The Legacy of European Social Psychology

An online compendium of ideas, schools and people in the field of Social Psychology

Tajfel, Henri

Henri Tajfel (Source: Olivier Klein)

Henri Tajfel, of Polish-Jewish parentage, was born in Wloclawek on June 22nd, 1919. At the outbreak of the second world war, he was studying chemistry at the Sorbonne. He was called up into the French army and, a year later was captured by the Germans. They never discovered that he was a Jew and so Tajfel survived the war in a series of Prisoner of War camps. However when he finally returned home he found that nearly all his friends and family were dead. These experiences shaped his subsequent career in three ways. First, he developed an abiding interest in prejudice; second, he recognised that his fate was tied entirely to his group identity; third, he understood that the Holocaust was not a product of psychology but of the way in which psychological processes operate within a given social and political context.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, Tajfel worked with a number of organisations, including the UN Refugee Organisation, to help rebuild the lives of orphans and concentration camp survivors. But from 1946 he started to study psychology and by 1954, now in the UK, he had graduated with a first class degree. His early work was part of the so-called 'new look' in social psychology and concerned processes of perceptual overestimation. While it may seem remote from his later intergroup research it was, however, concerned with the way in which social values frame cognitive processes - or rather how psychological functioning shapes and is shaped by large-scale social processes. His empirical work was accompanied by trenchant critiques of reductionism and, in a telling phrase, he expresses his outrage at the way in which psychologists develop simplified models while displaying a 'bland indifference to all that one knew about human society'.

In 1967, Tajfel took up his Chair in Social Psychology at Bristol University where he remained until his death in 1982. Shortly after arriving he conducted the famous 'minimal group experiments'. These studies, which were originally intended as a baseline from which one could determine the necessary and sufficient conditions for collective prejudice, showed that mere categorisation can produce inter-group differentiation. They led him, along with John Turner, to develop social identity theory (SIT) - often represented as the idea that we define ourselves in terms of category memberships and then, in order to achieve a positive self-definition, seek to advantage our ingroup over comparison outgroups.

However, there is an irony here. Tajfel, who more than anyone else insisted on the need to view psychological processes in context, often found the minimal group studies taken out of context and hence social identity theory interpreted in reductionist terms. For him SIT was not meant to explain social inequalities in psychological terms but to examine how psychological dynamics operate in and relate to ideological and structural realities. The process of differentiation was not an end point, but a starting point for his analysis. The fundamental question was, if people seek positive social identities, what do they do if they are defined negatively in an unequal social world: as Jews in an anti-semitic world, blacks in a racist world, women in a sexist world? When do they act collectively to challenge such inequalities? In other words, social identity theory is more a theory of social change than social discrimination and the concept of social identity is primarily intended as a mediating concept in the explanation of social change. This agenda is of fundamental importance and continues to shape research. But Tajfel's triumph was moral as well as intellectual. In the face of Nazi inhumanity, when it would have been all too easy to succumb to fatalism and despair, Tajfel retained his optimism in the ability of people to organise and overcome oppression.

This optimism in organisation was reflected in many ways - EASP being one of them. After 1945 European intellectual life in general, and social psychology in particular, was scattered and fragmented and weak. From 1962 onwards, Tajfel was part of a small group from both sides of the Atlantic who sought to form a community of European Social Psychologists. One can enumerate his various formal contributions: Tajfel was on the first committee of the European Association in 1966. He was its second president and, during his term, the European Journal of Social Psychology was formed. However none of this conveys Tajfel's true intellectual and practical contribution. As Jerome Bruner, amongst others, noted, he more than anyone else brought European Social Psychology into being. Moreover, he provided its distinctiveness and dynamism: a rejection of reductionism and a commitment to studying psychological processes in context; a concern with social inequality along with an intellectual and moral commitment to social change; an abiding interest in collective processes and collective action as the motor of change. It is for these reasons that Tajfel is remembered and honoured and that his legacy remains so important for our future.