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I omme on the mo'dva
ona181:atu of'Seff'-Esl:eem in
8ocial Identibj and Intergroup
Di crimina'don
Dominic Abrams • The University, Dundee Michael A, H0gg • University of Melbourne
The background and development of motivational hypotheses in social identity theory
are examined, revealing two general motives for intergroup discrimination: a desire
for cognitive coherence, or good structure; and a need for positive self-esteem. The
latter (self-esteem hypothesis: SEH) has received most attention. Both the theoretical
and empirical bases of the SEH are largely rooted in research using the minimal
group paradigm. However, it remains unclear whether self-esteem is to be considered
primarily as a cause or an effect of discrimina- tion. When real social groups are
considered the SEH appears to provide only a partial explana- tion, and a variety of
more or less powerful alternative social motives may underlie discriminatory
behaviour. We explore some social-structural, individual and interpersonal limits to
the SEH, and we call for an awareness of these motives and a re-examination of the
good-structure thesis. The SEH, as it stands, provides only a partial contribution to
our understanding of the relationship between social identity and discriminatory
intergroup behaviour.
he social identity approach to intergroup rela- tions and group processes (Tajfel, 1978,
1982; Tajfel & Turner, 1979; Turner, 1981, 1982; see Hogg & Abrams, 1988) embodies an
important and far reaching proposition that intergroup discrimi- nation is motivated by
individuals' desire to achieve and maintain positive self-esteem. In mak- ing an ingroup
psychologically positively distinc- tive from an outgroup, one's self-image as a group member
is thereby enhanced. Our purpose in writ- ing this paper is to explore the ramifications of what
we shall term the "self-esteem hypothesis"
(SEH), for theory and research on social identity. Although the hypothesis has been
specifically ap- plied to the desire for positive distinctiveness, that desire is itself predicated
upon a need for positive self-esteem. We intend to concentrate only on the following points (i)
self-esteem is not the Only motivation specified by Taj fel and Turner's (1979) theory; (ii) the
SEH is unclearly stated, and is hem difficult to test; (iii) the operationalization of "self-esteem"
may be of key import when conduct- ing such tests; (iv) it may be useful to draw a distinction between minimal and real group contexts when applying the SEH; (v) that
social-structural relations between groups, and group members'
Social Identity and Motivation • 233
beliefs about these relations will determine the nature of the association between
discriminatory behaviour and self-esteem; and (vi) while the SEH is possibly of use as a
general explanatory con- cept, other social motivations can be more influ- ential in the
determination of specific intergroup behaviours. From Tajfel's early work on social
perceptions and categorization the first mention of motivation is his reference to "the
emotional, or if one pre- fers the term, value relevance of the classification to subjects"
(Tajfel, 1959, p. 20). He went on to develop this idea in his (Tajfel, 1969) conceptualization of
stereotyping and prejudice as a search for coherence: The "need to preserve the integrity of the
self-image is the only motivational assumption we need to make in order to under- stand the
direction that the search for coherence will take" (Tajfel, 1969, p. 92). This line of rea- soning
closely resembles those of balance theo- rists (see Abelson, Aronson, McGuire, Newcomb,
Rosenberg, & Tannenbaum, 1968) in positing a need for an integrated and coherent set of
cogni- tions (in this case, including cognitions about self), and is clearly related to the general
assumption underlying contemporary social cognition that people have a need for cognitive
parsimony (see Markus & Zajonc, 1985). When the concept of social identity was intro- duced
(Tajfel, 1972) the "coherence" view became displaced in favour of a social self-enhancement
view, derived from Festinger's (1954) theory of social comparison processes. Social
comparisons in intergroup settings are designed to attain a "posi- tively, valued distinctiveness
from other groups" (Tajfel 1972, p. 3), the motive is to "achieve a sat- isfactory concept or
image of the self" (Tajfel, 1974, p. 4) through positive social identity. 1 In a formal theoretical
statement by Tajfel and Turner (1979) self-esteem was explicitly referred to as a motivation
behind intergroup behaviour. In their analysis of relations between large scale social groups
they suggest that where low status groups acquiesce to majority rule, "the price of this has
been the subordinate group's self-esteem" (p. 37). This "price" rests on the further assumption
(bor- . rowed directly from social comparison theory) that "individuals strive to maintain or
enhance their self-esteem: they strive for a positive self-concept" (p. 40). It follows that groups
compete, not just
for material resources, but for anything which can enhance their self-definition; i.e. for
positive so- cial identity (Oakes & Turner, 1980; Turner, 1978a, 1980, 1981, 1982 (see p. 33);
Turner, Brown, & Tajfel, 1979; Turner & Giles, 1981, Chap. 1). We have identified two
themes in the account of motivation in the literature on social identity; one for cognitive
coherence (which is effectively positive), and the other for an evaluatively posi- tive
self-concept. We shall investigate the latter, since it has predominated in the literature, before
widening our discussion to embrace the former.
