All posts by Jenia Borisenko

Social Identity Theory (SIT) and Cold War national identites

In my RBA, I am going to apply SIT to the development of the national identities of the United States and the Soviet Union in an attempt to (a) demonstrate that social psychology can be applied to international relations, (b) argue that there is an alternative perspective on the development of the two countries’ national identities, and (c) offer an psychological explanation for the biases that were predominant in the Cold War era in the US and the USSR with regard to assessing each other’s behavior and motives.

In my brain map, I map only the aspects of SIT that I am going to be applying to the Cold War. Under each topic, there is going to be an explanation of the psychological process,  direct example(s) of it in the Cold War and its influence of the developemt of national identities.


Cold War through the lens of Social Psychology

The research topic for my RBA is the application of the Social Identity theory (SIT) in social psychology to the Cold War. There have been many attempts to use SIT to describe processes taking place in international relations, but given the cross-disciplinary nature of such applications, unavoidable limitations have been encountered. In my RBA, I plan to view the United States and Soviet Union not in terms of their ideologies and political agendas, but in terms of their populations and the psychological forces affecting the people during that era.

SIT distinguishes between several steps to acquiring and maintaining social identity. Based on shared characteristics, people self-categorize and self-assign group membership: the in-group is the group of the person doing the categorization, as opposed to the out-group. By constant social comparison, people strive to maintain positive distinctiveness of the in-group via in-group favoritism and out-group discrimination. In-group favoritism refers to treating in-group members as individuals, each with positive traits. Out-group discrimination implies seeing members of the out-group as similar to each other, all with shared negative traits. This helps maintain a binary division between the in-group an the out-group and contributes to positive social identity of the in-group.

The identities of the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War have been described by many as polar and incompatible. The two nations strove to exaggerate the differences in their identities and highlight the superior nature of their way of life. The American population responded to the onset of the Cold War by creating a homogenous white, middle-class, suburban society with an emphasis on abundance, individualism and freedom — the characteristics that the US prided itself on and the Soviet Union lacked. By conforming to this social standard, the American population had created an in-group rooted in national identity, which suggests that SIT can and should be used to understand the Cold War from the psychological perspective.

From Fiction to Reality

In “Cold War Pop Culture and the Image of U.S. Foreign Policy: The Perspective of the Original Star Trek Series,” Nicholas Evan Sarnatakes discusses the ways in which Star Trek uses allegory to draw parallels between the US foreign policy during the Cold War and the rivalry between the Federation and the Klingons. The first episode that introduces this rivalry is “Errand of Mercy”. The episode begins with the two nations on the brink of confrontation, when USS Enterprise travels to protect an innocent planet from a Klingon invasion. After the first Klingon attack, Kirk and Spock are taken prisoner, but are then saved by the planet’s inhabitants’ secret psychic abilities. Sarnatakes argues that this episode establishes a Cold War-like dynamic between the Federation and the Klingons: “disputes remain, but the two interstellar powers would challenge one another only through indirect means.” The episode also introduces the main critique of the US foreign policy at the time. In the show, the ‘prime directive’ of the Federation is not to interfere with the less developed societies that lack the technology to travel in space. Presumably, space travel can be equated to nuclear capability in the context of the Cold War. Through such rhetoric, the show criticizes the Wilsonian impulse to spread the American political structure and cultural values to the less developed countries.

Science fiction and fantasy writing have the ability to challenge commonly accepted cultural beliefs and ideals by providing indirect but extremely applicable criticism of certain aspects of the society. Such creative forms of expression allow the authors to avoid the backlash against their opinions, as their work still remains primarily a work of fiction. This allows for a more honest and pointed criticism of the societal structure and/or values than many direct forms of expression can allow. Star Trek is one example of a creative outlet of the criticism and apprehension regarding the state of the society at a certain time. Another such example is a 2015 film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos called Lobster. The film depicts a dystopian society where all single people are put in a hotel and given 45 days to fall in love. If they fail to do so, they are turned into an animal of their choosing and let out into the wild. All the inhabitants of the hotel define themselves with one distinct characteristic (e.g. a limp, a lisp, shortsightedness, etc.) and search for their partner based on these shared characteristics. The strength of the society’s fixation on artificial compatibility is shown when the main character decides to fake psychopathy to be with the Heartless Woman, or when the Limping Man decides to secretly smash his head against various things to fake nosebleeds to be with the Nosebleed Woman. The film effectively employs satire and dark humor to exaggerate and highlight modern society’s obsession with dating apps and the changing perception of what love should be based on.

The Image of a Threat

In “Disaster and Decentralization: American Cities and the Cold War”, Matthew Farish addresses the issue of decentralization in post-War America and the flight of homogenous populations to the suburbs. The author argues that the invention of the atomic bomb and the immense emphasis on the nuclear threat were largely responsible for this phenomenon. He notes that, “as part of the ‘intricate national discussion’ on city life after the Second World War, Kennan’s diagnosis of urban vice echoed a familiar, much older anti-city refrain, but it also acquired additional potency with the invention of the atomic bomb and postwar geopolitical uncertainty.” Indeed, after the announcement of the first Soviet nuclear test, an emphasis was put on moving ‘beyond the radiation zone’, the center of which was always in the city. The geopolitical uncertainty caused by the rivalry with the Soviet Union intensified the nuclear paranoia and pushed the American population out of the urban areas. In an attempt to compensate for this uncertainty, people found the need to conform to set social norms that revolved around suburban life, as it created a sense of security and untouchability represented by their suburban homes.

45963244-cachedThe fear of a nuclear attack that characterized the Cold War era was further worsened by the excessive exposure of the general population to the images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. A similar effect could be seen following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on World Trade Center. The extensive media coverage of the attacks and the subsequent reinforcement of their imagery have caused a dramatic rise in paranoia that was unprecedented since the earlier period of the Cold War.  Some of the effects if this phenomenon include the creation of the Patriot Act, the development of the role of the NSA, and the strengthening of airport security to counter the fear of flying. However, during the Cold War, the fear and paranoia could be attributed to a concrete threat that would affect whole area under attack — a nuclear bomb would destroy the whole city and its surroundings. The 9/11 attacks showed that the terrorist threat cannot be quantified or narrowed to a specific type of attack in a specific area — any part of the city could be subjected to any type of attack, and there was no way to predict where and what exactly would happen. As a result, the fear in post-9/11 America did not yield a homogenous response from the population, such as the widespread flight to the suburbs during the Cold War. Instead, the fear persisted and it was up to the government to take measures to reduce it.

Calm Before the Storm

“Instilled in the Americans was the illusion of an open and global society — a society considered to contain the world.”

I think this quote by Lugo perfectly summarises the atmosphere of calmness that speed over the US prior to the 9/11 attacks, and later served to intensify the horror of these attacks.  Indeed, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, America emerged as the victor of the Cold War, and became the sole remaining superpower on the international arena. By the turn of the 20th century, the world was becoming accustomed to the newly formed unipolarity in global power distribution, which in turn created a false sense of security and untouchability of the US. Fuelled by the emergence of the Internet and a rise in globalisation rates, America’s cultural influence  increased dramatically and added to its already dominant military and economic positions. Popular discourse was that American ideology and expanding sphere of influence were capable of binging peace to the global society. 9/11 attacks proved this conviction wrong, which made their cultural impact even more horrifying.

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies is a 2015 Oscar-nominated film that tells the story of James Donovan, a New York insurance lawyer, who is assigned to represent a captive Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, and subsequently negotiate the exchange of Abel for Francis Powers, a US pilot who was shot down over the Soviet Union while taking high-resolution photographs of secret Soviet strategic sites.

Here is a link to the trailer:


Set in 1960, the film explores both domestic cultural nuances and international security challenges of the Cold War.

Donovan’s household is a prime example of a nuclear family: white, middle-class, straight, and Christian. He is the breadwinner, she — the housewife. Their suburban utopia is closely intertwined with the constant reality of nuclear gaze: Donovan’s young son is shown trying to teach his father how to duck and cover in case of a Soviet nuclear attack. The film makes a point of demonstrating the uniformity of suburban lifestyle and everyone’s desire to conform to unspoken social norms.

On many occasions, the film illustrates the fear of the unknown that categorised that time period, and the binary logic that arouse from that fear: one could either be ‘with us, or against us’. So, when Donovan begins working on Abel’s case, general public is quick to label him a Soviet sympathiser, and even ‘red’. He begins to catch judgemental glances from commuters on the train, face condemnation from his coworkers, and even survives a hate-fuelled shooting attack on his household and family. The government also begins to question Donovan’s motives, even though they were the ones who assigned him the case in the first place. That like nothing else highlights the atmosphere of mistrust and fear in 1960s America.

This fear of the unknown is further demonstrated in the McCarthyist policies by which Abel is convicted. A suspicion of being ‘red’ was enough to be pronounced guilty, even in the absence of legally obtained evidence. The film demonstrates the importance of upholding appearances during the Cold War: it was more important to make Abel’s case seem like a fair trial, rather than actually provide one. In midsts of this ideological conflict, the US strove to preserve its moral high ground, and thus gain more influence and support both domestically and internationally.

Overall, Bridge of Spies is a very informational and entertaining movie.

Y’all should definitely watch it!