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Social Identity Theory and Gangs

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How do we explain the behaviour of groups towards each other? We use the social identity theory of course. Also, for understanding the behaviour and cognition of individuals in respect of their social/collectivist contexts – more like African Psychology – and to put the collectivist self into context. (Hogg & Williams, 2000). According to the theory, being part of a group is important for an individual in helping them define themselves and to have a more positive outlook on life. This essay will focus on intergroup behaviour and social identity formation to explain the behaviour of gang members. (Swartz, De la Rey, Duncan , Townsend, & O’Neill, 2016)

Loneliness stems from people’s needs for affection and connections with others, which are, of course, unfulfilled (Blair & Justice, 2007). At the end of the day, no one wants to be sad and unhappy right? This is one major reason that leads to group formation. The formation of a group goes through certain processes, i.e. forming (familiarisation stage), storming (conflict stage), norming (more homogenous behaviour), performing (cooperative phase) and adjourning (Swartz, De la Rey, Duncan , Townsend, & O’Neill, 2016). All groups usually have their own purpose that justifies their existence, like the root purpose for gangs is to provide a sense protection and belonging one would normally get from family. (Goldman, Giles , & Hogg, 2014). Everyone in the gang assumes their own role, like any other group membership specification, and its members often have different positions i.e. gang leader. (Swartz, De la Rey, Duncan , Townsend, & O’Neill, 2016)

Decision-making in groups, more especially smaller ones, is influenced a lot by different processes. Groupthink occurs when everyone agrees with whatever decisions taken in the group, usually by a leader, for the sake of cohesion and ‘peace’(usually ends up with bad decisions); group polarisation is when individual’s initial become more extreme after group “meetings” (people become persuaded) (Swartz, De la Rey, Duncan , Townsend, & O’Neill, 2016) and social cognition refers to how we process information and it is common in social situations that people just follow blindly to certain ideas without question (Howard, 2000). This is prevalent in gangs because, for example, if a decision to attack is taken by a leader, even if a member disagrees, it is done, no questions asked.

Social influence refers to a person altering their ideologies to suit their social context. Conformity is an example of such influence, it stems from some type of social pressure; separated into informational social influence (what we’re told is right by others) and normative social influence (when you just want to be liked). Obedience is when a person changes their behaviour because a person in power told them to (there’s no way you cannot do it) and compliance is when you bend to someone’s requests just for the sake of fitting in. (Swartz, De la Rey, Duncan , Townsend, & O’Neill, 2016) Gang members are particularly more at risk of adhering to some type of social influence, because of how much they want be accepted by their gangs, they would bend over backwards just to receive this acceptance. (Wood, 2014)

Intergroup behaviour refers to how people in groups’ behaviour is influenced by people in other groups. The levels at which this influence occurs are the Individual (unconscious processes), situational level (interaction with others) and the ideological (widespread belief systems that determine behaviour) (Swartz, De la Rey, Duncan , Townsend, & O’Neill, 2016). An issue may start from one member of a group having a problem with another group (usually a highly influential member) who would spread the hate speech amongst his own group causing them to be severely hostile and always having bad interactions for the sake of the group, that’s where one’s loyalty is put to the test. (Mufaro, Schenk , & Erasmus, 2016)

The positional level also explains intergroup behaviour that discusses people acting as per the group ‘rules’ as an explanation of intergroup behaviour. The theories supporting this are: realistic conflict theory (how it starts and ends), relative deprivation theory (social discontent) and the social identity theory. Social identity is when a person identifies and appreciates themselves by being a member of a group (Swartz et al, 2016). Social comparison is basically that, when a person is continuously assessing themselves relative to others and categorisation is when you put people into classes. Distinctiveness is more about how people choose group members they identify more with. All these explain how people get into the gangs they’re in, one would choose a gang where they feel most welcome and appeals the most to them (Brewer, 1993). A sense of unity and family is created in such cases and the members generally have better outlooks and they would want to protect that at all costs. For that to happen, other groups are then seen as a threat and therefore conflict arises to eliminate the threats even if it results in violence and people getting killed.

Social identity theory is very useful in explaining group behaviour but it’s not entirely accurate, it is also subject to certain limitations. It helps us understand intragroup behaviours i.e. stereotyping and it also highlights the fact that intergroup “bad blood” doesn’t have to occur for them to dislike each other. It has its cons though, being it cannot explain why in-house dilemmas i.e. favouritism can cause retaliation on other groups i.e. other gangs and most of the research is limited and on a more smaller scale, (Psychology, n.d.) it could be that other factors, not only social identity lead to decisions about joining groups/gangs.

From what is argued above, one can see that social identity theory plays a significant role in the decisions by people to want to be part of groups and it also helps us understand that people, particularly in groups’ behaviour is influenced highly by how they are seen by others in their social circles. Also, intragroup behaviour illustrates a lot on how the image that is presented to the public by the self is created.

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