Identity and belonging are commonly mentioned as an element of the relational dimension of social capital. The other dimensions of social capital being the structural and cognitive dimensions. This conceptualisation, distinguishing between structural, relational, and cognitive dimensions, is one of the major approaches to social capital. This approach was systematically explored and elucidated by Nahapiet & Ghoshal (1998) building on Granovetter’s (1992) discussion of structural and relational embeddedness.
A shared identity is strongly associated with a variety of aspects of social capital and has important implications for a range of outcomes. It orients actors towards shared goals, intensifies obligations towards the group or community, increases the likelihood of social support, improves collective efficacy, and empowers collective action.
A shared social identity involves actors seeing themselves as one with other people and enables perceptions of unity, togetherness, solidarity, and community spirit. It inspires feelings of belonging and solidarity, and the sense that others are “one of us” which makes it easier to trust and cooperate. Nahapiet & Ghoshal (1998: p.256) defined identification as “the process whereby individuals see themselves as one with another person or group of people”. A strong sense of identity and belonging is associated with motivation to achieve group goals.
Having shared identity means recognition and commitment to the common good, and a willingness to sacrifice some personal interests for the sake of “we” – the group, community, or society. It comes from the innate human desire for social identity. It provides acceptance and fulfills the need to be affiliated with the “in” group. There is value and emotional significance attached to membership.
Individuals identify with various social groupings simultaneously based on family, geography, education, gender, ethnicity, religion, sporting and interest groups, various economic factors, and any grouping that involves membership. The significance of social identity has long been recognised in social psychology (for further details see Tajfel, 1981; Turner et al., 1987).
The development of identity and belonging in a social grouping requires “buy in” to group objectives and what the group stands for. To identify with a group means some degree of acceptance of the norms and values of the group. Shared identity defines and reinforces accepted behaviours among members of the group or community. Identity powerfully shapes and reinforces norms as well as expectations and obligations. People are more likely to interact, cooperate, and trust others who share a social identity.
Joining a group requires investment of time, effort, and often other resources to develop identity and belonging, and membership becomes linked to reputation and sense of self identity. Group members tend to embrace its history and narratives, shared language, and shared goals. Membership provides access to a variety of benefits such as social support, access to resources, and opportunities to improve one’s personal and community situation. Identity creates a commitment to group expectations and obligations and a reluctance to risk exclusion. This powerfully motivates action for collective benefit and deters exploitive or opportunistic actions that undermine group goals.
Strong shared identity can have negative outcomes where close-knit groups can create a tendency for conformity and “group think” which can limit creativity and innovation and ultimately constrain action. As with many other aspects of social capital, there can be nonlinear relationships with outcomes.
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