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TitleThe Myth of Individualism: How Social Forces Shape Our Lives
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Total Pages187
Table of Contents
1 Individualism: The Power of a Myth
2 Becoming a Person: The Power of Symbols
3 Conformity and Disobedience: The Power of the Group
4 Family Matters: The Power of Social Class
5 Globalization: The Power of Capitalism
6 From “Me” to “We”: The Power of Collective Action
About the Author
Document Text Contents
Page 93

mon “superordinate goal.” This was the central theoretical assump-
tion of the experiment and the researchers believed that cooperative
projects could remove the animosity created by competition. Several
different scenarios were created where group competition was re-
placed by a common problem that required the joint effort of both
groups. For example, the first strategy involved a secret sabotage of
the camp water supply. The staff then led both groups on an excur-
sion to locate the malfunctioning pipe. Other situations included a
common rope pull in which all of the boys had to cooperate to pull a
truck that had “broken down,” and a joint camp out where camping
gear had to be shared by both groups. The findings from these in-
terventions were very positive. Positive interaction between group
members increased, name calling and other antagonistic actions
gradually ceased, seating patterns at the mess hall became more
integrated, and on the bus ride home, the boys pooled their money
so that everyone could afford a dessert treat. As a final testament to
the success of introducing “superordinate goals,” the staff observed
that during the final half hour of the trip home, everyone from both
groups stood close together near the front of the bus and joined col-
lectively in singing a lively rendition of Oklahoma.

The Robbers Cave experiment was conducted over fifty years
ago, but over the years similar hypotheses have been tested under
different conditions and with different populations. The conclusions
that we can draw from this body of research are central to under-
standing the force of small groups. Most importantly, we know
that group conflict is less about individual personality or personal
aggression and more about group structure and social context.
Strong in-group solidarity strengthens the power of a group. When
groups are cohesive there is both a trust among members as well as
respect for authorities within the group. This can be a positive force
for harmony and cooperation. However, if multiple groups find
themselves in competition for valued resources, where one group’s
success is dependent upon another group’s failure, conflict and ag-
gression are likely. This suggests that diminution of war and other
forms of group violence require changes in the “structural relations”
between groups. As we saw in the Robbers Cave study, peace and
cooperation can be transformed into anger and violence—and back
again—by altering the social conditions under which people act.
This was one of the more important points recognized by Karl Marx
(1818–1883) more than one hundred years prior to the Sherif study.


Page 94

Marx, however, was focused on the social conditions created by a
capitalist economic structure. He argued that the economic indi-
vidualism of capitalism increases competition among workers and,
if left unchecked, it will lead to social conflict and the exploitation
of working people. However, Marx also saw the potential of trans-
forming competition into cooperation. When abused workers com-
municate and recognize their common fate, they can work together
to create a more equitable and democratic economy. This, however,
requires the development of a common group identity.

As we have seen in the previous examples, groups are a powerful
force in our lives. They touch us in many ways and through many
different forms and sizes. They can be as large as a multinational
corporation or as small as a friendship clique. Moreover, we have
seen that groups are, on the one hand, a source of domination and
exploitation, and, on the other hand, a resource for emancipation
and justice. No matter how hard we might try, it is impossible to
escape group membership. Humans are social animals and we de-
pend on groups for both physical and mental health. Even when
we are socially isolated from others, groups continue to serve as the
foundation of our identity. Consider, for example, a situation where
you are approached by someone who asks, “Who are you?” It is
generally not acceptable to reply, “I am happy,” or “I am fifty-four
years old.” Rather, we are expected to identify ourselves by signal-
ing our group affiliations with a social placement such as “I am a
professor” or “I am Kathleen’s husband.” Indeed, the most common
response is to answer with one’s name, as in “I am Peter Callero.”
But a surname is simply a label for one’s family membership and a
place holder for other group identities.

In traditional, premodern societies, multiple group membership
was relatively rare. One’s clan or tribe was often the only available
group identity. Work, religion, family, education, and recreation all
occurred within the same group. To know one’s tribe was to know
one’s identity. Today, however, societies are larger, more complex, and
more “differentiated.” This means that our lives are more likely to be
lived in multiple locations with multiple groups. Thus, one’s work is
often separated from one’s family; religion is typically separated from

Conformity and Disobedience 83

Page 186


About the Author

Peter L. Callero is professor of sociology at Western Oregon Univer-
sity where he teaches courses on community organizing, social the-
ory, research methods, deviance, and the sociology of self. He holds
a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and
has published extensively on issues of self, identity, and politics. His
other books are Giving Blood: The Development of an Altruistic Identity
(with Jane Piliavin) and The Self-Society Dynamic: Cognition, Emotion,
and Action (edited with Judith Howard).

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