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date: 26 September 2023

Social Identity Theory: Status and Identity in International Relationsfree

Social Identity Theory: Status and Identity in International Relationsfree

  • Deborah Welch LarsonDeborah Welch LarsonDepartment of Political Science, University of California, Los Angeles


Social identity theory (SIT) from social psychology provides a means to explore the influence of identity and status concerns on foreign policy. The theory argues that groups are motivated to achieve a positively distinctive identity. Groups compare themselves to a similar but slightly higher reference group. Inferiority on important dimensions may lead to the adoption of an identity management strategy: social mobility (emulating the higher-status group to gain admission), social competition (striving to equal or surpass the dominant group), or social creativity (revaluing an ostensibly negative characteristic as positive or identifying an alternative dimension on which the group is superior).

Applied to international relations, states may pursue social mobility by emulating the values and practices of higher-status states in order to be admitted to a higher standing, much as Eastern Europe did in seeking admission into the European Union after the end of the Cold War. If elite groups are impermeable to new members, and the status hierarchy is perceived to be unstable or illegitimate, aspiring powers may engage in social competition, which usually entails territorial conquest and military displays. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union sought to catch up with and surpass the capitalist states. If elite clubs are not permeable, but the status hierarchy is stable, states may seek status through social creativity—either reframing a negative trait as positive or seeking preeminence in a domain apart from geopolitical competition. Social creativity may entail creating new international institutions, promoting new norms, or engaging in major diplomatic initiatives in order to increase the state’s prestige.

Research applying SIT to international relations has addressed the question of whether anarchy necessarily leads to conflict between states, the diffusion of values, the selection of an identity discourse on the domestic level, and state efforts at moral leadership.

Critics have charged that SIT does not clearly predict which identity management strategy will be chosen in a given situation. From a realist perspective, the selection of a strategy for enhancing a state’s status is constrained by geographic position, size, and natural endowments. But this argument does not consider the availability of social mobility and social creativity as ways to achieve status that do not depend on relative military power.


  • Groups and Identities
  • Political Psychology
  • World Politics

Updated in this version

References have been expanded and updated. Updated reference citations have also been added to the References list.


States sometimes fight for honor, dignity, or preservation of their status as great powers (Dafoe et al., 2014; Kagan, 1995; Lebow, 2008, 2010; Renshon, 2016, 2017). States intervene in far-off places, enter “unnecessary” wars rather than face humiliation, provide costly foreign aid to clients of minor importance, or acquire expensive prestige weapons with little strategic value. Former global powers, reluctant to accept the loss of their former status, attempt to “punch above their weight” in global affairs, sometimes to the detriment of their economic development. A state’s conception of its appropriate position in the international pecking order is usually linked to its identity or self-image.

Despite the importance of both identity and status in our understanding of world politics, scholars have not given systematic attention to these factors. How does a state’s identity influence its status aspirations? Does the desire for increased status always lead to conflict with the dominant powers? How does status-seeking affect peace and world order?

Social identity theory (SIT) (Tajfel, 1978, 1982; Tajfel & Turner, 1979) provides a means to explore the influence of identity and status concerns on foreign policy. SIT explores how social groups strive to achieve a positively distinctive identity by using different strategies to enhance their status. Although developed for social groups, SIT has potential relevance for international relations.

Social Identity Theory

A social identity refers to knowledge of membership in a social group, along with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership (Tajfel, 1978, p. 63). In other words, social identity requires not only awareness of belonging to a group but also being attached to it. Individuals behave very differently when they are acting as part of a group—whether a member of a striking labor union, police force, or army—than as individuals (Tajfel, 1978, pp. 39–42, 62–64; Tajfel & Turner, 1979, p. 40). Social groups include race, ethnicity, gender, occupation, or nationality. In the modern era, people increasingly identify with their state and derive vicarious pleasure in its achievements.

One of the findings of SIT is that people tend to accentuate differences between their group and the outgroup, while perceiving their ingroup as being more homogeneous than it really is (Tajfel, 1978, pp. 63–64; Tajfel & Turner, 1979, p. 40; van Knippenberg, 1984, pp. 561–562). A social identity is prescriptive as well as descriptive; it is both relative and comparative. Social groups compare themselves to an equal or slightly higher reference group (Brown & Haeger, 1999; Tajfel & Turner, 1979, p. 41). The outcome of such comparisons determines how satisfied people are with their social identity (Turner & Brown, 1978, p. 204). Because social identity is part of the self-concept, members want their group to be superior. Social groups, seeking to be not only different but also better, are motivated to achieve a positively distinctive identity (Tajfel & Turner, 1979).

