Sunday, October 22, 2006

External Group Units

This is a mini-paper I wrote for class on External Group Units - a self-coined term.


Identification with group units forms a vital part in the psychological development of humans (we are social animals after all). In adolescence an external group unit is often sought as an adjunct to the immediate family. In many cases the external group unit supercedes the family as the paramount body of influence for the adolescent, and hence it functions critically in directing the world view of the young adult. Whether the cause of such a drive is genetic (it may be hard-wired into our brains) or environment based is debatable. However the ‘need to fit into a larger-order stratum, a fact that I have seen in many of the students that I have taught is powerful.

It can be argued that a human being passes through several stages of interaction with others, increasing the contact field size at each stage. As an infant the relationship is directed solely toward the parents (usually the mother as a source of nourishment), as a child siblings and close friends become more crucial, while as an adolescent the interaction expands to include members of the respective peer group. The rise of the peer group often brings with it a questioning of some of the parental values. This can lead to a rejection of home values in what as often described as teenage rebellion. Craving a higher meaning and not finding this in peer groups (which are too unstructured and lack authority), the adolescent expands their horizon further exploring the various external group units that exist. These can be sports or club focused but often such organizations lack a spiritual worldview that can replace the solidity lost by foregoing the family unit. The adolescent is then open to be drawn to idealism and its many incarnates, a transition that can be either positive (joining a human betterment group such as Save the Children) or negative (generally one of the us-against-them type philosophies).

The phenomenon of the home-grown terrorist growing up with all the benefits of western society (often from an affluent home) willing to kill and die for a belief is a direct consequence of an extreme but unfortunately not rare identification with an idealism. It is no coincidence that many of these suicide bombers are adolescents as their identification with the external group unit as a replacement for the ‘dead family’ is developing. The Nazis knew this hence their focus on the Youth Movement, as did the Mullahs in Iran who had no shortage of adolescent martyrs for the war against Iraq in the 1980s. In autocratic countries it is not uncommon for children to betray their parents for the ‘cause’, a fact which both Hitler and Stalin (with his Young Patriots) knew only too well.

Adolescents need to feel part of an external group unit that’s far greater than themselves and if no positive outlets exist that can speak to them philosophically and spiritually, its conceivable that they can turn to the dark side with a zeal that can flip Maslow’s hierarchy of needs on its head (survival loses its significance). The drive is that strong and should be further studied.
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