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Us, Them and Shaping our Problem-Solving

Lately, I’ve been attracted to the notion of group identity as a way of structuring problems.  The logic lies in social evolution and the expectation that groups that exhibit collaborative behaviors should have an advantage over groups lacking that behavior.  Over tens of thousands of years of prehistoric human society, these groups came to dominate.  But, collaboration with the wrong people can be costly and, particularly in times of stress like war or famine, may create a threat to survival.  In order for collaboration to provide an advantage, the boundary between those with whom we will collaborate and those we will not must be clear.   

Identities matter.  How we identify ourselves and others defines how we will relate to one another.  Is she like me?  If so, I can expect that cooperation will work out.  If not, I will need to be more wary. Determining whether someone is part of “my” group or someone else’s group is a fundamental human behavior.  Scientists distinguish between “in-groups” and “out-groups.”  Group identities give meaning to the words we, us, they and them.

We treat members of in-groups and out-groups differently.  I will cooperate freely with members of my in-group.   With out-groups, I will either ignore them or I will be vigilant for threats. 

However, in-groups are not free of risks; I might not be treated fairly.  I might have to carry the load of freeloaders or cheats might take too much of the rewards, leaving me with a smaller share.  I will have to keep an eye on the other members of my in-group.  But, they will all be watching me too.  So, I will have to demonstrate my loyalty to the group by adhering visibly to group norms.  Social scientists call this social control.

This brings me to a critical point. The boundaries of fundamental in-group identifications are not static.  The in-group that matters NOW! depends on what’s going on around me.  How context is framed influences how I navigate my identities.  

We can imagine that small societies have a small number of potential groups.  Think about a primitive hunter-gatherer tribe in a remote jungle.  The people as a whole will be one group.  The elders might be another.  It is very likely that labor will be divided by gender, so we should expect that men and women might be separate groups.  Children are probably yet another group.  Immediate families probably form another group.  Every person in that society would have at least four potential identities: family, child/adult, gender, and “the people.”

In a more complex society, we should expect new identities to enter play: specialty (such as trade or profession), political faction, sports, hobbies, race or ethnicity, region, religion, etcetera.  People in more complex societies will have larger inventories of in-group identities. 

I am a member of numerous in-groups.  Relatively speaking, I may be in-group wealthy.  I have the in-groups of my department, my rank, my profession, PFI, the Futures Working Group, my academic field, my university, professional futurists, etc.  I am a fan of my home town sports teams.  I can jump from in-group to in-group easily. 

Framing provides an opportunity for leverage. When faced with an issue or conflict, how we frame it can influence how other people process it.  Framing can be used to unite people, or to divide them.  Framing signals which group identity should be salient at the present.   

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Americans across the country watched planes crash and buildings burn and fall.  On that day and for some time after, the most salient group identity for most people in the US was “American.”

The dynamics of group identity impact the practice of policing.  It does so within our organizations and it impacts how police officers relate to the public.  It also impacts how members of the public relate to one another.  Consider:

  • How many group identities run in your organization?  Do you have distinctions between supervisors and officers? sworn and civilians? crime-fighters and slugs?
  •  How do group identities impact your officers’ relations with the public?  Do your officers have a strong “us vs. them” perspective?  Does the public see the police as outsiders?  How quickly do officers classify people as criminal?  Is it permanent? 
  • Are there strong group identities activating conflict among members of the public?  Are gangs evidence of an in-group poverty?  Do people who join gangs possess too few in-groups?  Are antiquated gender group identities driving domestic conflicts? 

It may not always be possible to control which group identities are active when police become involved in a situation.  But, the police can use the insight of group identities to manage these situations better.  By framing issues strategically, we can improve outcomes for all.   

For example, it is tempting to fall into “cops and robbers” thinking where the police stand in opposition to the perpetrators of crime.  This frame reinforces police group identity as an instrument of force.  But other group identities, such as race or ethnicity, may become activated on behalf of the perpetrator, shifting public support away from the police.  If in its communications, the police define the conflict as victim versus offender, group identities are activated differently.  The public aligns with the victim and the police identity remains part of the public, and to the extent there is distinction, takes on the character of rescuer.

We can use this group identity perspective for creative problem solving.  When we are faced with a problem, we can change our perception of the problem by viewing it from different in-group perspectives.  We can also test our solutions through various group lenses.  It’s a good idea to capture all the stakeholders, each of which is a group, and look at the problems and solutions from each perspective.

Understanding how identities work, within ourselves and in others, will make police more effective in the future.