Social Identity Essay (Movie Review)


Social identity within the discipline of social psychology provides a fundamental way of defining individuals when it is necessary to do. We use this criterion to distinguish between a personal identity and an individual’s different group identities. In this regard, social psychologists have come with several models of social identity theories in their attempts to explain relations between people.

This essay shall use the movie, Grand Illusion to identify and explore three bases of group categorisation and apply social identity theories in order to explain whether the characters transcend or exposed to illusion in the movie.

Tajfel formulated social identity theory consisting of other sub-theories in order to explain why people identify with a given group and or behave as a part of a specific group, or adopt some shared characteristics and attitudes among them.

This theory attempts to analyse both the sociological and psychological elements found in group behaviour. If we take a war scenario, we can identify the striking features of group behaviour. We can use this observation to perceive individuals and their views towards other people (Tajfel, 1978).

Tajfel and other sociologists tried to analyse behaviour from a group perspective as well as individual perspective. They criticised the idea that people could only explain group behaviour from an individual’s psychology. These scholars argue that identity and behaviour take a continuous and seamless approach depending on the situation.

They noted that at one end behaviour was purely interpersonal and unique to an individual (Spears, 2001). On the other hand, behaviour was purely intergroup consisting of common elements within the group. Thus, in social identity theory, every person has different sets of identities, which are both personal and social. As a result, these identities tell individuals who they are and the constituents of these identities.

However, these identities vary depending on social circumstances. Individuals may have salient personal identities and relate with others at an interpersonal level depending on the existing relationship, and character traits. On the other hand, a group identity may dominate depending on the social context (Abrams and Hogg, 2004).

Low-status groups and Class

Turner and Tajfel note that we cannot always be members of a group which gives us a positive social identity, and movement to these social groups which give us positive social identity may not always be possible (Tajfel and Turner, 1979). Thus, an individual may decide to move to another social group.

However, this needs social mobility. Mobility may only be possible in scenarios of social class or employment. However, it becomes impossible in cases of race and gender. Thus, social mobility is at an individual’s level in the social behaviour continuum.

On the other side of the continuum, there is a direct competition at the group levels. In order to realise this, we must believe that change is truly possible and needed. At the same time, members of the group must perceive the existing relationships among different groups as unwanted and unjustified.

Lastly, if the above options fail to work, the person who wants to shift his group, may only do so through comparing with other groups he feels comfortable. Likewise, he can also consider various sets of criteria, which he feels may fit his conditions for comparisons.

Still, individuals may decide to decide to redefine their groups or their groups’ identities. These final options are not among the best, but they provide individuals with some level of comfort so as to tolerate the undesired current stands they have of their groups or other groups.

In Grand Illusion, we can look at the idea of class and how it defines a low-status group theory of social identity. There are different characters of different social classes in the setting. There are two leading characters who are aristocrats. The two men, von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu are men of high social class, well educated, cosmopolitan, and conversant in many languages.

These characters find themselves close to each other because if their shared characteristics, such as high level of education, high regards for social order and rituals. They even feel closer to each other than men of low-class who are of their own countries. Their social circumstances are almost the same.

They flirt with the same woman, dine at the same place, speak German and French, and occasionally English as if they are avoiding the lower class among them. They also have acquaintances who know each other.

Grand Illusion shows a declining status of the aristocrats. There is a new social order consisting of people who were never of high social class. Social class is no longer relevant in the new order, and it no longer controls the national politics. These two aristocrats believe that their services are calls to nation’s duty for a purposeful aim. This social group is dying, but these two characters would not acknowledge that.

They still cling to their old social order and codes, which are disappearing. These characters receive this change differently. Whereas de Boeldieu manages to accept the fate of aristocracy, von Rauffenstein fails to transcend; thus living in illusion.

A part from the aristocrats, there are also characters of lower class, such as the mechanic, Marechal. They share nothing in common, have no education and also different interests. However, they have human feelings gained through worldly experience.

When the aristocrat sacrifices himself for the lower class, it means he has accepted his fate that aristocracy is disappearing. During his last moments, de Boeldieu comments that he pities von Rauffenstein who still struggles to fit in the new social order where his experiences and ways of life are no longer applicable. This is a case of social mobility where the lower class masses change their social status by replacing the aristocrats.

Group distinctiveness and War

According to social identity theory, people derive considerable level of influence by being in a group which is distinct from others. These people look at themselves in terms of in-groups and out-groups with reference to groups they belong.

This gives them opportunities for discovering the values present within their groups. This also provides group members with opportunities of deriving positive values from being a group member. In some individuals, it may enhance their positive esteem (Sherif, 1967).

Sometimes, discrimination among groups does not happen for any clear reasons, such as a struggle for resources, individuals’ interests, or conflicts of interests from groups. Certain prevailing circumstances may force people relate themselves with various self-identities. These self-identities may cause some individuals feel that they do not belong in a given social environment.

This leads to moving from one group to another, and continuous redefinition of self-identities. This creates disparity between the real self and the limited self others see. This is how occupational or educational background influence formation of self and identities (Ahmed, 2007).

Grand Illusion depicts war as illusion, and by extension, war veterans too. War is an occupation and a service to the nation in aristocracy. Those who believe that war will end problems and provide a better world have failed to transcend and have false perception of war. This is because some characters believed the war will solve all their problems.

Grand Illusion shows no scenes of real war happening. However, we can see prisoners of war from different nations share their common experiences in their occupations (duty to the nation). The movie depicts war as a dangerous occupation. War results into loss of lives. Elsa shows pictures of lost lives in the past wars which made her a widow and lose a brother.

The movie refutes the popular claims that an individual’s sacrifice and bravery can save the entire nation. This shows that the idea of Rosenthal and Marechal to return to war for the sake of fighting to end the war may only result into more loss of lives.

