Psychological research on identity has used both an ‘insider viewpoint’ and an ‘outsider viewpoint’

Psychological perspectives are diverse and can complement, conflict or co-exist on a single concept. For example, the complex issue of identity generates different questions, leading to differing theories, based on specific aspects of what makes us who we are. Theories require supportive evidence produced through planned research. However, one research method can not answer all questions. Different methodological approaches, therefore, are employed specific to the question, aim and focus of the research.

To illustrate this, I will give an account of two theories of identity, Social Identity Theory (SIT) and Social Constructionalism, with their associated studies. Furthermore, a relationship between psychological perspective and investigation will be highlighted.

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These theories co-exist, focusing on different aspects of what makes us unique as human beings, using contrasting methods to test their claims. In the first theory, research is conducted objectively, from an outsider viewpoint. In contrast, the second theory explores subjectivity taking an insider viewpoint. Differing starting points, such as these, lead to different types of data produced as supportive evidence of the argument made.

So how are particular methods selected in research design? First it is essential to decide which viewpoint would suit the research. This can be an outsider viewpoint gained through experimentation, questionnaires or observation of measurable behaviour, such as reaction times. Data is measurable on a common standard that can be uniformly understood. The aim of such research is to see cause and effect and make generalizations about the population as a whole with law-like statements.

Alternatively researchers can use an insider viewpoint conducted when the researcher aims to see the world through the eyes of someone else and understand meanings and experiences of others. The use of language and interpretation of symbolic data are crucial to this viewpoint. Data is provided through semi-structured interviews, diaries, field observation and discourse analysis.

SIT developed from the work of Henri Tajfel, a holocaust survivor, whose personal experience stimulated an interest in group identities which he claimed were at the root of prejudice behaviour. He saw identity as two subsystems -personal and social- and claimed people self-categorized, identifying with particular groups while separating themselves from others (Phoenix., 2002,p.62). He saw a relationship between high group status and high positive self perception. This he regarded as open to change through social mobility, social creativity and social competition. Thus identity was seen as dynamic.

Tajfel’s research collected measurable, quantitative data from a Minimal Group Experiment (Tajfel, et al.1971) in the laboratory with a group of schoolboys each arbitrarily assigned to two groups. The data was, therefore, analysed from an outsider viewpoint. Tajfel was interested in the strategies adopted by the boys when allocating points to their own group, the ingroup, and the other group, the outgroup. The experimental design introduced a manipultaion of a variable, unknown to the participants to avoid demand effects, to see if this would effect the outcome. Tajfel found that individuals chose profit for their ingroup even when there was no purpose to this, and interestingly were concerned with maximising the difference between groups rather than the amount of profit gained. Tajfel claimed that this experiment provided evidence to support SIT as an explanation for prejudice.

However, Tajfel’s study was criticised because firstly, it lacked a control group, and secondly it looked at groups as if they were individuals, trivializing their individual differences. Would individuals have reacted similarly in Tajfel’s experiment?

Co-existing with Tajfel’s theory of identity is that of Social Constructionalism. This has no single original researcher, and is relatively new, associated with the second cognitive revolution in psychology. In contrast to SIT, this theory considers identity as purely social, built and shaped by our everyday lives within a historical and cultural context. Our identities, it is argued, are multiple and constantly changing. The use of language and discourses are considered central to the process of shaping and negotiating our identity. For example, through autobiographical narratives we express how we want to appear and how we do not, depending on context. For social constructionalists, language creates and informs social understandings. Furthermore, these are embedded in social relations and involve power (Miell and Pike, 2002, p.12).

Although methodological evidence is sparse, the aim of social constructionalists is to understand social processes which form who we are in everyday interactions. Therefore, research is suited to exploring subjectivity from an insider viewpoint, observing everday interactions, fundamental to social constructionalist principles, in a naturalistic setting and not in the laboritory. This produces subjective data which is analysed qualitatively, individual to each subject, and mostly descriptive.

For example, Kenneth Gergen, a US psychologist, uses language to give a personal account of his own identity.

“The pen was destined to become my life”

(Gergen 1999,cited by Phoenix, 2002, p71)

Gergen informs us of how he constructed his identity and describes an association between himself and his pen.

Other methods of subjective study are interviews, often unstructured which adjust and are informed by the emergent findings, for example the Twenty Statements Test. Additionally, researchers observe subjects and collect either observational, theoretical or methodological notes which are analysed qualitatively.

These methodological approaches, however, have some weaknesses. Data produced is individual and to be compared with others must be categorized, which imposes an outsider analysis. Furthermore, language is not an effective tool for all; the ability to verbally articulate thoughts varies, or experiences be in the subconscious beyond reach.

In conclusion, psychology is an evidence based discipline. Research, therefore, is an essential element in development of psychology theory. There is a relationship between different research viewpoints selected and the focus and goals in mind. Understanding the multifaceted concept of identity highlights this, demonstrated by SIT and Social Constructionalism, which adopt contrasting viewpoints appropriate to their particular aspect of interest. These theories offer different insights, however, both agree that identity is diverse and fluid, and aspects of interest are influenced by historical and cultural backdrop.

All methodological approaches have strengths and weaknesses. Quantitative statistics from an outsider viewpoint produce data which can be measured by anyone. It is important, however, to be critical of research design, to be sure that anything that could interfere with the result has been considered. Data from an insider viewpoint can be as varied as the number of subjects being investigated, as the focus is on individual experiences. Analysis, however, may require objective assessment of categories of data to make comparisons between subjects. It follows that a degree of outsider view is difficult to avoid, therefore when thinking about this issue.