Identity in South Africa: Examining self-descriptions across ethnic groups

B.G. Adams, F.J.R.. van de Vijver, Gideon P. De Bruin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review


We examined identity indicators in free self-descriptions of African, Coloured, Indian, and White ethnic groups in South Africa. Based on trait theory, independence–interdependence, and individualism–collectivism, we predicted that the individualistic White group would have more independent and context-free identity descriptions than the other, more collectivistic groups. We did not expect differences across the four groups in terms of Ideological, Religious, Spiritual and Ethnic aspects of identity. Loglinear analyses of the coded self-descriptions largely confirmed expectations for the African and White groups, but less so for the Coloured and Indian groups. Overall, the study found a large number of cross-cultural similarities with independent, individualistic, context-free and Dispositional Descriptions prevalent in all groups. The most salient difference between the African and White groups was that the African group was more likely than the White group to specify target persons in relational self-descriptions. This suggests a stronger in-group–out-group distinction in the African group.
► We examine self-descriptions in the African, Indian, Coloured and White groups in South Africa.
► Independent, individualistic, context-free and Dispositional Descriptions were prevalent in all groups.
► The most salient ethnic differences were found between the African and White groups.
► In Relational Orientation, the African group specified more target persons than the White group.
► The Coloured and Indian groups were placed in between the African and White groups.
Keywords: Self-descriptions, Identity, Trait theory, Independence–interdependence, Individualism–collectivism, South Africa
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)377-388
JournalInternational Journal of Intercultural Relations
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2012


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