The Role of Identity Uncertainty in Societal Divisions
Updated: Oct 9
What makes people feel uncertain about themselves and their identities? How do people respond when they feel uncertain about themselves and their identities? How do they reduce that uncertainty and restore a clear sense of self and identity?
Why do societal divisions persist?
It has been a big challenge for social scientists to understand how subgroups emerge within a group and when they secede from or integrate with a larger society. On the Korean Peninsula, where I grew up, people in North and South Korea stick with their North and South Korean national identities in spite of the long history of their shared ethnic Korean identity. I was fascinated by how hard it is for a fragmented society to become integrated again. It becomes even further fragmented particularly in uncertain and unstable times (e.g., Balkanization). I wanted to know why, and what could be done about it.
To keep faith with Kurt Lewin's Maxim that "there is nothing so practical as a good theory", this work takes an abstract theoretical approach to understanding the identity dynamics between groups and their subgroups, and goes on to ground a model in data. To do this, I integrate social identity theory and ingroup projection model with uncertainty reduction motive as an unifying principle. I propose that when people feel uncertain about their subgroup identity, they redefine their subgroup identity with the norms of a large society whereas when people feel uncertain about their identity as part of a large society, they project subgroup's norms onto the large society.
New insight for societal divisions
I tested my theoretical models in real political contexts (Scottish independence, Korean reunification). This work has produced articles published in Political Psychology (Jung, Hogg, & Choi, 2016), Self and Identity (Wagoner, Belavadi, & Jung, 2017), Group Processes and Intergroup Relations (Jung, Hogg, & Lewis, 2018), and the Journal of Theoretical Social Psychology (Jung, Hogg, Choi, 2018). As theorized, subgroup identity uncertainty is compensated for by the norms of a large society for both prototypical and unrepresented subgroups. Uncertainty about a large society can be compensated for by subgroup identity only when people in a prototypical subgroup projected their subgroup norms onto a large society. However, an underrepresented subgroup does not engage in ingroup projection as much and thus cannot resolve uncertainty effectively, which leads to further fragmentation and disagreement within the subgroup. I am currently exploring possible remedies that can prevent fragmentation within underrepresented subgroups when they face identity uncertainty.