The Oakes and Turner (1980) Experiment
The SEH was initially tested by Oakes and Turner (1980), and it is worth considering their
experi- ment again. They adopted Tajfel, Billig, Bundy, and Flament's (1971) minimal group
paradigm in which subjects are divided into two groups (merely labelled X-group and
Y-group) on the basis of an ad-hoc and trivial criterion. Within this paradigm it is commonly
found that subjects allocate money or points in a way that favours the ingroup over the
outgroup, even if such a strategy fails to opti- mize absolute ingroup rewards. It is also usually
the case that these rewards are allocated to anony- mous ingroup and outgroup members, and
not di- rectly to self (see Taj fel, 1982). The SEH was partly invoked in order to explain this
apparently irratio- nal and antinormative behaviour (Billig & Tajfel, 1973; Turner, 1980; but
cf. Bornstein, Crum, Wittenbraker, Harring, Insko, & Thibaut, 1983; Branthwaite, Doyle, &
Lightbrown, 1979). In Oakes and Turner's (1980) study, half of the sub- jects were so
categorized, and were allowed to al- locate rewards, while the other half merely sat, and read a
newspaper. The categorized subjects dis- played discriminatory behaviour, but were also
found, subsequently, to have higher self-esteem than did their newspaper-reading counterparts.
We shall consider two problems with the Oakes and Turner (1980) study, both of which have
theo- retical and empirical ramifications. First, the reBillig (1985, p. 89) believes that the introduction of a self-evaluative aspect was primarily to
be able to explain social change: a task originally rendered problematic by reliance on the
categorization process alone.
234 • Intergroup Relations
sults, as reported, can be interpreted as reflecting the self-esteem lowering effects of reading a
news- paper article, or differential self-esteem levels con- tingent on inequality of
psychological significance of having participated in an experiment as against having merely
waited and read a newspaper to while away the time. Certainly, the self-esteem factor scores
of newspaper subjects were more strongly negative than those of the categorization subjects
were positive. Any replication of this ex- periment should probably incorporate a categorization-non-discrimination condition in order to investigate this possibility. The problem here
is that self-esteem is a relative state rather than an abso- lute one, and the question is, if
discriminatory in- tergroup behaviour does elevate self-esteem, it el- evates it relative to what?
A second problem concerns the indices of self-esteem and their use in the Oakes and Turner
study. Three valid self-esteem scales are combined by mixing the items together (mingling the
scales, rather than asking subjects to respond separately to each). The consequences of this are
difficult to predict, but it is unlikely that the vilidity of any of the scales remained intact.
Furthermore, the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale is designed as a measure of global self-esteem,
but subjects were asked to respond in terms of "how you feel at this moment?' If it is possible
that subjects experienced some confusion when completing these mixed for- mat measures,
there may be legitimate doubts about the interpretation of their responses as mea- suring
self-esteem. We shall return to the issue of measurement below.
Two Self-Esteem Hypotheses
Perhaps the key problem in Oakes and Turner's test of the SEH is that the hypothesis is cast in
a way which does not entirely reflect Turner's (e.g., 1982) theoretical statements. This is
because the SEH can in fact be seen to embody two unstated corollaries: (i) successful
intergroup discrimina- tion will enhance social identity, and hence self-esteem (as tested by
Oakes and Turner); (ii) low or threatened self-esteem will promote inter- group discrimination
because of the "need" for positive self-esteem. In other words, self-esteem is both a dependent
and an independent variable in relation to inter- group behaviour: it is a product of specific
of intergroup behaviour, as well as a motivating force for those very behaviours. A third
possibility is that, as Oakes and Turner (1980) acknowledge, self-esteem may be elevated by
intergroup behaviour independently of the posi- tive distinctiveness of social identity. Hogg,
Turner, Nascimento-Schulze, and Spriggs (1986) ruled out an explanation of Oakes and
Turner's results in terms of mere salience (or positive self-stereo- typing as an ingroup
member; also see Lemyre and Smith, 1985). When category salience and dis- crimination
were orthogonally manipulated only the latter led to higher self-esteem (supporting corollary
1). On the other hand, Abrams (1985) found that by changing the amount of attention paid to
the categorization it was possible to in- crease or reduce discrimination. It therefore seems
likely that salience, discrimination and self-esteem are more usually bound up together.
