Queen Mary is home to more than 20,000 students of a multitude of ethnicities, upbringings and much more. It’s an odd environment because despite such differences, we’re brought together at relatively similar points in our lifetimes with one purpose: to obtain a degree level qualification. Looking back on my first year I think of the anticipation and my eagerness to begin this new and exciting stage of my life.
Yes, ultimately university is about receiving a high level of education, knuckling down and studying. But a huge part of it also comes from a social standpoint. Many of us come to university with the hope of meeting new people, expanding our social circles and leaping into the life of young adulthood, independence and personal growth.
Arguably, one could think of university as a kind of social group. We’re all here for the same thing, subject to late nights in the library full of frantic typing as we scramble to meet our deadlines and dreaded 9am lectures. You may also be a member of a society: Book Club, Food Society, Football. The options are endless. In both these scenarios you’re a member of a collective and there’s a sense of belonging that comes with this. One can converse and work with people of a like-minded nature who share similar interests.
But at the same time there may be a kind of expectation that comes with such groups, of behaving in a particular manner or even following the actions of others. In some cases, particularly within sports, the concept of the ‘initiation’ is heavily prevalent and one may be expected to complete tasks in order to become a part of the group. In these various groups we are different people and so my question is as follows: in such social situations do we lose what makes us individual?
It’s important to note that there are two types of groups: ‘primary’, those of a close-knit nature where we feel a sense of belonging, and ‘secondary’ describing large and impersonal groups. It may be that we are more individual in primary groups (such as with close friends and family) because we feel the freest to express ourselves. Here, we are the most comfortable to debate and challenge values because we have been wholeheartedly accepted in these environments. However, it can also be said that within friendship groups we may follow the cues of others in a hope to fit in. In many friendship circles (this may be truer at a younger age) there tends to be a dominant figure who leads the rest of the group, setting up the accepted norms and values. It appears that our understanding of individuality can fluctuate depending on the leader and group type we find ourselves in.
Understanding social groups cannot be addressed without thinking about ‘group conformity’. Defined as ‘the adherence to group norms and standards’, it seems to be the clearest type of behaviour opposing individualism and personal freedom. The old question of whether you’d ‘jump off a cliff just because your friends are doing’ it fits perfectly with this social behaviour. Friends, family and peers are our reference group we use as a measure to judge the behaviours of others and ourselves. What we define as normal stems partly from this, intensifying the more strongly we relate to the group.
What can be gathered from this discussion is that our behaviour is in a constant state of flux. The way one behaves in a professional work setting will differ from being around friends we have known for years. This doesn’t make us completely different people but rather, as humans, complex and ever-changing. What’s amazing about us is that we’re multi-faceted creatures, we are able to adapt and mould to the various situations we find ourselves in. Such ingenuity allows us to thrive in a plethora of situations, but it can also have its downfalls.
In a university environment it can feel convenient to mask your true nature and instead play the part of who you’re expected to be. You may feel as if you’ve always got to be up for a night out, forever smiling and putting on a brave face because that’s what everyone else is doing. In my experience, the best and most authentic experiences are born out of the times you are being the truest version of yourself. Your behaviour may change in different social scenarios but what makes you individual, the true essence of who you are, should never be hidden.
When in an art class you may flaunt a creative, completely uninhibited side of yourself and in a seminar an intelligent, deep-thinking nature. These are both different but somehow the same because they are you. If you are completely genuine, no matter the situation, your individuality can never be lost within a social group. So, are you just a social slave? I think that’s something only you can answer for yourself.