Complexity Matters

In his book “In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong”, (1996) French-Lebanese novelist Amin Maalouf argues that group violence is a consequence of over-simplified “tribal” identities and that its antidote lies in awareness/recognition of self complexity. He notes:

When one sees one’s own identity as made up of a number of allegiances, some linked to an ethnic past and others not, some linked to a religious tradition and others not; when one observes in oneself, in one’s origins and in the course one’s life has taken, a number of different confluences and contributions, of different mixtures and influences, some of them quite subtle or even incompatible with one another; then one enters into a different relationship both with other people and with one’s own “tribe.” It’s no longer a matter of just “them” and “us”. (31)

While Maalouf writes from an anecdotal perspective, recent research by Sonia Roccas and Marilynn Brewer (2002) on social identity complexity lends empirical support to his thesis.

Roccas and Brewer define social identity complexity as the degree of overlap between different elements of one’s identity:

A high degree of overlap means that different elements of one’s identity converge into a coherent whole (low complexity): e.g. a secular liberal who is anti-war, pro-choice, supports gay rights, votes democratic and is environmentally conscious.

A low degree of overlap (high complexity) means that different elements of one’s identity do not easily cohere together: e.g. a religious conservative who is gay, pro-life, proud feminist, has mixture of conservative and liberal friends, watches Bill O’Reilly and John Stewart.

Interestingly, and this is the part that connects to Maalouf’s thesis, what Roccas and Brewer found is that the degree of identity complexity correlates to level of tolerance for out-groups: with higher complexity associated with greater tolerance. This research is in-line with other studies that have shown the pro-social benefits of embracing complexity (Coleman, 2011).

Conflict resolution practitioners would do well in thinking of practices and techniques for increasing people’s awareness of their own identity complexity. Some promising work on identity-based training has been done in this regard (Korostelina, 2007), but the practical potential of this research has yet to be fully realized.

* Also published in ICCCR blog, dedicated to wedding theory, research and practice in the field of conflict resolution.


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