Sunday, March 31, 2013

social glue and world-changing?

socialevolutionforum | There are two main kinds of social glue: ‘social identification’ and ‘identity fusion’. The latter is most simply described as a visceral sense of oneness with others in one’s group. This may be manifested in a variety of ways. For instance, when another group member is threatened it prompts the same defensive reactions as a personal attack. For the fused individual, the boundary between the personal and social self is porous – activation of one’s sense of personal self also serves to activate feelings about the social self. Fused individuals regard other members of their group as irreplaceable, and seek to reform and reintegrate them when they violate their group’s norms rather than kicking them out for good. When the group is under attack, or their status threatened, fusion increases commitment to maintain the group.

Identity fusion is a widespread feature of kin groups and other small social units whose members share the trials and tribulations of life together. This sharing of experiences as well as the memories of those experiences, particularly of enduring and overcoming hardships, seems to be an important part of the mechanism generating fusion, most commonly within families but sometimes also within much larger groups.

My mother remembers how tightly glued together our family was throughout the war. During the Blitz they spent a lot of time huddled together in bomb shelters. One night, however, my mother’s uncle and aunt and their young son emerged before the All Clear had been sounded, and went inside.  The last bomb of the air raid fell on their house and they were killed instantly.

An evacuee at the time, my mother only heard about the tragedy months later. She was on the top deck of a bus. She remembers it being a glorious day, the pretty summer dress she was wearing, that it was a treat to get the seat at the front. Her mother turned to her and said: “Your uncle and auntie’s house was bombed and they were inside it. Your cousin too.” That was all. It would have been improper to display emotion in public, so where better to deliver the news than on a crowded London bus? My mother was nine years old at the time.

It is very unlikely my mother would have remembered the weather or what she was wearing or even where she was sitting that day on the bus, were it not for the emotional impact of my grandmother’s words. Integral to our sense of self is a set of memories of past experiences, including episodes that are felt to be especially salient in forming who we are. Such episodes will often relate to painful or disturbing experiences because these are generally better remembered than pleasant or gratifying ones.

While these ‘bad’ experiences come to form part of our personal autobiographies that does not necessarily mean they are rehearsed as narratives. Often, there are social disincentives to talk about such experiences — because they conflict with idealized conceptions of family life, gender roles, Britishness, or whatever. But that doesn’t mean the memories are lost. They remain as part of our private sense of self. Indeed this sense of privacy, of experience that is internally generated rather than externally imposed, adds to the authenticity of these aspects of our self-conception.

The impression that highly salient personal experiences are shared by others fuels the fusion of self and other. It is as if those who have been through the same thing are more ‘like us’ and the boundary between self and other becomes more porous. This would help to explain why people who endure terrible ordeals, such as natural disasters or wars, or who have experienced persecution or oppression, often feel a special bond with their fellow sufferers. My mother, for example, felt a special connection with children who turned up at school with black armbands. And conversely, it can feel as if people who haven’t actually experienced your pain themselves cannot truly understand it, and may seem inauthentic if they talk about the subject with an air of authority.

In all these respects, identity fusion differs from what psychologists call ‘social identification’ (Swann et al. 2012). Social identity theorists have repeatedly shown that personal and group identities are non-overlapping. Social identity and group identity have a sort of hydraulic relationship to each other: the more one is activated, the less the other is. If your group identity prevails in your social life, the less prominently social identity willfeature. Attacks on the group activate social but not personal selves in people who identify with, but are not fused with, the group. Pro-group action is not motivated by the personal self. Members of the group are replaceable and norm violators can be more readily excluded from the group. When the status of the group is threatened, identification with the group is weakened.