Daily Archives: February 4, 2011

Uprising in Egypt: Social Identity in Motion

By: Christopher C. Duke, Ph.D.

Shared identity in action in Egypt

The recent sustained uprising in Egypt has captured the world’s attention in evocative and dramatic form, with the final resolution still in question. The uprisings are also a case-study of psychology in motion, touching on topics of intergroup conflict, collective crowd behavior, and leadership, to name just a few. The situation in Egypt is enormously complicated and prone to oversimplification, but I would like to explore a few of the underlying events through the social identity approach, which is comprised of Self-Categorization Theory and Social Identity Theory.

First, a little background… According to Self-Categorization Theory, people belong to many different social groups (their nation, employer, or school, for example). When people identify with a group and that particular identity is made salient, people are more likely to act as a stereotypical ingroup member and less as an individuated person. You can see this at a sports game where fans dress and act more as a single social group rather than an aggregate of individuals. Right now in Egypt, a very salient identity is that of a self-determined national people. Other group differences, such as those of ethnicity, class, or sex, are likely to recede in the face of the shared salient identity, supported by this account. The norms, thoughts, and actions typical of the salient social group will be particularly influential on group members (the Egyptian public) as long as that identity remains activated.

Social Identity Theory relates to how different groups interact with each other. Once a social identity is active, the group is seen as an extension of the self. While early crowd behavior theorists, such as Le Bon, believed crowds to be mindless and violent mobs, crowds can be better understood through the lens of social identity, acting toward group goals.  In contrast to the image of a violent mob, people in crowds often display extraordinary restraint and vigilance as they look after the well-being of fellow ingroup members. Until the recent arrival of violent pro-Mubarak supporters, it was amazing how peaceful an emotionally-charged crowd of over one million people acted, going to great lengths to peacefully protect fellow members and ancient artifacts. However, once Mubarak fades from power, the unified national identity will likely recede, and other identities may come to the fore, such as those based on ethnicity, religious beliefs, or political alignment. With some skill, Egypt’s leaders will be able to cultivate a unified over-arching national identity that will encompass the nation’s different peoples and minimize conflict in what is sure to be chaotic times ahead. On the other hand, if intergroup differences are inflamed, national stability could be further threatened.

Political outcomes like this are always difficult to predict, and complicated by many non-psychological factors, so I will not make any claims as to Egypt’s future. We can, however, better understand who the Egyptian people are most likely to view as legitimate leaders. According to the social identity approach, the best leaders gain social influence by being entrepreneurs of social identity. They tend to exemplify the norms and common features of their social group, such as through their dress, speech, and actions. They build upon and affirm ingroup identities so that group members can take pride in their identity. And, sometimes nefariously, they sharpen intergroup boundaries (the “us” and the “them”), bolstering ingroup identification at the expense of the outgroup. Egypt’s fate — and it’s leaders fates — will heavily depend on the types of identity-management strategies that are deployed in the weeks ahead. Any prospective leader of Egypt will need to exemplify the essence of the prevailing national social identity, or they will be in for a very bumpy ride indeed.

The psychological theory is much more nuanced than can be explained in a blog post, so check out the references below for more.

Reicher, S. D. (1996). ‘The Battle of Westminster’: developing the social identity model of crowd behaviour in order to explain the initiation and development of collective conflict. European Journal of Social Psychology, 26, 115-134.

Reicher, S. D., Haslam, S. A., & Hopkins, N. (2005). Social identity and the dynamics of leadership: Leaders and followers as collaborative agents in the transformation of social reality. The Leadership Quarterly, 16, 547-568.

Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S. D., & Platow, M. J. (2010). The new psychology of leadership: Identity, influence, and power. Psychology Press.