When their group is falling behind, members are motivated to differentiate their group in a positive direction, as was revealed by the “minimal-group” studies carried out by Henri Tajfel (Tajfel et al., 1971) and his associates at the University of Bristol. Tajfel found that that even groups established by arbitrary criteria such as preference for the art of Kandinsky versus Klee, where the members did not know each other, discriminated in favor of the ingroup in distributing points (see Brewer, 1979). The minimal group experiments suggest that, contrary to realistic group theory, ingroup bias and ethnocentrism do not depend on prior competition with another group over scarce resources (Sherif, 1966), or negative stereotyping of the other side. Mere categorization into ingroup and outgroup seems to be sufficient to produce favoritism (Turner, 1999).

While the minimal group experiments are striking, SIT has also been tested extensively in field studies and experiments with real-world social groups, such as ethnicity (Capozza et al., 1982; Van Knippenberg, 1984) and occupation (Bourhis & Hill, 1982). SIT recognizes that social groups are ranked in society based on their relative status (Hogg & Abrams, 1988, p. 14).

Just as a group’s status depends on its position on traits valued by society, so a state’s international stature depends on its ranking on prized attributes, such as military power, economic development, and technological innovation. Since the 18th century, certain states have been identified as the “great powers” (Scott, 2001). Status is the outcome of subjective judgments about the social worth that individuals ascribe to an individual or group (Blader & Chen, 2014; Chen et al., 2012). In contrast, power refers to control over resources (Fiske, 2010). The two concepts are separate and should not be conflated. For example, the Soviet Union was acknowledged to be a superpower after World War II largely owing to its defeat of Nazi Germany, but it was not accepted by the United States as an equal power. Military power is necessary but not sufficient for great power status (Gray, 1974; Wohlforth, 1993, pp. 146, 177–178). China has the world’s second-largest economy and believes that it is entitled to great power status. Despite having nuclear weapons and a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, both of which are indicators of great power status, the People’s Republic of China does not believe that it has received the respect and recognition it deserves (Shambaugh, 2013, pp. 17, 310–311, 317).

Membership in a higher-status group increases collective self-esteem and pride (Hogg & Abrams, 1988; Rubin & Hewstone, 1998), while being part of a low-status group is damaging to morale (Ellemers & Barreto, 2001). Inferiority to a reference group threatens the group’s identity and stimulates the desire to improve its position (Ellemers et al., 2002).

Identity Management Strategies

The group may want to pursue an identity management strategy to achieve a more positive, distinctive identity (Tajfel, 1978; Tajfel & Turner, 1979). A group that wants to improve its standing may try to join a higher-status group, compete with the dominant group, or achieve preeminence in a different area. The choice of one strategy over another depends on perceptions of the permeability of elite groups as well as the security (stability and/or legitimacy) of the status hierarchy. States have also pursued varying strategies for attaining status, depending on the openness of elite clubs as well as their perceptions of the stability and legitimacy of status distinctions.

If boundaries of elite groups appear to be permeable to new members, an individual may adopt a social mobility strategy, emulating the values and behavior of the higher-status group in order to gain admission (Ellemers et al., 1990; van Knippenberg & Ellemers, 1993). The individual may disidentify with the ingroup and try to join the dominant group. A group may also try to become more like the superior group in order to pass, but at the cost of losing its distinctive identity (Tajfel, 1978, pp. 93–94). A social mobility strategy requires conformity to the norms and practices of an elite group to gain acceptance into a more elevated status position. Applied to international relations, a social mobility strategy implies that states emulate the values and norms of the higher-status states to gain acceptance into elite clubs. For example, in the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire, China, and Japan gradually adapted their institutions and adopted international law in order to be admitted into international society, which was dominated by the European states (Bull & Watson, 1984). In the modern era, smaller states emulate the domestic practices of the leading powers so as to gain prestige (Fordham & Asal, 2007).

If elite group boundaries are impermeable to new members and the status hierarchy is insecure, the lower-status group may strive for equal or superior status through social competition (Bettencourt et al., 2001; Ellemers et al., 1993; Tajfel, 1978, pp. 51–52; Tajfel & Turner, 1979). The status hierarchy is insecure when it is perceived by the lower-status group to be illegitimate (unfair or unjust) and/or unstable (capable of being changed) (Ellemers, 1993; Turner & Brown, 1978). As Tajfel (1978, p. 52) observed, “a combination of illegitimacy and instability would become a powerful incitement for attempts to change the status quo.” Social competition aims to equal or surpass the dominant group on the dimensions on which its higher status is based. Social competition is therefore all about relative position rather than absolute gains (Turner, 1975). In international relations, social competition is often manifested in attempts to acquire control over territory or military superiority, such as the Anglo–German naval race before World War I (Kennedy, 1980; Murray, 2010, 2019) or the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Social competition with a rival state helps create a sense of identification with the nation that helps mobilize resources for war. Defeating a great power in war, in turn, advances a state’s status and intensifies national identification, in a virtuous circle (Sambanis et al., 2015).

When elite group boundaries are impermeable (Jackson et al., 1996) and existing status distinctions appear to be stable and/or legitimate, a group may seek prestige in a different area, pursuing social creativity (Ellemers et al., 1993, 1999; Hinckle et al., 1998; Tajfel, 1978, pp. 52–53; Tajfel & Turner, 1979). The pecking order is stable when lower-status groups cannot even imagine an alternative order. It is legitimate when lower-status groups believe that the criteria used to determine the social structure are fair (Spears, 2008, p. 325).

Social creativity is aimed at improving the group’s status without changing the system, thereby increasing satisfaction with the group’s identity. Social creativity may involve (a) revaluing a negative characteristic as positive or (b) identifying a new value dimension on which the group is superior. Reframing an ostensibly negative characteristic as positive is illustrated by the African American slogan of the 1960s, “Black is beautiful,” or by gay pride. For example, Chinese nationalists now view Confucianism, which Mao had attacked for blocking China’s economic development, as positive, as part of China’s “glorious civilization” (Gries, 2005). Unlike social competition, social creativity does not try to change the hierarchy of status in the international system, but rather seeks to achieve preeminence on a different ranking system.

To succeed, social creativity requires recognition by the dominant group of the alternative value dimension as worthy and the lower-status group’s position on that criterion as superior (Tajfel, 1978, p. 96). In contrast, rejection of a lower-status group’s social creativity efforts will provoke anger and hostility (Brown & Ross, 1982), which can lead to offensive action against the dominant group (Mackie et al., 2000).

In international relations, social creativity may be manifested in efforts to enhance a state’s “soft power” through diplomatic mediation, playing a leadership role in international organizations or promoting new international norms. With social creativity’s introduction of additional value dimensions, higher- and lower-status groups can each accept the other’s superiority on a different dimension, showing social cooperation (van Knippenberg, 1984; van Knippenberg & Ellemers, 1990). If there is only one value, competition for precedence is zero-sum. But if there are two values, then Group 1 may be superior on Dimension X while Group 2 is preeminent on Dimension Y (Mummendey & Schreiber, 1983; van Knippenberg & van Oers, 1984). For example, in a study of national stereotypes held by adolescents from six Central and Eastern European countries, participants accepted that the higher-status Western European countries were more competent, but they viewed their own country as more “moral” (Poppe & Linssen, 1999). In international relations, it might be accepted that the EU is better at “soft power” and integrating newly emerging democracies, while the United States is better at hard power and deterrence.

Social creativity will be preferred when a state perceives that the existing hierarchy is stable and/or legitimate. The best evidence that the status hierarchy is stable would be admissions by the elite that the existing order was unlikely to change in the near future. More indirect evidence would be the absence of ideological challenges to the status quo distribution of power and influence. Indicators that a state is pursuing social creativity include advocacy of new international norms, regimes, institutions, or a developmental model.

Social identity theory is therefore more complex than is conventionally believed. For example, status differences do not invariably lead to in-group favoritism. There is a reality constraint, whereby lower-status groups acknowledge that the dominant group is superior on status-related dimensions (Ellemers et al., 1997; Poppe & Linssen, 1999). Moreover, groups do not invariably compete for status. Lower-status groups may accept their position if they regard the status hierarchy as legitimate or stable (Ellemers et al., 1993; Spears, 2008). Such was the case for minority groups within the United States, until they perceived that the conditions were changing and there was an opportunity to improve their situation.

In sum, identity management strategies have different goals and tactics in response to varying social structures. Social mobility entails emulating the values and practices of the established powers as a means of attaining integration into elite clubs. Social competition, however, tries to equal or surpass the dominant power on the geopolitical dimensions of status. Social creativity seeks a favorable position on an alternative value dimension, while highlighting the state’s uniqueness and differences from the dominant powers. The choice of strategy depends on the state’s perceptions of the permeability of elite clubs and the legitimacy and stability of the status hierarchy.

SIT differs from other standard theories of international relations in its explanation for state behavior. Neorealism strongly argues that competition between states is over relative power, not status. In an anarchic system where any state is a potential foe, and all states must rely on themselves for protection, only superior power counts (Gilpin, 1981; Waltz, 1979). While social competition may produce behavior that resembles power maximization, the difference is that social identity theory can explain why great powers also engage in nonaggressive, constructive, “responsible” behavior, failing to take advantage of opportunities for aggrandizement. The social creativity strategy of SIT explains why states may seek preeminence in “softer” areas such as diplomatic initiatives or institution building. Most varieties of realism suggest that a state’s ambitions will grow in line with its capabilities (Gilpin, 1981, p. 106), but SIT predicts that accommodation by the higher-status states of the other’s status claims will elicit constructive “status quo” behavior even if its military and economic capabilities continue to grow. Rohan Mukherjee (2022) found that rising powers (United States, Japan, India, China) are more likely to cooperate with existing norms if international institutions are open and procedurally fair. Conversely, status humiliations are expected to push an aspiring power in the opposite direction of hostile and belligerent behavior. Neorealists might argue that much status seeking by states is instrumental to the achievement of economic prosperity and power. More research is needed to determine if this criticism is valid. Nevertheless, achieving and maintaining great power status can be costly to a state’s finances and security, raising questions about whether status is merely a means to another end, as opposed to an intrinsic value.

Both constructivism and SIT attribute importance to identity in influencing state interests and foreign policy (Hansen, 2006; Hopf, 2012), an identity that is defined relative to an “Other” or outgroup. Constructivism, however, argues that a state’s identity is shaped by interactions with other states (Wendt, 1992, 1999), as well as influences from domestic society (Hopf, 2012), whereas SIT perceives identities as derived from history, culture, and the social context and therefore is not subject to fluid interaction and mirror imaging. As a process theory, SIT requires that researchers input beliefs, expectations, and status differences between groups before making any inferences (Turner, 1999, pp. 33–34).

Constructivists view leaders as socialized by discourse and practice, with the result that elites cannot willingly select an identity among available alternatives. Identities are not a product of rational choice but are embedded in the social structure and prevailing discourse (Hopf, 2012, pp. 18–22). Foreign policy identities emerge and are reinforced through diplomatic practice and discourse (Wendt, 1992). In contrast, SIT suggests that national elites may object to their treatment by other states and adopt an identity management strategy. States do not always see themselves as others do. A major difference with constructivist approaches is that SIT is a theory of “group freedom” in which lower-status groups can select ways to improve their image and sense of self-worth—for example, through reframing a negative characteristic as positive by finding a new dimension of comparison or by challenging the position of the dominant group (Billig, 2002).

Social identity theory may be better at explaining changes in state identities than constructivism, which views identities as “mutually constituted,” with the direction of causality unclear. As some prominent constructivists admit (Hopf, 2012, pp. 17–18), constructivists have not convincingly shown why one discourse of identity is chosen over another. In contrast, SIT makes predictions about identity based on the social structure and the group’s beliefs about the permeability of elite clubs and the legitimacy and stability of the status hierarchy.

Relevant Research in International Relations

While SIT is a relatively recent addition to international relations theory, researchers have used it to explain conflict and cooperation between states, grand strategy, and states’ drive for “soft power.” Mercer (1995) introduced SIT into international relations with his critique of Wendt’s (1992) article, “Anarchy Is What States Make of It.” Criticizing Wendt’s contention that rivalry and self-help are socially constructed practices rather than necessary consequences of anarchy, Mercer uses SIT’s minimal group experiments to argue that competition between states is inevitable; states are groups, and identification with groups promotes competition. But this is a misconception of SIT, which does not predict that identification with a group always leads to ethnocentrism and competition with outgroups. There are alternative identity management strategies, such as social mobility and social creativity, and moderator variables, such as the permeability of elite group boundaries and the legitimacy and stability of the status hierarchy (Ellemers & Haslam, 2012). Indeed, when inequalities are institutionalized in a consensual status system and legitimized through ideology, lower-status groups may show bias toward the superior group (Tajfel & Turner, 1986, p. 12).

