual cannot entirely divorce him/herself from a particular societal setting. No man, as Kipling put it, is an island. All people have a place of origin. Whether we are loath to admit it, where we come from plays a major role in who we are, because where we come from makes up for what we know, and how we perceive. As Aronson, Wilson & Akert, (2007) put it, society shapes an individual’s worldview and it is from this world view that the individual then establishes what boundaries mark his or her existence.

An individual’s self concept develops in a varied number of ways, such as by introspection, self analysis, analysis from others, and by comparing themselves with those in tier social environment. These comparisons help the individual gauge his own self worth and take two forms; they can be either ‘upward’ comparisons or ‘downward’ comparisons, where upward comparisons are instances when the individual gauges himself against others of higher social standing, whereas for downwards comparison the individual gauges himself to those of lower socials standing and is mostly done to boost self esteem (Myers , 2008).

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Definition of a social group

Myers (2008 defines a group as being two or more individuals who share social connections. Within this group there are interactions that must take place between the different individuals and it is only natural that they influence each others behaviors, thinking processes and outlook. This influence is referred to as social influence and touches on how people within a group affect each others feelings, thinking and behaviors.

Though society plays a crucial role in defining and shaping who we are and what we may become, there is the question of conformity. Aronson, Wilson & Akert, (2007) define conformity as the tendency an individual may have to act and think as others within the same social group do. Why an individual conforms is because he/she wants to fit in. to what level an individual conforms to his social setting is determined by factors such as the size of the social group, difference in social status within the group, the individuals’ level of cohesion and unanimity.

In a world that is more and more calling upon creativity, innovativeness and uniqueness, where thinking outside the box is lauded as being the ultimate ideal, conformity is at times looked down upon. However there are aspects of it that are not only good, but also necessary for survival and functions within social groups.

The need to conform is inborn, because humans are social beings and seek out each other, even if it means having to act in a certain manner to gain acceptance. This aspect of conformity, more commonly termed as peer pressure, is also termed normative influence (Myers , 2008). Normative influence may lead to public compliance where a person may do something they dislike, or say something that they do not believe just to be accepted into a social group. Teenagers, who are in the formative stage where they grapple with a sense of self identity, are under constant pressure from their peers to act or look a certain way. A teenager may completely hate the way cigarettes taste but just because everybody else is smoking, then smoking it is.

There are three factors which determine the level of normative influence (Myers, 2008). One is the number of people within the group because as the number of people increases, the individual impact of group members decreases. The other is the importance of the group to the person. Taking the example of the teenager, if it is very important that he/she appear cool, then he/she will disregard the bad taste of cigarettes. On the other hand, if the teenager has no particular interest in being with the ‘hip’ crowd, he/she may try one cigarette and leave it at that.

The third factor is immediacy which refers to how close the group is, both geographically and in time, at the time of the influence.

The other aspect of conformity is the informational influence, where an individual conforms to societal standards so as to get certain information, and then by acting on it, accomplish a desired and fitting result. There are, according to Myers (2008), generally three circumstances under which individuals seek informational influence. The first is in the case of ambiguity. If something is not clear, an individual may become undecided on how to interpret it or what course of action to take. The individual may then seek clarification from others who might know more.

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The second instance is in the face of a crisis because individuals have the tendency to panic when faced with one and literally stop thinking. They then turn to other people for advice on how to handle the situation, or just to get different opinions to measure that the action they choose to take is the best available option.

The third instance is when an individual approaches another who is considered to be highly knowledgeable in a specific field so as to get assistance or make use of his expertise. If an individual wants to put up a house for example, he will get an architect to draw him the blueprint, a landscaper to advice him on how best to make use of the land, a mason to do the actual building and an interior decorator to help with the internal furnishing. By himself, the individual could not have accomplished the same task, not with the same level of proficiency and specialization (Myers, 2008).

Within a social group, there might be a minority that leads to minority influence. This is a faction within the group who may share traits and characteristics with the larger social group but have a set of distinctive characteristics and attributes that puts them apart. This minority may have an influence on the group’s decision making process mostly on the informational aspect and the extent to which their influence will be felt is proportional to how removed they are from the larger group, their status and how firmly they stick by their chosen stand. However, it is important to note that minority influence is not necessarily from an ethnic minority (Myers, 2008).

Gender also plays a role in the level of conformity and social influence. Research done indicates that women when subjected to group pressure under observation are easier to persuade and conform more easily than their male counterparts. However, when not under observation, women are less likely to conform than men. The explanation, says Eagly is most likely because of the sex roles that are cut out for women and men where men are meant to be autonomous while women are meant to be affable (Eagly, 1987).

Reactance, which is actually nonconformity, is when an individual purposely goes against the grain. These are the people who are not afraid of criticism, conflict, being ostracized or outright rejection from the comfort zone of their social groups. Such individuals are the ones termed as renegades.

Conformity takes on two other forms that are also considered major and have made for areas of interest for research being done on social groups. These two forms of conformity are compliance, where an individual agrees to an idea or to carry out a specific action when asked to do so by another individual. The other is obedience where an individual is commanded to act in a certain way and left with little or no option to do otherwise.