Corollary 1 Lemyre and Smith (1985) have recently reported findings from a relatively
complex minimal groups experiment designed to investigate the relationship among these
variables. Briefly, it was found that "ingroup favouritism.., restored self-esteem for
categorized subjects" (p. 668), leading Lemyre and Smith to conclude that their results are
"consis- tent with social identity theory; given categoriza- tion, discrimination in favour of
ones own group results in a relative increase in self-esteem. Cat- egorization in itself was not
sufficient, nor was cognitive differentiation of the ingroup and the outgroup" (1985, p. 668). It
should be noted that, while supporting corollary 1, this study does not allow a test of the
motivating aspect of self-esteem (corollary 2). Lemyre and Smith themselves al- lude to this:
"it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we engage in ingroup formation in order to
promote.., well being.., although the issue of intention has not been explicitly addressed
here..." (p. 669). Vickers, Abrams, and Hogg (1988) conducted a minimal group study to
investigate the relation- ship between social categorization, intergroup dis- crimination,
self-esteem, and local norms of co- operation. Relevant to present discusssion is the finding
that subjects for whom the local norm of cooperation was salient subsequently expressed
strong intergroup discrimination but experienced lowered self-esteem (measured on Julian,
Social Identity and Motivation • 235
:ner ted osi- her, • out s in Beo- and dis- mly ting )85) tion in- eros eem
,rted ups ship that for ;and asis- riza- roup Cat- was I the that, not teem s al- tsion er to ]e of ssed
cted tion- )dis- f co- s the xn of ssed ,nced hop,
& Fiedler's (1966) semantic differential). Vickers et al., argue that this lowering of self-esteem
is due to violation of the norm of cooperation. Here intergroup discrimination may serve to
delineate groups and social identity but does not serve to enhance (or indeed to satisfy a need
for) positive self-esteem.
Corollary 2 Corollary 2, that low self-esteem motivates inter- group discrimination is also
relatively unsup- ported. Abrams (1982, 1983) reported two experi- ments in which pretested
self-esteem (on Rosenberg's scale) was positively associated (r's in the mid-twenties) with
ingroup bias across a variety of dependent measures, thus disconfirming the hypothesis. In an
intriguing study, designed to simulate the social relations between Turks, Italians and Germans in West Germany (see Schonbach, Gollwitzer, Stiepel, & Wagner, 1981), Wagner,
Lampen, and Syllwasschy (1986) constructed a three-group minimal group experiment in
which one of the groups was of higher status than the others. Subjects (in a low status group)
were most discrimi- natory against the other low status outgroup, as Tajfel and Turner would
predict (see also Brown & Abrams, 1986). However, discrimination was not associated with
heightened general self-esteem relative to pretest scores using Coopersmith's (1967) semantic
differential measure. Sachdev and Bourhis provide some indirect evi- dence from a
programme of minimal group stud- ies charting the limits of minimal group discrimi- nation.
In one experiment (1984)they varied the relative numbers of ingroup and outgroup mem- hers
and predicted directly from social identity theory that "since minority group membership
confers a relatively insecure and negative social identity, minorities should show more
discrimina- tion and less fairness than majorities. Discrim- ination... serves to achieve (or
maintain) a posi- tive social identity" (p. 47). The hypothesis was, by and large, unsupported:
both minorities and majorities expressed comparable degrees of dis- crimination. In two
experiments, Sachdev and Bourhis (1985, 1987) studied the effects of power inequality and
status inequality, respectively and found that the greater the stable power or status the greater
the discrimination. This seems to work against the SEH, which would predict that the less
the power/status, the lower the group-identity con- tingent self-esteem, and thus the greater the
sub- sequent discrimination. In their power study Sachdev and Bourhis (1985), found that
"high and equal power group members reported that they felt more comfortable, satisfied and
happy than lower and no power group members about their group membership" (1985, p.
430). Of course, here we cannot know whether these measures monitor self-esteem, though
pre- sumably they are related to it, nor whether they reflect power per se or the discrimination
that Sachdev and Bourhis discover to be positively correlated with it. In their status study
Sachdev and Bourhis (1987) explicitly acknowledge that their (almost identical) results
suggest that "status per se can contribute to group members' social identities over and above
the contribution made by discrimination" (p. 289), a view supported by Wagner et al.'s (1986)
finding that low status groups experienced lowered self-esteem. It appears that in these
modified minimal group studies the lower power/status groups resort to different behavioural
and perceptual strategies to attenuate their inferiority. Discrimination may only be the strategy
of groups with already relatively positive self-esteem (but see the following, and van
Knippenberg, 1984) and of groups which confront each other as equals. Another study with
data on subjects' pretest self-esteem levels is by Crocker and Schwartz (1985). Subjects were
divided into high and low self-esteem, on the basis of a tertile split of pretest Rosenberg
scores, and then were divided into mini- mal groups and rated the personality of ingroup and
outgroup members. Crocker and Schwartz re- port that although "there was a strong tendency
for low self-esteem subjects to be more prejudiced in the sense of rating outgroups negatively,
there was no evidence of their greater ethnocentrism or ingroup favouritism, which requires
rating the outgroup negatively relative to the ingroup" (p. 383), and go on to conclude that
their results "are not consistent with a self-enhancement through social comparison
interpretation of ingroup fav- ouritism effects" (p. 384).2 Crocker and Schwartz's
2Given this reasoning, it is rather surprising that Crocker and Schwartz made no reference to social identity, the SEH, or
positive distinctiveness. It should also be remarked that Crocker and Schwartz use a global rather than specific
self-esteem measure. Perhaps different results may have emerged if the latter had been used.
