I was raised in a traditional English village where I grew up hearing my granddad's stories about what life was like in the village when he was a boy. As we walked around the village, he would point out sections of the vast stone village walls that once had a doorway to the dairy where he used to work delivering milk, or where the village nurse's hut was. Although the village was much more developed and connected to the rest of the country when I grew up there, it still retained many of the same families that had lived there when my granddad was a boy, and there was still a sense of community between the people from the village. Life seemed somehow easier for these people compared to those in the hustle and bustle of city life; the villagers all had their roles to play in this small but intimate network of friends, neighbours, and family.
I started wondering how living in such a place would influence the way you see yourself. It seemed obvious that I would consider myself in a different way if I lived in the anonymity of London, where there would be no role for me to play, no neighbours to recognise me, and no one to say hello to me whether I wanted them to or not. I just wouldn't be as distinct in the eyes of others' if I lived in the city.
This made sense from a psychological perspective. It's a common theme within self and identity research that there is a fundamental need for distinctiveness: People need to feel distinguished from others in some way, and this is played out in people's identities. To stand out in a city seemed a much harder task than in a more rural area; my village provided me with a specific social position within the community, one associated with my family who had been in the village for generations. After all, I was Billy and Mavis' grandson, and everyone knew who they were!
This fitted with the literature nicely too. Both Baumeister and Vignoles suggest that traditional village communities provide their residents with distinct social positions inherited from their families and maintained via a network of relationships within the community. Here, distinctiveness is achieved passively, just by being submerged in the community.
In cities however, there are too many people and too many replicated roles for such distinct positions to exist, and so people have to actively strive for distinctiveness, either through making their personal characteristics different from others, or separating themselves from others by creating a sense of distinctiveness through either symbolic or physical boundaries.
With my colleagues, we tested this using a dataset from 6380 individuals spanning 51 cultural groups within 32 nations. We first asked people to answer the question 'Who are you' several times so each person provided us with several elements of their identity - of how they saw themselves. They then rated each of their identity elements for how much it gave them a sense of distinctiveness, and for the three different ways of satisfying that distinctiveness: Social position, difference, or separateness. We also asked them what kind of area they lived in: A city, a small town, or a village or rural area. To investigate contextual effects rather than individual effects, we also aggregated this to the cultural group level so each cultural group had a single urbanisation score.
Firstly, we investigated if the strength of people's need for distinctiveness differed across the different urbanisation contexts. In line with the view that people in rural areas satisfy the need relatively passively through their inherited social position, we found that the need was actually stronger in more urban areas. This suggests that the need for distinctiveness becomes stronger if people have to actively strive to satisfy it, rather than passively satisfying the need through an inherited social position.
Next, we investigated if the way people satisfied the need differed between the contexts. While all three possible sources of distinctiveness satisfaction were used in all three urbanisation contexts, social position was used relatively more within rural and village contexts, whereas difference and separateness were used more within the more urban areas.
It really does seem like villagers gain their distinctiveness in a rather passive way, inherited from, and maintained by, their surrounding community. Urbanites, however, have to strive harder to achieve their sense of distinctiveness: the need becomes a stronger motivating force and people try to become different to, or separate from, others in order to distinguish themselves. The context where you live can not only influence how motivational our basic needs are, but also provide you with, or deprive you of, the means of satisfying these needs.
Although I have put a rather favourable light on rural life here, I must qualify it with some other memories. I must remember why I left my village; the suffocating pressure of watchful eyes following my every move, making sure I live up to the expectations of the village and my role within it. The anonymity of city life was something I actually wanted, to escape the tightness of the situations I encountered in a village that hasn't changed much over the past 80 years.However, I can see myself moving back there in the future, perhaps to bring up children. Inevitably, I will relish the social position I am given and wonder why my teenage children felt suffocated and consequently moved away to the anonymous city.
Matt Easterbrook, Graduate Researcher, University of Sussex
Baumeister, R. F. (1986). Identity: Cultural change and the struggle for self. Oxford University Press New York.
Breakwell, G. M. (1987). Identity. In H. Beloff & A. Coleman (Eds.), Psychological Survey (Vol. 6, pp. 94-114). Leicester: British Psychological Society.
Vignoles, V. L. (2009). The Motive for Distinctiveness: A universal, but flexible human need. In C. R. Snyder & S. Lopez (Eds.), Oxford Handbook or Positive Psychology (2nd ed., pp. 491-499). New York: Oxford University Press.