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Urbanisation and the construction of a distinct identity

Matt Easterbrook

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

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Baumeister, R. F. (1986). Identity: Cultural change and the struggle for selfOxford 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.



That's a great piece of work. Thanks Matt for sharing your research findings enriched with your personal experiences.

I spent some time thinking about the measurement you did. And I was wondering whether need for distinctiveness measurement says anything about the awareness of the need for distinctiveness. Did you measure this as well? I have this idea in mind that if people are aware of this particular need, how would such awareness influence their active striving to achieve it? Can you say something about this?

And one more thing. You mentioned three ways of satisfying this need. What do you mean by the third one -separateness? 

Yasin Koc


Thanks for the comment Yasin, you've hit a very good point square on the head.

You're completely right that people's awareness of the need for distinctiveness is a separate thing from the need we measured.  Our measure of the strength of the distinctiveness motive is more implicit than simply getting people to tell us how distinctive they want to be; we compute the within-person correlation between how distinctive they rate each identity element, and how important that element is to who they are.  Those with a stronger need for distinctiveness show more positive within-person correlations; they rate their more distinctive identity elements as more important to their sense of self.  

We've actually found that this measure gives rather different results from measures asking explicitly about how distinctive people want to be (such as SANU, Lynn & Harris, 1997).  What we think is going on - and this is really interesting - is that the explicit measures actually tap into social and cultural norms.  So, for example, people from more individualist cultures report wanting to be more distinct not because they have a stronger implicit need for distinctiveness, but, rather paradoxically, because they are conforming to cultural norms that values distinctiveness (individualist values).  We find the opposite with our more implicit measure; people from more collectivist cultures show a stronger need for distinctiveness, reflecting the fact that distinctiveness is not valued in these cultures and hence people have to actively strive to achieve satisfaction of the need. Those of you interested should check out the references at the bottom by Lo et al., and Becker et al.  So, to answer your question, it seems that people are not aware of their own need for distinctiveness and their awareness seems to reflect cultural norms and values.

For you second point, separateness taps into the Western notion of a person being 'bounded', reflecting feelings of independence and privacy, and being distant from others.  Perhaps 'boundedness' is a better word for it - the idea that you are distinct from other people because of a physical or symbolic boundary around you.  It's perhaps a more extreme version of distinctiveness, and we find it is relatively less important compared to the other two sources.  Check out Vignoles, Chryssochoou, & Breakwell (2000) and the Becker et al. paper below for more information.

[Lo et al., (2011). A needs based perspective on cultural differences in identity formation. Identity, 11, 3, 211-230]

[Becker et al., (in press). Culture and the distinctiveness motive: Constructing identity in individualist and collectivist contexts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.


What I now understand from your answer is that the use of both implicit and explicit measures brings together different sources of information about the need for distinctiveness tapping into or revealing different dimensions. I would be keen to think about how perpetual inducing of awareness of the need for distintiveness would influence people's answers on implicit measures (as well as on explicit measures). This will probably be pure speculation, but do you think the differences would decrease between the two measures or some other dimensions would emerge with the help of the manipulation?


Well, the two measures aren't really tapping into the same thing.  The implicit measure is tapping into this motive for distinctiveness, but the explicit measure is tapping into how much distinctiveness is valued in the culture.  So it depends what you make people aware of, their need or the culture's values, and I'm not really sure what would happen.  I can't think of any studies that have looked at making people aware of their need, for distinctiveness or otherwise, without threatening it.  Threatening it leads to strivings to re-gain satisfaction; for example, people could rate their most distinctive identity elements as even more important to who they are, or strongly identify with very distinct groups, or show a cognitive bias for remembering their most distinctive moments, etc.  Anyone have any ideas of any research testing just awareness rather than threat, or any ideas about what would happen?

Hi all, thanks Matt, it was great to read.

What I was wondering about was whether they also said very different things across the three contexts: What were their identities like? And were there cultural differences in that across the contexts? Are they more similar within a culture or are the urbanites and villagers more alike regardless of their countries? And how about groups within a country? Majorities-minorities? What's happening there?


Another thing: I didn't understand how you separate active striving for distinctiveness from simple social comparison. Let's say I would list being a teacher and someone who has just skydived. Then I say that the first makes me feel quite disctinctive but second one makes me feel distinctive way more. How can you capture the active striving here?

But then I read your comment before posting "Our measure of the strength of the distinctiveness motive is more
implicit than simply getting people to tell us how distinctive they want
to be; we compute the within-person correlation between how distinctive
they rate each identity element, and how important that element is to
who they are."

All clear now :) So my questions are only about the content


Judit Kende



Hi Judit, 
The stuff that people wirte for their identity elements was absolutely fascinating; it made data entry actually quite interesting!  I only collected data from one cultural group within one country though, and I haven't done any content analysis into what people write.  I know that some of our collaborators and doing this and do find meaningful differences in content.  Most of these are within nations due to language differences but I'll try and get one of our collaborators who is doing this kind of research to write a brief abstract and I'll post it on here... I'll see what I can do.
Cheers, Matt

that would be great, Matt, thanks a lot. judit

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