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Interest and Identity Perspectives Essay

In isolated environments, individuals sometimes diverge from a rational thought process, and become engulfed in a deviant whirlwind led by a few persuasive group members. This deviation from normal society can sometimes lead to intergroup rivalry between the rational group, who is often in the minority, and the deviant group. In some extreme cases, the intergroup rivalry can lead to the death of a handful of the rational group members.

Such is the case in The Lord of Flies and also The Crucible, in which deviants lose sight of rationality and create a counter culture which eventually engulfs the entire civilization except for a few rational actors. To explain this occurrence sociologists offer variations of two perspectives; interest theory and identity theory. Using the factors that influence interest theory and identity theory it is possible to explain why deviants form these groups, why some rational actors buy into them, and how they perpetuate in the face of rivalry from the rational group. The Theories

In his book Principles of Group Solidarity, Michael Hechter offers an interest theory perspective that outlines group solidarity, which can be defined as each group member’s willingness to contribute to the interest of the entire group. Within the group, solidarity varies for two main reasons; the extensiveness of each individual’s obligations, and each individual’s compliance with their obligations. Dissecting each of these reasons Hechter concludes that an individual’s extensiveness of their group obligations will increase when each group member is dependent on one another to produce a certain desired good.

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Also, an individual’s compliance with their group obligations will increase when the group is effectively monitored, and when sanctions are properly levied. Nevertheless, Hechter argues, group solidarity is only as strong as the group member most willing to deviate from their obligations to the group and pursue their own self-interest. Hechter explains that the rational egoist will “choose the course of action that, given the information available to them and their ability to process it, they think will produce maximum utility. (Hechter, 30)

If the rational egoist chooses to pursue his own self-interest, rather than the collective interest of the group, conflict and rivalry will arise between the two groups. To further explain intergroup rivalry, Marilynn Brewer proposed an identity theory perspective, optimal distinctiveness theory, which serves as a motivational approach to social identity. Optimal distinctiveness theory suggests that individuals join groups for two main reasons, inclusion, and differentiation.

Inclusion can be defined as the need to feel part of something larger than the self, and differentiation can be thought of as the need to be distinguished from others as a source of self-esteem. According to Brewer, individuals’ desire to be part of an exclusive high-status group motivates the creation of such groups. The notable social identity that results from membership in such a group makes the group salient, and warrants the respect of other individuals and groups.

On the other hand, low-status groups still satisfy the individuals’ needs for inclusion, but their negative differentiation triggers off other individuals from seeking membership. As each group recruits members, intergroup rivalry occurs, but the salient group will most often be seen as the victor. Application of the Theories In William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, a group of British schoolboys survive a plane crash and find themselves deserted on an uninhabited island, where they are alone without adult supervision.

Within a few short days, Jack, an aggressive and persuasive boy, begins to diverge from the rational rules established to maintain order and pave the way for their rescue. Acting like a true rational egoist, Jack decides to pursue his individual self-interest leaving behind the collective interest of the group. Jack’s deviance starts off with him creating a crew of hunters whose sole mission is to kill wild pigs on the island. At first, this crew of hunters remains part of rational society, but as the days progress their deviation intensifies.

Within a week of being on the island, Jack’s crew of hunters becomes a wild group of boys who spend their days hunting with painted faces and spears. Using Hechter’s interest theory perspective on group solidarity, it is possible to show how Jack was able to form his crew of hunters, and why, rational society began to crumble. As Hechter pointed out, group solidarity varies due to, the extensiveness of each individual’s obligations, and each individual’s compliance with their obligations. Thus, it is necessary to analyze what was required from each boy and the varying levels of compliance with these requirements.

Initially, Ralph, the oldest and most confident of the boys, calls a meeting and attempts to set rules of order for the island. Ralph charges the boys to keep a fire burning on the pinnacle of the island to aid in their rescue and states that they must build shelters near the beach and search for food in the forest. Each boy was required to partake in rotating fire watch shifts, assist in the creation of beachside shelters, and search for food, mainly berries, in the forest. With the rules set, and the plans in action, it was now time for work.

