Group identity and the ambivalence of norms

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Original text: Eric Gordy, University College London, UK

The entries in this section all deal with informal practices of regulation that derive their authority from the perception of shared membership in a group. The perception of shared identity plays a highly visible role in most folk understandings of group, political and institutional behaviour. It has also been prominent in social science from the first generation of scholarship in the field, with Emile Durkheim[1] theorising that religion, ritual and law can be traced to the need of societies to ‘represent themselves to themselves’, and Max Weber specifying the importance of ‘ethnic membership [which] does not constitute a group; it only facilitates group membership of any kind, particularly in the political sphere’[2].

The category of collective identity has been applied in various ways to the understanding of social and political phenomena, most frequently ethnic solidarity and nationalism. While a group of theorists does exist (e.g., Smith 1991[3]) that makes an effort to trace collective identities to an ahistorical ‘time before time’ and argues for their underlying reality in contrast to variable social forces, there is a greater consensus among researchers that perceptions of shared culture, history, memory and identity can be traced to concrete historical and social phenomena. The attribution of these phenomena varies: from the coalescence of elites around a legitimating principle[4][5], the need of expanding markets and administrative structures to draw on a base of shared knowledge and literacy[6], legitimation of political projects[7][8], to rejection of rigid understandings of shared identity as a form of aggressive propaganda[9][10]. Regardless of the historicity or ahistoricity of shared identities, their power in the reinforcement of boundaries and enforcement of rules is readily apparent. The old dictum of W.I. Thomas[11] seems to apply: if people ‘define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.’

Informal practices would appear to belong largely to the realm of what Durkheim[12] identified as ‘social facts,’ which establish, routinise and reaffirm the importance and meaning of group memberships and identities by means of the performance of rituals, in particular rituals involving acts of mutual recognition or, conversely, exclusion or antipathy. In most cases the content of the performance involves the group member confirming membership in the group through an act of conformity, which simultaneously affirms the primacy of the group as a repository of value and commonality. Among the benefits of a performance that involves well recognised symbols is that an activity carrying low prestige (such as crime) can be associated with institutions carrying much higher prestige (such as religion or nationality).

The shared identities affirmed in this set of performances function, in the first instance, as expressions of a relationship to the political and institutional environments that provide the context for their performance: as sources for the organisation and expression of political power, and sometimes as mechanisms enabling resistance to a hostile or competing political power. Such informal practices have functioned as resources enabling the maintenance of symbolic resistance, in particular under regimes which have been hostile to religious[13] or ethnic[14] expression. In some authoritarian contexts in particular, certain informal arenas such as sport, especially football[15][16], function as an auxiliary arena in which otherwise discouraged expressions of ethnic solidarity are encouraged or tolerated, in the hope that they will remain confined to a controlled sphere.

Informal social practices of mutual recognition of group membership may also function as mechanisms allowing for the enforcement of social exclusion and discrimination. The informal mechanisms engaged to maintain discrimination in housing, for example, may range from subtle encouragement of cultural similarity and the channelling of announcement of availability through heritage-based informal social institutions[17] on through the establishment of clandestine parallel real-estate markets[18]. Similarly the enforcement of social boundaries can function both through subtle recognition of commonality in areas such as taste and aesthetic preference[19], on through aggressive discouragement of the presence of visible ethnic markers[20]. A developing body of social theory assesses the totality of these practices as contributing to the development of a permanently excluded underclass[21].

Shared identity functions as a source of solidarity and resource of enforcement in groups dedicated to illegal activity, encouraging the maintenance of different types of codes of silence, helping to assure the acquiescence and sometimes the support of communities with large populations of co-ethnics in the operation of illegal enterprises, and promoting loyalty and obedience within groups[22][23]. The phenomenon is well enough known that it is, for example, frequently rendered and performed as a principal dramatic element in popular entertainment revolving around the theme of organised crime, possibly most famously in the series of films dramatizing the professional and family activity of an imaginary Sicilian-American crime syndicate, The Godfather. These types of dramatic portrayals, while open to the criticism that they reinforce ethnic stereotypes, could also be assessed as contributing to the useful mythology that activities such as organised crime are in some way symbolically representative of an ethnic community, and consequently on some level legitimised or protected by this association.

It is not necessarily the case that all perceptions of shared identity follow lines that are expected or lead in the directions of conformity that are expected. It can particularly be the case that when ethnic identity is strongly associated with an identifiable material interest, entry into the identity group may become extraordinarily fluid. This has been documented both in states undergoing changes in imperial or colonial control, where people may recognise an advantage in entering or leaving an ethnic community[24][25], and in contemporary consumer societies, where people respond to changing social conditions that make some memberships appear at times to be more appealing[26]. Well documented cases include the distribution of Chinese identity in Jamaica[27], which over time loses any connection with family origins in China and instead comes to represent access to informal business and financial resources. With the recent rounds of accession of states in Europe to membership in the European Union and changes in access to visa-free travel, it has been possible to witness the discovery or rediscovery of ethnic roots allowing for the acquisition of convenient passports.

The examples listed in this volume tend to underline the mixed character of group membership and group norms, operating on several levels. The encouragement of perceptions of belonging, through practices and rituals related to their reinforcement, functions both as a source of norms and, in some instances, as a source of power under conditions of social or political subjection. At the same time, the same sets of practices can also function as means of subordination of the individual to imposed identities, and flattening of the diverse social landscape into a restricted number of categories.


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  2. Weber, M. 1909. Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology. Berkeley: University of California Press, pg. 389
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  4. Anderson, B. 1983. Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso
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  14. Simic, A. 1973. The peasant urbanites: A study of rural-urban migration in Serbia. New York: Seminar Press
  15. Brentin, D. 2016. ‘Ready for the homeland? Ritual, remembrance, and political extremism in Croatian football,’ Nationalities Papers 44:1.
  16. Mills, R. 2010. 'Velež Mostar football club and the demise of „brotherhood and unity“ in Yugoslavia, 1922-2009,' Europe-Asia Studies 62:7
  17. Gans, H. 1962. The urban villagers: Group and class in the life of Italian-Americans. Glencoe: The Free Press
  18. Rieder, J. 1985. Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn against liberalism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
  19. Bourdieu, P. 1984. Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
  20. Wilson, W. 2012. The truly disadvantaged: The inner city, the underclass, and public policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  21. Wacquant, L. 2008. Urban outcasts: A comparative sociology of advanced marginality. New York: Polity Press
  22. Gambetta, D. 1993. The Sicilian mafia: The business of private protection. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
  23. Sanchez-Jankowski, M. 1991. Islands in the street: Gangs and American urban society. Berkeley: University of California Press
  24. Freyre, G. 1947. The masters and the slaves: A study in the development of Brazilian civilization. New York: Putnam
  25. Roudometof, V. 2001. Nationalism, globalization and orthodoxy: The social origins of ethnic conflict in the Balkans. Greenwood: Greenwood Publishing Group
  26. Waters, M. 1990. Ethnic options: Choosing identities in America. Berkeley: University of California Press
  27. Patterson, O. 1977. Ethnic chauvinism: The reactionary impulse. New York: Stein and Day