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As an important element of social identity theory, social categorization has a significant influence on how we perceive and understand ourselves and those around us. Through this lesson, you will learn how to define social categorization and gain insight into how it fits into the larger social identity theory.

Definition of Social Categories

Have you ever stopped to wonder how you developed your identity? Or maybe you’ve wondered why you feel a particular sense of belonging in one group more than another? It’s possible that you haven’t given much thought to either of these things throughout your life. Indeed, much of the process by which we develop our identities is somewhat less than conscious. But as much as our identities are our own sense of self, it may surprise you to know that it often has as much to do with you as it does with other people.In the process of developing our individual or collective identities, we tend to rely heavily on social categories, which are the social groups that people are placed in based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, or gender. These social groupings help us to make determinations quickly about others and ourselves, which allows us to form a general conclusion about others.For example, if you were approached on the street by a poorly dressed, unclean man who was asking you for money, your brain would immediately respond by using these social cues to place him in categories, which should help you to determine how you should respond. In this example, you would very likely determine that this was a homeless man with no money, which is a conclusion that your brain has made not on verifiable facts, but by assessing the visual cues and assigning the man to a general category.

In this way, social categorization is like an operational shortcut used by your brain.

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Social Identity Theory

Social categorization is a large part of social identity theory, which emerged during the 1970s as a way of explaining group behaviors based on how the group perceives itself in relation to those who are outside of the group. According to social identity theory, members of a particular group will often exaggerate the benefits of their own group, which is the ingroup, while over-emphasizing the negative aspects of other groups, which are the outgroup. In doing this, individuals strengthen their self-esteem by being part of the better or best group.

For example, many Americans believe that they live in the greatest country in the world because of all of its freedoms and power. In reality, there are actually not that many differences between the United States and other Western, democratic countries, but by placing themselves within the ‘best country’ category, their sense of self-worth increases dramatically.

Why Do It?

The categorizing of people based on stereotypes can lead to some very negative outcomes, like racism, but it’s not necessarily something that people do intentionally, or even consciously. According to Henri Tajfel, one of the theorists that developed social identity theory, this kind of grouping is something that our brains do automatically in order to make sense of things quickly.Tajfel theorized that our brains use a three-step mental process in order to figure out how best to respond to other people:1) Categorization places the individual into a social category based on what they look like, sound like, how they’re dressed, and so on.2) Knowing the category the person goes in then tells us something about their social identification, which are the broad generalizations and assumptions that we make about particular groups and what it means to belong to that group.

3) Draw conclusions through social comparisons, which is when we determine what the other person’s group (outgroup) means in relation to our own social group (ingroup).If we go back to my example about being approached on the street by a homeless individual asking for money, you can see how this process plays out. First, based on their appearance, you would probably assume that it is a homeless person, which places them into a particular category. Second, you would use your knowledge and assumptions about what being homeless means in your cultural context and then apply that identity to the person. And finally, you would compare their social position to your own before deciding how you will proceed.

Lesson Summary

Social categorization is the process by which people are placed into groups based on characteristics like race, gender, or ethnicity. As a major part of social identity theory, which emerged during the 1970s as a way of explaining group behaviors based on how the group perceives itself in relation to those who are outside the group, categorization allows us to quickly establish whether a person is part of the ingroup (our own group) or the outgroup, the other group.According to Henri Tajfel, who was one of the theorists who developed social identity theory, this categorization of people is part of an unconscious, three-step process in which our brains engage to assess the following before deciding how to proceed: categorization, which determines what group the person belongs to; social identification, which determines what it means to be a part of that group; and social comparison, which determines what the other person’s group means in relation to our own social group.

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