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Ins and Outs

Martin Tyrrell

Henri Tajfel: Explorer of Identity and Difference, by Rupert Brown, Routledge, 302 pp, £31.99, ISBN: 978-1138589810

In 1981, a year before his death, the Polish-born social psychologist Henri Tajfel wrote:

Together with many people of my generation, I share memories of a raging storm which ‑ it seemed at the time ‑ would never stop. Amongst those who died then, there were millions who formed, in the most concrete sense of the term, my “social background”: the generations of European Jews who were born in the half-century straddling the eighteen and nineteen hundreds. The minority who survived came in from very cold and very far … In May 1945, after I had been disgorged with hundreds of others from a special train arriving at the Gare d’Orsay in Paris with its crammed load of prisoners of war returning from camps in Germany, I soon discovered that hardly anyone I knew in 1939 ‑ including my family ‑ was left alive.

Tajfel, the subject of this Rupert Brown’s biography, deserves to be better known. So too does his social identity theory, which he hoped might explain what he and his family and so many others had suffered first-hand during the war years. Social identity theory is, Brown writes, “a theory of intergroup behaviour which is at once deceptively simple but also, in places, frustratingly ambiguous”. And yet its influence has been considerable, at least in academic psychology where first Tajfel and, subsequently, his students ‑ who included Michael Billig, the late John Turner, and Rupert Brown himself ‑ developed and popularised it.

Social identity theory proposes that everyone has a social identity, a particular sense of themselves that stems from their belonging to particular “human groups and social categories”, especially those higher order, somewhat abstract, groupings defined by gender, nationality, class, ethnicity, religion or sexuality. How you see yourself, how you feel about yourself (your self-esteem), how others see you, how you negotiate the world around you ‑ all of these will be significantly determined by whatever groups ‑ be they Ireland, Muslims, women, people of colour, or LGBT people ‑you belong to, as well as by the image and status these collectives have in the wider social world. What you are affects who you are, both in your own mind and in the minds of others. Although you have little say in what you are, and minimal control over the cultural image and social standing of what you are, what you are will nonetheless place you in the social hierarchy ‑ high status or low, object of reverence or figure of fun ‑ and determine how positively or negatively you feel about yourself.

In Dickens’s Great Expectations, for example, Pip is made suddenly and painfully aware of his class identity by the privileged Estella. The occasion is a card game, in which Pip inadvertently outs himself by the way he refers to the court cards.

“He calls them Jacks, this boy,” said Estella with disdain. “And what coarse hands he has! And what thick boots.” I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair. Her contempt for me was so strong that it became infectious and I caught it.

Estella knows the social set-up she inhabits, and Pip’s place in it too. And she places him so smartly that it hurts, overwhelming him with self-loathing. And yet, as is eventually revealed, Estella’s own privilege is even more down to chance than such things tend to be. The child of a convict, she has done well to be taken on by Miss Havisham, has been dealt a good hand so to speak. Pip not. Pip’s subsequent, Smilesian self-improvement involves him confecting himself into a convincing member of the very caste that earlier rejected him, and is possible only because of the gift of capital that unexpectedly comes his way. His is an entirely personal rise; the societal boundaries, castes and categories remain as before. Thus, just as Estella scorned Pip, Pip in turn shuns the decent Joe Gargery.

Brown goes into Tajfel’s own identities and background in some detail. He was variously: Jewish (he was born Hersz Mordcha Tajfel); Polish (his name Polonised to Heniek); French (for which he became and remained Henri); and (sort of) British. Also, he lived during times when these various identities became conspicuous ‑ growing up in post-independence Poland in the 1920s; coming of age during the rise of fascism; volunteering for the French army in 1939; a foreigner in middle England. Brown suggests, not unreasonably, that holding these identities in these circumstances strongly influenced Tajfel’s principal research interests.

He was born the very year, 1919, that Poland was itself brought back into being by the victor powers at Versailles. (This new Poland had been assembled out of previously Austrian, German and Russian territory. Had Tajfel been born a year or two earlier, he would have been born in Germany, in a town called Leslau not Włocławek and would have been officially registered as a German newborn. Tajfel’s nationality was thus decided for him by distant and politically powerful people.) Fittingly, for someone who would later study the cognitive impact of arbitrary group membership, he himself had an initial and important group membership decided for him. In the Polish national state created the year of Tajfel’s birth, minorities made up around a third of the population, with the Jewish minority accounting for a tenth.

