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Multiple social categorization theory

Multiple social categorization theory is a branch of social psychology that examines how people perceive and respond to others who belong to more than one social group. The theory proposes that multiple social categorization can have both positive and negative effects on intergroup relations, depending on how people cognitively represent and emotionally react to the complex social diversity around them. In this article, we will introduce the main concepts, processes, models and applications of multiple social categorization theory, drawing on 40 years of empirical research in this field. We will also discuss the implications of this theory for promoting social inclusivity and reducing prejudice and discrimination in various contexts.

What is multiple social categorization theory?

Multiple social categorization theory is a branch of social psychology that examines how people classify themselves and others along multiple dimensions of social identity, such as gender, race, religion, age, occupation, etc. For example, multiple social categorization can reduce prejudice and discrimination by highlighting the diversity and complexity of social identities, or by creating common in-groups that transcend single categories. Multiple social categorization theory argues that these complex and overlapping social categories have important consequences for intergroup relations, prejudice, and discrimination.

According to this theory, multiple social categorization can reduce intergroup bias by highlighting the diversity and similarity among groups, by weakening the salience and rigidity of group boundaries, and by promoting a more inclusive and humanized perception of out-groups. Multiple social categorization theory also explores how people cope with their own multiple and sometimes conflicting social identities, and how they manage the challenges and opportunities of living in a multicultural, multiethnic, and multilingual society.

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Multiple social categorization can also influence how people think, feel, and behave in relation to their own multiple identities, such as being multicultural, multiethnic, or multilingual. The theory aims to understand the cognitive, motivational, and affective processes that underlie multiple categorization, and the implications for social inclusivity and humanization.

Multiple social categorization theory has been applied to various contexts, such as multiculturalism, immigration, education, health, and politics, to understand how people cope with the challenges and opportunities of living in a diverse society. (Crisp & Hewstone, 2006; Prati et al., 2021; Roccas & Brewer, 2002).

Multiple social categorization theory explores how these multiple identities affect intergroup relations, prejudice, and discrimination. Some of the main questions that this theory addresses are:

  • How do people cognitively represent multiple social categories?
  • How do multiple social categories influence self-categorization and social identity?
  • How do multiple social categories affect intergroup attitudes and behaviours?
  • How can multiple social categorization be used to reduce prejudice and promote social inclusion?

Multiple social categorization theory has been developed and tested by various researchers over the past 40 years, using different methods and models. Some of the key concepts and findings of this theory are:

Crossed categorization: This occurs when people belong to different categories on two or more dimensions (e.g., gender and ethnicity). Crossed categorization can reduce intergroup bias by creating more complex and diverse ungroups and out-groups, and by reducing the salience of a single category.

Social identity complexity: This refers to the degree of overlap or differentiation among one’s multiple social identities. Social identity complexity can vary depending on the context and the perceived compatibility or conflict among the categories. Higher social identity complexity can reduce prejudice by increasing tolerance and empathy for out-group members who share some aspects of one’s identity.

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cognitive liberalisation: This is a process of broadening one’s cognitive perspective and reducing stereotyping by exposing oneself to multiple and diverse social categories. cognitive liberalisation can enhance out-group humanization by increasing awareness of the individuality and variability of out-group members, and by reducing in-group favouritism.

Applications of multiple social categorization theory

The main applications of this theory are to understand the effects of multiple identities on intergroup relations, prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination. For example, multiple social categorization theory can help explain how a person who identifies as both a woman and a Muslim may experience different forms of bias or inclusion depending on the context and the salience of their identities. Another example is how multiple social categorization theory can inform interventions to reduce conflict and promote cooperation among groups that have multiple and overlapping memberships, such as ethnic minorities, immigrants, or refugees.

MSC suggests that the effects of these multiple group memberships on intergroup relations depend on how people perceive and manage their complex social identities. For example, people who identify with multiple groups may experience more positive attitudes and behaviours toward other groups that share some of their identities, compared to people who identify with only one group. Alternatively, people who identify with multiple groups may also experience more negative attitudes and behaviours toward other groups that threaten or challenge their identities, compared to people who identify with only one group.

MSC has important implications for promoting social inclusivity and reducing prejudice and discrimination in various contexts. For instance, MSC can help design interventions that foster cross-cutting or superordinate identities that transcend the boundaries of single groups and create a sense of commonality and belonging among diverse individuals. Such interventions can reduce intergroup bias and conflict by highlighting the shared values and goals of different groups, as well as the mutual benefits of cooperation and harmony. Examples of such interventions include intergroup contact programs, multicultural education, diversity training, and media campaigns.

Another implication of MSC is that it can help understand the sources and consequences of multiple discrimination or intersectionality, which refers to the situation where people face multiple forms of oppression or disadvantage based on their multiple group memberships. For example, a black woman may experience more discrimination than a white woman or a black man because she belongs to two marginalized groups. MSC can help identify the specific mechanisms and factors that contribute to multiple discrimination, such as stereotypes, prejudice, power dynamics, social norms, policies, etc. MSC can also help design strategies to combat multiple discrimination, such as empowerment, advocacy, coalition building, legal action, etc.

Weaknesses and criticisms of multiple social categorization theory

Multiple social categorization can have negative consequences, such as increasing stereotyping and bias by activating more salient or dominant categories, enhancing perceived differences and conflicts, and triggering identity threat and competition. Therefore, the impact of multiple social categorization depends on various factors, such as the context, the motivation, the effect, and the type of categorization involved. Multiple social categorization theory has been applied to various domains, such as multiculturalism, immigration, diversity management, and social inclusion. It has also faced some criticisms, such as being too focused on cognitive processes and neglecting the role of power and ideology, being too optimistic about the potential of multiple identities to reduce intergroup hostility, and being too vague about the mechanisms and boundary conditions of multiple categorization effects.

Implications regarding the human multiplicity concept

One of the implications of this theory is that the human mind is not a unitary or monolithic entity, but rather a dynamic and flexible system that can switch between different perspectives and modes of thinking depending on the social context and the salience of different group memberships. In other words, the human mind is a multiplicity that can adapt to different situations and goals by activating different aspects of one’s social identity.

Further reading

For further reading on multiple social categorization theory, you can refer to the following weblinks:

40 Years of Multiple Social Categorization: A Tool for Social Inclusivity – Durham Research Online

Multiple Social Categorization Processes, Models and Applications – Routledge

Multiple social categorization. – APA PsycNet

Multiple Social Categorization | Processes, Models and Applications – Taylor & Francis

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