Thursday, September 29, 2011

In-Groups and Out-Groups

by Joe Patrone

Needless to say, relationships between groups of people can be highly unpredictable. Even though you can almost determine the overall effect that attitudes, environmental stimuli, and even slight differences in personality can twist one's expectations around. This begs the question why people in  groups act the way they do. Specifically, one could ask why people in in-groups display altruism towards other members of the group while viewing people outside of the group as unimportant or lowly-- or conversely, why people in out-groups feel competitive towards the in-group.

Charles Darwin states in his second book, The Descent of Man:
 "A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection."
So, in other words, forming a group and staying loyal to its members has an evolutionary premium. This is also approached by members of the scientific community in the field of evolutionary psychology. Because highly social behavior increased early mans' odds of survival in the wild the human brain became more and more adaptive to responding to group behavior over time. This isn't hard to believe considering how people behave in modern times!

A drawing of early man depicting highly
social behavior. One advantage of having an extremely social group would be the invention and distribution of stone tools and weapons.

This still doesn't give a full explanation of why people form tightly knit and exclusive, and even hostile, groups. This is elaborated upon in our textbook (Sociology: The Essentials, Anderson/Taylor) in Chapter 6. According to the book, Professor Thomas Pettigrew explains that it is through attribution that we make assumptions about someones ideas and behavior based on what group they belong to. He elaborated on this topic by contributing the term attribution error, or errors that are made in relation to a person and the group they belong to. Researchers Taylor, Kluegel and Bobo cite one attribution error that can be traced to race. Their research shows that White people are likely to think if a police officer shoots at a Black or Latino person, they somehow did something to antagonize the officer and thus "deserved it". On the other hand, a Black peron is likely to think that if the officer was white they shot strictly because of unjust racial bias.


Racism in the American South is one of many probable causes of in-grouping and out-grouping in American society. In this officer making an assumption of the Black man's guilt or has he really committed a crime? You'd probably be surprised to hear what people of different ethnic backgrounds would say.

Forming in-groups probably helped early humanity survive the harsh terrain and constant threats presented by the ancient world. However, the end result has contributed to clash between different races, classes, sexes and has played its part in turning people against each other for centuries. It's ensured our survival but has also prolonged our fighting and turmoil.

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