Mind If I Join You?

I love lists. I especially love “to-do” lists – not because I want to have many tasks, but because I get a certain thrill from crossing something off of my “to-do” list. I feel accomplished and a great deal of satisfaction comes over me. I find that this is consistent with my equal love for organizers. Looking at photos in the Crate & Barrel and Ikea catalogs makes me very happy. They often show idyllic office workspaces in imaginary homes. There are baskets tagged with pieces of slate and labeled in chalk for things like “Bills”, “School”, “Receipts”, etc.  I covet those offices and maybe if I win the lottery I will be able to live out my dream of a perfectly coordinated and organized workspace.  If I dig a bit deeper into why I like those images, I can see that I really prefer things to be ordered over things that are chaotic. If I look a little further and peel back the onion of my psyche even more, I can see that I often search for not only where to put things, but where to put myself. Where do I fit in?

Social psychology has developed theories about group dynamics and how people relate within a group. Social Identity Theory involves both how a person interacts as a result of their individuality (their Personal Identity), and how the individual interacts based on their awareness of their position within a group (their Social Identity) (The Pennsylvania State University World Campus, L6 P4, 2015).  Yet a different theory is that of Social Dominance. This theory suggests that humans naturally form different hierarchies across cultural and socioeconomic boundaries and that those at the top of each hierarchy gain a preponderance of the good that comes to the group (Sidanius & Pratto, 2012).  As such, those at the top of the group are eager to keep things the same within their hierarchy. After all, the top group people reap great rewards and benefits in the form of things like wealth, better education, modern conveniences, etc. Interestingly, research shows that those in the low group population within a hierarchy will accept their position within the group. The low group individuals see the value in being in the low group of a dominant hierarchy over being in the top group of a lesser hierarchy (The Pennsylvania State University World Campus L6 P5, 2015).

Thinking back to my family of origin, I can see that our roles and our “proper places” were imposed on us mostly by our parents. I am the oldest of three. My parents were careful not to assign a favorite, but each of us interacted with our parents differently. I was the peacemaker, my brother was the instigator/rebel and my sister was the free spirit. The hierarchy was clear, my parents were at the top of the pyramid and my siblings and I were the subordinates. I knew my role and where I fit in the group.  As I moved into adolescence and high school, I became part of more groups, both socially and academically. High school is where the group delineations were most clear – complete with labels such as “Goths”, “Techs”, “Band Geeks”, “Jocks”, “Richies”, etc.  Within those cliques, there were pecking orders and hierarchies. For example, since the Jocks were more popular than the Band Geeks at my school, if you were low in the hierarchy of the Band Geeks, you were exponentially less popular than the Jocks. I was a Band Geek (and I still am – but now I get paid to be one!).  As a sophomore, it was clear that the seniors were in charge of the group – even going so far as to pass along duties like sorting music and cleaning the practice field after rehearsals so that they could spend more time socializing with their peers. It was easy to tolerate the grunt work because I knew that I wouldn’t remain a sophomore forever. One day, I would be a senior and the power would shift.  Fortunately for me, Hollywood created a movie that perfectly (yes, perfectly) described my high school experience: (warning: this clip contains some graphic language)


(Hughes, 1985)

Little did I know, these cliques would linger into adulthood. They changed names and appearances – the cliques became hierarchies. As I got older, I could see that everywhere I turned, there were more dividing lines. I could see it between people of wealth and people with less financial stability. I could see it between those of certain ethnic backgrounds and those that identified as Caucasian. I could see it between upper management and entry-level employees. I could see it between those in political power and those that were oppressed. I could see it between those that follow a certain spiritual path and those that have a different experience of human existence. In all of those groups, some individuals rise to the top (the in-group) and some are rank-and-file members (the out-group). At first, it was difficult to determine where I belonged. The world is a big place and how would I determine which clique or hierarchy I would join? I came to realize though that no matter what hierarchy or clique I was in, I had a choice. I could choose to pursue the in-group status or remain in the out-group. If neither of those choices appealed to me, I could start my own group. Social dominance is only as limiting as you make it.  It is essential to determine your own path, regardless of the hierarchy to which you belong, for that is where you will find the most joy.

Hughes, J. (Director). (1985). The Breakfast Club [Motion Picture].

Sidanius, J., & Pratto, F. (2012). Social Dominance Thoery. In P. A. Van Lange, A. W. Kruglanski, & E. T. Higgins, Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology: Volume Two (pp. 418-438). London: Sage.

The Pennsylvania State University World Campus L6 P5. (2015). Lesson 6: Intergroup Relations: Social Dominance Theory. Retrieved from PSYCH424: Applied Social Psychology: https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/fa15/psych424/001/content/07_lesson/05_page.html

The Pennsylvania State University World Campus, L6 P4. (2015). Lesson 6: Intergroup Relations Social Identity Theory. Retrieved from PSYCH424: Applied Social Psychology: https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/fa15/psych424/001/content/07_lesson/04_page.html


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  1. To begin with, I am a fellow list lover! My core tendency is to be quite scatter-brained and it seems that once I hit 30, list making became a huge coping mechanism to keep the whirling obligations of life straight in my head. I completely identify with that rush of accomplishment and completion scratching an item off the list (do I need help?). Furthermore, thank you for including a clip of one of the most iconic coming-of-age depictions of American high school ever created. It’s a classic!

    Returning to the organizational issues, I think for me it’s an attempt to externally control some of the internal chaos in my mind. I’ve definitely struggled with anxiety issues since puberty and can see how it translates into list making. There are many situations in my life that feel overwhelming and out my control, and I’ve noticed that I cling to controlling small silly things to mollify negative emotions. Realizing that has been instrumental in my growth; recognizing that pattern nudged me to examine some of those heavy issues, how I perceive them, and adapt new and healthier coping mechanisms. Does any of that resonate with your personal experience? I applaud your choice to be introspective and vulnerable in your post – it’s brave!

    Additionally, your idea to associate the concept of hierarchies to both family structure and high school was great because we can all relate to those examples. Personally, I was an avid member of the hippie/freak clique. There were other cliques lower in status than us but we were far from the in-group. The contact hypothesis would have failed to work in improving the prejudicial and sometimes antagonistic relationships between cliques since there was unequal status between my group and the popular one (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). However, I still think that gains would have been made on both sides if the divisions were recognized by the teachers and we were forced to get to know each other on a personal level and work together on school projects. Although it would have been uncomfortable for everyone, I think simple strategies like that would have improved intergroup relations to some degree.


    Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

  2. I absolutely loved this post! It was well researched and integrated many of the class readings to highlight a thorough review. The addition of your personal experience was a nice touch and I enjoyed it immensely. Unfortunately, as you point out, the in-group and out-group dynamic is very much alive and well. Although some dynamics have changed as we entered adulthood, this hierarchy is not one of them. I can recall reading about a “culture war” where much of the division was attributed to socioeconomic status and stratified thinking. Sometimes people of privilege and those of the working class just do not seem to “get” each other. Since one is out of touch with the other, the divide continues to widen. Williams (2010) shared two distinct occurrences that I thought would be appropriate to share in connection with your observation. In the first, she shared a question that President Obama asked to an Iowa audience during the 2008 presidential election, which inquired if anyone saw the price of arugula in Whole Foods lately (p. 187). The second was a story in which author hurt herself on a Yale campus, gashing her forehead as she ran into a door jamb. Calling her sister, a Harvard teacher to share what happened, ended up having her being cared for by Yale’s chief plastic surgeon as a result of a call from her sister 15 minutes later (Williams, 2010, p. 189).

    Now while the President probably felt he was relating to the people, many felt that he didn’t have a clue. Williams (2010) shared that several people didn’t know what arugula was and one person attributed it to being a “Hawaiian thing” (p. 187). Clearly he didn’t get that his food choice was not a selection of most middle-class families; many can barely afford the necessities much less the luxuries – such as arugula. Likewise, with the care the author herself received, many of the underprivileged or middle-class families would never be able to have such service as they are not privileged. With something as seemingly small as a food item, a distinction has been made, so imagine how it would be reflected in the diverse cultural thinking, priorities, etc. It’s not hard to imagine that it would differ drastically and thus the clash of cultures will remain.

    Williams, J. (2010). Reshaping the work-family debate: why men and class matter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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