Is Social Identity Theory Applicable to Intergroup Relations within Collectivist Cultures?

A Personal Comparison Between Self and Group Identity within South Korea and the United States

By Jessica McKeon

                Within the realm of intergroup relations is a social psychology principle known as Social Identity Theory. In a nutshell, social identity theory states that we each have two identities. A “self” identity and a “social” identity. This social identity is how our self-identity definition fits or does not fit into an “ingroup” (Hymans, 2002). The key distinctions lie with how an individual identifies their sense of ‘self’ versus how they identify themselves in comparison or conjunction with a ‘group’. Within the United States, we witness the results of this ‘ingroup’ and ‘outgroup’ identification on a daily basis. Within politics, gender identification, marital status, even the way we look plays a factor in who we identify with or who identifies with us.  Is the way in which we identify to our subsequent in-groups a cultural phenomenon within Western individualist-cultures? Or is it also applicable within a more collectivist mindset?

A primary factor that comes into play is how individuals from each culture identify themselves. In a 1995 study, researchers administered a Twenty Statements Test to Euro-Americans living in New York and Korean participants living in Seoul, asking various questions about their self-identity (Rhee et al., 1995). Rhee et al. found that self-descriptions within Euro-American participants contained more autonomous descriptions and trait differences, while Korean self-descriptions were highly-distinctive (1995). What do these findings mean for the layperson interpreting them? It means that Americans will generally identify themselves based on individual values and traits while Koreans will adhere to societal values and trend towards conformity. How does all of this play into the social framework of Social Identity Theory?

Social Identity theory primarily focuses on intergroup comparison, or how ingroups and outgroups compare themselves to one another. Within individualistic cultures, this is the way we self-identify and interact socially (Yuki, 2003). Intragroup comparison, on the other hand, is what is practiced primarily in collectivist cultures. Placing priority on comparisons to those within their cultural ingroup for the sake of cooperation and mutual goals (Yuki, 2003).

Allow me to provide you with a different perspective, through my own experiences as an American living in South Korea. My family and I moved to South Korea during New Years, approximately two-and-a-half years ago.  One of the first things that became apparent after getting off the airplane is that South Korea has a lot of people with very little diversity. To help create a more specific image, the Korean Statistical Information Services states that the population of South Korea in 2015 was approximately 51,629,512 people (KOSIS, 2015). That’s a lot of people. Out of that number only 1,741,919 are foreigners. Let me put that into a percentage for you; 3.4% of the Korean population in 2015 consisted of non-Koreans (KOSIS, 2015). In comparison, the United States Census Bureau stated that in 2015, 76.5% of the U.S. population consisted of the primary ‘Caucasian’ racial in-group (United States Census Bureau, 2018). This number doesn’t even account for the non-American Caucasians. However, even with this lack of diversity and inability to physically fit in, when making an active effort to assimilate to a collectivist culture, the treatment of the out-group becomes significantly more accepting.

Ultimately, I believe that Social Identity Theory does not account for the social processing nuances within collectivist cultures. It is worthwhile to reassess what circumstances Social Identity Theory hold true under, and if the theory is culturally biased.



Hymans, J. E. C. (2002, March). Applying Social Identity Theory to the Study of International Politics: A Caution and an Agenda . Retrieved October 3, 2019, from

Korean Statistical Information Service. (2019, August 29). Statistical Database. Retrieved October 3, 2019, from

Rhee, E., Uleman, J. S., Lee, H. K., & Roman, R. J. (1995). Spontaneous self-descriptions and ethnic identities in individualistic and collectivistic cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology69(1), 142–152. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.69.1.142

U.S. Census Bureau. (2018). U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: United States. Retrieved October 3, 2019, from

Yuki, M. (2003). Intergroup Comparison Versus Intragroup Relationships: A Cross-Cultural Examination of Social Identity Theory in North American and East Asian Cultural Contexts. Social Psychology Quarterly66, 166–183. Retrieved from


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