Self-categorization theory and Prejudice

Turner and Tajfel are responsible for the theory of self-categorisation through their works on social identity studies. This theory looks at the relationships that exist among group behaviour, and an individual’s notion of self-concept that defines his social cognitive and results into the creation of social identity effects. This theory attempts to explain how individuals define themselves both at the group level and individual level.

The theory posits that there is a “difference between individual and group identities in self-categorization” (Hogg and Terry, 2000). In this case, a person may bear many and different group identities, such as nationality, occupation, gender and age among others. At the same time, an individual may have many, but different identities depending on the social context.

In self-categorisation, the focus is mainly on hierarchy rather than the continuum. Different identities assume hierarchy in relationships instead of a continuum in social identity theory. Thus, an individual can assume as many identities as he wishes, but this depends on the social context.

The most striking group identity depends on the individual’s accessibility, which depends on the categorisation and how it relates to a social situation. In this case, an individual would be striving to achieve or change their prevailing social contexts using their behaviour. An appropriate instance is where people discuss political issues where matters of nationality interest may be salient (Oakes, 1987).

Grand Illusion has elements of prejudice. Prejudice in this context refers to assuming and drawing negative attributes before we establish the facts for sound judgment. In relationship to social identity theory, there is an existing threat theory of prejudice.

This theory states “four types of perceived threats felt from an out-group act as triggers for inter-group prejudice: realistic threats (those to body and possessions, for example), symbolic threats (those to ways of life), inter-group anxiety, and negative stereotypes” (Turner and Brown, 1978). In studying prejudice from a cultural point of view, we do not necessarily need the four types of threats so that we can identify prejudice.

Studies have shown that realistic threats usually have far-reaching effects in cultural prejudice, particularly among people who highly identify with the in-groups. On the other hand, negative stereotypes or symbolic threats do not have any significant consequences among low and high identifiers.

In addition, social identity is most likely to affect an individual subjected to prejudice. Usually, in in-groups, members approach ambiguous situations cautiously. In this case, they relate circumstances to external conditions rather than internal group activities.

In this context, individuals with in-group attribute and share the same qualities with their potential victims of prejudice rarely experience judgment from in-group members. Likewise, individuals who are morally upright also experience less judgement within in-groups, but can suffer judgments from out-group members (Drury and Reicher 2000).

Grand Illusion briefly depicts the issue of anti-Semitism. Rosenthal is a Jewish and not an aristocratic, but a new breed of wealthy businessmen who runs successful bank. There is a sharp difference between Rosenthal and Rothschild who also runs a bank but happens to be French.

What we observe in Rosanthal is a character trait that goes beyond mere prejudice so as to embrace humanity of all class and masses. Despite the fact that Rosanthal is financially stable, he shares all his foods and parcels with all prisoners.

This is a great comparison to German captors who display open prejudice against their prisoners. This is a realistic threat of prejudice. The movie shows that such negative stereotypes do not help humanity advance.

In some cases, such prejudice may turn into hate. Here there is hostility against people who are not part of your group, culture, sex, race, and religious among others. These characters exploit their racial dominant in support of activities that enhance separation. Individuals may decide to join such group because of the desire to rebel, such for answers or because they like violence


Grand Illusion presents both characters who have managed to transcend as well as those who still stick to their old social orders. We can only understand these characters deeply by relating them to different social identity theories.

We observe that Grand Illusion has different representations of character to show different group identities and the idea of change, social mobility, categorisation, and other elements that define identity formation.

Captain von Rauffenstein orders his soldiers to establish the rank of his prisoners and invites them for lunch. However, these prisoners must be at least the rank of military officer in order to qualify for lunch with the captain.

Captain von Rauffenstein and de Boieldieu have different allegiances. However, they share much in common to enable them form a “group”. These two men relate better than with their fellow countrymen. Through these men, we can see the idea of social mobility as the poor masses have decided to take power from the aristocrats.

These two men are members of the aristocrats. They know that their inherited social status of the aristocracy is gradually coming to an end. Some of them cannot imagine the new social order without the culture, education and experience they once knew from the aristocracy. Some of these characters are able to accept reality and transcend beyond illusion, whereas other characters cannot.

We see the new order through Rosenthal and Marechal. These characters represent the new face of the new social order. However, even this new order is full of illusion. Rosenthal and Marechal believe that they will return from the war and enjoy lasting peace. This illusion is also present in the old order where aristocrats believe in service to the nation.

Reference List

Abrams, D and Hogg, M 2004, ‘Metatheory: Lessons from social identity research’, Personality and Social Psychology Review, vol. 8, pp. 98-106.

Ahmed, A 2007, ‘Group identity, social distance and intergroup bias’, Journal of Economic Psychology, vol. 28, pp. 324-337.

Drury, J and Reicher, S 2000, ‘Collective action and psychological change: The emergence of new social identities’, British Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 39, pp. 579-604.

Hogg, M and Terry, D 2000, ‘Social identity and self-categorization processes in organizational contexts’, Academy of Management Review, vol. 25, pp. 121-140.

Oakes, P 1987, The salience of social categories, Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

Sherif, M 1967, Group conflict and co-operation: Their social psychology, Routledge, London.

Spears, R 2001, ‘The interaction between the individual and the collective self: Self-categorization in context’, Individual self, relational self, and collective self, vol.4, pp. 171-198.

Tajfel, H 1978, Differentiation between social groups, Academic Press, London.

Tajfel, H and Turner, J 1979, ‘An Integrative Theory of Intergroup Conflict. The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations, vo. 1, no. 7, pp.94–109.

Turner, J and Brown, R 1978, Social status, cognitive alternatives and intergroup relations, Academic Press, London.

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