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Project 8: Identities and Networks: Partners in Sustainable Cooperation

Challenge 11: Identity Flexibility and Sustainable Cooperation

Aim of the project

A key threat to sustainable cooperation is created by boundaries between groups that lead to potential intergroup competition and conflict. The project aims to identify under which conditions network relations (e.g. friendships) cutting across group boundaries reinforce or hinder the emergence of inclusive group identities, how group identities help or hinder the formation of such network relations, and how these both foster sustainable cooperation.

Theoretical background

Social relations (e.g. friendships) that cut across the boundaries between groups can potentially soften the effect of category boundaries, but network dynamics have also been found to be a source of emergent segmentation of networks across category lines, due to the tendency of ethnic homophily in friendship formation occurring in many contexts (see e.g. Stark & Flache, 2012; Smith et al, 2016). For example research by Dixon and colleagues in post-Apartheid South Africa shows that interactions and network relations continue along largely “racial” spatial lines. Group identities are not only the basis of boundaries that cause conflict and competition but, more positively, they can define possibilities for inclusion and reciprocity across boundaries. In short, both identities and networks can impede as well as enable cooperation. Negative spillover effects and vicious cycles are both relevant threats that have their positive and virtuous counterparts. One key to sustainable cooperation therefore involves shifting the relation between identities and networks so that they mutually enable rather than hinder each other, but in a more inclusive mode. However the relationship between social identities and social networks remains largely unexplored, despite first studies addressing this link (e.g. Leszcensky et al 2016). Research suggests group identities are not just determined top down by category labels but they can also emerge from networks bottom up (deductive vs. inductive routes to group formation: Postmes, Spears, Lee & Novak, 2005), and as the examples cited show group identities also influence network relations. The central aim of this project is to investigate how network dynamics and identity processes can influence each other and interact to aid cooperation and render it sustainable. In particular, we will study the conditions under which a virtuous cycle of increasingly inclusive group identities and increasingly integrated network structure can arise in a diverse setting, like in a school class or work group. Specifically this project aims to examine 1) how network relations can soften existing group boundaries, 2) how networks create new group identities characterized by flexible and permeable group boundaries, 3) how identities can strengthen cooperative network connections, 4) how multiple, cross-cutting and overlapping group memberships can strengthen cross-group network connections and foster more inclusive identities, 5) the critical role of members at group boundaries and their network connections, and 6) how such processes develop over time to strengthen rather than undermine cooperation.      

Research design

This research will involve both experimental lab studies, and field studies using existing data sets as well as new field data to be collected within the SCOOP framework (using groups in the community or in organizations). Lab studies will investigate inter alia whether network relations can temper impediments to cooperation and help to create a common ingroup and more inclusive identities (e.g., status and distinctiveness threat, ingroup projection). Existing field data that can be used in this project stem from several large-scale longitudinal survey studies measuring complete networks as well as indicators of ethnic group identification in classroom settings (TASS, CILS4EU). We also have access to large organizations addressing issues of diversity in the workplace (e.g., Nationale Integratie Fonds) that provide contexts for the fieldwork. Statistical methods suitable for modelling interdependent change of network and actor characteristics will be used (e.g. stochastic actor based models).


Leszczensky, L., Stark, T.H., Flache, A., Munniksma, A. 2016. Disentangling the Relationship between Young Immigrants' National Identification and their Friendships with Natives. Social Networks, 44, 179–189.

Smith, Sanne, McFarland, Daniel, van Tubergen, Frank, and Ineke Maas (2016): Ethnic Composition and Friendship Segregation: Differential Effects for Adolescent Natives and Immigrants. American Journal of Sociology, 121(4), pp. 1223-1272.

Postmes, T., Spears, R., Lee, A.T., & Novak, R.J. (2005). Individuality and social influence in groups: Inductive and deductive routes to group identity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 747-763.

Stark, T.H. & A. Flache. (2012). The Double Edge of Common Interest: Ethnic Segregation as an Unintended Byproduct of Opinion Homophily. Sociology of Education 85.2:179-199.

Project initiators

Andreas Flache, Russell Spears, Frank van Tubergen;


University of Groningen, either the Department of Sociology or the Department of Social Psychology depending on the background of the appointee


Sociology, preferrably with an interest in Social Psychology

How to Apply

For background information on this vacancy and further instructions, click here.

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