2,36 • Intergroup Relations
findings have recently been replicated by Crocker, Thompson, McGraw, and Ingerman (1987).
Crocker and McGraw (1985) report an interest- ing field study of the relative influence of
global self-esteem and group status on prejudice and ingroup favouritism. Their results reveal
that lower self-esteem appears to motivate ingroup favouritism only for subjects in higher
status groups. In lower status groups it is the higher self-esteem individuals who display
greater ingroup favouritism. Thus the relationship between self-esteem and intergroup
behaviour is clearly not a mechanical or direct one. Crocker et al. (1987) report a minimal
group study and a field study which, taken together, show that low self-esteem engenders
ingroup and outgroup derogation rather than ingroup enhanc- ing intergroup discrimination. It
is people with high self-esteem, particularly those whose status is under threat or at risk, who
indulge in discrimi- nation. One test of both corollaries of the SEH was conducted by Hogg et
al. (198_6, Experiment 2). They pre-tested self-esteem (using Oakes and Turner's composite
measure) and then retested after subjects had allocated points to ingroup and outgroup. The
SEH predicts that low self-esteem at pre-test should promote discrimination, and should rise to
a higher level by post-test. High pre-test self-esteem should attenuate or maintain
discrimination (thereby maintaining a positive self- image) but need not rise or fall, by
post-test. In fact, while levels of discrimination did not differ between high and low (pre-test)
self-esteem sub- jects, lows did show a significant rise in self-esteem, whereas highs did not.
Limits to the SEH
Not surprisingly, these data provide only moder- ate support for the SEH. Tests of the SEH are
un- likely to yield useful interpretable results until the SEH is more completely articulated and
param- eters placed around it. It suffers from at least two general shortcomings. First, it
over-implicates self-esteem in intergroup behaviour; self-esteem can, under some conditions,
be incidental or even irrelevant. The posited "need for positive self-esteem" has no more
logical link with manifest intergroup behaviour, th' does a "need for nourishment" (people do
not eat outgroup members, except in certain notable cases!). Second, the term
"self-esteem" is so general as to allow consider- able variation in its operationalization. For example, many of the large scale studies adopt indi- ces of global self-esteem, which may indeed
be predictive of intergroup attitudes. However, Tajfel and Turner's (1979) and Turner's (1982)
hypoth- esis refers quite clearly to the esteem in which spe- cific self-images are held, that is
social identity-dependent self-esteem. The salience of these self-images fluctuates across
situations, and thus global self-esteem measures are largely insensi- tive to them (Fleming and
Courtney, 1984; Fleming and Watts, 1980; Wells and Marwell, 1977). Although, as we
described above, the introduc- tion of a motive for positive self-evaluation may have helped
explain social change (see Billig, 1985) and the variability of intergroup strategies at the
macro-social level of analysis, the impor- tance of the SEH in its more specific form has been
its role in explaining discrimination in minimal group experiments (e.g. Turner 1975,
1978a,b). In these contexts it must necessarily be a transitory self-image which is made
positive. Not only is there little reason to presume the effect will over- flow to bathe the entire
self-concept, but there is good reason to argue for its psychological con- tainment. The debate
as to whether minimal group experiments produce both normative discrimina- tion and
fairness (e.g. Billig, 1973; Bornstein et al., 1983; Branthwaite et al., 1979; Turner, 1980, 1983)
attests to the fact that multiple pressures may operate. It is entirely reasonable that a personal
self-image as being "equitable" would be threat- ened if one engaged in discriminatory
behaviour in order to enhance social identity (Vickers et al. (1988) provide data consistent
with this argument). However, rather than propose continual conflict between the guilty
personal, and the proud social, self-images in the arena of the self-concept (re- suiting in
neutral self-esteem?) we propose that each self-image is a discrete entity, and is only rarely
likely to be dragged into conflict with oth- ers. Global self-esteem may be a reflection of the
total positivity of many self-images over time, but will provide at best an insensitive indicator
of short-term variations in the positivity of specific self-images. This view is entirely in
keeping with Turner's social identification model, but has not really been reflected by the
methodology employed by for- mal tests of the SEH. Wagner et al.'s (1986) ex- periment also
supports this view. Although global
self-esteem was unrelated to discrimination, spe- cific self-esteem related to ingroup attributes
was raised following discrimination. In addition, ex- periments which have reported ingroup
bias in terms of trait adjective ratings, affective ratings and performance evaluation ratings
(e.g. Brown & Abrams, 1986) are, in effect, directly tapping the relative esteem in which
subjects hold their own group. To further access self-esteem using formal scales may be
merely an additional, and ironically indirect approach.
