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      Preferences for Different Representations of Colonial History in a Canadian Urban Indigenous Community


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          When a social group’s history includes significant victimization by an outgroup, how might that group choose to represent its collective history, and for what reasons? Employing a social identity approach, we show how preferences for different representations of colonial history were guided by group interest in a sample of urban Indigenous participants. Three themes were identified after thematic analysis of interview and focus group transcripts from thirty-five participants who identified as Indigenous. First, participants expressed concern that painful, victimization-focused representations of colonial history would harm vulnerable ingroup members, and urged caution when representing colonial history in this way. Second, while colonial history was clearly painful and unpleasant for all participants, many nevertheless felt it was important that representations of colonial history tell the whole truth about how badly Indigenous people have been mistreated by outgroups. Participants suggested these brutal representations of colonial history could also serve the interests of their group by bolstering ingroup pride when representations also emphasized the resilience of Indigenous peoples. Finally, participants described how brutal representations of colonial history could help transform intergroup relations with non-Indigenous outgroups in positive ways by explaining present challenges in Indigenous communities as the result of intergenerational trauma. We discuss findings in terms of their relevance for ingroup agency and their implications for public representations of colonial history.



          Telling the story of how a social group has been historically victimized by another group raises complex issues. How can this be done in a sensitive way that will not increase harm? As accounts of the brutal history of the colonial residential school system that significantly harmed many generations of Indigenous people in Canada are increasingly being integrated into educational materials and public discourse more generally, it is important to understand the implications of different representations of this history for Indigenous peoples.

          Why was this study done?

          We wanted to understand how Indigenous people’s preferences for different representations of colonial history were guided by a basic motivation to protect the interests of fellow group members and the group as a whole. Social Identity Theory predicts that the basic motivation to promote the interests of one’s social group will guide group-related behavior when individuals identify strongly with their group. We expected that while there might be variation in preferences for representations of colonial history depending on audience or context, in each cause group interest would motivate these preferences.

          What did the researchers do and find?

          We analyzed qualitative data from focus groups and interviews with 35 Indigenous participants discussing an Indigenous culture-focused elementary school in Vancouver, Canada. Participants wanted the difficult realities of residential schools and colonial history to be represented in different ways for different audiences. In some cases, participants felt these stories should downplay the brutality of residential schools so as not to (re)traumatize vulnerable group members (e.g. children and residential school survivors). More commonly however, participants felt that representations of colonial history should describe the brutality of their collective victimization unflinchingly, so long as these accounts were paired with stories of the resilience and resistance of Indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples’ continuing survival despite such brutal treatment was a point of collective pride. Finally, when representing colonial history to non-Indigenous people, participants felt these accounts should emphasize their collective victimization in order to increase non-Indigenous peoples’ empathy and support for Indigenous people. Although different representations of colonial history were preferred for different audiences, in each case preferences were motivated by promoting the interests of Indigenous peoples.

          What do these findings mean?

          When telling painful stories about a group’s historical victimization, it is important to grasp the complexity of how these representations might impact group members negatively or positively under different circumstances. Those tasked with developing curricula or communications about a group’s painful history should proceed with caution and involve impacted group members in the story telling process to ensure their interests are protected.

          Translated abstract

          Lorsque l’histoire d’un groupe social comprend une victimisation importante par un exogroupe, comment ce groupe choisit-il de représenter son histoire collective et pour quelles raisons ? En utilisant une approche d’identité sociale auprès d’un échantillon de participants autochtones vivant en milieu urbain, nous montrons comment les préférences des différentes représentations de l’histoire coloniale ont été guidées par l’intérêt du groupe. Trois thèmes ont été identifiés après une analyse thématique des transcriptions d’entrevues et de groupes de discussion auprès de trente-cinq participants qui se sont identifiés comme autochtones. Premièrement, les participants se sont inquiétés du fait que des représentations douloureuses de l’histoire coloniale axées sur la victimisation nuiraient aux membres vulnérables du groupe, et ont appelé à la prudence lorsque l’histoire coloniale est présentée de cette manière. Deuxièmement, alors que l’histoire coloniale était douloureuse et désagréable pour tous les participants, beaucoup estimaient néanmoins qu’il était important que les représentations de l’histoire coloniale révèlent toute la vérité sur la sévérité avec laquelle les peuples autochtones ont été maltraités. Les participants ont suggéré que ces représentations brutales de l’histoire coloniale pourraient également servir les intérêts de leur groupe en renforçant la fierté des membres du groupe alors que celles-ci mettent également l’accent sur la résilience des peuples autochtones. Enfin, les participants ont expliqué comment les représentations brutales de l’histoire coloniale pourraient aider à améliorer les relations entre les groupes autochtones et non-autochtones en expliquant les défis actuels des communautés autochtones comme résultant du traumatisme intergénérationnel. Nous présentons les résultats de manière à mettre en évidence leur pertinence en matière d’autonomie des membres du groupe et de leurs implications pour les représentations publiques de l’histoire coloniale.

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          Most cited references41

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          Using thematic analysis in psychology

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            Self and social identity.

            In this chapter, we examine the self and identity by considering the different conditions under which these are affected by the groups to which people belong. From a social identity perspective we argue that group commitment, on the one hand, and features of the social context, on the other hand, are crucial determinants of central identity concerns. We develop a taxonomy of situations to reflect the different concerns and motives that come into play as a result of threats to personal and group identity and degree of commitment to the group. We specify for each cell in this taxonomy how these issues of self and social identity impinge upon a broad variety of responses at the perceptual, affective, and behavioral level.
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              How the past weighs on the present: social representations of history and their role in identity politics.

              Socially shared representations of history have been important in creating, maintaining and changing a people's identity. Their management and negotiation are central to interethnic and international relations. We present a narrative framework to represent how collectively significant events become (selectively) incorporated in social representations that enable positioning of ethnic, national and supranational identities. This perspective creates diachronic (temporal) links between the functional (e.g. realistic conflict theory), social identity, and cognitive perspectives on intergroup relations. The charters embedded in these representations condition nations with similar interests to adopt different political stances in dealing with current events, and can influence the perceived stability and legitimacy of social orders. They are also instrumental in determining social identity strategies for reacting to negative social comparisons, and can influence the relationships between national and ethnic identities.

                Author and article information

                J Soc Polit Psych
                Journal of Social and Political Psychology
                J. Soc. Polit. Psych.
                18 December 2019
                : 7
                : 2
                : 1065-1088
                [a ]Department of Psychology, Simon Fraser University , Burnaby, BC, Canada
                [2]University of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland
                Author notes
                [* ]Department of Psychology, Simon Fraser University, 8888 University Drive, Burnaby, BC, Canada, V5A 1S6. sdn2@ 123456sfu.ca
                Copyright @ 2019

                This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) 4.0 License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

                : 02 October 2017
                : 08 January 2019
                Special Thematic Section on "Multiple Perspectives in Conflict Settings: From Diversity to Pluralism"

                social identity theory,peuples autochtones,representations of history,agence d'ingroupes,ingroup agency,représentations de l'histoire,Indigenous peoples,théorie de l'identité sociale,colonial history,histoire coloniale


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