Rafael Alonso: “Rational explanation of Catalan independence phenomenon goes against those willing to fortify sense of belonging”

This post is one of a kind. Not only because of its interview format, but also because it is giving a different vision of a really hot topic. As many of you already know I am from Catalonia, an autonomous community of Spain. This territory has been currently on the news due to the independence movement going on.


On November the 9th Catalonia hold a non-binding vote, willing to see the number of people in favour of the Independence movement. This informal referendum went ahead, even though the Spanish constitutional court had ruled it out.

According to the Catalan Government, 2,305,290 people took part in the “consultation” out of an estimated 5.4 million eligible voters.

Catalans were asked two questions: whether they wanted Catalonia to be a state and whether they wanted this state to be independent.


The results showed that 80.6% (1,861,753 participants) answered “yes” to both questions. Just over 10% voted “yes” to the first question and “no” to the second and about 4.5% voted “no” to the independence.


After this referendum nothing has happened. Indeed, while the Spanish Government dismisses the exercise as “a sterile and useless sham”, the Catalan government believes the poll has proved that Catalonia “wants to rule itself”.

Putting aside my opinion of Catalonia’s Independence, after the poll I agreed an interview with the social psychologist Rafael Alonso so as to know how human beings and groups construct their identity and why it seems to exist a bipolarization in the Catalan society, between those who want the independence and those who are against it.

This post is nothing but the transcription of that interview and I hope it would be as useful and awe-inspiring for you as it was for me.

WARNING: do not read more if you are afraid to know about the psychological and rational explanation of pro and against independence movement.

Interview with Rafael Alonso


Rafael Alonso, social psychologist.

Rafael Alonso has a consuming passion for groups’ identity. He finished his psychological degree at the “Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona” (UAB) in 1986 and he specialized in Social Psychology.

He did two postgraduate studies: one on Psychology and Business Management in EADA (business school Barcelona) and the other on Analysis of Scripts and projects for Cinema (as a hobby).

He has been working at Universitat de Barcelona (UB) since 1991. As a professor he has taught ‘Groups Psychology’, ‘Social Applied Psychology’ and ‘Social Investigative Technics’. However, Rafael’s main professional occupation is being a Project Manager at IBM Company (International Business Machines).

Identity and social groups

What do we understand by identity?

The identity is an identification of ourselves with some characteristics relative to people. These characteristics are crucial in order to establish social groups. We can identify ourselves with piano teachers, pianists, artists, technicians, engineers, with our family and with a wide and diverse range of social groups.

Are our social identity and our personal one imbricated?

Absolutely. There is a strong bond between my personal me and my social me. The social thing is totally imbricated in the construction of our personality. However, this is a controversial topic because some experts insist on the existence of personal identities, while others only accept the existence of social identities.

Human beings are born, not as a fish in the sea -autonomous since the first day of life-, but as social animals that grow up with one or more people surrounding and nurturing them. Generally we tend to have wide social groups. Humans are isolated people, as well as, social people.

Are identities static or dynamic?

Social and personal identities are totally dynamic. We start developing them as children and they are more or less salient depending on the circumstances we are living, as well as, the specific moment of the day. For instance, depending on the moment my salient identity can be: me as a supporter of Barcelona football team, as a business man, as a member of a family, etc. Social roles are established by the context. Hence, context is the king when it comes to put one identity first.

How do we form our identity?

Identity is formed alongside personality since our first day of life. It depends on our social relationships and on the importance our social environment gives to one or another group and the values it assigns to them.

For example, my mother, who passed away, was a woman born in Bilbao (a City in the north of Spain) in 1920. She was afraid of coloured people. She didn’t hate them and neither had a rational conception about them. She just felt insecure when facing a coloured person and that insecurity was built on her childhood, due to her social environment.

We can be afraid of an animal simply because our family has always told us that this animal is dangerous or has assigned to it negative characteristics. Our social environment categorizes and ascribes categories to many elements of the world and it is really influent.

Is it possible to manipulate someone else’s identity? In other words, can identity be subject to the own interests of another person, institution, etc.?

Social identity can one hundred percent be manipulated. Human beings have two social basic categories: my group (in-group) and the other group (out-group). Our group is not a stable category. Indeed, the out-group is neither stable. For example: I can change my all-life football team affiliation just because I remove to another country.

However, we keep talking about MY football team, MY Company, MY GROUP. As we have already mentioned identity salience depends on the moment. Depending on the context I can identify myself with one or another category, with one or another group and people can make you feel more identified with one of them.

Are there any out-groups more important than the others?

