Understanding the Roots of Collective Identity 
and Group Violence

In his recent novel, The Prague Cemetery, philosopher, linguist and best-selling author Umberto Eco posits the theory that it is not love which binds us together, but hate—the unreasoning, often violent aversion to individuals or groups perceived as different, or other, than oneself.

Jeffrey Murer.

Jeffrey Murer. Photo by Erez Lichtfeld

Alumnus Jeffrey Stevenson Murer (PhD, 1999) has devoted his career to examining the psychological causes and political consequences of this world view. As an LAS graduate student he worked in the area of public policy analysis in the Department of Political Science under the supervision of Isaac Balbus. Murer wrote his dissertation on “The Pursuit of the Familiar Foreigner: The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism in Hungary Since 1989,” in which he explored the collective application of psychoanalytic concepts to understand the group violence occurring in Hungary in the 1990s. His effort was awarded the UIC Best Graduate Dissertation in the Behavioral and Social Sciences, 2000.

“Throughout my career, I have explored problems of group violence, ethnic conflict and even political terrorism through the lens of collective-identity performance,” said Murer, now a lecturer on collective violence at the School of International Relations, University of St Andrews, Scotland and a member of the Royal Society of Edinburg’s Young Academy.

...collective identities are in reality fluid and in flux and that no group is a ‘natural’ or ‘primordial’ enemy of another group. 

“My research has shown that collective identities are in reality fluid and in flux and that no group is a ‘natural’ or ‘primordial’ enemy of another group,” explained Murer. “Groups themselves are often most relevant in times of crisis; identifying which groups are relevant at any given time can become a means of exploring the origins and structure of a conflict. However, the belief by individuals that their identities are stable and everlasting provides them with a sense of security and continuity.” He noted that an individual’s actions might be targeted to the despised group as well as, “and perhaps often more importantly,” to the group to which he or she wishes to belong.

Throughout history, strongly-held political, religious and ethnic identities—sometimes coupled with a sense of disenfranchisement, injustice or relative deprivation—have frequently led to violence.

“In such moments of conflict and crisis, the narratives of group history are often rewritten and retold, justifying the conflict as having always existed, even if it had not,” said Murer. “These reconstructed narratives make sense of the conflict of the present by suggesting the roots of the crisis had always existed in the past.” Much of Murer’s work explores how these new narratives are constructed and retold, creating new senses of community and group identity, while maintaining the sense of continuity and consistency.

In his latest research, Murer served as the principal investigator of the European Study of Youth Mobilisation, working with research partners in eight countries across Europe to explore politically- and socially-active young people’s attitudes about mainstream politics and the legitimacy of political violence. The three-year study—which resulted in the publication of Listening to Radicals—assessed attitudes among individuals self-identifying with the following groups: religiously-inspired; ethnically-based, including Diaspora and immigrant communities and “nativist” organizations; radical-right and ultra-nationalist; radical-left movements, including worker’s organizations, anarchists and anti-globalization groups; environmentalists; and various country- or cause-specific social and political mobilization groups.

“We found that these young people, who frequently engage in political activities, have little trust in their political institutions and think their countries’ political systems are failing,” said Murer. “Yet they vote in very large numbers because that serves to demonstrate their belief that they are not being listened to.

“One of our most important findings was that attitudes did not vary by class or gender, but by political identity. The nearly equal numbers of men and women interviewed generally agreed on the efficacy of political violence, although no women reported having participated in violent acts. Among far-right, nationalist or neo-Nazi youth, men and women expressed nearly identical attitudes regarding the use of violence. In total, about 10 percent of the young people said that they had engaged in active political violence.

“We want to make a contribution toward filling in the enormous gaps of knowledge regarding the efficacy of government policies across Europe directed to youth—especially immigrant, second and third generation, and working-class youths in major urban centers,” explained Murer. “Mainstream political society must become aware of the motivations and inclinations of these young people in order to combat the destructive slide toward violence.”

Jeffrey Murer is the co-editor of Flashpoints in the War on Terrorism and is currently working on a book on far-right political violence in Hungary. His articles have appeared in the journals International Politics; Social Psychological Review; Terrorism and Political Violence; Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society; Topique: Revue Freudienne; and the Journal of Terrorism Research among others. To read more of Murer’s analysis of political violence across the globe, access his articles at The Conversation and Open Democracy