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Social psychology and politics
Social psychology and politics

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3 Social identities and collective action

Politics almost always involves social groups. Think back to the 2016 USA election race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and see if you can list any social groups that you heard about in the coverage of their campaigns. You could be thinking about the different ways in which women and women’s groups were discussed and represented, or about how migrants and ethnic minorities were central to many debates. Or, you may be thinking about what it means to be a Republican or a Democrat, left or right wing, American and/or Mexican. These different social categories are a key part of politics. However, they also form an important part of people’s psychologies, contributing to their sense of self. For this reason, many social psychologists have long argued that the psychology of groups has much to offer in understanding political processes (Sindic and Condor, 2014).

Much of the study in this area draws on Social Identity Theory (SIT), developed by Tajfel and Turner who wanted to understand the social psychological processes that underpin intergroup relations (Tajfel, 1978; Tajfel and Turner, 1979). There is now a collection of social psychological theories, that draws on the basic assumptions of SIT, which is generally called the Social Identity Approach (SIA). The main assumption of this approach is that every person has a distinct personal identity but also social identities that connect them to other people. According to the SIA, group memberships are important parts of a person’s self-concept and how they value themselves (e.g. their self-esteem). They provide people with a sense of their place in the world and where they stand in relation to others.

The SIA argues that in certain situations it is social, as opposed to personal, identities that determine how people behave. This is because there are some contexts in which people see themselves and others in terms of specific group memberships, rather than as unique individuals. A good example is sporting events, e.g. a football match, where people are likely to identify with others who are fellow supporters of their team and to see them as being part of their group. Likewise, people are likely to see the opposing team’s supporters as members of a different group. In these contexts, it is group memberships that determine how people behave towards others. As you will see in the next section, this has been useful for understanding different aspects of collective political action, such as social movements and political protests.