Polish was an identity Tajfel would later reject – “I would never be ashamed of being a Jew but I am ashamed of being a Pole,” he once said; it pained him, he said, even to converse in Polish. (When psychologist Janusz Reykowski met Tajfel towards the end of the 1950s, he did not immediately realise that Tajfel too was from Poland or could speak the language.) Tajfel would later recall the Poland of his teenage years as a semi-fascist state with a strong undertow of antisemitism. Brown suggests that a corollary of Polish nationalism might have been that minorities were made to feel more conspicuous and suspect, and that the Jewish community was a particular target of this othering. He gives examples of official discrimination against Jews, such as quotas on the number of Jewish undergraduates at Polish universities and restrictions on Jews entering the civil service, but also of more populist hostility such as antisemitic slogans and doggerel.

It was partly in reaction to this that Tajfel went to Paris in 1936, where he joined a community of around 50,000 expatriate Poles, mainly Jewish, and some two and a half million immigrants, principally refugees from Nazi Germany. Tajfel, by his surname and by his accent, would have been readily identifiable as a foreigner, probably an immigrant, probably Jewish. And the presence of so many Jews and immigrants in the city would have been a constant reminder to him of his own status and of the political salience of that status. Jewish, said Michael Billig, was Tajfel’s “one, constant identity”.

Also French. Frenchness he embraced. Just as Hersz had become Heniek, so Heniek became Henri. And Henri he remained, never “Henry” despite a British citizenship acquired in 1957 and a professional life, from undergraduate to professor, lived largely, and sometimes none too contentedly, in British higher education. Durham, scene of his first academic post, he bemoaned as “Northern and grey … no decent bookshops or restaurants”, not even his favourite cigarettes. Bristol, where he was professor, he so frequently abandoned on sabbatical ‑ in Paris, Michigan, Bologna, Jerusalem and Helsinki ‑ that colleagues took to calling him “the Thomas Cook Professor”.

Mathematician and philosopher of science Jerome Ravetz remembered him as brilliant “but with all the arrogance of a French intellectual”. And in the years of his fame he seems to have been almost a cartoon French intello—a chain-smoking bon viveur with a taste for French wine and Parisian restaurants. And also, it would appear, a drole de drageur to say the least. 

Tajfel had gone to France to study chemistry, at which he proved undistinguished. A failed end-of year exam meant that he had to stay in Paris for a resit in the autumn. Consequently, he was there, not Poland, in the summer of 1939, which, as Brown says, almost certainly saved his life. He joined the French army, was taken prisoner in the summer of 1940, and was, for a month or two, held at the same camp as Jean-Paul Sartre.

Unlike Sartre, POW Tajfel would have been in grave danger, as he must surely have been aware. Here he was, a Polish Jew who had volunteered to serve in the now defeated French army and now a prisoner of the army of the institutionally antisemitic German state. He would have had no idea how he might be treated on account of either or both of his main identities, particularly his Jewish identity, and might have expected anything from ill-treatment, to torture, to summary execution.

Merely being Polish would have been problematic enough. As an expatriate Polish student in France, Tajfel would have been under no obligation to join the French army. In joining up, he was choosing to oppose the German advance. And as a Polish Jew, his enlisting would have seemed all the more clearly ideological, and all the more punishable.

Brown believes that, in these circumstances, Tajfel told his captors he was Polish, but not that he was Jewish. He notes, for example, that Tajfel destroyed his Polish passport shortly after he was taken prisoner, and destroyed it by eating it, which would suggest that he knew it was essential he get rid of it and fast. (I do not know what information was included on a Polish passport issued in the 1930s, but surely no one eats their passport without good reason ‑ such as when it is a matter of life and death. Maybe his passport was in his given name, Hersz Mordcha Tajfel, for example. Or perhaps it gave enough information about his place of birth, his parents and so on, that anyone prepared to do the research ‑some officious Nazi commandant perhaps ‑ could have readily established that he was Jewish.) Brown notes that when Tajfel was asked for family details during his “matriculation” as a prisoner, he gave his mother’s name as Rosa when it was actually Ruchla, and did not say that she and the rest of his family had moved to Warsaw.

