On Aggression between Groups

A conceptual Postscriptum to ‘Is Thailand heading Towards a Failed Nation?


Dear Readers,

for the May Issue of ‘Live Encounters’ I have published an article with the title ‘Is Thailand heading Towards a Failed Nation?’ which can be found here. You can also locate it in the magazine’s PDF version. I found the topic exciting enough to add the post-scriptum below. Special thanks go to Mark Ulyseas for inviting me as an author.

Ingroup favouritism and outgroup derogation (Brewer, 1999) are obvious in the Thai conflict and appear typical of the behavior of competing groups. Social Identity Theory (Taifel, 1974) provides arguably the best theoretical framework to investigate the political divide since rural populations not only seek status equality, but also seek to find a new social identity as a suppressed majority group. There are a few new issues to consider as well.

1. In a Global Environment the Dynamics of Groups Keep Changing

The first issue is that traditional motivations of group-formation such as safety, shelter, social verification of self-esteem, the creation of local identity (Tajifel, 1974, Tajifel & Turner, 1986, Haslam et al., 2010, Haslam et al., 1996) or protection from nature and competing groups are nowadays extended to overlapping regional and global groups that manage the division of labour. The fact that we are, as Aristotle put it, Zoon Politikon, political animals (‘Lifeforms of the Polis’) is a given. Our lives naturally scaffold around our families, work-and study places and culture. To satisfy the human needs of Maslow’s pyramid we have no choice but to organize social orders. However, compared to more static traditional groups, global and international organizations start dominating life for most populations while such groups keep changing their make-up and frame of reference. New economic group-motivations generally foster collaboration and cooperation rather than rivalry. We could argue with Uri Bronfenbrenner that groups never exist in isolation and form along ecological systems (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). This may explain the conflict of interest between urban and rural populations.

In Thailand’s case the two rivaling groups, the UDD and PDRC, battle out their antagonisms at the expense of the social, political and economic stability of their nation. The self-categorization as ‘red’- or ‘yellow-shirts’ follows par excellence Self-Categorization Theory (Haslam et al., 1996). The inevitable conflict leads to an alienation between democratic institutions internally and to isolation by regional and international organizations externally as they withdraw from long-term investments and planning. Thailand has lost the power of ‘we’ and refocusing on superseding goals or collaboration, what most social psychologist may be tempted to suggest (Dovido et al., 2009, p.5), is unlikely to work in such aggravated atmosphere.

Traditional group formations based on e.g., ethnocentrism are equally fighting a losing battle in an increasingly networked world where groups influence each other, diversify and subdivide. In the Thai case study it is the nationalism on both sides, at times with xenophobic undertones, which prevents reasoning beyond the country’s borders. Even the pending integration of ASEAN for example and its very real ramifications for Thailand (creating a regional job market, competition between education systems and a united economic zone) are absent from public debate, not to talk about Thailand’s international dependencies.  The political divide appears to be framed as an introspective problem ‘by Thais for Thais’. The strength of my example of Suporn Attawong setting up a Thai militia in the North remains to be seen since there are divided reports that the government, facing potential impeachment, may not be sticking out their heads for Suporn in this delicate moment of time. The example of previous militia recruitment as under Seh Deng would have been perhaps more adequate. The fact that there even exists a recent ‘Thai history of militia recruitment’ supports powerfully the argument of violence permeating civil society. Every narrative is evidence.

The hijacking of groups by suitable authoritarian personalities such as Thaksin Shinawatra (Adorn, Frenkel-Brunswik & Levinson, 1950) follows compatible patterns:  in order to maintain a group’s superior self-esteem against all rational argument, group leaders need to be aggressive, without compromise and need to demonstrate toughness while demanding unquestioned loyalty and submission in return. Group conformity and the authoritarian personalities of leaders feed on a reciprocally beneficial relationship. Looking at groups without accounting for the salient beliefs, needs and motivations that drive participants to apparent group-consensus makes little sense in social psychology. Psychoanalytical motives such as representations of power struggles by parental figures appear likewise as valid interpretation.

2. People are embedded in Ethics of Responsibility

The second argument states that people are rational agents. Groups are, like individuals, responsible and accountable for their behavior and actions. Ethics are an integral part of social interaction. This touches issues of rights, duties and reciprocal obligations, shared values, norms and responsibilities, the fairness of contracts as well as the inclusion of superordinate, meta-contextual goals (Gaertner et al., 1990). Without standards of what can be expected in terms of a group’s communicative and ethical competence any performance-measurement and assessment in situ would render arbitrary. Including ethics between groups such as, e.g., measuring a group’s intercultural competence also entails that the observer has to define her own positioning during observation and has to openly declare the interest and purpose of research. Applied Social Psychology is thus a demanding task. Not only do we need to ask what causes inter-group aggression, how it is created, perpetuated and passed-on, but also how aggression can be avoided, diminished (Brewer & Gaertner, 2001, Gaertner et al., 1990) and turned into more productive effort to support human development. The outcome, ideally, is not only reflected in rational public discourse but moreover the institutionalization of rational behaviour and social norms.

Instead of pretending that there are ‘neutral’ or ‘impartial’ men representing the courts and independent agencies, it would be advisable to play with open cards and seek for a balanced and direct representation by political parties. Simple majority vote leads to ‘majority dictatorship’, so a 2/3 or 3/4 majority rule would force the majority to negotiate with the minority. Referendums of the people can compliment elections (Streckfuss D., 26th March, Post Publishing PLC, ‘ Risky road ahead in avoiding civil war’) while revitalizing the more democratic “People’s Constitution” of 1997 would be advisable to minimize the role of ‘power-brokers’, the powerful men behind the scenes that invite corruption and minimize transparency.

The act of responsibility is realized in fair intergroup negotiation and dialogue.



Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, R. N. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper and Row

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Brewer, M. B.; Gaertner, S. L. (2001). “Toward reduction of prejudice: intergroup contact and social categorization”. In Brown, S. L.; Gaertner. Blackwell Handbook of Social Psychology: Intergroup processes 3 (1): 451–472.

Brewer, M. (1999). The Psychology of Prejudice: Ingroup Love or Outgroup Hate? Journal of Social issues, Vol. 55, No. 3, 1999, pp. 429-444 Retrieved from: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

Dovido, J. F., Gaertner S.L., Saguy T., (2009) Commonality and the Complexity of “We”: Social Attitudes and Social Change. Personality and Social Psychology Review. Yale Univerity. Retrieved from: http://www.yale.edu/intergroup/DovidioPSPR2009.pdf

Gaertner, S. L., Mann, J. A., Dovidio, J. F., Murrell, A. J., & Pomare, M. (1990). How does cooperation reduce intergroup bias? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 692-704

Haslam, S. A.; Ellemers, N.; Reicher, S. D.; Reynolds, K. J.; Schmitt, M. T. (2010). “The social identity perspective today: An overview of its defining ideas”. In Postmes, T.; Branscombe, N. R. Rediscovering social identity (Psychology Press): 341–356.

Haslam, Alex; Oakes, Penny; Turner, John; McGarty, Craig (1996). “Social identity, self-categorization, and the perceived homogeneity of ingroups and outgroups: The interaction between social motivation and cognition”. In Sorrentino, Richard; Higgins, Edward. Handbook of motivation and cognition: the interpersonal context, Handbook of motivation and cognition (New York: Guilford Press) 3: 182–222.

Tajfel, H. (1974). “Social identity and intergroup behavior”. Social Science Information 13 (2): 65–93. doi:10.1177/053901847401300204.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of intergroup behaviour. In S. Worchel & W. G. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of Intergroup Relations (pp. 7–24). Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall.


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