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Europe needs a shared social identity, and fast!

Comparing the recent rise of populism in Europe (or really across the world) with the rise of fascism and Nazism in the 20th century is sometimes presented as inflammatory, distasteful and stigmatizing. However, if we want to know what’s happening now, it wouldn’t be helpful to restrict our scope, to maybe even establish that the comparison isn’t fair indeed.

The second World War, and especially the Holocaust was very much the frame of reference of Henri Tajfel, one of the most influential social psychologists. As a Polish Jew, he had experienced disadvantage and discrimination, but the Holocaust (he was the only member of his family who survived) would shape all of his later work. Essentially, Tajfel asked himself how it could be that human beings could justify immeasurable cruelty against other human beings, just for being a member of another group. This question would lead him to pioneer on eminently important topics such as Social Identity Theory and Prejudice.

Social Identity Theory explains how we categorize other people, basically into two groups: ingroups (the group we belong to) and outgroups (the group we don’t belong to). Subsequently, we overestimate the differences between these groups and exaggerate the positive aspects of our own group and the negative aspects of the outgroup. Also, we homogenize the outgroup and generalize it’s negative aspects (to all members). At the same time, we differentiate our own groups, and view members of ingroups behaving badly as ‘rotten apples’, while members behaving in a positive manner as typical for the group. Needless to say, for outgroups, all of this is reversed. This mechanism (Social Categorisation) helps to understand how many ‘ordinary’ Europeans could commit or at least be complicit to the Nazi atrocities against their Jewish compatriots, as well as Roma, Sinti, and homosexuals.

Steve Reicher (one of Tajfel’s former students), Alex Haslam, and Rakshi Rath took this research a step further, by outlining in detail how “inhumane acts against other groups can come to be celebrated as right” (Reicher, Haslam & Rath, 2008, p.1313). They asked themselves for instance why there were such large differences between the numbers of Jews that were deported and killed from the different countries occupied by the Nazis. To illustrate this: a staggering 71% of the Jewish Dutch population was deported, as were 86% of the Greek Jews, and even 90% of the Polish Jews. In comparison, 44% of the Belgian Jewish population, 22% of the French Jews and none (0%) of the Bulgarian Jews were (allowed to be) deported by the Nazis. The explanation is that in Poland and the Netherlands, for instance, the Jewish population was excluded from the national identity. They were seen as different, alien, and not a part of the nation. Whereas in Bulgaria, where Nazi attempts to deport Jews were actively thwarted by the Bulgarians, the Jewish population was regarded as an integral part of the nation (see Todorov, 2001).

Reicher, Haslam, and Rath’s describe the five steps in which violence against outgroups becomes justifiable for ingroups. “The five steps are: (i) Identification, the construction of an ingroup; (ii) Exclusion, the definition of targets as external to the ingroup; (iii) Threat, the representation of these targets as endangering ingroup identity; (iv) Virtue, the championing of the ingroup as (uniquely) good; and (v) Celebration, embracing the eradication of the outgroup as necessary to the defence of virtue.” (p.1313).

So, how is this relevant to the present? The parallels are striking, to say the least. Maybe unwittingly, the development of the populist movements of Europe is following the steps mentioned above. The ‘ingroup’ is constructed by referring to themselves as ‘the people’, and excluding those who do not adhere, labelling them ‘elites’, ‘self-haters’, ‘traitors’ and so on. The outgroup is identified as migrants, and ‘Muslims’ in particular, who are subsequently homogenized and generalized as fundamentally incompatible with Western values. This outgroup is depicted as a general threat to the ingroup, on various societal terrains, while the ‘own’ culture (generally an idealized and romanticized, nostalgic version of that culture) is uncritically presented as good. Finally, if one has the stomach to descend into the pits of various populist right wing social media channels, one will find that the calls for a violent ‘cleansing’ are already being dispersed without any inhibition.

This article has no intention of labelling people or scaremongering. However, our knowledge of how social identity works and to what it can lead is quite clear. Recently, a Dutch sports journalist, Johan Derksen, argued that allowing too many kids of Moroccan descent to amateur football clubs, would be detrimental for those clubs. Even if we ignore the obvious discriminatory aspects of that remark, it is indicative of why Europe hasn’t been able to integrate their migrant populations. Why would a child that is born and raised in the Netherlands be called a Moroccan? Why would his failings be attributed to his descent, and not for instance to the inability of society to help him succeed? Why would PEGIDA be angry when confronted with pictures of non-white children (who incidentally contributed to a German World Championship of football)? If politicians from moderate parties want to know what they can do against xenophobic populism: define nationhood as civic and not ethnical, It’s not that difficult, really.

Reicher, S., Haslam, S. A., & Rath, R. (2008). Making a virtue of evil: A five‐step social identity model of the development of collective hate. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(3), 1313-1344.


This article has earlier been published at the

July 4, 2016

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