Social Identity Uncertainty: Its Role in Populism, Ideological Fundamentalism, and Intergroup Hostility
Michael A. Hogg, Professor of Social Psychology, Claremont Graduate University?
Social identity matters. People need to know who they are and how they fit in in groups and society. They need to feel they belong and that their identities are validated. A grounded sense of social identity describes who one is, prescribes how one should think and act, and allows one to predict the course of interaction with others and to plan one’s own behavior.
Perceived change and uncertainty surrounding one’s social identity (and even other aspects of one’s life) can readily translate into context specific or more generalized feelings of uncertainty about oneself that can motivate a range of social identity-related behaviors aimed at resolving the uncertainty. These consequences of social identity-related self-uncertainty can be positive (social cohesion, belonging, loyalty, mutual trust, interdependence, shared goals, etc.). However, they can also be negative.
Throughout my academic career my research, framed by and associated with social identity theory and the development of self-categorization theory, has focused on intergroup relations, group processes, influence and leadership, and self and identity – no doubt influenced by my somewhat global background (growing up India and Sri Lanka, formative years “at home” in the UK, and then living in Australia and now the US). I became increasingly interested in exploring what motivates people to identify with groups, internalize group-defining attributes to define themselves, and engage in identity-related group and intergroup behaviors.
I felt that self-uncertainty reduction (or management) might be just such a motivation that could be very effectively satisfied by group identification; and I wondered what types of groups, social identities, and influence processes might be best suited to this task. I started this research about 20 years ago and it continues to be very much a main theme in my research – now integrated and expressed as uncertainty-identity theory. I was particularly interested in the “dark side” of the uncertainty-identity relationship. So, I have focused on exploring how, why, and under what circumstances self-uncertainty, however caused, can have negative and destructive social identity-related consequences for individuals, groups, and society.
This research has shown how self-uncertainty creates a striving to belong to highly entitative groups that have a clearly defined, distinctive, unambiguous and grounded social identity. Self-uncertainty can make populist ideologies, autocratic leaders and simple and unambiguous identity messaging attractive. It can make people vulnerable to radicalization, and strengthen the appeal of identity echo chambers that promote conspiracy theories and narratives of victimhood, and vilify outgroups and ingroup dissenters. Self-uncertainty can create a polarized and ethnocentric worldview that delivers a highly distinctive ingroup identity, and sponsors intergroup suspicion and hostility.
SPPSI has done me the great honor of choosing me as the recipient of the 2022 Kurt Lewin Award, and in my award address in Puerto Rico in June, I will overview this line of research—a line of research which I believe has particular relevance in this time of global and societal uncertainty and the widespread resurgence of destructive ethno-nationalistic populism.