Group Identity – A Society’s Sense of Self

Here’s a little essay on how narrative can determine whether a group, culture, or society will hang together or fall apart…

When you see a society as a group mind, you can see that it must have an identity, just as we do: “I think therefore I am.”  In stories, this identity is the main character – the sense of self of the story mind.  Think of “corporate identity” of being a fan of a television show who goes to a convention about the show and connects with all the other fans.  As individuals, we get a sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves, that reflects a part of who we are and binds us all together.

When we say we are Democrats or Republicans, we are not saying that is all we are, or that the group identity for our part is the totality of our being, but rather that a portion of ourselves as individuals is represented by that group identity and, in that regard “we are all alike” and at the same time, we are NOT like members of the other party.

Every tribe, every sports team, needs a corporate identity or there is no glue to hold it together as it is just a collection of individuals (This IS the United States used to be These ARE the United States).  Of late, we are struggling with our common identity as Americans because the gap between the two party’s agendas has become so wide that we no longer feel like Americans when the other party is in power, or perhaps better put: we feel they are not Americans and we are foreigners in our own country (“Dude, Where’s my Country?”)

Often what helps focus a grow a group identity is a figure head – an avatar for the sense of self of the group mind, such as Steve Jobs with Apple or a religious or ethnic martyr like William Wallace (“Braveheart”) or Jesus Christ himself.  In the case of Apple, the corporation chose to end the avatar of Jobs when he died and tried to have Apple itself become its own main character, with little success.  In contrast, Kentucky Friend Chicken maintains the avatar of Colonel Sanders, just as Disney did for may years, and still to a small extent today.

We took on a narrative consulting job for a sports team once that had all the most expensive and best players in terms of stats, but couldn’t win in the clutch.  We analyzed the narrative and discovered the problem was so simple it is hard to see:  The players were asking “What can I do for my team?” rather than asking “What can WE do AS a team?”  As long as they saw themselves as individuals contributing to the greater good, no team identity could form.  So our narrative prescription was to instill a sense of all being contributors, rather than each contributing his best ability.  This would lead individual members to accept being benched or put in a less important order of play for the good of the group, and they would then begin to click as a team and to win.

So, for a society – ANY society – to become cohesive and to stand strong, it must develop a group identity, and that “brand” must be personified by a personality, real or fictitious.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Learn more about Narrative Science

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