Social Structural Limits on the Applicability of the SEH
The discussion above has been concerned with is- sues which stem quite directly from
research us- ing the minimal group paradigm. In such highly controlled laboratory situations
subjects may have little else to gain but self-esteem. In real group contexts the SEH may
merely by one of a great many possibilities concerning the motives for in- tergroup
discrimination. Tajfel (1981, Chapters 14, 15) points out that large, stable and psychologically
legitimate status differences may exist between social groups. Un- der such conditions, low
status (minority) group members may compete with ("social change" strat- egy), attempt to
become assimilated into ("social mobility" strategy), or may find new dimensions on which
they compare favourably with (an ex- ample of "social creativity") the high status (ma- jority)
group. All of these strategies can be seen as satisfying self-esteem based motives. However,
the postulation of such a motive as fundamental does not help a great deal in predicting what
specific social groups do to achieve posit-, social iden- tity in particular social contexts. For
example, so- cial categorization studies by Turner (1978b) and Mummendey and Schreiber
(1984) were only able to predict with any accuracy the strategies used by subjects from
consideration of the perceived legitimacy and stability of the status relations be- tween the
groups. In a more naturalistic labora- tory study (related to Lemaine's, 1974, field work)
Mummendey and Schreiber (1983) found that positive ingroup evaluation was preferentially
achieved without indulging in relative outgroup derogation on the same comparison
dimension, and that this latter strategy was only resorted to when no other alternatives were
available. These findSocial Identity and Motivation • 237
ings have clear relevance for the work by Sachdev and Bourhis, and Crocker and colleagues,
dis- cussed earlier. Where the differences between groups are highly institutionalized, and
ideologically legiti- mized, it may be that both groups accept the sta- tus quo (cf. Hyman &
Singer, 1968; Olson, Herman & Zanna, 1986; Suls & Miller, 1977), making no moves to
transcend boundaries between groups. It is likely, under such conditions, that majority discrimination against the minority is also institu- tionalized (e.g., doctor-nurse roles, white-black
status and power differentials in South Africa). If the intergroup context involves a normative
and habitual pattern of discrimination, that discrimi- nation will bear little or no relation to
prior or sub- sequent self-esteem. Not only is self-esteem largely irrelevant in determining
majority group members' behaviour, but there may be strong social sanc- tions against failing
to discriminate. The obverse situation may also exist. Social norms prescribe who may not
legitimately be the object of discrimi- nation. For example, it is unlikely that abusing a
physically handicapped person would be a socially viable way for non-handicapped adults to
gain self-esteem, and even considering such action may provoke feelings of shame. The
argument here is very much that used by Pettigrew in his classic 1958 cross-national study of
the authoritarian per- sonality. Pettigrew provided data to support his view that prejudice and
discrimination is the ex- pression of a culture of prejudice not individual psychological needs.
Beyond these formal social limits on the rela- tionship between discrimination and
self-esteem, it also seems likely that majority group members (e.g., white Britons) may not
always be aware that they belong to a distinct social group (i.e. white- ness is not an
informative self-categorization, cf. McGuire & MtGuire, 1982). So, as the security of a
majority group increases, the self-esteem of its members becomes less susceptible to the
favourability of intergroup comparisons. Other social groups largely become irrelevant. Here
then, intragroup social comparisons, personal aspira- tions to adhere to cultural norms and the
position of the individual within the society defined by the group (e.g., British) may be far
more immediately relevant to the individual's self-esteem than are intergroup relations (Codol,
1975). While any so- cial categorization may be rendered salient in cer- tain Contexts and need
for a self-"
238 • Intergroup Relations
may motivate subsequent intergroup behaviour it is also plausible that certain broader
socio-struc- tural factors may effectively "fix" the level of self-categorization at the
interpersonal plane and thus restrict individuals' modes of self-esteem regulation. In this
analysis self-esteem does not motivate intergroup discrimination, rather it is governed by real
intergroup relations, either di- rectly due to self-evaluative consequences of so- cial identity,
or indirectly due to restrictions on effective channels for achieving or maintaining self-esteem.
