By Gordon Rugg
This article is a quick overview of some long-established and useful concepts from sociology and related fields.
It’s mainly intended as background for another article that I’ll be posting soon, about how most systems treat people who don’t fit neatly into pre-established pigeonholes.
If you already know about in-groups, out-groups etc you might still find this article interesting, because I’ve included some thoughts about cognitive load as a factor in group dynamics.
In-groups and out-groups.
A core concept in sociology, anthropology and related fields is the group. One widespread distinction is between the in-group (me, us, my people) and out-groups (not me, not us, not my people).
There’s a useful further distinction between near out-groups and distant out-groups. Near in-groups have direct contact with the in-group; distant out-groups have little or no direct contact with the in-group.
The illustration above illustrates the principle. I’ve only shown two near out-groups and two distant out-groups, for clarity.
The in-group is shown as a central white circle, alluding to the way that people usually perceive their in-group as the centre of the world, and to the way that the in-group is usually perceived as good and right (more on this later).
The two near out-groups are shown as red and black, using the conventional symbolism of these colours as representing menace and evil. The two distant out-groups are shown as a pale brown and a pale blue. The paleness picks up on the tendency for in-groups to know little about distant out-groups, and for in-groups usually to perceive distant out-groups as quaintly exotic groups who present little or no threat.
I’ll return to the issue of threat later in this article.
Another widely-used concept is the Other. The uppercase “O” is deliberate. Again, this involves an “us and them” world view, but this time the “them” group is treated as one undifferentiated threatening dark entity.
One version of this concept involves “us” being the majority, and being sensible, normal and right, with the Other being a small minority that is different and/or deviant.
Another version involves the in-group as an embattled minority surrounded by the dark, threatening Other, like this.
Why should anyone want to view themselves this way? Sometimes because it’s true; quite often, because it’s an effective way of encouraging stronger social bonds within the group, even though it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy if this strategy antagonises the Other.
Groups and threat
When groups feel threatened, they tend to react in predictable ways.
Here’s an image showing four groups in a non-threatening environment, getting on with their lives. The groups overlap; they’re shown as circles whose colours are different, but not strikingly different.
When groups feel threatened, one common response is for some group members to emphasise what are perceived as core features of group identity that differentiate the in-group from the others.
In the image above, we see four darker circles within the original group circles, representing the emergence of extremist factions within the groups. Each of these darker circles is fuzzy-edged, to make the point that this is a matter of degree, not of absolutes. Also, each of the darker circles is within an area that has no overlap with the other groups. The group “heartland” is not located in the original centre of the group; instead, it’s being located in terms of separateness from other groups.
If the perceived threat continues, then this dynamic moves further, as shown below.
Now, the darker circles are larger – more people are starting to move into the more extreme group factions – and the darker circles have moved further from the central point; each group is now taking up increasingly extreme positions to differentiate itself more clearly from the others, outside many of the original group values. There aren’t many people remaining in the old, overlapping areas.
This is a familiar pattern from history, commonly described in contemporary politics as “political purity battles” within political movements, or more colourfully as candidates trying to out-crazy each other to avoid being primaried. The underlying dynamics are well understood within systems theory and within games theory, altough comparatively few people appear to be aware of this. I’ve blogged about this topic previously.
Groups and uncertainty
In the previous sections, I’ve implicitly assumed that the stresses are clearly known and that the groups are identifiable. What happens when you add uncertainty to the mix?
In the image below, the Other is shown as a marginal group lurking on the edges of the in-group’s world.
In this version, we can’t be sure how far the Other extends; we can only see part of it. There’s no way of knowing whether the unseen part is tiny (and therefore probably unthreatening) or enormous (and therefore potentially dangerous, if the Other turns against the in-group).
The combination of uncertainty and very different outcomes is something I’ve blogged about before, in an article on why humour is funny and horror is scary.
When a situation is ambiguous, but is disambiguated as being non-threatening, then it’s funny; if it’s disambiguated as being threatening, then it’s horror, of the “sudden horrible realisation” variety.
Most human beings are very uncomfortable about ambiguous situations that include possible threat.
One way of reducing ambiguity is to show very clear externally visible signals of group membership, for example in choice of clothing or hair style. It doesn’t remove all the ambiguity, but it helps members of a group to identify members of their own group, as potential allies in difficult times. This overlaps with the concept from biology of costly honest signals, where an animal sends out a signal that is expensive in some way, but that is hard to fake. Among humans in stressful times, this can take forms such as regular visible participation in group events (e.g. communal prayer, or attending party rallies).
When we look at group affiliation signals in this way, another concept from a different field offers further useful insights. Young males are particularly prone to extreme displays of group affiliation. This is usually explained in terms of their frontal lobes not yet being fully developed, and/or in terms of culture and/or genetic “hard wiring”. The frontal lobes issue is probably a significant component, but there’s another factor which also probably contributes significantly to this behaviour.
Young males, like young people generally, are inexperienced; in terms of the literature on expertise, they’re novices in many forms of social interaction. Novices in any field tend to be poor at subtlety, and tend towards simplistic categorisation and simplistic behaviour patterns. So, young males might over-simplify group identifications and might go in for exaggerated group affiliation signals simply because of being novices, rather than because of any sociobiological imperative.
Moving back to the topic of visible affiliation, one of the classic themes in horror is the unseen. This theme appears in inter-group perceptions when stresses are high, in the form of fears of the Other being invisibly present. The classic manifestation of this is the conspiracy theory, which often involves claims of far-reaching and threatening unseen preparations by the Other for some atrocity against the in-group. Demagogues frequently use this strategy as part of an argument for a pre-emptive strike against the Other; it’s a common feature of history, often as a precursor to genocide.
A recurrent theme in this article has been cognition: the human cognitive system trying to identify dependable signals in a stressful, uncertain world. I’ll close with another thought about cognition, and its links to inter-group relations.
When you look at how people try to make sense of the world, you keep seeing attempts to divide the world neatly into binary, either/or categories – male versus female, natural versus artificial, traditional versus progressive. This has obvious parallels with the concept of the authoritarian personality, where a major characteristic of the authoritarian personality is strong dislike of ambiguity. I’ve blogged about this topic repeatedly, because it’s so ubiquitous, so important, and so often overlooked.
This issue can cause far-reaching problems when political and bureaucratic systems collide with human beings who are unwilling or unable to fit into the neatly defined predetermined pigeonholes of The System. Reality often isn’t neat and tidy, and one of the tests of a society is how well it treats those people who don’t fit into that society’s preferred categorisation.
That will be the topic of my next article.
Notes and links
I’ve indicated specialist terms from other fields in bold italic. All of the specialist terms I’ve used in this article are well covered in easily accessible sources such as Wikipedia, if you’d like to read about them in more detail.
You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.
There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book: Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese