An Examination of Social Identity Among Humans

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As human beings of various ethnic descents who were raised in different parts of the world, we develop societies of distinct characteristics in which members of each share similar customs, culture and identity, to name a few. Social identity is defined as “that part of an individual’s self-concept which derives from his knowledge of his membership of a social group (or groups) together with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership” (Tajfel, 1981, p. 255). As the basis of his social identity theory, he suggested that people are motivated by the desire to form and maintain a positive social self-image (Tyler, Kramer, & John, 1999). From his minimal group experiments, Tajfel explained that their results which demonstrated in-group-favouring tendency was driven by such need to preserve or attain a “positive group distinctiveness” that proceeds to protect and enhance one’s social identity (Tajfel, 1982, p. 24). From the point of view of the interdependent self-concept, the desire to achieve uniqueness seems to be analogous to such positive group distinctiveness which in turn, generates a member’s sense of self-worth (Norenzayan, 2013). This emphasises the individuality one aims to make of her in-group, as social boundaries are drawn to stress her status as a representative member with an assigned identity. In consideration of the extent of my inclination to project a positive image of our social identity as part of a minority, there is little opportunity to assess such an inner intention comprehensively in terms of one’s overt behaviour. On the other hand, there is a greater certainty with which I would strive to appear as distinctly as possible a member of a minority group to which I belong. In my case, I regard group distinctiveness as more important to achieve and taking precedence, which would naturally and ultimately leads to positiveness, be it from a personal perspective or in the eyes of others who marvel at one’s description of her homeland. In addition, the awareness of both positive and negative aspects of our cultural background enables me to perceive past experiences and my group identity from an objective stance, resulting in attempts more at disclosing accurate information of the bright and dark sides of having spent my early years in a country that is very distant to the one I am living in. Nevertheless, the pride of having developed such deeply ingrained social identity persists on and in fact, turns out to be significantly enhanced by my immigration to a Western developed nation, as an outcome of social comparison with dissimilar locally born citizens. Such tendency to view one’s origin and background in a favourable light despite knowledge of its flaws when one has ended up at a considerable distance from the source setting, could be supportive in a way of the social identity theory, implying the inherent nature of a person to hold a positive attitude generally of the group into which one was born. This mental outlook along with its emotive effects, feeds back into a cycle which began with group distinctiveness identification, followed by retrospective evaluation, social comparison with out-groups and group identity enhancement and preservation. This personally relevant process brings to mind that of Tajfel’s analysis of motivation for positive social identity expressed in the form of the sequence of “social categorization-social identity-social (intergroup) comparison-positive in-group distinctiveness” (Tyler, Kramer, & John, 1999, p. 18). In both analyses, the in-group identity and distinctiveness are acknowledged, maintained and protected. In my case, such tendency arose from getting settled in a different environment where the recognition of and sensitivity to unfamiliar others cause one’s lesser known background to be more salient during internal reflection and familial interaction. We see the need to preserve our social identity, but the motivation for it may not have been causal in the first instant which sets the whole course into action, but that could be which emerges mid-way in the process. Upon repeated judgements and comparisons of our unique upbringing and perhaps, distinguished qualities with dissimilar others, we come to appreciate the subjective superiority of our group and try to keep it fresh in our mind and daily expressions. Somehow, our sensitivity to and observations of others’ differences motivate us to be even more distinct from them, which eventually influence our attitudes and behaviour. Thus, intergroup social comparisons play a significant role in motivating us across the stages to maintain a distinctive identity in spite of the ambiguity with which others behold us. Such comparisons and evaluations in terms of language accent, birth country and nature of upbringing, which highlight our greater adherence to traditional values, culminate in one highly esteeming our background and this process supports one of the theoretical principles derived from Tajfel and Turner’s concept of social identity (Austin, & Worchel, 1979).

As with most people who belong minority groups, the greater amount of quality family time spent in fostering our close-knit relationships and speaking our mother tongue using our original accent in the home reflect our attempt to enhance and preserve our identity background and cultural heritage. The social identity theory explains in-group bias displayed during minimal categorisation experiments of intergroup behaviour (Tajfel, 1982). However, less focus is placed on the affective response, intragroup bonding and relationship connections upon one’s relocation to a place considerably distant from fellow in-group members. Nevertheless, the knowledge of one’s group membership and/or the implied presence of similar others during their physical absence are well within awareness despite the constraint imposed by the immediate social situation on their spontaneous expression. Specifically to my case, there is little opportunity to practise intergroup discrimination and in-group favoritism is only shown to family members. As a minority, we anticipate situations which undermine the distinctiveness of our social and cultural identity and such preparedness to allay threats could have complemented our motivation to preserve the uniqueness of our South-East Asian background. In a society which closely monitors incidence of racial discrimination, our in-group favouring bias is more implicit, rational and controlled. However, our awareness of external situational constraints which hinder behavioural expression of our attitudes, the distinction between our in-group and various out-groups, non-Chinese and East Asians alike, does not blur much accordingly as we remind ourselves to follow generally acceptable etiquette. It can also be reasoned that one of our less apparent motives for integrating ourselves into the society and to behave as cooperatively as the majority is to secure a firm position to make known or spread knowledge of our culture to non-South-East Asian Chinese, profiting greater exposure of our in-group. On the other hand, it can be explained that our other social identity at the national level as Canadian citizens influence us more readily in certain situations, a kind of heuristic, for instance, while helping out with activity organisation for Canada Day. The degree to which the component(s) of one’s social self stem(s) from culturally significant elements, such as preference for social gatherings at South-East Asian restaurants, emphasises how culture defines our social identity in a way linking the two closely, even personally perceived to be inseparable at times, for it is along this salient dimension which we assume to be most distinct from the rest of the society, including the East Asian Chinese.

In conclusion, the social identity theory is suitable, though not strictly adequate, in accounting for our predisposition to maintain distinctive group identity described in the above case. We readily recognise our nurtured differences although we belong to the same Chinese ethnic group as East Asians and endeavour to preserve and enhance such distinction, from which we can derive our sense of self-worth and attachment to emotionally significant past life experiences. Our social and cultural backgrounds provide an early foundation on which we based and formed most of our stable and long-lasting values and attitudes. Perhaps the reason why certain people regard their social identity as more salient than others, or place greater importance on it than their personal self identity, could be due to the particular aspects of it linking strongly to and agreeing with their well-grounded values and attitudes, for example, when a person holds firmly and adheres to the religious belief system founded by a widely-known faith leader of her own race. If one’s certain values and attitudes persist with time, then their correlations with her social identity will likely be as well. This implication can be explored in order to gain clearer understanding of the workings behind the scene which generate the impact of social identity in our lives.

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