Tajfel’s (right) 1970s research with minimal groups aimed to uncover the minimal conditions necessary for prejudice to develop. For the purposes of the study, participants were divided into two groups based on largely irrelevant information. Although the boys assigned to each group did not know the other group members, had no contact with them, and no expectation of contact with other group members in the future they nonetheless began to identify with their group and to demonstrate a preference for the group’s other members. The findings from Tajfel’s minimal group studies were instrumental to his development, along with John Turner, of social identity theory (SIT), which holds that individuals identify with the groups to which they belong and that they have a tendency to advantage their ingroup.
The Mind Changers podcast on Tajfel’s minimal group research is described as follows:
Henri Tajfel’s interest in identity and group prejudice was sparked by his own experiences as a Polish Jew during the Second World War. As Professor of Social Psychology at Bristol university he developed a series of experiments known as the Minimal Group Studies, the purpose of which was to establish the minimum basis on which people could be made to identify with their own group and show bias against another.
Claudia Hammond re-visits the Minimal Group Studies of 1971, where Tajfel and his collaborators got boys at a comprehensive school to view abstract paintings and then assigned them to the ‘Klee’ group or the ‘Kandinsky’ group, apparently because of the preferences they declared, but in fact entirely at random. Even though the boys didn’t know who else was allocated to their group, they consistently awarded more points to their own group than to the other. So even though who belonged to which group was meaningless, they always tended to favour their own.
This proved to be the first step towards Social Identity Theory, as developed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner, which stressed that our identification with groups varies according to how significant that group is at the time: if we’re at war our national identity is important, at a football match it’s our team identity that’s to the fore…
Tajfel died in 1982, but his legacy can be seen in the work many of his former students continue in the same field. Claudia Hammond hears from four of them, including Michael Billig – Professor of Social Sciences at Loughborough University, who helped run the 1971 studies, Miles Hewstone, Rupert Brown and Steve Reicher, Professors of Social Psychology at Oxford, Sussex and St Andrews respectively.