If this is what Tajfel did, I see nothing wrong with it. It is how almost anyone in the same circumstance would act, especially if they were prisoners of war, prisoners of the Reich, under its direct and daily control. But Brown speculates that “this subterfuge was to leave [Tajfel] with psychological scars that he bore for the rest of his life”. Both of Tajfel’s parents and his brother died in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943 following the Nazi suppression of the uprising and, as Tajfel himself said, almost everyone else he had known or was related to died in the Holocaust. As for the survivors, he later wrote:

Some of them got back as and if they could to the normal business of living. Others sought a last refuge in a country new to them, continued to fight in other wars, and some of them died again. Some felt guilty forever because there was no sense or reason to their survival while so many disappeared. A very few ‑ those who had the talent ‑ tried to express and reflect what had happened to them and to others. Sharing their experience and feelings ‑ but not the talent ‑ I became an academic, almost in a fit of absent-mindedness. But this did not happen immediately after the war.

What makes Tajfel’s achievement and pre-eminence all the more remarkable is that he was a relative latecomer to academic life. An undergraduate at thirty-two, he published nothing until he was nearly forty, and acquired his PhD somewhat unconventionally (by splicing together a few of his publications). Moreover, the teaching posts he held were far from the academic limelight. And yet, though unknown in the early ’60s, he was, a decade on, something of an academic star ‑ a somewhat prickly continental theorist with a school (some said mafia) of loyal acolytes, and co-founder, with Serge Moscovici, Gustav Jahoda and several others, of what eventually became the European Association of Social Psychology.

Social identity theory originated in a suite of elegant experiments Tajfel, his co-workers and students carried out in the 1960s using what he called the minimal group paradigm. These were intended to test, among other things, the cognitive and behavioural impact of mere categorisation ‑ how people behave when they have been assigned to one or other of two “minimal” groups, “minimal” in the sense that they were newly created for the experiment and therefore without cultural or emotional significance for the people assigned to them.

Tajfel’s initial, and most widely reported, round of experiments randomly assigned schoolchildren to one of two such groups, ostensibly on the basis of how they had performed on a trivial task (one such task involved choosing which of two paintings they preferred ‑ a Klee or a Kandinsky). Each child was then told privately which group they had been assigned to, but not who else had been put into it with them or who was in the other group. After that, each of the children was in turn asked to allocate, in private, small (and in fact notional) amounts of money to a member of their own group and a member of the other group, neither of whom was physically present or identified in any way. All each child knew was that these absent and anonymous recipients were two of their own classmates, and that one of them was from their own group and one not.

A further feature of the experiment was that the child participants could not allocate as they pleased. Instead, they were given a matrix setting out a series of paired allocations from which they could choose ‑ such and such an amount for the ingroup paired with such and such an amount for the outgroup. One of these pairings allowed the participant to be scrupulously fair and award both of the anonymous recipients exactly the same amount, while another allowed the joint profit of the two anonymous recipients to be maximised. But there were also discriminatory allocations available ‑ allocations where the ingroup received more than the outgroup ‑ and these were what Tajfel was especially interested in. One of these discriminatory allocations resulted in the profit of the ingroup being maximised (the “maximum ingroup profit” option) and another in the difference between the two allocations being maximised (the “maximum intergroup difference” option).

The distinction between these two is important for any understanding of the results of the experiments and of social identity theory. In monetary terms, the maximum ingroup profit option was always the best option of all for the ingroup. No other option on the matrix gave the ingroup as high an award. If all a child wanted to do was maximise their own group’s overall take, then that was the option to go for. However, this highest possible award to the ingroup was paired with an award to the outgroup that, though smaller, was still respectable (for example, £10 to the ingroup paired with £8 to the outgroup). If a child decided to be generous to their ingroup and go with the maximum ingroup profit option, they therefore had no choice but to be relatively generous to the outgroup as well.

In contrast, the maximum difference option paired a smaller allocation to the ingroup—£5, say—with a still smaller allocation—say, £1—to the outgroup. While this maximum difference option left the ingroup with a smaller amount than maximum ingroup profit, it left the outgroup a great deal worse off and, significantly, made the two awards more markedly different and discriminatory.

