Is Community Dangerous? | #BHMwithBWiS20 (Part 3)

The BWiS network is by black women, for black women. 

However, we still need to exist and thrive with others in wider science communities made up of individuals with different ethnicities and experiences. What would happen if black communities became insular, i.e., being “ignorant of or uninterested in cultures, ideas, or peoples outside of their own experience” (Apple Dictionary). This week, we take you through the dangers posed by toxic group mindsets and what happens when there’s an overemphasis of togetherness. Hopefully, we can tackle one interesting question: can community be dangerous and if so, how?

What do we know? The ‘self’ (which everyone has) is what gives us our identity as individuals. This identity is partly affected by what is deemed as important to the self. Based on this, the ‘social identity theory’ is formed which proposes that because our self image is connected to what we align ourselves with, we will seek to enhance these things to enhance our self-image [1]. Throughout the community series, we have emphasised the importance of community for healthy social development and improved emotional health for the 'self'. However, social psychology gives us more insight to the down-side of group behaviour. 

There are three processes involved in the social identity theory:

1) social categorisation,

2) social identification and

3) social comparison.

Social categorisation is a natural mental process that our brain engages in to help us navigate a world of millions of information pieces by grouping them together into categories. The downside is that stereotypes and prejudice attitudes can be formed towards certain concepts or groups of people based on the generalised information we create or are given by others. This is something most ethnic minorities will know all too well and deal with on an everyday basis.

Social identification is a process we explore in our Power of Togetherness post: it refers to the membership we form when we identify with a group. The stronger the connection (membership) to the group we experience, is formed which proposes that because our self-image is connected to what we align ourselves withan spiral out of control. 

We may be familiar with the ‘us versus them’ mentality. When there is a ‘threat’ to our group’s position in the ‘hierarchy’, we will try to re-establish the group as above the threat because our group’s standing affects the standing of our self (remember: we want a good standing self). So how is the threat eliminated you may ask? Simple: make the other group look bad and our group wins! The central idea of the social identity theory is that we will always attempt to find the ‘pretty’ aspects of our group (called an in-group) and inflate the ‘ugly’ aspects of another group (called an outgroup). In this way, we will continue to enhance our self’s image because compared to everyone else, we’re not that bad (there’s that nifty social comparison from earlier!). Alternatively, comparison doesn’t have to be bad. For instance, comparing how our work group is doing relative to another can be useful in terms of building goals, problem solving and creating healthy competition that motivates us to be our best selves. 

So what’s the problem? Dehumanisation is dangerous because instead of seeing the various individuals within a collective, you can group them together as one and the same. Such thinking forms the basis for radical hate groups that have an insular view of another group different from them and because the hate group must come out ‘supreme’, the supposed rival group suffers as an outcome. Remember though, overt hate groups and rhetorics are extreme examples of how bias and prejudice can manifest itself but there are subtler ways that can hurt people just the same, if not more. 

Conclusively, is every friend group doomed to become radical extremists? No.

Human behaviour is more complex than that and far more complex than the brief insight of social identity theory described above. Embracing communities requires a balance; one where we understand the nuance that makes up our close circles without jeopardising the wellbeing of another. It is important that we don’t fall into a tunnel thinking our group is the only one that exists but rather our beautiful community of black scientists exists within parts of wider society and the largest community of them all: the human community. 

[1] McLeod, S. (2008). Social identity theory. Simply Psychology.

By Tulela Pea, Editor