The notion of levels of categorization comes from self-categorization theory (Turner, 1985;
Turner, Hogg, takes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987), and the emphasis on the socio-structural
determination of self-esteem owes much to Tajfel's (1981) concern with the esteem of the
group as a whole. An individual's self-esteem could be plau- sibly associated with the esteem
in which his or her group holds itself, but that, in turn, is unlikely to be a cause of intergroup
behaviour, so much as an aspect of it. But even this is problematic. It is the thorny is- sue of
the relationship between social status and evaluation, and self-esteem. Does low status group
membership mediate low self-esteem, and if so under what circumstances? Presumably it
does, otherwise self-esteem cannot be a force for social change. However, the relationship,
where it has been studied, is not clear. For example, Stephan (1978), reviewing evidence
concerning the effects of desegregation in the United States, concluded that desegregation had
no impact on black self-esteem: a point which was confirmed by Stephan and Rosenfield's
(1978a) pre-post- desegregation study, in which attitudes to both ingroup and outgroup were
more hostile after de- segregation, although self-esteem was unaffected. According to
Rosenberg (1977) inter-racial con- tact can lower self-esteem among blacks because whites
are a dissonant comparison reference group. On the other hand, Krause (1983) found that contact had no such effect. There is also evidence that positive self-esteem is associated with more
posi- tive racial attitudes (Rosenfield, Sheehan, Marcus, & Stephan, 1981), and that increases
in self-esteem are associated with increasingly positive inter-racial attitudes (Stephan &
Rosenfield, 1978b). While these correlational data do not disconfirm the SEH, it is possible
that some third variable (e.g., social status, income) may determine both self-esteem and racial
attitudes. Research on the association
between self-esteem and delinquency (Kaplan, 1980; Rosenberg, 1979) meets with similar
prob- lems, and again conclusions are hard to draw (Bynner, O'Malley, & Bachman, 198 l;
McCarthy & Hoge, 1984; Stager, Chassin, & Young, 1983; Wells & Rankin 1983).
Furthermore the interpretation of findings can be difficult due to inherent problems in the
accu- rate and appropriate measurement of self-esteem. Milner concludes, in the context of
British race relations, that "low self-esteem is not an automatic consequence of being black in
a racist environ- ment" (1984, p. 103), it depends upon the wider sociohistorical milieu, the
more local racial con- text, the specific context of testing, and the age of the respondent.
"Overall self-esteem may be sat- isfactory, but tested in inter-racial contexts in which blacks
are believed to be low achievers, for example in educational institutions, inter-racial
comparisons of self-esteem may disfavour blacks. In this way, much of the disparity between
differ- ent research findings can be reconciled, in particu- lar, differences between earlier and
later studies (reflecting social change in the interim), and be- tween older and younger
children (reflecting both social change and individual identity develop- ment)" (Milner, 1984,
pp. 103-104). A similar analysis is provided by Louden (1978). There is empirical evidence
for this contextual influence on self-esteem of members of large scale alleg- edly lower status
(and higher status) groups in the context of sex group membership, (Hogg, 1985; Hogg &
Turner, 1987) and in the context of Asians and Anglo-Saxon British adolescents (Hogg,
Abrams, & Patel, 1987). In summary, real intergroup behaviour seems most often to be based
on factors such as the dis- tribution of wealth and power (Ng, 1982); mate- rial resources
(Caddick, 1981); the nature of goal relations between groups (Brown, 1978; Brown &
Abrams, 1986; Sherif, 1967); and religious or political values. Despite this self-esteem is still
an important variable to consider since it is primarily a psychological construct, whereas those
men- tioned above tend to be more sociological.
Individual and Interpersonal Limits on the SEH
Social identity theorists have largely ignored the voluminous literature on self-esteem. One
he or
issue is what effects chronic levels of self-esteem might have on an individual's negotiation of
in- tergroup contexts. A plausible hypothesis is that individuals with low self-esteem will be
psycho- logically less well equipped to engage in competi- tive intergroup behaviour. This
hypothesis is consistent both with findings reported above and with research which indicates
that lowered self-esteem, depression and learned helplessness can co-occur (Beck, 1967;
Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978; Metalsky, Halbestadt, & Abramson, 1987). It may be
that without what Langer (1975) calls an "illusion of control" low self-esteem people lack the
initial confidence to discriminate in self-favouring ways (Alloy & Abramson, 1982). A
downward spiral could then develop in which the person becomes decreasingly confident of
his or her social identity, leading to a sort of discriminatory impotence. Self-esteem may
therefore become increasingly depressed.3 Such individuals appear to lack the functional
cognitive biases of those with normal self-esteem. Normal self-esteem is associated with
unwarranted optimism, and viewing oneself with a rosy glow (Lewinson, Mischel, Chaplin, &
Barton, 1980; Nelson & Craighead, 1977; Rozensky, Rehm, Pry, & Roth, 1977). If such
self-congratulatory biases are actually idicative of a healthily operating cog- nitive system¢it
follows that, in an intergroup set- ting these biases might well appear as stereotyp- ing and
discrimination. Therefore, those with high self-esteem are more likely to discriminate than
those with low self-esteem. The interesting pre- diction can also be made that low self-esteem
may render individuals cognitively unable to perceive in a self-favouring way, and this
cognitive defi- ciency will further impede elevation of self-esteem through discrimination.