But, many of the boys, particularly the littluns, shirked their responsibility and spent most of their time horsing around and playing in the bay. The littluns were not accustomed to working at home, and as rational egoists they decided to pursue their self-interest which was to play in the bay. This decision caused unrest among the older boys, who were now required to make up for their free-riding younger group members. The extensiveness of their obligations was not too demanding, they still were given ample relaxation time, but compliance with their obligations continued to be weak.

As Ralph found out, the problem was enforcement. In his establishment of the rules, Ralph never set-up an effective monitoring or sanctioning system. Thus, the boys could free-ride and not face any repercussions. Jack formed his crew of hunters at the perfect time. Just as the boys were becoming frustrated with rational society, and its unenforceable rules, Jack offered an alternative filled with excitement. Without any parental supervision the boys were free for the first time in their lives, and with the exception of Ralph and Piggy, no one was urging them to remain civilized.

The crew of hunters, and their deviation from rational society, led to intergroup rivalry between the two groups on the island. Ralph’s rational group was committed to maintaining order and determined to keep the fire burning in order to signal planes or ships. Jack’s deviant group was committed to hunting pigs, relaxing in the bay, and other things which made life on the island more enjoyable. However, the intergroup rivalry was rather weak for only a handful of boys remained with Ralph.

Brewer’s identity theory perspective, optimal distinctiveness theory, allows us to further explain intergroup rivalry in The Lord of the Flies. Brewer argues that individuals form groups for two main reasons, inclusion, and differentiation. On the island, many of the boys felt as though they were not truly included in the group, or its decision making process. Thus, when Jack’s crew of hunters came to recruit these boys and offered them the ability to hunt and participate in the group’s actions, they immediately felt as though they were part of something larger than the self.

Furthermore, the boys were able to differentiate themselves from the boring and lifeless rational society, and were now hunters, which boosted their self-esteem. Another key point in Brewer’s theory includes the idea that an individuals’ desire to be part of an exclusive high-status group motivates the creation of such groups. The notable social identity that resulted from membership in the crew of hunters made the group salient. Ralph’s group feared the hunters, and this fear was perceived as respect on behalf of the hunters.

Thus, as intergroup rivalry persisted, the hunters were seen as the victor. As stated earlier, in some extreme cases, the intergroup rivalry can lead to the death of a rational group member. This occurs when Piggy asks Jack and his hunters whether it is better to be a pack of painted savages or sensible like Ralph. One of the hunters tips a rock over on Piggy, causing him to fall down the mountain to the beach; the impact kills him. Jack declares himself chief and hurls his spear at Ralph, who runs away. This demonstrates that intergroup rivalry can often be taken too far, even to the point of death.

Now let’s turn to another example: Arthur Miller’s portrayal of the Salem witch trials in The Crucible. The witch trials took place in Salem, Massachusetts, a typical colonial community with a strong Puritan following. Like the island in The Lord of the Flies, Salem, was for the most part an isolated environment. In those days travel was often slow and relatively dangerous, thus, movement was generally limited. The deviance in Salem was initiated by Abigail Williams and her crew of teenage girls in the community.

By and large, these girls did not contribute to the welfare of the community; they acted as free-riders. For the girls, non-compliance with the group’s obligations was easy. They were rarely monitored, and stringent sanctions could result if their families acquired a reputation for producing deviants. Thus, most conflicts were pushed under the table or out of sight, to save face in the community. The predominant reason that allowed such a large faction to pursue their individual end revolves around the court’s decision to believe Abigail Williams and her crew.

Even the court failed to follow proper procedure. The trial consisted of the accused either agreeing to prior communication with the devil, or denying the accusation and facing the consequence of death. There was no middle ground, no logical though process, the girls had created hysteria in Salem. Relating Hechter’s interest theory perspective to the Salem with trials, Abigail, and her crew of deviants were able to flourish by creatively developing a scheme in which they were able to persuade rational community members into believing their treachery.

By selecting group members with the lowest levels of status in the community including, beggars and peasants, to be labeled as having communication with the devil, the deviants gained credibility. It was easy for the rational community members to buy into the notion that these low status individuals were communicating with the devil. Through establishing their accusations on these unfavorable group members the deviants were able to create a snowball effect, in which more and more people began to believe that certain members did in fact participate in communication with the devil.

