Social identity, in a nutshell, is the place where we feel we belong in society and place our identity, or at least part of it, within a social group. For example, I am a supporter of Stevenage FC. It’s part of my identity in that it is one of the things people may say to describe me (I am sure there are many less flattering things as well), or how I may describe myself. There are many places where we may find our identity, and as a result, our place of acceptance, safety, and security. For some people this may be a membership to a political organisation, for others it may be in recognition of their title (how many people with a PhD insist on being called Doctor?), the place they work, or their social status. Religion is an obvious hot-button right now, especially as it relates to extremism, and this is even more of a divisive subject when we talk about the area where politics and religion intersect. I’m not going there today.
Nationalism is another hot button and it always has been. Sir William Wallace fought for nationalism, for the freedom of his country, and to remove the yoke of the oppressor. Wallace was walking a tough road trying to inspire the Scottish to find their identity in their nation first. It wasn’t as simple as Scotland against England. Wallace had to work with three identities: The English, the Scottish, and the nobles who found their identity in their position and status before their nationality. There is a line when social identity and belonging become dangerous. We like to feel right. We like to belong. We like to feel certain. For the nobles these things were found in King Edward I, the leader of the strongest army in Europe. No doubt, had they believed Wallace would have been victorious they would have supported him, but the odds were long and their identity would have been broken if they lost against Edward. Had they stuck with Wallace and helped him win they would have been immortalised as heroes. As it is, most people don’t know their names and they are numbered among the bad guys.
A few days ago someone commented on a LinkedIn article and discussed how Albert Camus had said “After many years during which I saw many things, what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport and learned it in the RUA” (Racing Universitaire Algerios, the soccer team he played for). This, along with some studying I have recently been doing relating to social identity made me think about how soccer really does have all the components for the struggles we face in life.
In life we have people who are supporting us but who also have their own goals and objectives. In soccer we have the striker who gets the last touch on a ball already goal-bound so he can claim his win bonus and notch another goal towards his personal best.
In life we have people who make mistakes and leave us to pick up the pieces. In soccer we have a defender who doesn’t mark their man and allows an easy goal against us.
In life we have people standing in our way as we try to achieve goals. In soccer we have people trying to achieve goals that are detrimental to us and stop us achieving our own goals.
In life we have to sometimes hope our competition wins in order to give us an advantage. In soccer we need other results to go in our favour.
In life we seek security and acceptance, and the opportunity to find connections with people. In soccer we put on the shirt of the team we support and join others who are also wearing those same colours. If we are really lucky we get to play for the team, but that’s not the case for most of us.
In life we sometimes have to work against our own desires in order to achieve our goals, or the goals of our group. In soccer, players have to score against their boyhood teams in order to win for the team they play for.
In life we want to belong, to win, to achieve, and we will defend our own. In soccer, whether we are on the terrace or on the field, we do the same. Criticise my team, I will defend them. They are mine, and I have the shirt to prove it.
But what if we are different? What of people with mental illness? What of those with disorders such as Tourette’s syndrome where behaviours are involuntary and don’t fit with a social group? Those behaviours that make people “weird” or even “embarrassing”. What if you are wearing the Millwall shirt, quietly having a beer in a pub where West Ham fans share a friendly drink together? There is no doubt that simply having an opposing ideology would result in you being politely asked to leave the premises, regardless of your behaviour. Of course, if you are wearing a Millwall shirt you’d probably feel safer in a pub with other Millwall supporters, whether you know them or not. It’s all about belonging.
I became a Stevenage FC supporter on January 4th, 1997 for no other reason than I went to see Stevenage play Birmingham in the FA Cup 3rd Round and met some people who accepted me. At the time my life was a little shaky and I was encountering a lot of opposition from people I had trusted and respected who in turn betrayed me. There were two groups of people who found me and helped me when I was at my worst. One was the church I began attending, and the other was a rowdy bunch of Boro fans. The Stevenage supporters had no idea who I was, what my history was, where I was from, or anything else about me*. They accepted me unconditionally. I was hooked, and 20 years later and a move half way around the world, I am still Boro for life (thanks in large part to the internet and the often ridiculous BoroChat forum (enter at your own risk)).
I am fortunate in that the group who found me are good people. The club is a good club, we have a reputation for family friendliness and win awards. We take pride in being a place where kids can feel safe. Is it perfect? No, of course not. There’s bad language, variations in moral standards, and different perspectives on things. It’s still a bunch of football supporters who find an outlet that is just a microcosm of their week playing out every Saturday. There are people from different social classes and educational backgrounds, and some people who are better able to manage their expression of frustration than others. Just like life.
The point here is that being different is normal. We have always had disagreements between social groups and we will always find our initial response to be defending our own. The important aspect of social identity however, and where it is at odds with what we see in the world, is that social identity should be something people choose. I could have decided that Stevenage wasn’t the team for me and walked away, but I didn’t. If we create a world in which people want to join, they will stay. If we try to create compliance, people will rebel. This is how I walked away from one group and found a new identity in Stevenage.
The takeaways this week are:
1 – We each have beliefs and ideals. Our social identity is formed when we find other people who believe as we do and accept us. We then become more assimilated into their group and our commitment grows. If the group is a positive one, this is a beneficial thing for the group, society, and the individual.
2 – If people are consistently left on the outside there will be two potential outcomes. The first is social withdrawal, which can lead to depression, anxiety and other disorders. This is a path many with mental illness and disorders go down. The second path is one in which people join fringe or extremist groups, which is typically not great for society.
3 – Team colours matter. We all need to feel we belong, a healthy identity depends on us finding people who belong to us, and who we belong to. Finding our place in the group, and the group’s place in the wider world is where we learn our place in the world, and where we find safety.
As ever, this boils down to how we can make a difference in the world. The group mentality is such that it can leave people isolated when they are on the outside. Group mentality is how we are wired, it’s in the blueprint. It is up to people in mainstream society to help support and accept people, those who may not feel they have a place, those on the outside, those who are hurt or ill, and help them find belonging. We can’t sit by and allow people to be isolated and then be surprised when they find a place in an extremist group, turning their back on society, or worse, supporting Woking.
* In the spirit of full disclosure I should note that my reputation preceded me in the church. My first meeting with the Pastor went like this:
Pastor: I’ve heard you’re trouble. Are you trouble?
Me: I can be, yes.
She laughed. To this day Dennis and Brenda Marshall encapsulate all it means to be a Christian pastor. They healed me of so much hurt from where I was leaving, and loved me back to health. I owe so much to them.