Another way in which the social group can influence an individual is through what is called the self fulfilling prophesy where a forecasted event actually comes to happen because it was said it would happen (Myers, 2008). A good example is of a person who goes into a new social group having developed pre-conceptions and perceptions about the group. Maybe the person expects a cold and hostile reception and thus behaves in such a way that he gets one. The person will (smugly) assume that he had been right all along, not taking into account that he played a part in shaping the group’s attitude towards him.

Group dynamics and self concept

The definition of a group has already been given as the connection that is shared by two or more individuals who share social connections and have a common identity. These groups share qualities that become what binds the members together. They practice norms, in that they have unwritten rules which are to be adhered to by members of the group. These norms are absorbed over a long period of time, mostly from childhood and come naturally to the individual. Going against these norms can cause great friction and are taken as a sign of hostility, disrespect or disregard of authority.

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Members of a social group also have roles cut out for specific individuals to carry out. An example is the role of the mother as the keeper of the home and the father as the breadwinner in a majority of family settings across the word. Despite the fact that this tradition is changing, it still has a firm hold and is found to be the most natural.

Norms account for the conformity aspect of self concept. Since an individual will want to fit in, avoid censor or conflict, he/she will observe these societal norms. On the other hand a rebellious individual may defy these norms thus showing nonconformity.

Within social groups, there is also the issue of relations. How an individual treats another differs depending on their status, age, influence or any other criteria that that particular group may apply. An example can be given of how a student will address his teacher contrasted to how he will address a fellow student.

The social group from which an individual comes lays the foundation upon which his whole nature is built. Social groups can be marked on a person either physically and noted by such things as dress, accent and manner, but it runs deeper to the abstract like how people think and react to situation.

There is no doubt that social groups are important to the development of an individual. Working within a group actually enhances productivity. In the days when slavery was still being practiced, slaves were put to work together because they would build each others’ morale. It is from a social group that the individual draws moral as well as emotional support gets resources and creates for him/her an identity. An individual’s social identity significantly influences how he regards others who are not from within his own social group.

Social identity theory, as Turner and Tajfel (1979) explain, is the theory which extends that group membership leads to the formation of in-groups where members of the same group will carry out things in their own favor, even at the expense of another group or an out-group. Just by the fact that an individual identifies himself with a social group, say Turner and Tajfel (1979), the individual starts thinking in terms of ‘we’ and not ‘I’. The individual then proceeds to boost his/her self esteem by categorically comparing his/her social group to another to prove that his/her group is better. So in a way, belonging to a social group limits an individual’s capacity for open and unbiased judgment.

Tajfel and turner (1979) then proceed to point out three crucial variables that play a part in the action of in-group favoritism. They are:

  • To what extent the individual can identify themselves with the in-group, so that they integrate the social group as part of their own self concept
  • The extent of disparities between the two groups that can provide ground for comparison
  • How important or relevant is the out-group to the in-group according to the individual.

The ramifications of inter-group comparisons, explain Turner and Tajfel (1976), is that it leads to vices such as discrimination, prejudice and casting of people into stereotypes. In the extreme, inter-group animosity can lead to violence and other forms of anti-social behavior directed towards the out-group.

A common saying, two heads are better than one, tells us that when people come together, they are more likely to come up with better ideas. That is why the normal approach to communal task is forming committees rather than giving the responsibility to an individual. On the other hand, if a group is biased, the bias might distort reason and impair judgment.

Group polarization (Myer, 2008) is the case where a group of people reaffirm opinions after a group discussion usually to the more extreme. Myer also explains that another problem that can arise from a herd mentality is ‘groupthink’ where a group[p of people make a decision by assuming a consensus even if not all the members concede to the decision and the select members then passing the decision as being that of the whole group.

Conclusion

William Shakespeare has been quoted through the centuries, even by those who are not aware they quote him when they proclaim ‘to thy own self be true’. Shakespeare summarized a great deal of social psychology in that one brief statement, by wrapping up the meaning of self concept.

Self concept is how we understand ourselves as individuals and our self concept is influenced by multiple factors. One of these is the social groups we live in, our interaction within these groups and our status within them. Self concept shapes how an individual looks out at the rest of the world which consequently determines his attitudes and reactions to different situations. Self concept is cognitive, in that it has more to do with the thinking, reasoning side of us than the emotive side.

The social groups of an individual play a major role in the individuals self concept because individuals have to conform to societal standards. There are different types of conformity with the major ones being informational, where an individual conforms so as to gather information and act appropriately, normative, where an individual conforms so as to fit in, compliance or obedience.

Though conformity by an individual is good and important for the coherence of the whole social group, it is encouraged only to a level. This is because a person has to develop his/her self-esteem and self awareness. If the individual cannot think beyond what the society thinks, then this might turn out to be a challenge.

It is the responsibility of a social group, who play a major role in shaping an individual, to nurture a person who is balanced, confident with good self esteem and a solid self concept because this puts the person in a better position to give back to the society.

Bibliography

Aronson, E., Wilson, T.D., & Akert, A.M. (2007). Social Psychology (6th Ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Eagly, A. H. (1987). Sex differences in social behavior: A social role interpretation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Myers. G., D. (2008) Social Psychology. New York: McGraw Hill.

Turner. J., C & Tafjel. H. (1979) ‘Social Comparison and Group Favoritism’. European Journal of Social Psychology 9: 187-204.

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