Same Same but different, the ‘narcissism of minor differences’

Same Same but different, the ‘narcissism of minor differences’

To put it into simple terms, the long lasting vendetta between the Dutch football coach Louis van Gaal and legendary Dutch footballer Johan Cruijff can be reduced to a fight between two men who have much in common on many different levels. Both are born and raised in Watergraafsmeer (a neighbourhood in the east of Amsterdam), both lost their father at a young age, both made significant contributions to Dutch football; particularly the Amsterdam club Ajax. Both men are known as dominant, stubborn innovators and both are praised for their ludicrous verbal inventions and bizarre logic. So why have they been at odds with each other for years?

Anton Blok wrote an essay in the European Journal of Social Theory (1998) which explores the theoretical implications of Freud’s notion of ‘the narcissism of minor differences’ – the idea that it is the minor differences between people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of strangeness and hostility between them: “We are inclined to blame conflicts and war between individuals and groups on growing contrasts. The bigger the differences (culturally, socially and economically), the bigger the chance of violent conflicts. But when formulating theories about violence and power, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that the fiercest battles often take place between people who have a lot in common.” In Etnische conflicten en het moderne geweten (1999), historian Michael Ignatieff further discusses this theory and adds: “Minor differences between individuals and groups are particularly prone to be the cause of bitter dispute and hateful acts. Aggression differences between individuals and the group they belong to.” Civil wars are often defined as much more vicious than other wars and the fiercest fights are often those between brothers. Good examples are; the war between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, the genocide in former Yugoslavia and the fight between the Protestants and Catholics in Northern-Ireland. Rwanda, the genocide in former Yugoslavia and the fight between the Protestants and Catholics in Northern-Ireland.

The history, language and culture of people who live in the east of the Dutch province of Gelderland, Achterhoekers, is almost identical to that of Tukkers, people who live in the east of Gelderlands’ neighbouring province of Overijssel. An outsider wouldn’t be able to make any distinctions between the two groups, but the minor differences are incredibly important to these two groups themselves. Catch-phrases like “Oh yeah, that is typical for an Amsterdammer!” do not only sound negative; they also legitimate this rejection at the same time. It is a manifestation of the fight for status between different regions. But are these subtle difference between people form different areas really important in a small country like the Netherlands?

What is the size of the area which Dutch people feel connected with? Do the Dutch identify with their place of residence, place of birth, their province, their country or Europe? Which Dutch people call themselves ‘world citizens’? What are the predictors of the geographical scale on which people base their identity? Or is identity now-a-days purely individual and therefore completely random. Can we, when we apply the regression analysis, make any sociological statements about geographical identities and their predictors?

The elderly generally grew up in a time when traveling was less common as it is now. Does this mean that they don’t identify as much with the world and more with their own neighbourhood? Women, particularly house- wives, are, more so than men, bound to their house, neighbourhood and town, since they look after their children and often only work part-time. Men on the other hand often work outside of their home, in most cases they actually have to commute to another town. Does this mean that women identify more closely with their own neighbourhood and men with larger areas? People with a higher level of education are more aware of world events beyond their local community. Education can stimulate the curiosity to discover different countries and cultures; so the more educated someone is, the bigger the area that person might identify with.

In order to test this hypothesis, data from the Socon project (2005) were used. This research questioned the connection between different sized regions (neighbourhood, town, province, country, Europe and the world). The factor analysis shows that there are two dimensions which have a negative correlation. The one dimension is identification with one’s own surroundings (neighbourhood, town, province) the other is identification with Europe and the world. Subsequently, after adopting a regression analysis, it becomes clear that based on biological (age, gender), biographical (education, fondness of traveling, moving house) and geographical characterizations (Urbanity and Rurality) we can make significant statements about connections with one’s surroundings, Europe and the world.

The results were: compared to women, men identify less with their own surroundings, but also less with Europe and the world. People over 25 identify less with Europe and the world, than people under the age of 25 (reference group). Old people feel just as attached to their own environment as young people (under 25). However, young people identify much more with foreign countries than old people. The more people have traveled the less they identify with their neighbourhood or town. On the other hand, these people do feel connected to Europe and the world. The same is true for people with a higher level of education, although less significant than people who traveled, they too identify more with Europe and the world, while feeling less attached to their neighbourhood than those with a lower level of education.

The strongest predictor for being attached to a neighbourhood, town and region is Province. People from Groningen feel much more attached to their own environment than people from Zuid-Holland (reference category). We see the same for people from Friesland and Brabant, although the effects are weaker. The strongest predictor for attachment to Europe and the world is, on the other hand, an Urban setting. The higher the density of population, the smaller the attachment to Europe and the world. The effect is biggest comparing ‘moderate urban areas’ (= places such as: Breda, Helmond, Lelystad, Almelo, Meppel and so on) to rural areas.

This research shows that biological factors (gender & age) and contextual factors (province & urbanity) have a much stronger effect than biographical factors (education & fondness of traveling). Despite these interesting results one could argue that other variables could be applied. It is for example possible that people’s attachment to their surroundings is also influenced by the variable “length of residence”; the amount of time a person has lived in a specific place. In the future, qualitative research studying different place-identities may lead to a further understanding of the ‘narcissism of minor differences’.

Valentijn  Brandt (1981)
graduated in Photography at the Royal Academy of  Visual Arts in The Hague (Bachelor of Arts, 2005) with a photo documentary on ‘rural car racing’ and a thesis on ‘strategies for street photography’. Subsequently he studied Sociology at the Radboud University in Nijmegen (Bachelor of Science, 2008) and graduated with a thesis and analysis on ‘indicators for identification within regions’. Currently he works as a freelance photographer and project manager.

Anouk Vleugels

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