Skip Content

The nature of bias and discrimination

Tajfel and Turner (1979): Social categorisation

Taifel and Turner developed the concept of social identity theory, the idea that a person’s sense of self is based on their membership of social groups such as social class, sports clubs, gender, age, faith, and family. These groups provide us with important sources of pride and self-esteem. 

Tajfel and Turner argue that we divide the world into “them” and “us” based through a process of social categorisation (i.e. we put people into social groups). This is known as in-group (us) and out-group (them).  Social identity theory states that the in-group will discriminate against the out-group to enhance their self-image. The central hypothesis of social identity theory is that members of an in-group will seek to find negative aspects of an out-group, thus enhancing their self-image.

Tajfel and Turner proposed that there are three mental processes involved in evaluating others as “us” or “them” (i.e. “in-group” and “out-group”). These take place in a particular order.

  • The first is categorisation. We categorise people in order to understand the social environment.  We use social categories like old, young, male, female, gay, straight, student, and bus driver because they are useful.  If we can assign people to a category then that tells us things about those people.
  • The second stage is social identification. We adopt the identity of the group we have categorised ourselves as belonging to.  If for example you have categorised yourself as a male, the chances are you will adopt the identity of a typical man and begin to act in the ways you believe men act (and conform to the norms of the group).  There will be an emotional significance to your identification with a group, and your self-esteem will become bound up with group membership.
  • The final stage is social comparison.  Once we have categorised ourselves as part of a group and have identified with that group we then tend to compare that group with other groups. If our self-esteem is to be maintained our group needs to compare favourably with other groups. This is critical to understanding prejudice, because once two groups identify themselves as rivals they are forced to compete in order for the members to maintain their self-esteem. Competition and hostility between groups is thus not only a matter of competing for resources like jobs but also the result of competing identities.

Categorisation, stereotyping and prejudice

Stereotyping (i.e. putting people into groups and categories) is based on a normal cognitive process: the tendency to group things together. In doing so we tend to exaggerate:

  • the differences between groups
  • the similarities of things in the same group

Brown (1995) has identified a number of key elements in how stereotypes relate to prejudice and how prejudice operates in society as a whole:

  • A stereotype is the perception that most members of a social category – women, gay men, Muslims, older people, young people, disabled people etc share some attributes
  • Stereotyping arises directly out of the categorization process
  • Stereotypes influence people’s judgements of others
  • Stereotypes are not neutral. They are associated with in-group and out-groups
  • Stereotypes affect judgements below the level of consciousness

It is important to recognise the unconscious influences that stereotypes have on organisational decision-making. By ignoring individual differences stereotypes lead to a process of prejudicial labelling that works to favour some groups at the disadvantage of others. Brown writes that prejudice is:

“The holding of derogatory social attitudes or cognitive beliefs, the expression of negative effects, or the display of hostile or discriminatory behaviour towards members of a group on account of their membership of that group”.

Brown’s work in the area of prejudice clearly identifies the relationship between social attitudes and the manifestation of discrimination.

Discrimination is discrimination: a short scenario  


Sponsored by The Law Society.

This video was co-produced by Steps, world leaders in drama
based training.  For more information on their fantastic work around
diversity and inclusion:

steps logo