How to Engage Communities in an Age of Tribalism

Cultivating a bigger “We” can help engagement practices navigate the challenges of threatened group identities. (Reading Time: 4 minutes)

Dog Owners. Park Lovers. Conspiracy Theorists.

Community engagement typically involves the participation of many types and groups of people.

This is both a wonderful opportunity and a source of potential conflict. 

To navigate the complex intersection of human behavior and community engagement, it’s helpful to think like a social psychologist. 

Social psychologists often frame people’s behavior in terms of their social, or group identities. “In-groups” are those groups people identify with, and “out-groups” for those that they don’t. This is part of what’s called “Social Identity Theory.” Check out this previous post for a primer.

Each one of us has many group identities. For example, we may identify strongly with a particular race or ethnic group. Or we may have identities associated with a vocation, hobby or belief system: environmentalist, Christian, pickle-ball player, local curmudgeon, and so on.

The trick in community engagement is to make sure that our in- and out-group identities don’t disable collaborative decision making and idea generation. 

Unfortunately, the current state of our society is one of increasing consolidation and entrenchment of our in-groups, a.k.a. tribalism.  

And these in-group tribal identities increasingly feel threatened by out-groups and take up an ‘us’ vs ‘ them’ posture. 

In-group tribal identities increasingly feel threatened by out-groups and take up an ‘us’ vs ‘ them’ posture. 

This feeling of threat can be caused by local inequalities or tensions. Other times, the threat is cynically manufactured and exploited by political leadership and news outlets.

Although we see it clearly in national politics, tribal behavior has become more and more problematic at the local level. It is not uncommon for local community engagement processes to be sidetracked or dominated by people with behavior driven by activated and threatened group identities. 

The recent tensions around school boards and mask mandates is one salient example. But this isn’t limited to right-wing belief systems. Group identities can be problematic in many forms: newcomers vs. old-timers, dog-owners vs. other park goers, bike advocates vs. drivers, and on and on.

One of my favorite examples is from a meeting on homelessness a few years ago in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. Chillingly documented by Erica Barnett in “Tonight in Ballard: Two Hours of Hate,” it’s a telling example of how even typically progressive Seattlites can regress into destructive tribal behavior. 

Or another recent example, a botched community engagement process for an expansion to the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park pushed concerned neighbors to organize in opposition with the City of Seattle. The resulting “Protect Volunteer Park” group took up an us-vs-them posture and caused all sorts of headaches for what should’ve been a celebrated civic improvement to a beloved local institution. 

What examples have you seen, dear reader?


Our choices as stewards of a community process can unwittingly create or harden group identities.

So a successful community engagement process will manage in/out-group dynamics with two techniques.

First, it reduces the perceived or potential threat between different groups by creating conditions that foster tolerance and understanding. This is called “Optimal Contact” and we’ll talk more about how this works in my next post.

Second, a successful process will create and/or reinforce what social psychologists call a ‘superordinate group identity’. In non-jargon terms, it generates a larger sense of ‘We.’

Cultivating a bigger ‘We’ puts people from otherwise differing out-groups into a more encompassing in-group. This allows people to look beyond self-centered or tribal interests and see their ideas in the context of others. And it allows them to compromise and take other perspectives.  

Cultivating a bigger ‘We’ puts people from otherwise differing out-groups into a more encompassing in-group. This allows people to look beyond self-centered or tribal interests and see their ideas in the context of others.

This is the fertile ground for collective collaboration and community engagement.

Some of you may practice this regularly in your work environments through team-building, or by instilling an organization’s mission and values.

For those who are involved in shaping the built environment, the bigger ‘We’ is often place-based. A sense of community and belonging to a neighborhood or town, for example. 

Strengthening a Place-based ‘We’ can be an incredibly powerful motivator. Not just for tackling shared decision making, but for fostering cross-group tolerance, connection, and belonging. 

In fact, this is a key part of ensuring that community engagement processes are regenerative and contribute to stitching back together our frayed social fabric. We need this more than ever.

All this is easier said than done, I know. So we need to peek further under the hood to see what’s going on and build better practices.

Here’s a glimpse: Underpinning these two approaches is a social psychological concept called Intergroup Contact Theory. 

I know that this also sounds like jargon, but bear with me. Intergroup Contact Theory, perhaps Social Psychology’s greatest contribution to understanding our world, is a deep body of fascinating research and theory of social behavior. I’ve touched on it in the past, but next time we will take a deeper dive. 

There are many gems to uncover about human behavior that will be helpful to evolving the work of community engagement. 

Stay tuned.


In this inspiring piece in Noema magazine, “A Movement That’s Quietly Reshaping Democracy For The Better,” Claudia Chwalisz describes how the recent proliferation of Citizen Assemblies are transforming how we conceive and practice Democracy. Wow!

In “We’re in a Loneliness Crisis: Another Reason Get off our Phones,” NYT columnist Tish Harrison Warren documents the depth of our social crisis and how “the way back to ourselves, as individuals and a society, runs through old, earthy things.” 

In “Social Infrastructure of our Times” a chapter of the just released book Sacred Civics,  Participatory City founder Tessy Britton makes a compelling case for why we need Participatory Social Infrastructure.