"Individuals understand who they are, in part, by defining what they're not," explains Professor Kimberly D. Elsbach of University of California Davis. "For example, they'll say, 'I don't perceive myself as connected to any one gun control organization, but I see myself as clearly separated from the NRA.'"
The study, "Defining Who You Are by What You're Not: Organizational Disidentification and the National Rifle Association," by Dr. Elsbach and C.B. Bhattacharya, Boston University, appears in the current issue of Organization Science, an INFORMS publication. New Research on Identity Prior research on social identification, note the authors, shows that identification with a favorably perceived social group or organization enhances a person's self-esteem and self-distinctiveness.
The current study looks at the flip side, suggesting that creating an internal separation between one's identity and an organization is an important part of the process by which individuals maintain positive distinctiveness - and, equally important, distance themselves from negative stereotypes attributed to an organization.
People may initially reject a value or practice that an organization displays and later come to attach these negative feelings to the organization itself, say the authors. For example, they note, charges of racial discrimination against Denny's restaurant chain took a toll on the way people related to Denny's, with many people eventually associating the chain with discrimination.
The authors' initial, focus group research led them to define disidentification as a self-perception based on two factors, 1. people separating their identity from their perception of an organization's identity; and 2. a negative way of relating to that organization.
The sense that the individual and organization are enemies, and what amounts to a view based on a stereotype of the organization, characterize disidentification.
Interviewing individuals opposed to the NRA, for example, the authors found individuals perceiving their identity as clearly separate from the NRA.
One focus group member said of the NRA, "It's a different dimension. It's not just the opposite side of the planet. I can't even comprehend what they're thinking."
Respondents suggested that maintaining a cognitive separation between how they viewed themselves and what the NRA stood for was important to their self-image.
Leading up to disidentification are the need to enhance and affirm one's identity. One antecedent is the perception that one's personal values conflict with the values of the organization. Said one respondent, "They're [the NRA] a strong advocate for things that lead to violence and what I think they stand for will lead to more vigilante justice and accidental killings."
Another antecedent is the fear that an organization's reputation may affect one's own identity. This reflects participants' desire to protect their identity from association with negative organizational stereotypes - the fear that others will think they agree or belong to the organization they dislike.
These feelings are not tied to a comprehensive examination of the organization. In fact, the authors note, the more respondents' feelings were based on a stereotypical perception that all NRA members felt the same about rejecting gun control, the more likely they were to reject the organization as a way to distance themselves from these views.
Similarly, the authors found, the less personal experience that respondents had with NRA members, the more likely they were to reject the organization.
Disidentification, the authors say, often leads to action. Some respondents they interviewed said they were likely to boycott companies that support the NRA, or donate to opposing organizations. Others who couldn't take direct action said they speak out against the NRA.
The authors, former professors at Emory University, initially analyzed reaction to the National Rifle Association by conducting a series of focus groups in metropolitan Atlanta and monitoring media coverage of the gun organization.
The authors verified their initial findings through a mail survey conducted in the Atlanta area. They received 405 usable responses. Respondents were 41% female and 59% male. The age ranged from 24 to 78 years, with a mean of 48.4 years.
Respondents were 49% professional, 21% managerial, 12% clerical/technical, 6% labor/blue collar, 9% other, and 3% currently unemployed. The median income level of respondents was $60-65,000.
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