The movement of people from one geographic location to another has resulted in increased diversity in many countries around the world. According to McDowell and Braniff (2014), the United States is one of the most diversified countries in the world because of the high number of immigrants coming from different parts of the world. The American schools, societies, workplace environment, and many other social settings are diversified. However, achieving integration has remained elusive in this society despite the effort made by various stakeholders to fight all forms of discrimination. Wang (2018) explains that the concept of social identity is one of the main hindrances to achieving an integrated American society.
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People tend to identify themselves based on their race, religion, gender, age group, level of education, or any other demographic factors. Once an individual identifies with a given group, he or she will strive to ensure that the group is protected from the perceived enemies, and given priority when it comes to allocation of resources or other social benefits. The feeling of self-entitlement often breeds racism, discrimination, and intergroup conflicts. In this paper, the researcher seeks to investigate why conflicts arise when social identity is threatened and how it can be addressed in society.
Reasons Why Conflict Arise When Social Identity is Threatened
The concept of self-identity can help to understand the genesis of intergroup conflicts. According to Hayes and McAllister (2015), identity refers to who a person is personal thoughts about self, and how society views the individual. It means that identity should be understood from two perspectives. First, it is about what one feels he or she is and what the person associates with within different settings. The second perspective is how society views an individual based on character, capabilities, and other demographical classification. Identity can be classified into two main classes as discussed below:
The first level is the individual identity. Barentsen (2017) defines individual identity as one’s sense of self. It is the sense of identity at a personal level. Factors such as health, educational achievement, wealth, social status, and a sense of security are defined at a personal level. An individual would seek to protect self from external forces such as poverty, diseases, attack, discrimination, and any other undesirable element.
From infancy, there is often the desire to escape pain and to seek comfort. In a capitalist environment such as that of the United States, people amass wealth as a way of protection from various environmental forces (Hayes & McAllister, 2015). Conflict can easily arise when one feels that individual identity is threatened. Irrespective of the group that one identifies with, one would always fight to protect personal interest. Conflicts that arise because of a threat to personal identity are common in family units, in the workplace, or any other social setting.
When one has defined personal identity, the next step is to identify and associate with people who share similar characteristics. As Wang (2018) notes, humans are social beings who enjoy interacting with others. However, that is only possible if there are shared characteristics and interests. These factors often lead to national identity, religious identity, race/ethnic identity, gender identity, and social identity. One only embraces a group that he or she has a sense of belonging towards based on the prevailing needs. The following are the common groups that people tend to identify with at different times:
One of the common group identities is nationality. Citizens of the United States consider themselves Americans irrespective of their demographical classifications. McDowell and Braniff (2014) argue that the American brand is the strongest and most popular of all brands in the world. Anything that threatens American socio-economic and political security is a concern for all Americans. At an international level, this form of identity helps in determining benefits that one is entitled to depending on the country of residence.
Religion is one of the most important factors that define one’s identity. In the United States, there are numerous religious groups. Religious affiliation in the United States is often so strong that it defines the social groups in various settings. As shown in Table 1 below, the majority of Americans, over 76%, identify themselves as Christians, even those who do not attend church regularly (Hayes & McAllister, 2015). A significant majority, 15% of the population, are atheists. Then there are minority groups such as Mormon, Jewish, and Muslims.
The race is another common factor of identification in the United States. As stated above, the United States is one of the most diversified countries in the world, primarily because of the continued immigration over the past decades. The American dream has been an attraction to many people around the world. Despite this high level of diversity, integration has been a major issue in the country. People identify themselves as Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Chinese, and many other racial or ethnic classifications.
This form of identity is also common and maybe a source of conflict. People are often classified as male or female. Even those whose physiological structure does not meet the criteria of male or female often identify with either of these two groups based on personal interests. Gender, as a barrier to socioeconomic success, has been an issue in the United States over the past centuries. Measures have been put in place to ensure that all Americans, irrespective of their gender, enjoy equal opportunities in the country.
Social status identity
The caste system was a traditional classification of families in hierarchies based on their social status within the society. This form of classification has evolved in modern society, but principles have remained the same. People are currently classified in terms of their level of education and wealth. The richest and most educated can afford to take their children to the best schools in the country, reside in the most secure suburbs, and get the best medical services the country has to offer. McDowell and Braniff (2014) explain that there is always a deliberate attempt to ensure that the rich do not mingle easily with the poor because of security concerns and other factors.
Identity and Intergroup Conflict
It is normal for a person to identify with a specific group. However, Wang (2018) explains that conflict emerges the moment a group feels that it was more entitled to resources and opportunities in the country than the rest of the population. Racism is one such problem. When one race is treated as second-class citizens primarily because of skin color, a conflict would be unavoidable. Similarly, when another group is barred from exercising certain rights or pursuing a given career based on gender, then conflict may arise. It is necessary to discuss how the classification of people into the above groups may cause disagreements in society.
National identity conflicts
Conflict can arise at the international level when one nation feels endangered by the other. A sense of patriotism among Americans is a strong motivation enough for them to act against any other nation or group that threatens national security. According to McDowell and Braniff (2014), the majority of Americans, irrespective of their religion, strongly supported the invasion of Afghanistan and Pakistan during the War on Terror following the September 11, 2001 attack by Al Qaeda. Currently, the conflict between Americans and Russians is caused by the belief that Russia meddled in the last general elections in the United States.
