During my last year in High School I received acceptance letters to three Universities—I threw every single one of those letters away.
I joined the United State Marine Corps in 2002.
Regardless of who you are, how smart you are, or what job you have, you are molded, formed, and presented as a uniform character of like resemblance to both the brother to your right and to your left. Through discipline, uniformity was pervasive.
This mentality is explained simply as their definition of discipline reads: the instant willingness and obedience to all orders, respect for authority, and self-reliance. You might ask why?… simple, because in combat, decisions are made that often counter survival tendencies, defy logic, and are time sensitive—no time to ask why.
The next question is how.
Social identity theory posits that an individual’s self knowledge is made of both personal identity—intrinsic characterizations such as personality traits, and social identity—the sense of identifying with whichever group the individual belongs (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). Such extrinsic participation is both foundation and supporting in the development and maintenance of self-image and self-esteem Tajfel & Turner, 1986).
Within the construct of the military, this idea, the fostering of social identity, is largely used as a mechanism to reduce individualism, support obedience, and nullify all occurrences of non-uniformity.
If you ask any Marine what they love about being a Marine, they’ll likely respond with organizational loyalty and the brotherhood for fellow Marines—social identities—positive ones at that. Conversely, the structure, formality of uniformity, belittlement, and pressure are profoundly important in defining, and instituting the following of a larger social identity that depresses personal identity. Though positive in some cases, it is ultimately the standard used by the military to depress individualism.
This is developed from day one at boot camp: first names are gone, rank is given, uniforms are worn, standards are high, regulations on presentation, grooming standards, and conduct are significantly regulated and enforced. This, in sum, is foundational to instituting social identity that removes individualism to best support military functions, movement, and to win wars.
Research has shown that groups who collectively experience pain, turmoil, catastrophe, or significant life events tend to form stronger social bonds and become more cohesive (Durkheim, 1912; Whitehouse, 1996; Whitehouse, 2012). I would agree with this, as I continuously speak with those that I went to war with and has also been suppored by research that states the same—those who go to war together tend to form stronger bonds due to stress, hardship, and events (Elder & Clipp, 1989).
Interestingly enough, social identity theory states that people strive to have a positive social identity for which they enjoy, like, and see as good (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). Within the military, this notion is often blurred between the positive idea of supporting the United States—country—freedom and pressure from military power and influence to conform—which, in turn, is not a positive social identity so much as it is an assumed or molded social identity as a requirement. Such conformity is regulated by military authority in the form of rank—which trumps all other forms of social identity formation because military members are held by law to obey and follow such orders from those appointed to ranks above them—regardless their position, experience, or reputation. This, in sum, departs from an academic explanation of power—in that it does no require a capacity to produce behavior change in others and it demands obedience that supersedes influence (Bass, 1990). Additionally, French and Raven (1959) explained power in terms of influence whereby power has a source. To this end, military power is sourced through coercive power—whereby any failure to obey is prosecuted and punished by law (French & Raven, 1959). As such, the position of power, influence, and authority within the military is markedly different than civilian organizations and bolsters their formation of a social identity that supports the greater good of conformity, uniformity, and war fighting.
Ultimately these disparities exist which conflict between intrinsic personal identity and socially built identity. In my experience, this is the leading cause of negative opinions, retention problems, and reduced moral in military units and is detrimental to positive leadership outcomes, efficiency, and performance in both a military unit and organizations.
The use of military power and influence to mold social identity clearly produces changes in myriad perceptions, attributions, and motivation. By changing the sense of identity heavily towards a collective social identity (while negating the personal identity), the individual is lost and subsequent environmental perceptions are changed. I have personally seen this in various forms throughout my career. For instance, when social identity depresses personal identity, one’s needs hierarchy—what motivates people as determined by satisfying their needs—changes and alters their perceived needs (Maslow, 1943). To this end, I’ve seen military members assume the military to be far more important than their family, friends, life goals, education, and personal well-being. It has also been very evident in their perceptions. When social identity rules, attributions—assigning a cause to a behavior—end up being a product of their identity, whereby producing perceptual biases towards the support of their in-group or social identity (Roccas & Brewer, 2002).
Ultimately, this notion can most likely be applied to any organization that seeks to value social identity to the point that personal identity is inferior, worthless, or substandard. I would posit that some form of modulation between the two could stand to produce the best product or outcome. In that, I do believe the military is a unique case that truly benefits, macroscopically and apart from ethics—for the support of our freedom, towards using the theory of social identity to optimize war fighting, and for the betterment of the world. It just comes at a cost of identity.
Bass, B. M., (1990). Bass and Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership. 3rd ed. New York: Free Press.
Bastian, B., Jetten, J., & Ferris, L. J. (2014). Pain as social glue: Shared pain increases cooperation. Psychological Science, 25(11), 2079-2085. doi:10.1177/0956797614545886
Durkheim, E. (1995). Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse [The elementary forms of religious life]. New York, NY: Free Press. (Original work published 1912)
Elder, G. H., & Clipp, E. C. (1989). Combat experience and emotional health: Impairment and resilience in later life. Journal of Personality, 57, 311–341.
French, J., & Raven, B. H. (1959). The bases of social power. In D. Cartwright (Ed.), Studies of Social Power. Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research.
Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.
Roccas, S., & Brewer, M. B. (2002). Social identity complexity. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 6(2), 88-106. doi:10.1207/S15327957PSPR0602_01
Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of inter-group behavior. In S. Worchel & L. W. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of intergroup relations. Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall.
Whitehouse, H. (1996). Rites of terror: Emotion, metaphor and memory in Melanesian initiation cults. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 2, 703–715.
Whitehouse, H. (2012). Ritual, cognition, and evolution. In R. Sun (Ed.), Grounding social sciences in cognitive sciences (pp. 265–284). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Written by: Morgan L. DeBusk-Lane