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Theory Information

People are social creatures and develop a perception of identity that views those who they are like or associate with as their "in-group" and those who are different as their "out-group." This perception often tandems with the belief of in-group superiority to out-groups both in quality and the judgment of behavioral motivations or actions. One group membership theory is called the Ultimate Attribution Error (Pettigrew 1979; Bodenhausen 1988) in which people tend to attribute negative behavior as being keyed to intrinsic internal flaws for their out-group (they are just like that) as compared to the in-group only being influenced by external causes in regards to their actions and choices (I was having a bad day; I misunderstood). The flip side is positive behaviors for the out-group are viewed as by chance and not due to internal characteristics (they got lucky), while the in-group's positive behavior or motivations are described as natural and anticipated internal motivations (of course I was accepted to the program ... !). Huang's (1994) group membership dynamics theory looks at the multiple identities and roles a person is assigned by others and claims for her or himself and whether these prioritized identities are in conflict or in congruence. Ethnocentrism is the group membership viewpoint that one culture and cultural group is superior or a standard to measure others by Group Membership theory is strongly connected to the development and self-reinforcement of stereotypes and prejudice.


Facilities and programs should be designed and implemented so as to strengthen group identities while furthering opportunities to interact in a meaningful way with those from other identity groups. Also, these ideas are integral to addressing issues of self-segregation of groups based on stereotypes, prejudices, or energy priorities when students are overloaded and overwhelmed by everyday demands. Programs that are "connected" to Group Membership theory meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • Facilitate connections between members of one particular group (such as a French Club or Somali Group).
  • Facilitate connections among broader identity groups (such as International Student Organization or Study Abroad Returnees, or Africa Association).
  • Facilitate interaction between populations that may not easily intermingle on campus (international and U.S. student interaction.
  • Directly focus on prejudice and stereotypes.