Vamik D. Volkan, M.D. – Large-Group Identity and Post-Traumatic Flocking

"Begin Again" by Jeremy Geddes
“Begin Again” by Jeremy Geddes

Paraphrasing Erik Erikson’s (1950) statement about personal identity, I use the term large-group identity to refer to a large group that shares a permanent sense of sameness while also sharing certain similar characteristics with other large groups, especially with those who are neighbors.

When I think of the classical Freudian theory of large groups, I visualize people arranged around a gigantic maypole, which represents the group leader. Individuals in the large group dance around the pole/leader, identifying with each other and idealizing the leader. I have expanded this metaphor by imagining a canvas extending from the pole out over the people, forming a huge tent. This canvas represents the large-group identity. I have come to the conclusion that essential large-group activities center around maintaining the integrity of the large-group identity, and leader-follower interactions are just one element of this effort.

Imagine thousands or millions of persons living under a huge tent. They may get together in subgroups. They may belong to certain clans or professional organizations and they may be poor or rich or women or men. But all of them are under one huge tent. The pole of the tent is the political leadership. From an individual psychology point of view, the pole may represent an oedipal father; from a large-group psychology point of view, the pole’s task is to keep the tent’s canvas erect (to maintain and protect the large-group identity). Everyone under the tent’s canvas wears his or her individual garment (personal identity), but everyone under the tent also shares the tent canvas as a second garment…

In our routine lives we are not keenly aware of our shared second garment, just as we are not usually aware of our constant breathing. If we develop pneumonia or if we are in a burning building, we quickly notice each breath we take. Likewise, if our huge tent’s canvas shakes or parts of it are torn apart, we become obsessed with our second garment. Our individual identity becomes secondary. We become preoccupied with the large-group identity and will do anything to stabilize it, repair it, maintain it and protect it. During these efforts we begin to tolerate extreme sadism or masochism if we think that what we are doing will help to maintain and protect our large-group identity. (Before going any further I must remind you that here I am speaking of general large-group processes and leaving out certain people such as dissenters.) Interestingly, the more our second garment is in danger of being damaged, the more we try to cling to it. We see this phenomenon very clearly while visiting refugee camps or other societies where large-group identity is threatened.

During recent years, especially after September 11, 2001, many scholars tried to understand the psychology of suicide bombers. They wondered if such individuals possess a typical type of personality organization or suffer from a typical type of psychopathology. As far as I am concerned, the best way to understand the Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombers of today is to examine them from a large-group psychology point of view since their actions reflect their becoming “spokespersons” for their large-group identity. In other words, they carry out their deadly acts while they are pulling down their religious/ideological tent’s canvas and wearing it as their primary garments… Large groups are made of individuals; therefore large-group processes reflect individual psychology. But a large group is not a living organism that has one brain, so once a large-group process starts, it establishes a life of its own within the society.

Large groups also mourn. Since a large group is not one living organism, its mourning over the loss of loved ones, lands, and prestige after a war or war-like situation will appear in large-group processes on a societal level. For example, after a major shared trauma and loss at the hand of enemies, a political ideology of irredentism – a shared sense of entitlement to recover what had been lost – may emerge that reflects a complication in large-group mourning and an attempt both to deny losses and to recover them. What Greeks call the “Megali Idea” (Great Idea) is such a political ideology. Such political ideologies may last for centuries and may disappear and reappear when historical circumstances change.

Vamik D. Volkan, M.D., Large-Group Psychology in Its Own Right

Dr. Volkan is the Senior Erik Erikson Scholar at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and an emeritus training and supervising analyst at the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute. He was a president of both the International Society of Political Psychology (ISPP) and the Virginia Psychoanalytic Society. Dr. Volkan has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize four times for examining conflicts between opposing groups, carrying out projects in various trouble spots of the world for 30 years and developing psycho-political theories from his fieldwork and observations.


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