Tajfel and Turner describe their theory in the article as 'an integrative theory of intergroup conflict,' but they eventually went on to use their insights to develop what's known as social identity theory. Much of their pioneering work was done in the late 1970's and early 1980's, so they were relatively ahead of their time – they asked questions of how social identity impacts group decisions (like group conflicts) long before violence in Rwanda or Bosnia dragged ethnic conflict onto the world stage.
The main studies up until that point had been done in the context of military and strategic studies, so identity as a source of conflict wasn't a big part of the conversation. Johan Galtung, who was the focus of our lecture last week
, had already started laying the foundations of peace and conflict studies but it hadn't blossomed into a comprehensive field in its own right yet. He did, however, make a plea for transdisciplinarity, which he understands as an approach that uses all sorts of disciplines, each with their own way of thinking about or measuring behaviour, to analyze conflicts in hopes of finding ways to build sustainable peace.
For Tajfel and Turner, their preferred unit of measurement is intergroup behaviour. For them, groups form the base unit of society, and they place a huge emphasis on the human need for group identity and a sense of belonging. Groups are significant for them because everyone belongs to one, and we're not only talking about class structures (which was the main thing Karl Marx, one of the major influences on any kind of conflict studies, was concerned with) but also groups defined by religion, language, political affiliation, race and more.
Meaning that the conflicts they find interesting are the ones motivated by group membership or identity. Ethnic cleansing? Group identity. Identity politics? Group identity. Mass protests? Group identity. Individuals are less important for them as a unit and so they don't study lone shooters, heroic figures or sociopaths. What's more relevant to them are the group dynamics that promote shootings (extremist movements) or how historical heroes are used to incite people to violence (ethnic nationalism) or whether or not a sociopath will be defended by his clan (mafia networks).
"Think for a moment," she asks. "What groups do you identify with?" Or to take the question a step further: what groups do you feel loyal
to? If you were to fight or defend something, which group identity might fuel your behaviour? Tajfel and Turner say that group conflict emerges when group loyalty is activated, often in the context of oppression, comparison or competition with other groups. When was the last time you felt group loyalties override your usual interests?