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Group Identity and Its Making

Crowd psychology and undigested grief.

Key points

  • There is underlying psychology to international and intra-national relationships.
  • There are important psychological dynamics between a leader and his or her followers.
  • Large groups have a mourning process, often a complicated one, just as individuals do.
  • When a shared trauma is unmourned, it is passed into our monuments and given to the next generation to grieve.
Molly Castelloe
Source: Molly Castelloe

New insights into large-group psychology and social conflict have emerged as a result of the important ideas of Professor Vamik Volkan who conducted fieldwork in regions of war and unrest around the globe.

Professor Volkan, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, builds on the ideas of Erik Erikson who thought psychic growth existed through multiple phases throughout a person’s lifetime.

One of Erikson’s main concepts is "identity" and he describes it as one's sense of who one is over time. Paradoxically identity involves continuity, but also growth and change. Potentially an individual finds and experiences oneself anew. Identity of a personal nature engages such questions as: Who am I? What kind of person do I want to be? What prevents me from that? How do I become who I have the potential to be? How do I become more real and fully alive to myself?

Volkan developed Erikson’s notion of identity, but for the group and defined the important concept of “large-group identity” in terms of nation, ethnicity, race, religion, and politics: We are Americans, we are Christians, we are Alt-Right, we are Arabs, we are Jews.

When a group's identity is threatened, after an attack or loss of power — it becomes imperative to reinforce it. Volkan uses the useful metaphor of a tent. When the canvas of the tent is maligned or degraded, people rally around the leader, who acts like the pole of the tent stabilizing the group and containing its "second skin" of group identity.

According to Volkan, large group identity develops from traditions such as shared foods, dances, nursery rhythms, but most of all history — both the shared glories and shared injures of a group. However, shared traumas are much more influential than shared glories. Examples of such injuries are a defeat in war, the loss of land or prestige, the suffering from colonization or from a group's ongoing subjection to prejudice and hostility. The idea is that a group unconsciously uses the image of that trauma to represent itself, as a marker of its identity.

In other words, when a group’s overwhelming trauma is not mourned or worked through, it becomes part of large group identity, often its cornerstone. It can be hard for members of that group to see past old wounds and they are vulnerable to manipulation by a destructive leader. "Chosen trauma" is Volkan’s term for this mental image of history that is not sufficiently mourned and so it is chosen as a maker and is passed down through the generations.

The idea of large group identity is especially timely today in our era of globalization and refugee crisis, when there is such anxiety around national borders and different kinds of people are hurled in sudden contact. Volkan is at the forefront of understanding societal conflict from a psychological perspective and his insights into shared emotion are essential to managing many of the pressing conditions of our age such as the dangerous political, racial, and religious divisions that splinter nations.



Volkan, V. (1998). Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism. Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux.