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The Social Value of Being Different


Explanations > Identity > The Social Value of Being Different

Identity | Innovation | See also


Do you easily fit in? Do you worry about what other people think of you? Do you work hard to be accepted by them, learning what to say and not say, knowing how to dress and how to behave? If so, congratulations. You are like most people in society for whom the approval of their peers and superiors is critically important. In fact there would be no society without you.

But what if you march to a different drum? Is your independence more important to you than social approval? Do you like to think, dress and act however you like? If so, congratulations too. While society may not approve of you, it still needs you.

People who do not fit in that well with others still serve two purposes that help society sustain itself.


Social groups define themselves by their rules. Whether the group is a golf club, a street gang or society at large, there are membership rules. Even if the rules are not written down (and few if any are fully documented), they clearly exist because they exist. New members are taught the rules and transgressors are punished.

Non-members are useful as members can point at them and say 'That person is not one of us because...'. If you are different, your 'not-like-me' characteristics contrast with the 'like-me' cloned identity within the group. People who are different hence act as out-group anti-examplars, illustrating what is not allowed in the group and hence helping members define who they are.


One of the rules of stable groups is not rocking the boat by trying to change things. Innovation is feared and outlawed, as similarity and stability are prized most. Yet this creates a dilemma when change is required in order to survive. Groups do not exist independently from their environment, and when that context changes, the group must adapt or die. Companies have competitors and changing customer demands. Families have changing incomes and social pressures. Hobby clubs are affected by fashion and technology.

If innovation and change cannot come from within, then where can it come from? An answer is the outsider. Outsiders are watched carefully not just because they may threaten the stability of the group but because they show what needs to change. In fact they may be needed to help show how to change, innovating group process and facilitating survival in the face of changing external forces.

In times of frequent change, this negotiated support is a constant need. Groups handle this by having fuzzy boundaries. Innovative thinkers are allowed at the edges where they can find and interact with other outsiders. They may also have influence within the group where they can advocate change in ways that support group survival.

There hence develops a whole ecosystem for innovation and change with everyone, even the most non-conformist outsider having a useful role. Over the ages a form of stability has crept in here, with archetypes for roles such as fools, shamans, alchemists and magicians, each of whom acts in identifiable ways to sustain the greater system. While the names are not used in modern society, people who eschew being typecast still slip into their places, partly due to the subtle forces around them and partly because they feel most comfortable in one archetypal role over all others.

See also

Identity is..., Creativity

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