On the face of it, maximum difference was a perverse option to choose since it left both groups worse off than maximum ingroup profit. All the same, maximum difference ‑ maximum discrimination, in other words ‑ was an option a worryingly large number of participants chose. A significant number of children opted, not for the allocation that would leave their group overall better off, but for one that, while it penalised their own group, left the outgroup all the more disadvantaged. Some participants at least seemed to like this, seemed to want to put as much distance between the ingroup total and the outgroup total ‑ to make the scale of the outgroup’s loss as great as possible even if this was at the expense of their own group’s final take. And since the children were allocating money, albeit notional money, they would have been aware of the value of what they were doing. Not only that, because the children were allocating to anonymised participants, they could have been inadvertently giving their own closest friends short measure since their friends could as easily have been in the outgroup as the ingroup. This maximum difference option, and the numbers who plumped for it, made Tajfel’s findings particularly sensational. These children were not demonstrating self-interest, as some critics suggested by way of explanation. If self-interest was what was at work, why did so many reject maximum ingroup profit in favour of maximum intergroup difference? Here, surely, was evidence of cold-hearted prejudice and discrimination. And from schoolchildren. Evidence, perhaps, that prejudice and discrimination were somehow instinctual.

According to Brown, the minimal group effect “was replicated over twenty times with a range of participants of different ages and from a variety of countries”. There were, however, some anomalies. The strength of the effect varied from country to country (Brown does not say where it was weak and where strong) and when participants were asked to allocate punishments rather than rewards the effect diminished. Also, if there were multiple outgroups rather than just one, the effect was undermined. But the general finding seems robust. Put people ‑ adults or children ‑ into minimal groups and they will discriminate against the outgroup even, in many cases, where the net effect of such discrimination is that the ingroup spites its own face.

Social identity theory was Tajfel’s attempt to account for these findings. He argued that any intergroup situation, even a minimal groups set-up, will have a cognitive and a behavioural impact on the individual group members. People quickly become conscious of the “them and us” nature of the set-up and establish with reference to “us” an instant social identity that is an element of their overall sense of self. That is the cognitive aspect. Because even this instant social identity is part of a participant’s overall identity, it contributes to their self-esteem. Therefore, to discriminate against the outgroup and in favour of the ingroup, and indeed to maximise that discrimination, enhances the ingroup’s standing and thereby benefits the self-esteem of the discriminating ingrouper. That’s the behavioural aspect. In short, people feel motivated to do down an outgroup because that raises the standing of the ingroup and the higher the standing of the ingroup, the better they feel.

Tajfel was able to link this theory to an earlier finding in the psychology of perception which was that people, asked to categorise items, be they objects or human beings, tended to overstate the similarities within groups and exaggerate the differences between them, and be ruthless about category boundaries and what/who might cross them. Also, social identity theory offered a means of explaining groups and their impact without resorting to problematic concepts like the “group mind”. Instead, it posited that it was the idea of the group that mattered ‑ the idea of the group in the minds of the people who belonged to it. All this made for a truly social social psychology and a step change compared with what had been before. 

Social identity theory proved a chilly corrective to the bootstrapping individualism that was just then coming back into vogue. If psychology, in its popular version at least, was the science of ego, of self ‑ self-esteem, self-realisation, self-development ‑ here was a different take on self, one that said self was substantially constructed and constrained by things societal. No one, the theory said, was free from the influence of social identity. Its consequences ‑ cognitive, emotional and behavioural ‑ were powerful and, typically, inescapable.

In the ’70s and ’80s, in Europe at least, this theory quickly colonised social psychology ‑ it was on the syllabus and in the general textbooks. And it even had a sharply written textbook to itself (Social Identifications by Michael Hogg and Dominic Abrams). Like most great theories, it had the advantage of being confirmed by everyday experience, however mundane. 

“If a citizen from the homeland runs quicker or jumps higher than foreigners,” wrote Michael Billig in Banal Nationalism (1995), “I feel pleasure. Why, I do not know. I want the national team to beat the teams of other countries, scoring more goals, runs or whatever. International matches seem so much more important than domestic ones: there is an extra thrill of competition, with something indefinable at stake. Daily, I scan the papers for yet more scores, thoughtless of the future to which this routine activity might be pointing. I do not ask myself why I do it. I just do it habitually.”

Wherever there was conflict and division, social identity theorists could offer wise, explanatory words. Northern Ireland, for one. I was a psychology student in Belfast in the early 1980s just when social identity theory was being taken up there, and where community identities were, as well we knew, salient and almost precious. The endless, say, whereby people tried to establish what you were, which community ‑ which “side” ‑ you were from. The cues they looked for ‑ your name, or where you lived, or the school you’d been to. All those dead giveaways, right down to that famous Northern shibboleth, how you pronounced the letter “h”. Not only that, there was a near obsession with data, with enumeration. Census returns, for instance, and election results, and what these might mean for the long-term health (or otherwise) of the jurisdiction. Also, employment equality figures, and school league tables, and estimates of where got what in the great share-out of public funds.