Here we are referring to extremes of self-esteem. However, consistent with the principle
underly- ing the argument, there is recent evidence that it is high self-esteem and
non-depressed individuals who are more likely to engage in self-enhancing social comparisons
(e.g. Crocker & Gallo, 1985; Crocker, Kayne, & Alloy, 1985; Crocker & McGraw, 1985;
Crocker & Schwartz, 1985; Crocker et al., 1987, Tabachnik, Crocker, & A1- 10y, 1983).
Aside from the minimal intergroup context, dis- criminatory behaviour is usually visible to
other individuals. Self-presentational concerns (Jones & Pittman, 1982; Schlenker, 1982) may
well moderSocial identity and Motivation • 239
ate the association between discrimination and self-esteem (Baumeister, 1982; Reid &
Sumiga, 1984). It may be possible to elevate self-esteem not so much by discriminating, as by
eliciting favourable evaluations from others. Thus, it is not only self-enhancing social
comparisons with the outgroup, but also the social approval gained from ingroup members (cf.
Arkin, 1981) which elevates self-esteem. A further intriguing possibility is that a person could
be overtly friendly towards an outgroup member (for example at interdepartmen- tal meetings)
while psychologically and covertly positively differentiating. This scenario was also suggested
by Stephenson (1981) who noted that negotiators may operate simultaneously on two levels. It
is important for them to gain interper- sonal approval in order to "win the ear" of their
counterpart, but it is also crucial to win at an inter- party level. Success in both aims will
inevitably raise the negotiator's self-image at both levels.
Meaning and Coherence as Sources of Motivation
The centrality of self-esteem in social psychologi- cal theorizing (Wylie, 1979) has given rise
to an emphasis on self-enhancing processes (e.g., Tesser & Campbell, 1980, 1982; Tesser &
Paulus, 1983). However, both Tajfel's early work (1969, 1972), and Festinger's (1954) social
comparison theory embody another primary motive--to know one- self. That is we may have a
drive for "self-eval- uation" per se, in addition to a need for "self- enhancement," through
social comparison. At the most human extreme, it has been pro- posed that individuals aspire
to a state of self-enlightenment, or self-actualization (Maslow, 1954; Rogers, 1951). Any
obstacle to attaining such a goal may also threaten self-esteem and the integrity of the self
(Rosenzweig, 1944; Hall, 1961). Therefore, in this conception, self-esteem is a reflection of
the coherence of the self, as well as its evaluative valence. Such formulations often suffer from
3Another related motivation concept which is of relevance is power, perhaps best captured by Nietzsche's "will to
power," but see also Ng (1980) and Codol (1984). Self-esteem might be a product of successful control or of simply
achieving desired goals. As is the case for "control" (Mikula, 1984) self-esteem is probably a product of what power can
achieve, or of the possession of power itself.
240 • Intergroup Relations
highly individualistic. Nevertheless, the possibil- ity of a desire to make one's experiences and
one's self meaningful, what Bartlett (1932) referred to as a search after meaning, does seem to
be accepted by many (e.g. Berkowitz, 1968; Katz, 1960; Reykowski, 1982) and this notion, in
different guises, is an important motivational foundation of current social psychology (e.g.
