Using Social Identity Research to Enhance Conservation Outcomes

Social identity research offers suggestions both for utilizing intragroup bonds and for reducing intergroup stereotypes. Harmony Day by DIAC Images. CC BY 2.0
Social identity research offers suggestions both for utilizing intragroup bonds and for lessening intergroup stereotypes. Harmony Day by DIAC Images. CC BY 2.0

Previously on The Jaguar, I introduced the social identity approach and highlighted research that connected it to environmental stewardship. This post will offer suggestions on how to use social identity-related research to enhance conservation outcomes.

Utilizing Group Norms

Many studies have highlighted the importance of group norms. Recall that social norms are standards of conduct that help in-groups remain distinct from out-groups. These norms, especially descriptive norms (what similar others do) have been shown to influence stewardship behaviors (Goldstein, Cialdini, & Griskevicius, 2008; Marchini & Macdonald, 2012). Therefore communications which state that the majority of a group’s members engage in desirable actions might encourage pro-conservation norms (Goldstein et al., 2008).

But these messages may be less effective if they come from outsiders. According to the social identity approach, our worldviews are most influenced by similar others (Haslam, Reicher, & Reynolds, 2012). This means recommendations that are seen to originate from within one’s group will be adopted most easily.

Changes are most welcome when they are endorsed by prototypical members of one's group. Forward on Climate 19801 by Ted Eytan. CC BY-SA 2.0
Changes are most welcome when they are endorsed by prototypical members of one’s social group. Forward on Climate 19801 by Ted Eytan. CC BY-SA 2.0

Marchini (2010) was able to take advantage of this by getting schools in rural Amazonia to endorse jaguar (Panthera onca) conservation. Seeing that a respected community institution supported jaguars had a positive effect on participants’ attitudes towards the species (Marchini, 2010). Convincing respected in-group members to speak out on behalf of wildlife may thus be an effective way to influence a population’s norms (Dickman, Marchini, & Manfredo, 2013).

Reducing In-Group Bias

Perhaps the most noteworthy principle of the social identity approach is in-group bias. This is the tendency to favor in-group members over those viewed as “others” (Hornsey, 2008). In-group bias is most pronounced when a group’s positive distinctiveness is threatened (Ojala & Nesdale, 2004; Tajfel & Turner, 1979; de Vries, Aarts, Lohorst, Beunen, & Munnink, 2014).

Intense in-group bias will make it difficult to pursue the aforementioned suggestions. For example, consider the case described by de Vries et al. (2014). In this instance, conservationists and farmers in the Baviaanskloof valley of South Africa became embroiled in a bitter conflict. The relationship between the two groups became so bad that the farmers refused to have anything to do with conservation (de Vries et al., 2014). Few people would endorse an out-group’s position in this situation.

When farmers in South Africa's Baviaanskloof valley perceived their professional identities to be threatened by conservationists, it resulted in a decades-long conflict. Western end of the Kloof by Ralph Pina. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
When farmers in South Africa’s Baviaanskloof valley perceived their identities to be threatened by conservationists, it resulted in a protracted conflict. Western end of the Kloof by Ralph Pina. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Fortunately there are ways to reduce in-group bias. One of these is the crisscross method described by Tajfel (1982). Inspired by the social practices of some indigenous communities, this approach forms a new group consisting of members from different out-groups. This has the potential to break down harmful stereotypes and reduce intergroup conflict (Tajfel, 1982; Crisp, Stone, & Hall, 2006). However, certain precautions must be employed when using this method.

First of all, it is important to make sure that the new group is not believed to override existing identities. If two subgroups are combined into a superordinate group in such a way that previous categories lose their meaning, high-identifiers (those who are most attached to their in-groups) may feel threatened (Crisp, et al., 2006; Crisp, Heuston, Farr, & Turner, 2007).

Crisp et al. (2006) performed a series of experiments to test this assertion. They consistently found that when participants were recategorized into a more inclusive group (e.g. telling British students to think of themselves as European), high-identifiers displayed more in-group bias. But when the salience of subgroups was maintained (by having participants think of themselves both as college students and science or humanities students), in-group favoritism decreased across the board (Crisp et al., 2006). A crisscross group should therefore exist alongside, rather than above, current subgroups.

These individuals might not appreciate being told to think of themselves as European instead of British. Patriotic fans on The Mall by Not Enough Megapixels. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
These individuals might not appreciate being told to think of themselves as European instead of British. Patriotic fans on The Mall by Not Enough Megapixels. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Of course there is always risk involved when bringing opposing parties together. It would thus be wise to tone down negative emotions before attempting a crisscross approach.

Wildlife managers can help with this by clearly explaining how they considered various groups’ input in management decisions (Lute, 2014). This might make perceived status differences seem more legitimate, which could lessen negative dynamics. Remember that intergroup competition is most pronounced when existing hierarchies are believed to be illegitimate and/or unstable (Tajfel & Turner, 1979).

It might also be beneficial to use messages that promote equality. Hertel and Kerr (2001) found that when participants were primed with words such as fair and just, they displayed less bias than when shown words relating to loyalty.

But the most powerful tool conservationists can employ to reduce intergroup discrimination is listening. It was the active listening of a non-governmental organization (NGO) that finally improved relations between farmers and conservationists in the Baviaanskloof valley (de Vries et al., 2014). Active listening is at the heart of healthy relationships; and strong relationships are crucial for conservation (Thomas, 2015).

Further Reading:

Crisp, R. J., Stone, C. H., & Hall, N. R. (2006). Recategorization and subgroup identification: Predicting and preventing threats from common ingroups. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(2), 230-243. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0146167205280908.

de Vries, J. R., Aarts, N., Lokhorst, A. M., Beunen, R., Munnink, J. O. (2015). Trust related dynamics in contested land use: A longitudinal study towards trust and distrust in intergroup conflicts in the Baviaanskloof, South Africa. Forest Policy and Economics, 50, 302-310. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.forpol.2014.07.014.

Marchini, S. (2010). Human dimensions of the conflicts between people and jaguars (Panthera onca) in Brazil (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://usp-br1.academia.edu/SilvioMarchini.

Tajfel, H. (1982). Social psychology of intergroup relations. Annual Review of Psychology, 33, 1-39. http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev.ps.33.020182.000245.

 

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