Context: The clinical workplace in which doctors learn involves many social groups, including representatives of different professions, clinical specialties and workplace teams. This paper suggests that medical education research does not currently take full account of the effects of group membership, and describes a theoretical approach from social psychology, the social identity approach, which allows those effects to be explored.
Methods: The social identity approach has a long history in social psychology and provides an integrated account of group processes, from the adoption of group identity through a process of self-categorisation, to the biases and conflicts between groups. This paper outlines key elements of this theoretical approach and illustrates their relevance to medical education.
Results: The relevance of the social identity approach is illustrated with reference to a number of areas of medical education. The paper shows how research questions in medical education may be usefully reframed in terms of social identity in ways that allow a deeper exploration of the psychological processes involved. Professional identity and professionalism may be viewed in terms of self-categorisation rather than simply attainment; the salience of different identities may be considered as influences on teamwork and interprofessional learning, and issues in communication and assessment may be considered in terms of intergroup biases.
Conclusions: Social identity theory provides a powerful framework with which to consider many areas of medical education. It allows disparate influences on, and consequences of, group membership to be considered as part of an integrated system, and allows assumptions, such as about the nature of professional identity and interprofessional tensions, to be made explicit in the design of research studies. This power to question assumptions and develop deeper and more meaningful research questions may be increasingly relevant as the nature and role of the medical profession change.
© Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2012.