Social Identity Theory in an International Context

One of the first things that I noticed when arriving at African Impact in Livingstone is the group dynamics that are present throughout the projects and the volunteer/intern down time. When looking at these dynamics through a leadership-focused lens, Social Identity Theory can be easily applied to this context. Hogg’s Social Identity theory argues that group membership affects how we perceive ourselves and others. Individuals derive their sense of identity from their membership in groups and their groups’ relationships to other groups. When forming their identity, individuals compare their places within a group and their group’s place within the larger social structure of groups. The stronger someone’s social identity, the more the individual promotes in-group favoritism and out-group denigration.

Volunteers and interns at African Impact come from a wide range of different countries and cultural backgrounds. When individuals first arrive, they typically find themselves associating with others who are from the same home country or speak the same language. These groups are formed, not because individuals are very similar, but simply because they share the same cultural and linguistic backgrounds. During down time and meals, certain tables or areas of the house will be occupied by groups speaking the same language or discussing their home countries. These groups will often look outward and compare themselves to other groups of volunteers/interns who are from other cultural or ethnic backgrounds. People will often blame other groups for not associating with everyone when, in fact, most groups have shut themselves out to those who don’t speak the same language or have similar backgrounds.

The second social structure that exists within African Impact is the project structure. Volunteers and interns are divided into four categories: Medical and Public Health, Environmental and Building, Teaching, and Girl Empowerment. When out in the field, it is common for subcategories within these four larger categories to interact and work on the same issues. Aside from those people, projects typically won’t be intersectional and so you end up working with the same people the entire time you are here. As the weeks go on, people begin to take a lot of pride in their own projects and the issues that they are working on. They will only look to one another to ask questions or solve problems and so, as a result, projects that could involve a number of different disciplines do not. During project time, I have found that the Environmental and Building group spends a significant amount of time discussing what is lacking on other people’s projects rather than focusing on our own. People discuss how “the teaching project can’t possibly be effective because there’s so much turnover” and other criticisms but do not spend the time to think about how we could do more for the local environment and community through our eco-bricking programs or building projects. Instead, our group will hype ourselves up and talk about how productive we have been that day or how this is the “best group ever”. It is clear that we are promoting a culture of in-group favoritism and I am almost certain that this happens among all of the different projects.

When it comes to leadership within African Impact’s different groups, I have found that for the most part, Social Identity Theory can be directly applied. Social Identity Theory argues that among groups, leaders who are perceived as being the most effective are those that are the most “prototypical” of the group. For the most part, more leadership emerges among project groups rather than cultural groups and so this is the aspect that I will focus on. Within project groups, I have observed that the leaders of each group tend to be those who have been there the longest and have had the opportunity to get to know everyone they are working with. These members are usually highly representative of the group dynamics as they are usually the ones instructing the new group members on how to behave and how to work on each project.

Outside of African Impact, I have found that groups largely drop all of their cultural and project differences and identify more strongly as an African Impact volunteer or intern over everything else. This is because within the Livingstone community, most are not aware of the details of our different projects and, instead, see African Impact as a larger organization working within the community. Volunteers and interns won’t differentiate between our projects and instead will explain to whoever they are talking to that we work in a number of different sectors. Group dynamics are central to the functioning of African Impact, both from a work perspective and a social perspective. These dynamics change depending on which facets of people’s social identity and group membership are most salient at any given time.