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date: 23 June 2017

Social Psychological Approaches to Intergroup Communication

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. Please check back later for the full article.

Communication and social psychology are fields that investigate processes of human behavior—how we develop and maintain social connections; when and why relationships break down; what information people pay attention to in social situations. Despite overlap in the questions they ask, social psychology and communication have remained remarkably separate disciplines, with vastly different research philosophies, methods, and audiences. One key construct tethering social psychology and communication is the issue of identity—how it is signaled, shaped, and created by social interactions. Social identity theory has, thus, been a key theory underpinning both disciplines, particularly when relations between group members are considered.

The power of identity in shaping human behavior remains relatively unarticulated in the broader disciplines of social psychology and communication, yet it holds the key to understanding points of connection between the two. Social psychological theories can provide theoretical structure to descriptive insights from the communication field about how and why people communicate. Communication research can bring richness to the understanding of social processes by highlighting communication as a mechanism through which social phenomena operate. The combination of insights from both fields has implications for social psychological research topics as diverse as interpersonal relationships, organizational functioning, and intergroup conflict and reconciliation. It is the connecting thread of identity that illuminates and will help to unlock these possibilities.

Communication in most contexts implicates social identity through intergroup or intragroup processes. Surprisingly, theorists in both social psychology and communication have frequently preferred to examine the variables within individuals (minds, brains, or individual behavior) or the communication between individuals (interpersonal communication), even in contexts where an intergroup approach would be more appropriate and more fruitful (e.g., in organizations of many types). We interpret theories to bring out the benefits of a stronger intergroup focus.