Gries (2005) takes issue with Mercer’s (1995) argument, using Chinese nationalist writings for illustration. He contends that comparison to other groups does not necessarily damage the group’s identity and self-esteem, promoting competition. Groups may choose other means of achieving a positive identity, such as the introduction of a new value, reevaluation of an existing value dimension, or comparison to a different target group.

In a survey experiment, Viskupic (2020) found that individuals identify with their state and respond to potential status threats by increasing their support for military intervention, even when strategic interests are low and casualties may be high.

The identity management strategies of SIT have implications for domestic politics. Improving a country’s standing may require reforms. Leaders may use the goal of meeting the membership criteria for a more prestigious organization to mobilize domestic support for reforms. From 2013 to 2016, economic reformers in China made favorable references to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) to persuade the public of the need for economic liberalization, even though the TPP was intended to contain China (Lin & Katada, 2022). Kennedy (2010) found through survey research that Moldovans who wanted to join the European Union had more positive attitudes toward rights associated with liberal democracy, consistent with a social mobility strategy. The Moldovans wanted to be “European,” which was associated with support for liberal democracy.

Clunan (2009, 2014) addresses the question of why a statist identity discourse was selected over several alternatives in Russia after the end of the Cold War. Drawing on social identity theory, Clunan argues that a national identity becomes dominant if it is consistent with the country’s historical experience and can be enacted successfully. Based on her study of public opinion polls and her analysis of the foreign policy specialist discourse, Clunan argues that the statist national identity focused on recovering Russia’s great power status triumphed over competing identities because it resonated with Russian history and was more feasible than alternative strategies such as competition with the United States.

The emulation of social values associated with social mobility may not be appealing for large states, such as Russia and China, which have a long history and place greater priority on maintaining a distinctive identity (Larson & Shevchenko, 2019b). Malinova (2014) interprets identity discourse in Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries, represented in the works of leading intellectuals, as an interplay between Westernism, which views Russia as destined to follow the path of the Europeans (social mobility), and Slavophilism, which argues that Russia should follow its own distinctive path, based on its spiritualism, collectivism, and Orthodoxy (social creativity). Neither identity management strategy was entirely successful in overcoming the ressentiment that the Russian intelligentsia felt over their country’s perceived cultural and economic inferiority and the West’s unwillingness to recognize Russia’s equal status.

Larson and Shevchenko (2003) attribute Soviet “New Thinking” under Mikhail Gorbachev to the use of social creativity, a response to the failure of the social competition policy pursued by Soviet leaders to achieve recognition of the Soviet Union as a political equal to the United States and its allies. Gorbachev and other reformers in the Soviet Union recognized that the status hierarchy was stable; the superiority of the Western countries was unlikely to be overturned by economic development in the Soviet Union and the spread of communist revolutions. Military power, a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, and Soviet interventions in the Third World had not enabled the Soviet Union to be admitted into the Western great power clubs. Gorbachev tried to achieve greatness for the Soviet Union in a new domain—as the moral and political leader of a new international order shaped on idealistic principles of the New Thinking such as mutual security, nonoffensive defense, and the Common European Home.

Just as Gorbachev tried to achieve status as a norm entrepreneur, so states using social creativity may engage in normative and institutional innovation. India and China have promoted innovations in nuclear restraint such as de-alerting of nuclear weapons and no-first use to win recognition as “nuclear responsible” powers (Leveringhaus & Sullivan de Estrada, 2018). China has had more success in institutional innovation in the economic domain. Unable to secure reforms in the leadership of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that would give more representation to emerging powers, China created a new institution for international lending, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), part of a social creativity strategy. The AIIB complements existing multilateral banks in that it focuses on funding infrastructure rather than on development. Through the AIIB, China is able to establish a distinctive identity in providing aid that is not contingent on the recipient’s domestic reforms or policy changes, in contrast to the American-dominated World Bank (Yang, 2016).

