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The Individual-Group Hierarchy

Humans are driven strongly by social affiliation motives. That tendency has spawned high levels of cooperation and altruism among humans. As Fehr and Fischbacher (2004) note, “human societies represent a spectacular outlier with respect to all other animal species because they are based on large-scale cooperation among genetically unrelated individuals” (p. 185). This tendency is seen to be, in part, an evolutionary response to being prey species for many predators in formative times (Hart and Sussman 2005), and it also posed adaptive advantages for evolving, competitive cultural groups (Boyd and Richerson 2009).

The human need to attach to groups is widely evident. People define themselves through a hierarchy of identities – e.g., friendship groups, sports team groups, chat groups, professions and professional associations, governance groups (local, state, nation), being human, etc. The group itself can be considered an emergent property in systems terms, with characteristics and dynamics beyond the mere aggregation of individuals. The process of attaining group membership is elemental in forming our social world. The processes and effects of group membership are explained through Social Identity (SIT) and Self-Categorization (SCE) theories which Spears (2011) claims are “possibly as close as we come in contemporary social psychology to a grand theory” (p. 208). A social group exists when people share a definition of who they are, how they relate and how they are different from those not in the group. People have many different group identities, and these identities vary in how important they might be to a person and how accessible they are in a given situation. Once a social identity is accessed in a given situation, it is important because it shapes one's social perception of a situation, appropriate social conduct and one's own self-definition. This is a dynamic process, however, because as the situation changes, so might the salience of the identity. For example, a representative of the coal industry and a representative of the environmental community, while in a public debate about global warming, may take on highly adversarial and oppositional identities; yet, in other contexts they may define themselves as members of the same group (e.g., mothers, alumni of the same university, Americans, fans of a given team, etc.). The salience of a given identity is seen as dependent on the situational context as well as a person's commitment to the identity. The more salient and committed a person is to an identity, the more likely that person will act out and seek the identity role (Stryker and Serpe 1982).

The process of self-categorization into a group offers explanation of how social identity affects the thoughts and behavior of the individual. As a member of the group, and contingent on one's commitment and emotional attachment to the group, one will learn or infer the appropriate norms, attributes, and attitudes associated with that group. Norms, which are beliefs about how one ought to behave or think, are a critical aspect of group maintenance. Norms represent ideal or prototypical thoughts or behaviors that unify and ensure compliance and agreement within the group (Turner 1991). As a group member, the person adopts those norms or attitudes in situations where their group identity is salient. Theorists have coined this as “depersonalizing” – a process whereby a person acts in accordance with group norms and perceives oneself as representing the group, not as an individual.

The use of SIT and SCE in understanding environmental topics has been relatively neglected (Twigger-Ross et al. 2003), and yet the available applications offer promise in considering how these frameworks may be integrated into HDNR studies on individual-group dynamics in the future. For example, Bonaiuto et al. (1996) showed that perceptions of beach pollution among samples of youth in six separate resort towns were associated with the person's attachment to either the town or the nation (Great Britain). SIT was borne from an interest in understanding conflict among groups of people, and Stoll-Kleemann (2004) illustrates such a use. The theory was applied in this case to address intergroup conflict among farmers, conservationists and forest managers in biodiversity management in Germany's protected areas. In another application, Carpenter and Cardenas (2011) explored the relevance of social identity in common pool resource experimentation. They found that when students were placed in an experimental context where they knew they were engaged in a cross-cultural “game” situation (i.e., their national social identity was made salient), participants were more likely to represent the country group prototype position: U.S. students were more likely to emphasize conservation strategies in allocating forest resources, while Columbian students tended to emphasize resource extraction.

In a multi-level application, Burton and Wilson (2006) provided an analysis of the shift in Western farming regimes from productivist (focused on maximizing food production) to post-productivist (focused on consumption and sustainability) and multi-functional (both productivist and post-productivist, separated spatially and temporally) regimes. While structural variables (i.e., policy, political economy) would suggest the transition is occurring, the identities that farmers reported did not suggest such a transition at the individual level (i.e., individual farmers sustained an emphasis on production).

SIT and SCE have also been applied in understanding prejudice, conformity, crowding behavior, organizational behavior, leadership deviance and group cohesiveness, all of which are important topics in HDNR (Hogg 2006). There is strong potential for a dynamic model of individual-group involvement in researching conservation topics. The research methodology might involve more intense in-person assessments (e.g., groups, situational salience, group norms and attitudes) across actors and times. Such assessments could serve as the basis for examining the relative influence of group versus independent action on key policy and behavioral outcomes and how groups, individuals, and the environment interact and change in that process.

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