Before too long the girls were in too deep to ever admit guilt. In turn, they created their own group rested solely on the premise of not getting caught. At this point a traitor from within would result in death for them all. When Mary Warren, under the supervision of John Proctor, attempted to rectify the girls’ wrongs, Abigail led a flamboyant reprisal which made Mary Warren look like she had lost her mind. Eventually, once Abigail realized these trials could not persist indefinitely, and that the intergroup rivalry would ultimately decimate her group, she decided to flee Salem.

During her rampage in Salem, Abigail’s relentless pursuit of her own individual end transformed the culture of the community. While Abigail and her crew of deviants broke down the community, others including John Proctor, and Reverend Hale gave their all to fight the deviants and maintain civility. According to Hechter, an individual’s extensiveness of their group obligations will increase when each group member is dependent on one another to produce a certain desired good.

In the case of the Salem with trials, Proctor, despite his relations with Abigail, represented the community member who looked out for the well-being of his friends and community members. Proctor understood that interdependence of the rational community members would enable them to overcome the deviants and maintain the well-being of Salem. When faced with the ultimate question, death with dignity or life with disgrace, Proctor chose the course of action that would eliminate the deviation in the future, and rectify the problems Abigail created in Salem.

Similar to Proctor’s course of action, Reverend Hale realized that something must be done to suppress the deviants from creating any further problems. Having prior experience in uncovering witchcraft, Reverend Hale was called in to assess the situation and if the need existed, eradicate the devil from Salem. Unexpectedly, once he had a chance to fully analyze the situation it became clear that the girls who were allegedly suffering from witchcraft were the source of the problem.

In an effort to comply with his obligations to Salem, Reverend Hale urged Judge Danforth to see beyond the girls’ deviant actions. He knew John Proctor was telling the truth, he knew Abigail was lying when she alleged Elizabeth Proctor’s spirit stabbed a needle in her abdomen, he knew the situation in Salem was out of control. Eventually, the intergroup rivalry between the rational community members and Abigail’s crew of deviants led to the hanging of several innocent community members.

Similar to Jack’s crew of hunters, the deviation from normal society that Abigail and the girls created, led to the death of rational group members. The counter culture engulfed the entire town of Salem, and even the courts were not able to see beyond the lies. To further explain the deviation from normal civilization in Salem, we use Brewer’s identity theory perspective, optimal distinctiveness theory. As Brewer argues, individuals form groups for two main reasons, inclusion, and differentiation. In Salem the teenage girls were generally neglected and relegated to second class status.

To offer support to one another, as they changed from teenagers to women, the girls remained a close knit group so that they would feel a part of something larger than the self. They relied on one another to make their difficult lives in Salem as livable as possible. Additionally, by dancing and singing in the woods, the girls were able to differentiate themselves from the tedious rational society. When they were in the woods expressing their youth, the girls were free from the inhibitions they experienced during their daily lives.

Like the deviant group of hunters in The Lord of the Flies, the Salem girls yearned for an opportunity to live an exciting life. Their chance to be part of an exclusive high-status group came about in an unexpected manner, but nonetheless, the girls relished their roles as notable community members. Never before had the girls been in the spotlight of the community. Similar to the crew of hunters, rational community members feared the Salem girls, and their notoriety stemmed from this fear.

Thus, as the intergroup rivalry persisted, the girls were in command. The girls could label a rational community member as having communications with the devil; a crime punishable by death. Due to the fact that nearly everyone bought into the testimony of the girls, the few rational community members who tried to fight the deviants were overshadowed. Conclusion As we have now seen, individuals sometimes diverge from a rational thought process, and become engulfed in a deviant whirlwind led by a few persuasive group members.

In the two examples given, this deviation from normal society led to intergroup rivalry between the rational group and the deviant group, and eventually led to the death of a handful of rational group members. Hechter’s interest theory perspective, which describes group solidarity, as well as Brewer’s identity theory perspective, optimal distinctiveness theory, offers two different methods to explain why deviants form rival groups, why some rational actors buy into them, and how they perpetuate in the face of competition from the rational group.

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