There is a natural tendency to total involucrate ourselves and to do anything for the in-group with which we identify. Besides, although we form part of many in-groups and there are many out-groups, the important external groups are those that we know as “reference groups”.

As a supporter of Barça team, Albacete team would not be my reference group, but Real Madrid, Manchester United, Milan and FC Bayern Munich would be. Indeed, those teams with which I compare myself.

Why do we categorize the world?

Human beings need to categorize to reduce the world complexity. Universe is too complex, undefined, and indistinct; that is why since we are born we separate the elements step-by-step in different categories.

Without doubt “humans” is a fundamental category, but we put etiquettes to every single thing that is important to us: toys, tables, chairs, etc. This is a crucial necessity for our cognitive development.

What are the consequences of this categorization?

Once we have established categories and have differentiated people from animals, chairs from tables, Senegalese people from Spanish people, etc.; there is a “categorical accentuation”. In other words: we see the objects of the same category as more similar than they actually are. Besides, we unconsciously increase the perception of the differences existing between one group and another.

When we first see an orange and a mandarin we can think that they are nearly the same (orange, round, acid). However, once we separate them into categories the differences seem to increase and they become more different than they used to be.

Another intrinsic tendency of humans is the necessity of having a “positive notion of us”. The idea we have of ourselves is usually better than the idea we have of others. We need to have a high self-esteem and a positive social and personal identity in order to live more happily. It is a strategy that our brain uses so as to surpass obstacles and to encourage us to achieve our goals.

In fact this feeling of “being better than the others” is quite ridiculous, because we all have it…!

Sure. Thinking about us in positive terms leads to absurd statistics, such as that one pointing out that ALL car drivers believe to be better than the others. It is quite funny because it happens to me, but also to the driver in front of me and to the other one a little further away. This positive notion of ourselves is necessary and adaptive.

We apply this positive notion not only to ourselves, but also to our group. We think we are better than the others as well as we think that our group is better than other groups. That is what we call “in-group favouritism”.

Is there any experiment that illustrates this in-group favouritism?

Yes. There are some experiments, conducted 30 years ago and known as the “Minimal Group Paradigm” experiments, in which researchers investigated the minimal conditions required for discrimination to occur between groups. The more relevant author who developed this theory was Henri Tajfel.

In one exercise conducted in the 1970’s the participants were artificially ascribed (without any particular reason) as followers of Kandinsky and Klee (abstract painters). Even though the arbitrary and meaningless distinctions between groups, the exercise showed how the members of each group were more likely to reward people from their group than from the other one, after doing few tasks they were asked to.

From a rational point of view, we can erroneously think that human beings look always for their own benefit and thus the participants taking part in the experiment would favour their own group. However, when we are working alongside another group we do not opt only for maximizing our profits, but also for achieving the furthest distance possible with our reference group.

Would you mind giving us an example?

Continuing with the football team illustration, we could say that what a supporter of Barça wants is not that his team wins the league and Madrid achieves the second place, but that Barça wins and Madrid gets demoted.

Any football fan would agree with this! And do categorization and the positive notion of our group influence our perception?

Yes. As supporters we always see the other team fouls, but never or less times those from our own team. This is completely generalized and intrinsic in human beings. It happens when we have a really high identification with that team. Indeed, when we are in a football stadium, the environment (flags, anthems, etc.) increases our feeling of belonging to the group.

What happens when it comes to talking about opposite identities?

Let’s give an example. Two basic distinctive identities are “man” and “woman”. There are some little exceptions, but basically this is like that. Human beings tend to see their group as better than the other, which is also perceived as homogenous. Men tend to think that women are a single category and women think that “all men are the same”.

This homogenization of the out-group is also evident with nationalities. To us, Chinese or Black people look the same, but in fact they think they are really different they also see us (white people) as people with similar physiognomies.

Catalan Independence movement linked to the social identity theory

Is it possible to have more than one single nationality?

Yes, of course. I can belong to many social groups at the same time. However, as I have already mentioned, identities tend to be more or less salient depending on the circumstance. I have a lot of identities at the same time: professor, product manager at IBM, father, photographer, swimmer, etc.

If I were taking part in an international meeting, for instance, I would identify more with Europeans than with South- Africans. However, If after this meeting I go out to the disco with my colleagues, I will identify more with the “man” category. Hence, a South-African man and I could form part of the same group: “MEN”.

Is it possible to feel Catalan, Spanish (or both at the same) time for different reasons than other people belonging to the same group?

Yes. Imagine that I am in love with Human Towers and I identify with Catalonia because of this particular hobby. This does not mean that another person in love with Catalan culture has the same motivation. Another person can identify himself with Catalonia, despite not having any interest in Human towers, because he/she likes a particular value that Catalans consider their own.