research into attribution, social representations and social influence). In the same vein Tajfel
(1981) highlights the broadly so- cial explanatory functions of stereotypes attached to group
membership: explanations which can be in- ternalized by individual group members through
the process of self-categorization which is now posited as being responsible for group, or
social identity related activity and conduct (Turner, 1985; Turner et al., 1987; also see Hogg &
Abrams, 1988). Theories have also often emphasized the need for balance between different
forces and compo- nents of the self (Festinger, 1957; Freud, 1922; Heider, 1958). With respect
to intergroup behaviour, it is certainly possible that discrimina- tion is produced by making
consonant the charac- teristics ascribed to self and ingroup (Cooper & Mackie, 1983; Horwitz
& Rabble, 1982). This can be theoretically understood as part of a self-cate- gorization process
which in the context of a salient social identity renders self more similar to the ingroup norm
than the outgroup (Turner, 1985). The foregoing discussion of social comparison processes
has been relatively uncritical of the as- sumption that self-knowledge is gained through social
comparison. However, such approaches, along with symbolic interactionist views of the self
(e.g., Cooley, 1902) have been criticized for view- ing self-construction as a passive, cognitive
pro- cess. In particular Gecas and Schwalbe (1983), argue that people are motivated to be
efficacious (cf. Bandura, 1982; McClelland, 1975; Deci, 1975) and that only through action
can we know our- selves (see also Marx, 1844/1963). Their view is
4Perhaps Billig's (1985) fears that, in social identity theory, categorization is associated with
stability, not change would be allayed by the greater emphasis in self-categorization theory on
the cognitive process of categorization than on self-esteem. The motivation here is for
maximally meaningful structure, and the cognitive process which produces it is categorization.
The behavioural manifestation of this process may be intergroup discrimination, acquiescence,
elevated self-esteem, depressed self-esteem, in fact virtually anything. However, a predictable
anything: predictable from socio-cultural factors and contextual variables.
that action may boost self-esteem if it occurs in valued contexts. As such, "social structural
condi- tions enable and constrain efficacious action, in- fluence the meanings we give to it,
and are in turn reproduced by it" (Gecas & Schwalbe, 1983, p. 87). This argument is
particularly relevant to in- tergroup behaviour. Wars give meaning to nations (Simmel, 1955)
just as industrial conflicts rein- force distinctions between management and unions. Increasing
group cohesiveness and distinc- tiveness may lead to heightened self-esteem sim- ply by
clarifying the relevant social identification, though research reviewed earlier suggests that category salience alone may not be sufficient and that action in terms of the category is
necessary. So, competing in the Olympic Games may be sufficent to elevate national pride and
patriotism, without necessarily winning anything. If social compari- sons are relevant here
they may be comparisons with one's group in the past, or with some ideal states, just as easily
as with other groups (cf. Jaspars & Warnaen, 1982). Given that both self-evaluative and
self-enhanc- ing motives may exist, it is important to address the question of which conditions
favour the pre- dominance of each. It seems that, under conditions of fear, people are more
concerned with self-evalu- ation, at least as regards emotions (cf. Cottrell & Epley, 1977).
Generally, however, self-enhance- ment seems dominant since people avoid self-es- teem
threatening situations rather than seize the opportunity to find out more about themselves
(Bramel, 1962; Pepiton, 1964). Indeed, people may often prefer to compare themselves with
dissimi- lar (worse) others, thereby gaining self-esteem, than with similar others (Brickman &
Bulman, 1977; Brown &Abrams, 1986; Tesser & Campbell, 1980), contrary to Festinger's
hypothesis. As men- tioned above, it is also possible that self-enhanc- ing social comparisons
can be made with similar others (ingroup members) by competing in terms of displaying
normative beliefs and behaviours (Codol, 1975). Reykowski (1982) argues that, in fact, both
self-defining and self-enhancing motives are aspects of a personal meaning system, and hence,
are highly related.
Summary and Conclusions It has been the purpose of this paper to explore the
theoretical and empirical derivation of the SelfE b re fl te SC fe cr o t di ti' is w in it V; ti b a tt a, O
Social Identity and Motivation • 241
5SS ins lu- & .e- s- :he Lay
hi- an, "11, n- lc- lax ms lrs in yes tnd
the lfEsteem Hypothesis in social identity theory, and the implications of the SEH for
intergroup behaviour. The minimal group context does not reveal many of the
social motives which may in- fluence the behaviour of real groups, but rather,
tends to encourage self-enhancing motives. Even so, the evidence for self-esteem
as either a basis for or a consequence of minimal intergroup dis- crimination is
mixed. This may be a result of meth- odological problems or may be because
self-es- teem is only indirectly associated with discrimination. A nurber of other
mediating mo- tives may exist, perhaps the most central of which is a need for a
coherent self-conception--an idea which is consistent with Tajfel's early
understand- ing of intergroup discrimination. Another motive which deserves
attention is the search for mean- ing. Perhaps it is this above all else which motivates behaviour--a view consistent with assump- tions underlying much of
contemporary social psychology. In the intergroup context meaning may be
achieved by intergroup discrimination which may enhance self-esteem, but
there are many other avenues open to the seeker after meaningful struc- ture,
and there are many outcomes for the search. While categorization may be the
cognitive process which maximizes meaning, the accompanying activity and the
self-evaluative or self-conceptual outcome depends very heavily on social
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