Social Identity and the Ideology in Intergroup Conflict: The case of Northern Ireland

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The aim of this thesis was to investigate the role played by Social Psychological factors in the continuing conflict in Northern
Ireland. The study concentrated on the role of social identity and the interplay between competing social identities. The thesis can be divided into three sections: an historical investigation of the background to the conflict sought to trace some of the factors in the development and reproduction of contemporary social
identities; a series of experimental studies, based on Tajfel's Social Identity Theory, examined the intergroup behaviour of subjects forced to choose between different identity polarities relevant to the conflict; finally, a content analysis of political party newspapers and a series of recorded interviews with political activists sought to examine in more detail the agenda and content of perceived identities and ideologies in Northern Ireland.

The historical investigation seemed to suggest that there never was a unitary 'imagined community' in the island of Ireland. It was suggested that religion and culture had, for many years, provided a basis for division on the island and that this had been exacerbated by a differential pattern of economic development between Belfast and its hinterland, and the rest of the island.

The experimental studies pointed to the plurality of social identity in Northern Ireland. These studies suggested that the identities of the two communities had a differential impact: while the identities of the minority community (Irish, Nationalist, Catholic) seemed to share an essential unity, those of the majority community (British, Unionist, Protestant) seemed to be psychologically separable.

The examination of ideology seemed to reinforce this finding: while the content analysis of the party newspapers was primarily concerned with the political agenda of the various groups examined, it did point to a range of suggested futures within the political groups of the majority community. The interview data provided further confirmation of this picture, while at the same time demonstrating the existence of an essential, if contested, nationalism among the political groups of the minority community. The notion of 'contestation for meaning' was particularly important in the analysis of the interview material: the symbols and concepts of identity had no simple manifest significance but were rather the terrain upon which different political groups attempted to fix particular meaning or significance. An important conclusion was that this contest for meaning takes place within, rather than between, the two communities in Northern Ireland.

From this analysis it was suggested that the 'problem' in Northern Ireland is deeper than simply a disagreement over the mechanisms of power or government. Rather it was suggested that there is no shared 'syntax of politics' or 'organic ideology' that might provide a common basis upon which discussion between the communities might take place: in that sense the two communities in Northern Ireland are psychologically separated to such an extent that in the public sphere of politics they act towards each other as if they spoke different languages and did not realise this fact. The implications of this for various 'solutions' to the conflict
are examined.

In a more general sense the study argues for the importance of drawing upon the wider corpus of social scientific theory and methodology if the full significance of psychological variables is to be assessed.
Date of Award1986
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorKaren Trew (Supervisor)

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