Ashley Winfree

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Allport’s Discussion of In-Groups: Emphasizing Individuality
In-groups are an inescapable aspect of life; from birth, people are automatically connected to others through their heritage and through their inherent traits and characteristics. They help to define us in such a way that we always have inevitable connections with other people. Gordon Allport, a professor at Harvard University and professional expert in the area of social psychology, discusses the significance of these in-groups in his essay, “The Formation of In-Groups” (1954). Allport argues that even though we are all part of in-groups, we are individually responsible for our choices in life and that although the presence of in-groups necessitates the existence of out-groups, hatred towards these out-groups is not necessary. Throughout his theory he elaborates on many sub-categories, including how in-groups can shift over time and the difference between in-groups and reference groups (groups with which we want to belong). My experiences as a student in Tae Kwon Do verify Allport’s definitions of in-groups and reference groups as well as his theories explaining how an individual’s changing beliefs and values can cause a shift in an in-group.

Allport begins his discussion of in-groups by defining them and explaining their existence and importance in our everyday lives. Although “in-group” is a fairly ambiguous term, Allport (1954) best describes an in-group by saying that “members of an in-group all use the term we with the same essential significance” (p. 173). In-groups are an inevitable part of our lives; they satisfy our innate yearning to be connected to people – to belong in society. These in-groups can be ascribed in-groups (those that are formed by inherited attributes), such as your family or your race, or they can be achieved in-groups (those that you choose to be a part of), such as a sports team or your friends in school.

Even though we are all part of in-groups, we are also individuals with our own belief systems and sets of values. While a group may be an influential source in shaping an individual’s beliefs, Allport maintains that it is ultimately the individual who is responsible for his/her thoughts and actions. This individualistic view contradicts the Group-Norm Theory of Prejudice which states that members within a group have the same beliefs as the group itself. In continuing with his disagreement with the Group-Norm Theory, Allport claims “that prejudice is ultimately a problem of personality formation and development; no two cases of prejudice are precisely the same” (p. 181). Allport also does not believe in prejudice, or hatred, towards out-groups (those groups which you are not a member of). This can easily be seen with the examples of families. As a general rule, being a member of your family, an in-group, does not inherently require hatred towards all other families. Allport agrees that we tend to feel less comfortable around out-groups because they are not as familiar to us as our in-groups, but this fact does not necessarily lead to hatred towards the out-groups. As Allport continues his discussion of peace, he theorizes the possibility of humanity as an in-group. This utopian ideal proposes that even though humanity constitutes the broadest of our in-groups, we can still make this a strong, loyal bond between all peoples and eliminate hatred in the world.

While Allport does include idealistic goals in his discussion, he also focuses on the individual and the relationship between individuals and in-groups. In accordance with his individualistic view of in-groups, Allport believes that being a member of an in-group and having a “sense of belonging is a highly personal matter” (p. 177). Consequently, in-groups are flexible in reference to individuals; as individuals change their beliefs and core values, they have the option to leave one in-group and/or join another in-group to reflect their beliefs more accurately. Allport defines the groups that you desire to be a member of as reference groups. Typically, in-groups are reference groups; of course, there are some exceptions. People who are not content with their inherited hair color or their nationality may wish to be a part of a different in-group. In concordance with Allport’s theory, the individual has option to shift in-groups and try to become a member of his/her reference group.

As a student in a small Tae Kwon Do school, I have had the opportunity to personally experience these defining characteristics as a part of a unique in-group. Members of the school wear a certain uniform, a dobak, in which they train and learn. All of the students go to a certain training hall to learn specific kicks, punches, forms, and philosophies that guide their way of life. Students of the school must follow a certain protocol when they are in the building; they must say “sir” and “ma’am,” and they must bow when they enter and leave the school. As students we are not only taught how to defend ourselves physically, but we are also trained and educated in a certain way of life. We are trained under values, such as respect, hard work, dedication, and we strive to live in harmony both with ourselves and with nature and the world around us. These defining aspects correlate with Allport’s definition of in-groups. The distinct traditions of Tae Kwon Do separate this form of martial arts from the other various types of martial arts and schools around the world.

My membership as a Tae Kwon Do student also verifies Allport’s theory about the shifting nature of in-groups and illustrates his emphasis on the individual. Although I currently share the same morals and values as my Tae Kwon Do school, I have not always been willing to accept these beliefs as a part of my life. Since my father was a member of the Young Yu Tae Kwon Do School, I followed in his footsteps, becoming a member of the school when I was about ten years old. As a young child, I accepted everything I was taught, and did as I was instructed. As I began to grow, however, I began developing my own thoughts, ideas, and desires. About two years after I joined Tae Kwon Do, I decided that I no longer wanted to be a part of this in-group, so I stopped attending classes. Even though I was not actively involved with Tae Kwon Do, I did not develop a disliking towards the group; I simply did not follow the same protocols and values that I did when I was a member of that school. As I continued to mature and think independently of my parents, I began to realize that my own personal values and beliefs were quite similar to those of the Young Yu Tae Kwon Do School. During my sophomore year of high school, I decided that I wanted to be a member of this school once again. Although I am currently in college, I continue to be a member of this school and practice the values and philosophies of Tae Kwon Do on a daily basis.

Because I was older and because I had independently chosen to attend this school, I was eager to learn and grow as much as I possibly could. When I re-entered Tae Kwon Do as a sophomore in high school, I was a red belt – two belts from being a black belt. A black belt is the ultimate goal for some students; it symbolizes respect, hard work, and dedication. Although the black belts were still members of our school, they formed a separate in-group. They attended specific classes and were highly respected by the lower colored belts. As a sophomore, I strongly desired to be a black belt; for me, black belts were my reference group. Two years later, after hard work and perseverance, I became a black belt – moving into my reference group. This example illustrates Allport’s definition of in-groups and reference groups and highlights the individualistic aspect of in-groups.

Overall, my experiences validate Allport’s theories about the flexibility of in-groups and the importance of the individual as a proactive force within in-groups. While Allport’s theories apply to most cases, he neglects some of the exceptions to his theories. There are certain inherent traits and characteristics that we cannot change, even if we wish to; for example, individuals may wish to change their skin color or their DNA, but it is not physically possible for them to leave their inherent in-group. Also, even though individuals can decide to agree or disagree with their in-groups, there are times when individuals agree with their in-groups simply because they are not aware of other arguments outside of their in-group. Further research into these exceptions and more detailed explanations of the theory would be helpful in modifying the theory so that it is accurate for all situations. This research could be conducted in the form of in-depth personal interviews with members of in-groups or national surveys between various in-groups. Collecting more thorough data would help readers to understand Allport’s theories and to recognize the importance of thinking and acting as an individual within their in-groups.

Allport, G. (2002). The formation of in-groups. In J. Kirscht & M. Schlenz (Eds.), Engaging Inquiry: Research and writing in the disciplines (pp.170-187). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. (Original work published 1954)
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