Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Social Identity Theory and the Reduction of Inequality: Can Cross-Cutting Categorization Reduce Inequality in Mixed-Race Groups?

Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Social Identity Theory and the Reduction of Inequality: Can Cross-Cutting Categorization Reduce Inequality in Mixed-Race Groups?

Article excerpt

A strategy to modify racial inequality in task groups was tested. Based on social identity literature: If members of a group are encouraged to think of other group members as individuals instead of representatives of a larger group, cross-cutting categorization may decrease the effects of race. Thirty groups of one Black woman and two white women, were randomly assigned to either a condition in which group members knew only that some people did better than others on the task (baseline condition), or a condition in which individualization of group members was emphasized (cross-cutting condition). The task was exactly the same in both conditions; only the description of it varied. Relative to the baseline condition, the cross-cutting condition does not significantly decrease the inequality between Black and white group members. Implications of these results for future research on group racial dynamics are considered.

Keywords: Cross-cutting categorization, individualization, personalization, social categorization, social identity theory.

Social psychologists argue that societal inqualities are reflected in the interactions of smaller groups. By reflecting inequality, small groups reproduce and maintain it. This results in a cycle in which groups justify and preserve structural inequality (For discussions of these general approaches integrating micro and macro connections, see Coleman, 1986; Lawler, Ridgeway, & Markovsky, 1993; Ridgeway, 2001)

In this study ways in which inequality among Blacks and whites within groups might be decreased were examined. Previous research suggests that racial inequality affects group interaction (Goar & Sell, 2005). Decreasing inquality in task groups is important not only for the task group interactions themselves, but also for the interactions that surround them. The study uses a theoretical perspective that addresses the interruption of the processes that help maintain inequality: social identity theory. This theory offers insight into the processes that perpetuate discrimination and interruptions that might call such processes into question. One possible implication for this theory was tested by creating different definitions of the task in which the group is engaged. Importantly, the task itself does not change, only the way in which the task is presented.


Social identity theory (Hogg & Abrams, 1988; Tajfel, 1978; Tajfel, 1982; Tajfel & Turner, 1979) examines the effect that societal forces have on individual identity processes. The theory suggests that personal identity is highly differentiated and based, in part, on membership in significant social categories. Social categories express the attributes and characteristics associated with a particular identity, define appropriate behavior of those who possess that identity, and ascertain the societal worth of the identity.

The social categorization that automatically accompanies these identities creates in-group and out-group dichotomies. When a particular status becomes salient, individuals tend to respond on the basis of their group membership rather than their personal identity (Brewer & Miller, 1984; Marcus-Newhall, Miller, Holtz, & Brewer, 1993; Pugh & Wahrman, 1983). That is, individuals favor ingroup members over out-group members. Reactions based on this group identity may include negativity toward out-groups, but it is not a necessary condition of such interaction (see discussion in Brewer, 1979; Brewer, 1999; Feshbach, 1994; Perdue, Dovidio, Gurtman, & Tyler, 1990). In-group/out-group designation often provides an arena for conflict and negativity. Brewer states that "ultimately, many forms of discrimination and bias may develop not because out-groups are hated, but because positive emotions such as admiration, sympathy and trust are reserved for the in-group and withheld from the out-group" (1999; p. 438).

Deschamps and Doise (1978) offer cross-cutting categorization as a mechanism for decreasing the reliance on the in-group/out-group classification. …

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