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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds Neil, you’re an anthropologist. And you’ve spent a lot of your research career looking at how people express those shared feelings in the public space. What are different ways that we might see shared feeling expressed? And how people do it in a public arena? Well, I suppose, I think to start with that, you have to say, how do the shared feelings come about? Because they don’t exist naturally or inevitably. So it comes about by doing things together or doing things even in parallel. So that, for example, you don’t necessarily need to attend the football matches, you can watch it remotely. And still feel a sense of relationship and emotion about the situation.

Skip to 0 minutes and 53 seconds But certainly if you start to engage physically with people and interact with them around a common aim, a common purpose, a common range of activities, that will be one of the factors that starts to build a sense of commonality among the different people. So it can be any type of activity in a public space. When you have a shared activity, it will give you, different types of activity will perhaps give you different strengths of emotion. You can have a common identity by going to Tescos with a lot of other people. Right, so you could be in a shop together.

Skip to 1 minute and 35 seconds Or waiting at a bus stop and getting in a conversation with somebody about your shared experience of being fed up waiting for the bus. But it’s a weak identity. Whereas some other things where you’re going to say, for example, to a demonstration where you believe in a cause. And you meet other people who believe in a similar aspects of the same cause. You all start to feel a stronger sense of identity with them because there’s more reason for engaging with them, more reason for doing the same sorts of things. So that one’s quite interesting because you think of how many times during the day you’re involved in a common pursuit with other people.

Skip to 2 minutes and 11 seconds You mentioned either going shopping or catching a bus. And in a sense, you’re group there. But you’re not necessarily bonded together unless something happens to create a bond. Where as there are a whole set of other identities where you have emotionally developed as part of that group. And you’ll often go out to express that outwardly, maybe in the way you dress or in the functions you’re doing today. Maybe going to a religious occasion or going to a sporting occasion, or going to a concert. So there’s different levels of the way we express. I sometimes like to call it a sense of groupiness - a sense of belonging in that public sphere.

Skip to 2 minutes and 58 seconds And some of that, like the example of going to the shop or going to the bus stop, waiting at the bus stop, that’s a casual one-off sense of groupiness. You go to the same bus stop the next day. And you’ll meet another group of people. And you won’t really have any sense - But you go to the football match and go again the following week and the following week. And you build a sense of commonness with that group of people. You do activities together. You sing. You chant. You cheer. You get dejected. So it’s not just about being in place is actually doing things in synchronicity with other people, sharing part of the same activities.

Skip to 3 minutes and 38 seconds And part of it is also then you may talk to people. You may not talk to people.

Skip to 3 minutes and 49 seconds And one, an important book, I think, on social collective identity, Benedict Anderson’s notion of an imagined community. That we agree that we see ourselves as part of a community. The vast majority of those people, we’ve never met. We never will meet. But if we do meet them, we can recognise that commonality because we are both all in the same country. Or we worship at the same types of church. Or even simple things like, we speak the same language. Which is an amazing thing really as to why I might feel myself or have a common affinity with, I don’t know, 45 or 50 million other people who feel themselves to be English, or with any of those national identities.

Skip to 4 minutes and 36 seconds Why do we come to have such an affinity with a large group of people who we will never know and, indeed, might have many disagreements with. Absolutely, because I think coming back to the point that Sam made at the beginning of this conversation was, people will have many identities. And some of them will intersect with other people. And others will be very different. You may both support the same football team. But you have radically different political opinions. At sometimes, the football was more important. Other times the political opinion is more important. So you pick and choose as to which people you feel an affinity with at any particular time.

Being part of a group

Having looked at how context makes a difference to our identity and the groups that we are part of, in this section of our discussion Dr Neil Jarman examines different types of groups by exploring the relationship between identity and group membership.

Neil suggests that there are different types of groups which can be defined by a sense of commonality around ‘common aims, common purpose and common activities’. Some of these groups have quite a weak and short-lived identity, such as waiting in a line at a shop or bus, others have much stronger emotional ties. Dominic describes this as a sense of ‘groupiness’.

Neil points out that you can be part of a group with which you have no face-to-face connection. He discusses the importance of the idea of an ‘imagined community’ which was the way Benedict Anderson described being part of a nation.

How do we come to have a sense of belonging with thousands or even millions of other people? Our identity links us with different types of social groups some with weak and short-lived senses of belonging, others stronger and longer lasting.

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Identity, Conflict and Public Space

Queen's University Belfast