The Social Web

Identity Needs

We find our place in the world by being and being affirmed for who we are. Our personal identity is deeply linked to the communities we belong to. Vern Neufeld Redekop, professor of conflict studies at Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Canada, offers insight into how we create our sense of self in a model of human identity needs.

Human identity needs. Source: Vern Neufeld Redekop,
From Violence to Blessing: How an Understanding of Deep-Rooted Conflict
Can Open Paths to Reconciliation
, 2002.

Redekop described these needs and how they relate to each other on an individual and collective level. [Vern Neufeld Redekop, From Violence to Blessing: How an Understanding of Deep-Rooted Conflict Can Open Paths to Reconciliation]

  • Meaning – “As people find meaning within their context, they transform a living environment into a world in which everything around them has a meaningful place.” Meaning affirms the value of life and calls us to a higher purpose.
  • Security – Physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual safety protects our right to exist as a person and ensures that our most fundamental needs are met. Without safety we are limited in how we can live and who we can be.
  • Connectedness – Social bonding is a basic human desire. “We generally work out our meaning system within the context of a community of shared values.” It is through these social ties that we learn a shared language and culture.
  • Recognition – We seek appreciation for what we have done, who we are, and how we experience the world. This increases our sense of self-worth. Recognition applies equally to people as individuals and to the groups they belong to.
  • Action – “Humans have an identity need to take meaningful, significant action.” We need to be able to make our own choices, exercise initiative, and take control of our environment. We need to feel we have agency.
  • Self – Humans also have a profound need for ‘being’ – to become aware of who they are as a whole person, and be fully present.

“When all these needs are satisfied,” Redekop says, “the Self becomes conscious of its own wellness and efficacy, which can be compared to social capital – an invisible human resource empowering people to creatively take initiative to change the world.”

Tribal Mind

We are supported in our identity needs by our clan, but get into trouble when that identity brings us into conflict with others who hold contrasting worldviews. “In many cultures,” Vern Redekop says, “the word for one’s tribe is the word for human being, as if all the humans that were known or recognized belonged to that group.” When our identity needs are threatened by other groups, the result is often deep-seated conflict and even violence.

Human groups can be polarized quickly by differences in race, nationality, ethnicity, territory, class, religion, politics, and other values and beliefs. The list is infinite. We still act on tribal instincts. It is very easy to create arbitrary distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them.’

Tribal instincts come into play every time we meet a stranger. At a subconscious level, we try to determine whether they are ‘us’ or ‘them.’ “In a society where you meet and work with strangers all the time, getting acquainted is a play of symbols about the human kinds you might share. Any common ground… can help,” David Berreby writes in Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind.

We size up others, but we are also on the receiving end of their judgements. If we are marginalized by others for who we are – being seen not as ‘us’ but as ‘them’ – this denies our existence and value as a person. The reaction is to respond with anger and sadness. “So an innate preference for good human-kind feelings over bad ones, for feeling like Us and not like Them,” Berreby says, “is no sideshow. It’s one of life’s main events.”

Daniel J. Siegel – a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA – has written extensively on the role integration plays in enhancing individual and community vitality, creativity and resilience.

Unless we are able to connect our shared humanity and relate on a deeper level, Siegel writes in Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, we see others only as objects.

“We uncap our inner lens and take a deep look into the face of the other to see the mind that rests beneath the visage. But if we cannot identify with someone else, those resonance circuits shut off. We see others as objects, as ‘them’ rather than ‘us.’ We literally do not activate the very circuits we need in order to see another person as having an internal mental life.”

We readily look after members of our own clan, Siegel says, but “If… people are ‘not like us,’ we are more likely to treat them with disdain and disregard – as if they were potential enemies and perpetrators of harm.”

Polarization into clans happens on many levels in society, and it’s destructive to our personal happiness and collective well-being. “We are built to be a ‘we’ – and enter a more fulfilling state, perhaps a more natural way of being, when we connect in meaningful ways with others,” Siegel says.

Weaving the Social Web

John Paul Lederach – professor of International Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame and Distinguished Scholar at Eastern Mennonite University – has written extensively on conflict resolution and mediation. Conflicts are resolved, he says, not by looking to win converts or through intimidation, but by re-establishing and strengthening relationships. [John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace]

“Think, feel, and follow relationships. Relationships are at the heart of social change. Relationships require that we understand how and where things connect and how this web of connections occupies the social space where processes of change are birthed and hope to live.”

Lederach compares web-weaving for social change and reconciliation to a spider spinning its web.

“Watch for and build hubs where the cross-linking relational spaces connect the not-like-minded and not-like-situated. Like the star hub in the web, the center holds, but it is not a centralized hub that controls. Nor is this a center built on finding moderates on a political spectrum. Remember, we are thinking social spaces and watching for where things meet, even when those meeting places are seemingly unimportant. Think spaces of relationships and localities where relationships intersect. Those are the spaces that create multiple coordinated and independent connections that build strength.”

“In peacebuilding, relational centers that hold, create, and sustain connections are key. A relationship-centric approach must see spaces of intersection, both those that exist and those that can be created. These are the hubs, the heart that throbs the rhythms of change.”

Lederach says we often fail to resolve conflicts because we tend to focus mechanistically on imposing process and constructing solutions, rather than on creating human relationships that bridge differences. We need “to envision the canvas that makes visible the relational spaces and the web of life where social change is located.”

We heal the world by discovering our shared humanity.