Lately I have been drawn towards reading more about social identity theory. I long for being in a community again, for having people I have interests in common with around, for a sense of belonging, for people to understand me. In the past 4 years, I have been part of such groups, and now I feel like I am slowly falling outside of the process. Having a certain group identity gives one meaning, security, confidence, and support, so what’s not to like about it?
In my context, where I study about ethnic conflicts, divided societies, it is all about the negative aspect of social identity. The “us versus them” concept drags people into cycles of violence, that they cannot escape from. Today, I was at a conference with the theme “gender” where we touched on both issues of feminism and masculinities. Almost after every talk, the issue of the flags came up. What better example to illustrate that the construction of identity can result into violence? One does not have much choice being born and growing up in a certain environment. Had that 8-year old boy who was throwing petrol bombs at the police a few weeks ago, been born in a middle class family in Cambridge, be doing that now? Certainly not. He is deeply shaped by the Loyalist masculinities around him: he has to go out there and fight for his identity, his community, and make others proud. Other than the concepts of group formation, and the construction of identity, we also have Rene Girard’s mimetic theory which helps us get the grips on why such things happen, at a deeper level.
If we use social identity theory in my context, there is a lot to worry about. This us versus them thinking can lead to prejudices, scape-goating, superiority. As outlined in his theory Henri Tajfel emphasises that through the process of social categorisation we automatically divide the world into this us vs them system, and we are inclined to discriminate against them in order to enhance our self-image.
The social identity issue surrounds me so much these days, that I even found it in the novel I’m reading before bed:
“We students in the seminar developed a strong group identity. We were the students of the camps-that’s what the other students called us, and how we soon came to describe ourselves. What we were doing didn’t interest the others; it alienated many of them, literally repelled some. When I think about it now, I think that our eagerness to assimilate the horrors ad our desire to make everyone else aware of them was in fact repulsive. The more horrible the events about which we read and heard, the more certain we became of our responsibility to enlighten and accuse. Even when the facts took our breath away, we held them up triumphantly Look at this!” The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink