By Alex Barker, PhD Student, University of Nottingham
I am going to discuss a fairly recent concept to social psychology, the Social Identity Model of Identity Change (SIMIC). I’m aiming to provide an overview of this topic and provide examples to explain this concept to you and hopefully give you a deeper understanding of what this concept is and how it relates to my PhD research where I am exploring the role of social identity in people with multiple sclerosis (MS).
So, first of all, what is social identity?
Social identity theory was first coined by Tajfel and Turner in the 1970’s and 1980’s (Tuner & Reynolds 2010) and refers to the sense of self that a person gains from seeing themselves as part of a relevant social group. To put this in an example, a person might feel that being a student is a big part of their identity and feel that belonging to this social group (students) is an important part of who they are (their self concept).
Since then the theory has gone through some changes, namely, a related approach was devised following criticism of the original theory. In response social categorisation theory was developed, and looked at the self, and group processes using the insights of social identity theory (Tuner & Reynolds 2010). Nowadays, the theories are grouped together to form the social identity approach, drawing on aspects of both theories.
What happens when identity changes?
Sometimes, a person’s social identity can change. This could be due to anticipated life changes, such as when you finish your degree and go out into the big (scary) wide world or sudden life changes such as the result of an illness. How do changes to social identity affect a person? Well, the short answer is that a life changing transition can have a negative effect on a person’s well-being (Haslam, Holme et al. 2008, Haslam, Jetten et al. 2009, Jetten 2012)
Many aspects of the self are lost as a consequence of a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) (Boeije, Duijnstee et al. 2002, Irvine, Davidson et al. 2009). A persons’ identity is replaced by negative self concepts, which have been associated with poor psychological well-being (Haslam, Holme et al. 2008).
However, SIMIC shows that this effect can be reduced or moderated by certain social factors. Life changes do seem to affect some people more than others. Whilst a loss of social identity can have negative effects on well-being, social relationships can also have a positive effect on well-being (Haslam, Jetten et al. 2009), having the ability to take on new relationships following a life changing transition can be a way of protecting yourself from the harmful effects of identity change (Jetten 2012).
Another way of protecting yourself from the effects of identity change, comes from the fact that many of us belong to many different social groups (Jetten 2012). By having different social contacts and maintaining these after the life changing transition, ensuring they are still compatible, has been shown to be associated with life satisfaction scores (Haslam, Holme et al. 2008). For example, a number of people diagnosed with MS may find that they are not the healthy person that they were before, however, they still identify with their family group and receive support in this way (Irvine, Davidson et al. 2009, Boland, Levack et al. 2012).
What does this mean, in the “real world”?
By understanding how to protect against the harmful effects of identity change, we can protect people from this. By building new relationships compatible with the emerging identity of a person with MS, or by making sure that previous identities, such as a family member, are compatible with the MS identity, we may be able to reduce the negative effects of identity change.
What have we found so far?
So far a meta-synthesis of the qualitative data has showed that there can be benefits from receiving support from a previously established social group, the family, following a diagnosis of MS. This supports the social identity model of identity change.
A systematic review is currently being set up with the Cochrane Collaboration to see if group interventions have the same outcomes for people with MS and low mood, as individual interventions. We are exploring whether a social format of intervention can help the emerging identity of a person with MS, and reduce the damaging effects of identity change.
What are we doing next?
Whilst, it has been acknowledged that not all the effects of a life changing transition are harmful (Jetten, Haslam et al. 2012), the model doesn’t really incorporate positive effects that identity change may have, such as the opportunity for a new start. Qualitative interviews with people with MS will enable us to see if the change of identity has any positive effects and how this related to their adjustment and well-being.
Implementing the model “in the real world” would prove to be difficult. People belong to many different groups and, whilst it is speculated that the effects of being part of a group is the more important factor in determining the effect of the theory, (Jetten, Haslam et al. 2012), it may be the case that some groups may be better at protecting well-being than others. Moreover, there may be individual differences with reference to which social groups are important to people and, as such, can impact positively on identity. Further research into how people identify with different social groups and what common features “important” social groups share will be useful.
The social identity approach is great at explaining events, however it struggles when it comes to having predictive power. Prospective studies testing SIMIC may be useful for improving the validity of the model. A randomised controlled trial with people who have been diagnosed with MS and who have low mood that tests the effects of a group cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) based intervention versus an individual (CBT) based intervention will be a way of testing this. Using measures of social identification we can see the effect that a group intervention format can have on measures of mood.
Boeije, H. R., et al. (2002). "Encountering the downward phase: biographical work in people with multiple sclerosis living at home." Social Science & Medicine 55(6): 881-893.
Boland, P., et al. (2012). "Coping with multiple sclerosis as a couple: 'peaks and troughs' - an interpretative phenomenological exploration." Disability and Rehabilitation 34(16): 1367-1375.
Haslam, C., et al. (2008). "Maintaining group memberships: Social identity continuity predicts well-being after stroke." Neuropsychological Rehabilitation 18(5-6): 671-691.
Haslam, S. A., et al. (2009). "Social Identity, Health and Well-Being: An Emerging Agenda for Applied Psychology." Applied Psychology-an International Review-Psychologie Appliquee-Revue Internationale 58(1): 1-23.
Irvine, H., et al. (2009). "Psychosocial adjustment to multiple sclerosis: exploration of identity redefinition." Disability and Rehabilitation 31(8): 599-606.
Jetten, J., Haslam, A.S., Haslam, C. (2012) The Social Cure: Identity, Health and Well-Being. Hove & New York., Psychology Press.
Jetten, J., Panchana, N.A. (2012). Not wanting to grow old; A social identity model of identity change (SIMIC) analysis of driving cessation among older adults. Jetten, J., Haslam, A.S., Haslam, C. (2012) The Social Cure: Identity, Health and Well-Being. Hove & New York., Psychology Press.
Turner, J. C. & Reynolds, K. J. (2010). The story of social identity. Postmes, T. & Branscombe, N. (Eds). Rediscovering Social Identity: Core Sources. Psychology Press.
Alex Barker is a Post-Graduate Research student at the University of Nottingham, studying for a PhD in Applied Psychology. His research is investigating the role of social identity in explaining low mood in people with multiple sclerosis, to understand how group interventions work.
E-mail: [email protected]
Orginally posted on 21/05/14