Religious identity conflicts
Within the United States, religious instigated conflicts have been common for the past several years. McDowell and Braniff (2014) explain that there has always been the perception that the United States has been unfair in its attacks against Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, and Afghanistan, all of which are Islamic countries. The economic sanctions against some of these Islamic nations such as Iran and the support given to Israel have strengthened the hatred that many Muslims have towards the United States. Some of these Muslims have succeeded in planning and executing some of the worst attacks against Americans over the past two decades.
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These attacks associated with Islamic terrorists have made most Americans view Muslims as terrorists (Hayes & McAllister, 2015). The fear and hatred that a significant population of Americans has towards Muslims make it difficult to have peaceful coexistence between Muslims and the rest of the population. Anti-Semitism is another source of conflict in the country (Barentsen, 2017). A section of the society still feels that Jews are self-centered individuals who lack concern for the rest of Americans. These religious disagreements have become common in the country because of the increasing activities of terrorists in the country and the rest of the world.
Race/ethnic identity conflicts
Race or ethnic identity conflict is another major issue in the United States and different parts of the world. According to Wang (2018), race conflict in the United States goes back to the Slavery and Slave trade era (Hayes & McAllister, 2015). Whites owned several slaves who worked in the industrial sector and their homes. When slavery and the slave trade were abolished, the perception that Whites are superior to all other races persisted.
Blacks and other minority groups have been fighting against racism for decades. Racial attacks have been witnessed in schools, churches, city streets, and many other social settings in the country. The minority groups still feel that they are treated with contempt by the majority of whites. Extrajudicial killings of Blacks by white American law enforcement officers are common in various states across the country (Barentsen, 2017). Such incidences often lead to major conflicts, especially when the targeted group feels that they should retaliate.
Gender identity conflicts
In the United States, women were not expected to engage in economic and political activities because of tradition. Men were expected to provide for the families while women would take care of their homes. However, that era is gone and women are currently playing major economic and political roles. McDowell and Braniff (2014) lament that despite the achievements that have been realized in the country in the effort to empower women, men still find it easy to achieve economic and political success in the country because of the existing systems and structures. Many people still feel that women cannot be trusted with top leadership positions primarily because of their gender.
Others feel that they should not be pursuing technical courses such as engineering, military, medicine, law, and other science courses. Women who pursue these courses find it difficult to achieve career progress compared with their male colleagues. The conflict would arise when a section of the society feels that it is sidelined not because of qualifications and capabilities but gender.
Social status identity conflicts
The social status of an individual or group of people may also cause conflict in society. Wang (2018) explains that systems within the American society tend to favor the rich. Some of the best colleges in the country are very expensive. It means that the poor cannot afford to be in these institutions even if they are brilliant. Securing a slot in these Ivy colleges is an assurance of a better future among these students. It means that the system creates a vicious circle where the poor always remain poor while the rich get richer. The taxation system also seems to favor the rich (Hayes & McAllister, 2015).
Incentives, which are often given to investors often mean that the very rich can fail to pay tax while the poor have to bear the burden of financing the government budget. The poor may develop resentment towards the rich because they feel they are denied the opportunity to achieve economic prosperity.
It is important to explore theories related to social identity and conflicts that arise about it. These theories can help explain why individuals or groups would act in a given way because of their self-identity. Self-categorization theory and social identity theory are the min concepts related to this paper that will be given focus.
The theory defines circumstances under which an individual will perceive different individuals and self to belong to a group (Barentsen, 2017). The process of categorization starts in the mind and starts with the basic attributes. Physical attributes such as skin color and gender similarities make one identify with a given group of people. Beyond the physical attributes is religion. Wang (2018) explains that religion is a powerful force that defined how people behave.
The promise of life after death makes people behave in a way that is in line with the religious teachings. People tend to associate with those who share their religious beliefs. Categorization then narrows down to personal interests. An individual will be attracted to those who share similar interests because it allows them to discuss and engage in activities that make them happy. Disagreements may emerge at any stage of categorization (Hayes & McAllister, 2015). People tend to protect those who they share with numerous similarities.
Social Identity Theory
The theory refers to one’s self-concept, which is based on the supposed membership of a given social group (Barentsen, 2017). It helps in explaining the behavior of a given group based on various factors such as status, stability, and legitimacy of the group. McDowell and Braniff (2014, p. 67) note, “Identity competition plays a central role in the inception and escalation of intergroup conflict, even when economic and political factors also are at play.” When people feel that their identity is in jeopardy, they are likely to act in its defense. It explains why electorates often vote for individuals who can identify with them. They feel that such candidates will not only protect their interests but also their social identity.
How to Deal with Conflict and Peace When Social Identity is the Issue
The emerging technologies in the field of transport and communication and the increasing global trade and political ties mean that integration is a concept that society has to embrace. As many people come to the country, local schools, workplace, religious institutions, and other social settings are likely to be more diversified than it is today. Expressing hate towards a given group or passing laws that favor a section of society would not help.
