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  • Stacey Heath

Shared identity in the face of changing environments

I have joined the team from a background in social psychology. My research interests have centred on group processes and behaviour change. More specifically, my research explores the role of social identity in facilitating community change. Adopting a social cure approach (Jetten et al., 2009), which uses the principles of social identity and self-categorization theories to demonstrate the role of group belonging in coping with adverse circumstances, I have worked alongside communities across the world to help community members adapt to change, for various reasons, and to foster a sense of ownership over change. Taking ownership over change, even when that change is unforeseen, serves to empower communities to collectively adapt.

The impact of climate change and related emergencies is affecting governments, societies, and communities across the globe. The UK Cabinet Office (2013) and London Resilience Partnership (Ingleby, 2014) suggest that emergencies are broadly classified into two camps, those that are sudden and require a reactive response, such as earthquakes, and those that develop more slowly, so called ‘rising tide’ emergencies, such as floods. Within the context of this project, we will be focussing on flood related disaster and the impact of flood adaptation strategies on community health and well-being.

For me more specifically, I also want to better understand the intra and inter-group processes that are important to communities when adapting to change within the context of climate related emergencies and floods. What are the psychological processes that underpin (un)successful community-based adaptation strategies? How can we harness the power of groups to develop resilience to community change in the context of flood adaptation? As a conceptual starting point, I first want to outline the different types of flood risk adaptation and I will do this very briefly by separating them into three broad camps:

Withdraw – A migrating adaptation strategy that involves people and communities physically move away from the risk, leaving behind homes, land, and communities.

Engineer – Hard infrastructure is used to enable communities to adapt by protecting against the risk through the development of physical structures, such as sea walls, to help mitigate the effects of floods.

Tolerate – Where people and communities learn to live with the risk, adapting their homes or (re)introducing nature-based solutions such as reforestation and mangroves, to help contain floods and reduce impact.

Next, it is necessary to define the hypothesized importance of understanding the psychology that underpins group-based processes within this context. Research within the social identity framework has demonstrated that when individuals identify as part of a group they experience a kind of cognitive shift from ‘me’ to ‘we’. This sense of ‘we-ness’ arises as people perceive themselves in terms of the collective self - that is, self-categorizing as a member of that particular ‘in-group’. When identifying as a particular in-group member, individuals shift from displaying individually motivated (interpersonal) behaviours to acting on behalf of the in-group (intergroup behaviours; Tajfel et al., 1974; see also Haslam, et al., 2012). Research within this domain has evidenced group-based processes to positively affect an individual’s ability to cope with adverse circumstances (e.g., Kellezi et al., 2018).

When looking specifically at disaster literature, research that looks at the psychology of disaster has demonstrated shared identity and group-based support to motivate co-operative, group-focussed behaviours and provides the basis for an adaptive and collective response by the group (e.g., Drury et al., 2006, 2009). This group-based response not only acts as a buffer against the inimical effects of disaster, but also increases collective resilience to the emergency, with group members behaving and reacting to threats in ways that benefit the group as a whole (Drury & Reicher, 2010). For example, research has shown that pre-existing groups (such as communities) harness the social support within that group as a means to develop resilience against the effects of disaster (see Fielding & Anderson, 2008). Importantly, research in crowd psychology, and specifically the social identity model for collective resilience (SIMCR; Drury, 2012) suggests that this process of switching from ‘me’ to ‘we’ and perceiving oneself in terms of the collective can even occur amongst relative strangers, when people perceive a sense of common fate – for example, when facing a natural disaster or a mass emergency. This research goes on to demonstrate that developing a shared identity based on perceptions of common fate can act as a resource to protect group members against threat and consequences of a disaster (see Drury et al., 2009a, 2009b).

While this research begins to unpack the role of common fate perceptions in developing shared identities, it has so far focussed on responses of (often newly developed) groups to external threats, such as emergencies and mass disasters, protests, and football ‘hooliganism’ (for reviews see Drury et al., 2012). While it can be argued that flood adaptation strategies are one-off events, the communities where they are applied are not and, arguably, face continuous challenges that are linked to the effects of flooding and the change that flood adaptation strategies bring to a specific community and its characteristics, rather than a one-off external shock. Therefore, it remains to be investigated whether or not the principles of SIMCR demonstrated in the context of natural disasters and emergencies would generalise and demonstrate similar effects when looking at the impact of flood adaptations and provide a full understanding of when and why identities and collective behaviour might occur within this context.

Research within regenerated communities across the south west of England begins to address these questions (Heath et al., 2017). Within this research we introduce the social identity model of successful urban regeneration (SIMSUR), that identifies the psychological processes necessary for community members to successfully adjust to, and cope with, regeneration and associated changes – important to note when looking at the impact of adaptation strategy change within communities.

Overall, the aim of this project is to develop our understanding of the impact of flood adaptation strategies on the health and well-being of communities. More specifically, I am interested in understanding how social dynamics can be used to harness the positive potential of community groups when attempting to (re)define their identities in the face of community change, and to use these group-processes to set their own agenda, and ultimately overcome social challenges in relation to flooding and flood adaptation change within communities.


Cabinet Office, Responding to emergencies The UK central government response. (2013). Retrieved from: Accessed on 18/11/20

Drury, J. (2012). 11 Collective resilience in mass emergencies and disasters. The social cure: Identity, health and well-being, 195.

Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2006, January). Every man for himself-or for the group? How crowd solidarity can arise in an emergency: An interview study of disaster survivors. In Group and Intergroup Relations Pre-Conference, Society for Personality and Social Psychology 7th Annual Meeting.

Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009). Everyone for themselves? A comparative study of crowd solidarity among emergency survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology, 48(3), 487-506.

Drury, J., Cocking, C., Reicher, S., Burton, A., Schofield, D., Hardwick, A., ... & Langston, P. (2009). Cooperation versus competition in a mass emergency evacuation: a new laboratory simulation and a new theoretical model. Behavior research methods, 41(3), 957-970.

Drury, J., & Reicher, S. D. (2010). Crowd control. Scientific American Mind, 21(5), 58-65.

Drury, J., Reicher, S. D., & Stott, C. (2012). The psychology of collective action. Culture and social change: Transforming society through the power of ideas, 19.

Fielding, A., & Anderson, J. (2008). Working with refugee communities to build collective resilience. Perth: Association for Services to Torture and Trauma Survivors.

Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S. D., & Reynolds, K. J. (2012). Identity, influence, and change: Rediscovering John Turner's vision for social psychology. British Journal of Social Psychology, 51(2), 201-218.

Heath, S. C., Rabinovich, A., & Berreto, M. (2017). Putting identity into the community: Exploring the social dynamics of urban regeneration. European Journal of Social , Psychology, 47, 855-866

Ingleby, A. (2014).London resilience partnership communicating with the public framework v1. London, UK: London ResilienceTeam.

Jetten, J., Haslam, C., Haslam, S. A., & Branscombe, N. R. (2009). The Social Cure. Scientific American Mind, 20, 26-33.

Kellezi, B., Stevenson, C., & Guxholli, A. (2018). Family identity, trauma appraisal and justice.

Tajfel, H. (1974). Social identity and intergroup behaviour. Information (International Social Science Council), 13(2), 65-93.

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