Applying the social identity approach to understand social conflict: A wind energy case study

This seminar was recorded on Tuesday 28 May at the Australian National University. Please do not reproduce without permission.

The development of new energy facilities is often fraught by conflict between groups of people – pro-this and anti-that enter into a struggle for influence over the decisions being made. When the purpose of the conflict shifts from being directed toward securing a solution for the land use dilemma, and instead focuses on the social groups engaged in the conflict triumphing over each other, we can describe the conflict as ‘dysfunctional’.

Dysfunctional social conflict is bad for social harmony and wellbeing and often leads to suboptimal environmental outcomes too. The Social Identity Approach – a family of theoretical perspectives from social psychology – offers promise for helping us to understand the dynamics of dysfunctional social conflict about energy development (and other socio-environmental dilemmas).

The approach describes both the relationship between a person and groups with which they identify, and the nature of relationships between identity groups. This study presents an overview of the Social Identity Approach and why it is relevant to understanding dysfunctional social conflict in the setting of energy and other land use changes, then examines the application of the approach to a case study of wind energy conflict in King Island, Tasmania.

The case study highlights the complexity of dysfunctional social conflict in a real world setting, how social distance forms between identity groups in the conflict setting, and the interactions between formal processes for including community and stakeholders in decision-making.

About the speaker

Bec Colvin is a social scientist with the Climate Change Institute at ANU. Bec’s research interest is in how groups of people interact with each other - especially in settings of social and political conflict - with regard to climate and environmental issues. Much of this work has a focus on the dynamics of formalised processes for including citizens and stakeholders in decision-making, and leverages on perspectives from social psychology to understand the complexities of people and process. Recent research projects have included the study of conflict about wind energy development, the psychological underpinnings of a constructive governance regime for negative emissions, the role of trust between climate researchers and policy-makers, and the relationship between aggregate public opinion and conflict in environmental messaging.

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