What do these people have in common?
– Unaccompanied children crossing the border illegally, and the people who don’t want them in this country.
– People opposing the militarization of police, and the people who don’t believe militarization is all that bad.
– People who don’t mind submitting to TSA searches, and people who think it’s a waste of resources and liberty.
– People who think NSA surveillance is a national abomination, and people who believe if you haven’t done anything wrong you shouldn’t mind government having access to your emails and phone calls.
One answer to the question is they are all members of groups whose behaviors can be explained and predicted more effectively by their identities as members of groups, rather than by trying to understand the behaviors of the individuals in each of those groups.
Social identity theory is the name given to this way of understanding why people do what they do.
Social Identity Theory (SIT) has been around since the 1970s. I learned about it a few years ago from colleagues I teach with. I’m still not sure what I think about it. I wonder about its predictive and operational value. But I do know that a third to a half of the practitioners who graduate from our program think there’s something to SIT worth paying attention to.
SIT is “a theory that predicts certain intergroup behaviors on the basis of perceived group status differences, the perceived legitimacy and stability of those status differences, and the perceived ability to move from one group to another.”
According to an article by Ellemers and Haslam in the Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology, the core premise of social identity theory “is that in many social situations people think of themselves and others as group members, rather than as unique individuals. The theory argues that social identity underpins intergroup behavior and sees this as qualitatively distinct from interpersonal behavior…. [The theory] focuses on social context as the key determinant of social perceptions and social behaviors.”
But why would anyone in homeland security want to learn anything about social identity theory?
Two of my colleagues – David Brannan and Anders Strindberg – argue in their book A Practitioner’s Way Forward: Terrorism Analysis that terrorism research has been conducted without much attention to analytical rigor. They believe SIT can help provide that rigor.
They also offer, through the NPS Center for Homeland Defense and Security, a self-study course titled Understanding Terrorism: A Social Science View on Terrorism. It describes SIT and illustrates — among other things – how it can be used to “provide nuance, depth, and rigor to your studies of religious terrorism.”
There is no cost for the course, but registration is required. You can register at this link: http://www.chds.us/?special/info&pgm=Noncredit.
According to the CHDS website, the course is “available to local, tribal, state and federal U.S. government officials; members of the U.S. military; private-sector homeland security managers; homeland security researchers or educators; and students enrolled in homeland security degree programs.”