I also can identify myself with Spain because I like its history of discovers or because of its national football team achievements.

When do we define a group of people as a social group?

The crucial variable is the existence of a group identity. In other words: the existence of relevant characteristics that allow us to recognize a person as a member of the group.

So, for instance, if you go to Australia and, while driving on a deserted road, you see a man whose car has a flat tyre, you are more likely to help him if he is wearing a Catalan or a Barça scarf than if nothing helps you to identify him as a member of your group. You have never seen that person before, but the perception of the national or football team scarf has allowed you to identify him as a member of the in-group.

This perception automatically causes a change in your behaviour, because you wouldn’t have stopped if that person hadn’t been Catalan.

Which role does the family play in the transmission of values and in the correction or sanction of the values they believed are not accurate?

The family has a huge influence on the construction of children’s identity. This is easy to understand if we connect that issue with the referendum that took place in Catalonia the 9th of November. Voters have grouped themselves depending on their language: the majority of those who normally speak Catalan voted “yes, yes”, while those whose relatives speak Spanish didn’t vote or, in little cases, said “no” to Catalonia independence.

So our mother language is a really important element of our identity, isn’t it?

Yes. We could say that the language our family speaks determine our personal values. Indeed, this is an unquestionable fact.

Would you say that we are confronting a categorization or a simplification of Catalan society in only two groups: supporters of Catalonia independency and people against it?

Yes, definitely, and this is happening due to political parties interests. I believe that they are instigating this categorization and doing it on purpose.

With that categorization, are we missing important groups?

I believe (but that is my personal opinion and I am not talking as an expert now) that if we had let people vote for more options, apart from “yes” or “no”, the vast majority would have shown more intermediate or moderate opinions. However, I reckon that this kind of proposals don not have the support from political parties that play an important role [CiU -Catalan government party- wants the independence and PP -Spanish government party- don not want to listen anything about changing the basic law].

Which mechanisms do we have to break with this categorization?

This is really complex… (Laugh). From the social identity theory, what is proposed is the establishment of other categories to compensate the existing ones. If politicians wanted to do so, it would be interesting to propose a transversal category connecting the two groups we have mentioned (for or against independency). The imbrication of categories is the only solution to break the existing bipolarization.

Which effect have rituals or events such as Catalan national day, on September the 11th, and the referendum, on November the 9th, in the construction of groups? They are fundamental in order to strengthen the feeling of belonging, aren’t they?

Exactly. Moreover, one of the elements configuring the identity is the perception of the out-group, of “them” and “us” (in-group). We reinforce the cohesion of our group when we believe that there is an external group trying to harm us.

Is there people in Catalonia that see Spanish people or government as an attacker?

Sure. I believe that there is a manipulation of some economic elements, historical and political ones. This is really clear and, indeed, some social groups and political parties use this manipulation in their favour. I have no doubt about it. I think that every single political party manipulates, not just pro-independency ones, but all of them.

Politicians know a lot about social psychology…

(Laugh). We could say that they know how to manage with people, but have no idea about the theoretical knowledge.

Is it possible for a group to change its mind and its beliefs?

It is very difficult and even more when we are talking about groups. It depends on the circumstances, but more frequently the group splits or is reduced to ashes. It is not usual for groups to drift.

This is the case of PSC (Socialist Party in Catalonia). This political party needs to be created from zero and has to rethink itself from zero, because an important part of its nuclear members have moved towards other political options.

Once the group will be reconstructed, would it be the same PSC it used to be? Probably not exactly the same. It is going to be different because a great number of people in a chief position are no longer part of this party.

To conclude, would you mind telling us to which extent do you think the social identity theory is connected to the current Catalan political scenario?

I believe that the social identity theory can be totally applied to the Catalan independence issue and the atmosphere we are living.

I think that the identity theory perfectly explains the current situation, although the media do not mentioned it, because if you explain the phenomenon rationally you overthrow the feelings and that goes against to those who want to fortify the sense of belonging.

When you observe the independence phenomenon from this theory perspective you realize that because of the in-groups and the out-groups creation you are going to believe that your group is the best and that other groups are worse. Moreover, you will think that the reference out-group wants to damage you and treats your group unfairly.

This happens in every single football match! We see the other team fouls, and we believe there are terrible and grave, but we do not see our own fouls. And many times we find excuses to justify the defeat.

We have to bear in mind that the existence of in-groups and out-groups leads to a natural conflict between them…

Interesting links

To know more about Catalan Independence movement: https://catindependencexoutsiders.wordpress.com/




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