According to Wang (2018), such hatred only breeds violence, a waste of time, and the inability of members of the society to focus on real concerns such as health, education, infrastructure, security, and economic progress. Society has no option but to address this problem adequately. Conflicts, which arise from social identity, should be addressed at various levels to enhance societal peace.
Governance and Policy-Making
When dealing with conflicts that arise from self-identity, one of the areas that should be given priority is governance and policy-making. Barentsen (2017) argues that a sense of self-identity becomes stronger when an individual feels that the rulers are keen on sidelining them. During the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, African Americans engaged in civil disobedience because they felt the ruling class deliberately denied their opportunity to achieve socio-economic and political success in the country (Wang 2018). They felt that policies made by the rulers benefited Whites at their expense. Police brutality and economic injustices were directed against Blacks. The legal system also failed to protect their interest. The conflict resulted in the loss of many lives, destruction of property, and wastage of time.
McDowell and Braniff (2014) believe that when individuals trusted with governance and policy-making embrace fairness, social identity loses its meaning at a national level. Citizens feel that their gender, race, religion, or social status does not define the opportunities they have in society. The need to form a group to champion the rights of the oppressed is lost. Society will enjoy the benefits of peace.
Integration at the Earliest Level of Education
Hate is one of the most important ingredients of social identity conflict. However, Barentsen (2017) explains that hate as a trait is acquired based on the environment that one is subjected to from childhood. When trying to fight social identity-related conflicts, one of the initial steps that should be considered is to promote integration among children. Regular interaction among White and Black children can help fight negative stereotypes in society.
These children would understand and appreciate the diversity. They will know that although they may have varying skin color, gender, religion, or social class, they have a common desire for a more economically developed society, security, improved health, and peaceful coexistence. A Christian child would learn that Muslims are not terrorists. Although it may not be easy to overcome economic-related differences, children should be made to appreciate hard work. They should know that economic progress is based on their effort and not social identity.
Criminalization of Homophobic Teachings and Actions
A direct attack against a given group of people based on their gender, race, religion, social class, or any other demographic classification is one of the factors that often lead to social identity-related conflicts. Society should not tolerate bigotry because the ripple effect of prejudice and rejection may result in a serious security threat to a section of the society. McDowell and Braniff (2014) explain that cases have been witnessed where some homegrown terrorists cite discrimination as the main reason why they would be willing to attack innocent citizens to get justice. Bigotry justifies selfish and baseless acts of radicalized individuals in society. As such, policy-makers should consider enacting strong laws that would deter words of discord in the society.
Institutions of learning should be governed based on fairness and the desire to create platforms for economic success among all learners. Any verbal attack or homophobic actions should be punishable. In the workplace environment, there should be strict laws that protect the interest of the rich and the poor, the majority and minority groups. In the political arena, the legislators and those trusted in high offices of governance should be held individually responsible for acts and utterances that alienate a section of the society because of their social identity (Hayes & McAllister, 2015). Individuals should learn to be tolerant towards others.
Model of How to Deal with Social Identity-Related Conflicts
Racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism are still common problems related to social identity. As Wang (2018) states, overcoming these social problems require patience, commitment, and understanding among every member of society. The model below proposes steps that should be considered when trying to overcome identity-related conflicts.
The model would be appropriate in a diversified organization that seeks to promote integration. The first step is to be ready for change. One should accept that there is a need to mindful of others, and to embrace them regardless of the existing physical differences or opposing beliefs. The next step is to appreciate the diversity and the existence of the intergroup and to promote a positive attitude towards them. The team should then develop subgroup identity security where everyone in the organization feels protected despite his or her demographical differences. The model also promotes dual identity, where one seeks to find common factors shared by other groups.
A Black and a White may realize that they share a common religion, and that should be a factor that brings them together. The last stage is to endure and embrace intergroup harmony. The team must appreciate that despite the perceived differences, they have a common goal that can only be realized through unity.
Social identity conflicts are common not only in the United States but also in various parts of the world. People tend to identify themselves based on their gender, race, religion, age, or any other demographical classification relevant at a given time. When individuals prioritize these differences over a common interest, then it may not be easy for them to work as a unit towards a common goal of improving society. Such individuals may seek to find ways of destroying the perceived enemy, a process that is often counterproductive.
The study emphasizes the need to embrace good governance, promote integration at the earliest stage of education, and criminalization of homophobic acts as a way of dealing with social identity-related conflicts and promoting peace in the society.
Barentsen, J. (2017). Understanding peace and conflict through social identity theory: Contemporary global perspectives. Journal Practical Theology, 10(3), 321-322.
Fiol, M. C., Pratt, G. M., & O’Connor, E. J. (2009). Managing intractable identity conflicts. The Academy of Management Review, 34(1), 32-55.
Hayes, B. C., & McAllister, I. (2015). Conflict to peace: Politics and society in Northern Ireland over half a century. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
McDowell, S., & Braniff, M. (2014). Commemoration as conflict: Space, memory and identity in peace processes. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Wang, Z. (2018). Memory politics, identity and conflict: Historical memory as a variable. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.