Social creativity strategies allow states to improve their standing without engaging in arms racing or international conflict. Since the end of the Cold War, Norway has sought to achieve preeminence on different criteria by “doing good”; that is, participating in peacekeeping, mediating international conflict, and providing developmental aid that exceeds expectations for a smaller state. Through assisting the United States in maintaining peace and security, Norway has succeeded in elevating its profile and securing access to U.S. decision makers (Wohlforth et al., 2018). Similarly, the first president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, sought to elevate his state’s status by promoting nuclear nonproliferation and offering his capital as the site for international conferences and dialogue. Attaining recognition for Kazakhstan was particularly important to Nazarbayev because the state was newly created as part of the breakup of the Soviet Union (Varkocková, 2021). States that have experienced loss of sovereignty are also highly motivated to attain recognition from the international community. Burundi and Rwanda, where UN peacekeeping troops were stationed to halt ethnic conflict, are now contributing peacekeeping troops to other countries to enhance their state’s status and legitimacy (Wilén, 2022).

To be successful, a social creativity strategy requires that the dominant group recognize the new value as worthwhile and the lower-status group’s actions as commendable. After the end of the Cold War, the United States was more receptive to China’s efforts at social creativity than to those of Russia. Larson and Shevchenko (2010) try to account for variation in China and Russia’s responses to the end of the Cold War, collapse of communism, and emergence of U.S. unipolarity—serious threats to the identities of both states as great powers. After realizing the futility of social competition with the United States, both states shifted to a social creativity strategy. China sought status as a “responsible power” through engaging in multilateral institutions and providing a developmental model in the form of the Beijing consensus, while Russia under Vladimir Putin initially tried to be a strategic partner with the United States in the “War on Terror.” The United States reinforced China’s turn toward responsible behavior. In contrast, Washington did not regard Putin’s cooperation as meriting any special treatment. Instead, the Bush administration supported “color revolutions” in Russia’s near abroad, culminating in U.S. efforts to secure approval for the admission of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, a policy that Russia regarded as a threat to its sphere of influence in the near abroad and great power status, which contributed to the outbreak of the 2008 Russia–Georgia War.

Social psychologists have recently incorporated group emotions into SIT (Mackie & Smith, 2015; Smith, 1993). When individuals identify strongly with a social group, they experience its triumphs and humiliations through emotions as if they were their own. Groups that have been humiliated or experience injustice are likely to feel anger, which is directed toward the out-group in the form of aggression. Russian president Putin felt humiliated by the overthrow of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in response to popular protests, and he responded by sending Russian special forces into Crimea, also an act of vengeance against what he perceived as a series of Western insults to Russia’s status (Larson & Shevchenko, 2014).

SIT emphasizes that groups seek an identity that is distinctive from similar groups. Since returning to power in 2010, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban has sought to win greater respect for Hungary through distinctive domestic policies, affirmation of Christian values, a strong state, and a multi-vector foreign policy—a manifestation of social creativity rather than social mobility (Shevchenko, 2018). Evans (2015) argues that Putin used social creativity beginning in the fall of 2013, when he asserted that Russia was a better representative of traditional conservative family values and Christianity than the supposedly decadent and amoral Europe. Putin’s appeal to traditional values has elevated Russia’s status among some right-wing parties in Europe.

China has used social creativity through its “peaceful rise” rhetoric, most recently illustrated by President Xi Jinping’s advocacy of a “new type of great power relationship” between the United States and China involving the avoidance of conflict and “win–win” outcomes (Larson, 2015). The discourse associated with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the signature foreign policy of Xi, stresses “win-win,” mutual learning, and peace and cooperation, in contrast to past policies of Western imperialist powers (Gloria, 2021). But Chinese actions may undermine the claims of BRI rhetoric, as evidenced by the rapid decline in China’s status among Italian members of parliament due to its lack of transparency over COVID-19, revocation of Hong Kong’s independent status, and repression of Xinjiang. Italy had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with China on its participation in the BRI in 2019 (Andornino, 2022).

The recent rise of China and India has undermined Japan’s previous status as the leading power in Asia. Funaiole (2015) attributes Japan’s adoption of a more “normal” defense strategy since 2001 as part of a shift from a social creativity strategy of emphasizing economic growth while taking a low profile, to a social mobility strategy of emulating the military contributions of U.S. allies such as Britain.

Criticisms and Directions for Future Research

Since social identity theory has only recently been applied to international relations, its theoretical concepts are still in the process of being specified and operationalized. The observable indicators of the different types of identity management strategies need to be more fully explicated. Sometimes states will combine elements of two different strategies. Shifting operational indicators can make SIT difficult to falsify when applied to particular cases in international relations.

Ward (2017) contends that the psychological theory of SIT conceived of social mobility as individuals who try to leave their social group, a different level of analysis than social competition and social creativity. But the original version of SIT proposed by Tajfel envisioned that social groups could seek to improve their collective status within society through emulation of the values of the dominant group (Larson & Shevchenko, 2019a; Tajfel, 1978, p. 94). Subsequent psychological research has analyzed how social groups such as African Americans may seek collective mobility (Derks et al., 2009; Sweetman et al., 2013).

In a review of SIT, Brown (2000, pp. 758–759) criticized the theory for failure to predict which identity management strategy would be used—social mobility, social competition, or different variants of social creativity. SIT does posit that the choice of identity management strategy varies as a function of the permeability of elite group boundaries and the legitimacy and stability of the status hierarchy. Nevertheless, greater refinement of these variables or additional moderator variables may be useful for the study of international relations. Perhaps culture and history may provide predispositions for states to pursue specific strategies. For example, historically Russia has been quite successful in using military power to advance its status, whereas China has relied on the glory of its civilization and moral superiority (Larson & Shevchenko, 2019b). More work could be done to elaborate operational indicators for the permeability of elite clubs in international relations or the legitimacy/stability of the status hierarchy. Another criticism is that international relations applications of SIT do not explain why some individual leaders or domestic publics place a higher valuation on relative status (Götz, 2021, p. 235; MacDonald & Parent, 2021, p. 374). The domestic politics of identity formation and status appeals is an area that could benefit from additional research. Related to the choice of an identity management strategy is the selection of a reference group, which has also not been adequately explained in SIT (Brown, 2000, pp. 762–763).

Wohlforth (2009) dismisses SIT as having limited relevance for international relations because it does not incorporate major asymmetries in power as well as status. In his view, a state’s choice of identity management strategy is constrained by its geographic position as well as its natural endowments, such as size and population. Wohlforth argues that SIT is most likely to be applicable under conditions of no major power asymmetries and a flat, ambiguous status hierarchy. But Wohlforth’s conception treats status as being determined solely by military capabilities, rather than incorporating other dimensions. While unable to compete with great powers, smaller states may also improve their status by emulating the values and norms of more prestigious states as part of a strategy of social mobility or by emphasizing different criteria through social creativity. A smaller state may enhance its international prestige through creating institutions, promoting new norms, or diplomatic mediation (de Carvalho & Neumann, 2015). States may gain status by winning Olympic medals or by providing developmental aid (Bezerra et al., 2015). Medium and smaller powers may achieve higher status by complying with uncontested norms such as bilateral aid, multilateralism, and economic liberalism (Miller et al., 2015). Major powers may seek the self-esteem derived from deploying status symbols such as nuclear weapons or aircraft carriers (Fikenscher et al., 2015). A dissatisfied competitor may gain additional status by acting as a “spoiler,” preventing the leading state from achieving its goals, without catching up to its military capabilities. Just as status should not be conflated with power, so states have ways of achieving higher standing that do not involve geopolitical competition.


Compared to other psychological theories, social identity theory offers substantial relevance for international relations because it is on group-level rather than individual analysis. Leaders usually act on the basis of their national rather than personal identity.

SIT also highlights the importance of social comparison as a motive for foreign policy. National elites compare their state’s achievements and qualities to those of a reference state. The selection of a reference group is extremely important in shaping state policy. Small and middle powers, for example, may choose as a reference group the Western liberal democracies or the nonliberal states such as Russia and China. The adoption of a particular reference group will also affect how satisfied states are with their position on the status hierarchy. After the end of the Cold War, for example, Eastern European states compared their economic well-being not with that of the Soviet Union or other former communist countries, but with the higher-status Western European states, a comparison that motivated them to reform their political institutions in order to be admitted into the European Union.

Neorealism suggests that power transitions such as the emergence of China and the resurgence of Russia are likely to be conflictual because status is scarce and zero-sum. But SIT holds out the possibility of peaceful transitions if the rising power uses social creativity in choosing a status dimension that does not challenge the leading power. Mutual recognition and a division of labor between the rising and status quo powers could lead to social cooperation.

SIT emphasizes external recognition as a major determinant of a state’s satisfaction with the international system. Rising and resurgent powers wish to be recognized as equal to the dominant states. More research using SIT needs to be done on the responses of higher-status states to perceived threats to their superior status.

Research applying SIT to international relations may use any of a variety of methods to address such questions—survey experiments, discourse analysis, quantitative analysis, and historical case studies. Knowing how states seek and maintain a positive status is extremely important for avoiding future conflict due to the uneven growth in state power and status.


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