In my last post, I talked about the enlivening effect of seeing every person as belonging to our social purpose organizations. I mentioned Social Identity Theory, which explains how difficult holding such a universal intention can be.
Social Identity Theory offers a particularly dispiriting explanation of how crudely we construct our identities through the groups and social categories we belong to. We exaggerate the similarities among people within our groups and exaggerate our differences with those in other groups. We then contrast our groups with others in ways that flatter us and diminish them.
One of the interesting things that Social Identity Theory reveals is how superficially we understand ideas like solidarity and community. We are used to thinking of a strong group identity as something that forges deep links among group members. We imagine that these links are all the more powerful when we band together against the people and groups outside of our circle.
But the way Social Identity Theory describes our interactions is not so uplifting. Within strong identity groups and categories, we tend to judge people less for their individual gifts than for the degree to which they embody the stereotypical characteristics of the group. The more representative of the group they are, the more we esteem them. Suppose that ‘engineers’ are seen (by themselves) as preferring simple, practical clothing to stylish dress. Even though dress has nothing to do with engineering ability, engineers will hold a person who dresses “like an engineer” in higher regard than a person who dresses differently.
Or suppose that we are strongly committed to our identities as ‘activists’ (and that we hold fiercely to the belief that some people are activists and some people aren’t). We will judge others by how well they fit our ideal activist image.
In general, the people in groups who match the group stereotype most closely will often be the people who are valued most and who end up having the most power and influence.
To me, this description of group interaction suggests a paradox: the more fiercely we identify with a group, the less authentically we connect to its members. To see each other primarily through the lens of how well we express a group caricature can only create weak bonds between us. If I want to truly connect to you, I must discover your unique, idiosyncratic qualities and I must reveal to you my own.
The converse of this paradox would also then be true. The more I understand my particular group to be only an expression of a broader, universal current (the more I see everyone as essentially belonging to who I am and to what I do), the more free I will be of the distorting effects of social identity processes and the more fully I will be able to connect to those friends who on a day to day basis travel in this group with me. Essentially, the tighter a group identity, the more shallow and brittle the actual relationships between members of the group. The more inclusive the group identity, the deeper and stronger those relationships.
As I said in the last post, no matter how aptly Social Identity Theory might describe the ways that most of us behave most of the time, I believe there are enough alternative examples out there to give us hope that it doesn’t always have to be this way. We can approach our lives in groups differently – with an intentional inclusiveness and wholeness that will also allow us to relate to each other in more fulfilling ways.