As students of psychology and society (our own) we were rightly encouraged to recognise that we were not above concepts like social identity and to see instances of them in our own lives, or to try to do so. I do not know, for instance, when I first became aware of Catholics and Protestants ‑ only that it would inevitably have been Catholics first and Protestants a little later. And what I was taught of Protestantism I was taught dismissively. Nor can I say for sure when I first became able to “tell” Catholics from Protestants ‑ that skill that comes like language or musicianship, built up over time, and from the most tentative of beginnings. But I do recall walking through a seaside town with my parents one summer around 1970 and that we happened to meet a woman they knew who was with a man I assume was her grandfather but might have been her husband. After the usual small talk, the conversation turned improbably to the subject of parrots, and to the tricky business of coaxing them to talk. “You’re telling me!” said the grandfather/husband. “I had a parrot once, and every day I’d say to it, ‘Up Paisley!’, trying to get it to say it itself – ‘Up Paisley!’ But it never did.”He smiled as he said this, so that I knew there was no intention to offend and that he had simply misidentified his audience. I remember, too, the daughter’s embarrassment, her trying to talk over him, doing her damnedest to change the subject, eventually making her excuses and the two of them hurrying on, him turning despite her and calling back to us, smiling, “Up Paisley!” It was a reminder of where we lived, its divisions and where we ‑ where I ‑ stood in relation to them.

Until social identity theory came along, there had always been some suggestion that the Northern Ireland situation was psychological ‑ that it was, in fact, a kind of madness ‑ and that various psychological and psychiatric theories might account for it: Adorno’s authoritarian personality syndrome, the frustration-aggression hypothesis, this and that from Freud. But Tajfel had the edge on all of these. In the case of Northern Ireland, the explanatory advantage of social identity theory was that it assumed that this was a particular case of a general psychological norm ‑ ingroup preference ‑ rather than some aberration. But though it could explain, it offered little by way of resolution. If anything, it sometimes seemed to offer only a dismal fatalism ‑ no hope here, or, for the Marxists, no hope this side of the revolution (which in practice came down to the same thing). Tajfel himself had despaired that the world as a whole was “stuck in a spiral of conflict between groups from which it is not easy to see an escape” ‑ not easy, but not impossible either. Just no quick fixes.

But what fixes ‑ quick or slow ‑ might there be for someone who feels their social identity is unsatisfactory, that it does nothing for them, for their self-esteem? Given that so much of a person’s identity, and their self-esteem, is social ‑ is determined by their ongoing awareness that they are part of particular social groups, and by the social standing of those groups ‑ then addressing a poor social identity will not be straightforward.  

Faced with a negative social identity ‑ with membership of a group that is of low social standing and that makes you feel low by association ‑ you have, Tajfel suggests, only a handful of options. Following Albert O Hirschmann’s Exit, Voice and Loyalty, Tajfel offered the following: that you can leave the group and perhaps try to assimilate to one more prestigious and enhancing. Or you can try to build up your ingroup so that it compares better. Failing that you can try to challenge and redefine the accepted terms of comparison, perhaps by revolutionising the basic social context. 

It is rare that a person can simply exit a group. Exits are hard to achieve, especially from the type of group that matters most in terms of social identity, such as a national or ethnic community. If you could get away with it, you might pass yourself off as something you are not ‑ white for black, English for Irish, Anglo for Hispanic, straight for gay, whatever ‑but you would know in your own mind what you had done, and any digs you heard aimed at your actual as distinct from your fake identity would be digs at you. There would be a level at which they would hurt, perhaps profoundly. So leaving might not be so good in the long run. 

But if you can’t leave, you might try assimilation, making yourself as like the outgroup as you can. That way, you might be more likely to be liked by it, or at least by its more enlightened members. And in time ‑ historical time ‑ this might work. I had a colleague once whose ancestry was French Basque. His ancestors had been Frenchified a couple of hundred years earlier, right down to their surnames, and he himself was a contented member of the French elite, his Basqueness vestigial like the back feet on a whale. This was in contrast to the nationalist Basques, who had not had the same assimilating treatment, or had had the chance of it and rejected it. Between my colleague, the vestigial Basque who was so French his Basqueness was invisible, and his ancestors, who were so Basque their Basqueness would have been unmissable, there was the work of de-Basqueing ‑ the renaming, the new language tortuously acquired, the embarrassing unreconstructed ‑ or unreconstructable ‑ relative frozen out or hidden away. Not an easy time, I suspect, more a long and sometimes soul-destroying process. In that transgenerational grind of Basques into Frenchmen, there must have been occasions ‑ possibly many ‑ when the prospective assimilates ‑ those self-conscious and conspicuous works in progress ‑ were ridiculed, excluded, abused, and by Basques and French alike.

Although Tajfel’s family appears to have been assimilationist ‑ hence his given name, Hersz being Polonised to Heniek ‑ Tajfel himself was in later life dismissive of assimilation as a strategy for marginalised minorities and other excluded groups “[A]ssimilation of the few,” he wrote, “does not solve the problems of the many.” And in his 1978 Minority Rights Group pamphlet, The Social Psychology of Minorities, he wrote:

When people assimilate, or try to assimilate, into another group, there is an uncanny compromise … between the acceptance and the rejection of their inferior status as members of the minority. Rejection, because they have attempted to leave behind them some at least of the distinguishing marks of their “inferiority”; acceptance because they must often do this by achieving and emphasising a psychological distance between themselves and other members of their previous group.

In Tajfel, assimilation is a kind of cosmetic fix that does not alter the underlying inequalities of power and status. Instead of assimilation, he favoured longer-term cultural redefinition by minorities of the way they were perceived ‑ agitation to challenge negative stereotypes, for instance. I am not sure to what extent Tajfel thought through such a strategy or if he considered how it might look in practice. To counter established stereotypes would entail an all-out assault on civil society and culture, taking issue with everything, including ‑ indeed, perhaps especially ‑ popular culture. Tajfel did not live to see political correctness, not the thing itself nor the great reaction it provoked, but perhaps it would have pleased him.

Brown does not hide a less appealing side to Tajfel, one that emerged during his years of acclaim. At Bristol, he had his favourites among the postgraduate students, some of whom became his inner circle. Tajfel seems to have been largely benevolent to his “Brodie Set”, promoting their work to his wide network of contacts and, to be fair, many of them ‑ Brown, himself, Billig, Turner ‑ progressed to solid academic careers. If they caught his eye, it may have been their talent and ambition that first attracted him.

All the same, the Tajfel circle’s weekly seminars could be “intimidating affairs for the visiting speakers”, says Brown. “Henri was an argumentative man and he encouraged and inculcated a similar disputatious attitude in his colleagues and students. Interrogation of the speakers was never other than robust and sometimes could be downright hostile … There was a strong sense of a ‘Bristol school of thought’ being developed and woe betide the speaker whose research seemed to fall outside its ambit.” Psychologist Glynis Breakwell says that Tajfel tended to make his mind up early “if you were on the side of the angels or not … and he never changed his mind.” When the British Psychological Society ‑ the BPS ‑ commissioned, in 1999, a series of interviews with people who had worked with Tajfel, one interviewee said: “He was a bully. He had people he liked, and if you weren’t one of the people he liked, he could make your life hell.”

If a speaker didn’t enthuse him, Tajfel might take or make a phone-call during their talk, or walk out of the room, or interrupt them. Or be verbally aggressive. “For an intelligent guy,” Brown recalls him saying to German psychologist Wolfgang Stroebe, “why do you study such trivial issues?” And to Michael Argyle: “Michael, do you always have to behave like a fool?” During Brown’s viva (the oral defence of his PhD thesis ‑ a stressful experience for any graduate student), Tajfel initiated a hot-tempered quarrel with the external examiner Jaap Rabbie, a long time rival. Brown attributes some of this questionable behaviour to vanity but there are surely signs as well of a fundamental insecurity ‑ it seems to have irked Tajfel, for instance, that he was professor at Bristol, not Oxford or LSE.

But bullying was not all the BPS interviews revealed. A recent paper, “Reasonable Men: sexual harassment and norms of conduct in social psychology”, by Jacy L Young and Peter Hegarty (Feminism and Psychology, 29-4, 2019) has found evidence of what Brown here calls Tajfel’s “proclivity for sexually harassing young women” and “sexual importuning”. Such claims have to date been sufficient for the European Association for Social Psychology to remove Tajfel’s name from its lifetime achievement award and might yet adversely affect his long-term reputation as a scholar.

I lost sight of the social identity debate some time in the 1990s, when the theory was still unassailable or at least unassailed. Brown sets out a number of the criticisms that have been put forward since ‑ that the theory is untestable, say, and therefore unfalsifiable and unscientific. Or that just about any behaviour can be slotted into the social identity “story”. Also, social identity theory arguably fails to recognise that people get more from their various groups than social identity ‑ a sense of belonging, for one ‑ and that beyond the sense of belonging, or the sense of anything, there are practical and material benefits to being part of a wider group ‑ a community at its best is mutually supportive, protecting, nurturing. As for prejudice and discrimination, it seems unlikely, on reflection, that people aggress against the outgroup solely to enhance their own self-esteem. Brown quotes American psychologist John Sidanius who considers social identity theory “a plausible explanation for ingroup favouritism, but an implausible explanation for outgroup aggression … because it doesn’t deal with hatred, it doesn’t deal with blood. It deals with giving more coins to the ingroup than to the outgroup and then constructing stories around why you did that.”

Michael Billig has suggested that social identity theory can give a reasonable account of groups that have been marginalised and excluded but that it cannot account for events like the Holocaust, the very thing Tajfel set out to explain. “To say that the Germans persecuted the Jews because they needed to improve their own sense of identity, their self-worth, is not one that should be entertained.”

Tajfel himself became unhappy with the term “social identity theory”. He was less interested in social identity than in conflict. But most of all, what interested him was lower status groups agitating for change. Indeed, towards the end of his life, Tajfel wondered if social identity theory was sufficient as an explanatory tool and began to consider other factors, “the interplay between the creation or diffusion of social myths and the processes of social influence as they operate in the setting of intergroup relations and group affiliations”. This took him directly into Serge Moscovici territory, although by then Moscovici had become a Tajfel bugbear. Despite their having plenty in common – both secular Jews from Mitteleuropa, displaced by the war, late-starting academics who flew high all the same ‑ they had fallen out badly by the end of the seventies through a succession of snubs and counter-snubs: “I notice you cited Serge Moscovici sixteen times,” said Tajfel at Miles Hewstone’s viva. “But it’s OK, you cited me seventeen times.” This parting of the ways was unfortunate as their respective contributions were complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Where Tajfel posited endless conflict, Moscovici posited the prospect of change ‑ that orthodoxies might be disrupted, certainties questioned, paradigms shifted.

At the time of Tajfel’s death it was not clear if social identity theory might prosper in the long term. He himself was well-known, and his career achievements were significant ‑ a professorship, publications, the creation of a well-funded European network, any number of high-profile visiting lectureships, and some outreach work via the BBC, the Listener, and Scientific American. But it was uncertain whether the theory was in for the long haul. Although Brown concludes that social identity theory has prospered in the decades since Tajfel’s death and that his achievement has been built upon, I’m not so sure. The evidence he offers is mixed. The European Association remains in being, but its journal has become conventional and less distinctively European. (In time, it might end up being European in the same way the Austrian School of Economics is Austrian.) The association is also publishing fewer books than in its great days. Brown attributes this to “changes in publishing practices and career incentives in psychology” ‑ the tyranny of the journal, perhaps, whereby an article in an academic journal that somewhere between no one at all and a few hundred people might read has greater career-enhancement value than an academic book or a popularising book, a popularising book that might be read by tens or hundreds of thousands of people having no value at all. And, coincidentally or otherwise, popularisation is where social identity theory has been especially disappointing. Renowned in social psychology circles, it barely registers outside them. It is not known in the way that psychoanalysis is widely known, or Milgram’s obedience research, or Irving Janis’s “groupthink”, or Milgram’s hierarchy of needs, or evolutionary psychology. And that is a pity, because it deserves to be. It has insights that might be usefully and widely applied ‑ to history, or politics, social policy, or literary theory. Nearly forty years on from Tajfel’s death, it still awaits its popularisers.


Martin Tyrrell studied psychology at Queen’s University, Belfast and at Yale. His writings on group psychology and collective identity have been published in the journal Critical Review and the anthology Political Knowledge (Routledge, 2013).