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Building a social identity theory of shared narrative: Insights from resident stories of police contact in Newark, New Jersey, and Cleveland, Ohio

Published onNov 04, 2020
Building a social identity theory of shared narrative: Insights from resident stories of police contact in Newark, New Jersey, and Cleveland, Ohio

Abstract: Narrative identity theorists have long held that individuals construct identities as a coherent tale of their past, present, and future selves. These life stories are structured along predictable scripts borrowed from cultural master narratives. Heretofore, legitimacy theorists have relied on social identity theory to explain legitimation processes. I propose integrating elements of narrative identity theory with social identity for a more complete legitimation theory. I analyze ninety-two in-depth interviews with individuals who encountered the police departments of Newark, New Jersey, and Cleveland, Ohio. Respondents’ narratives followed common narrative scripts, suggesting a shared master narrative guiding interpretations of police encounters. A large proportion of the sample interpreted their views of the police from a group-based lens, while an equally large proportion used “alternative narratives.” An integration of social identity, narrative identity and current legitimacy theory holds promise for a more comprehensive model of legitimation and a more complete theory of self.


Blount-Hill, K. (2020). Building a social identity theory of shared narrative: insights from resident stories of police contact in Newark, New Jersey, and Cleveland, Ohio. Criminal Justice and Behavior.

AUTHOR’S NOTE. Thanking first my Inspiration, I also thank the Center for Court Innovation – especially Cassandra Ramdath and Josephine Hahn – for providing data for this research, and Lila Kazemian for introducing me to narrative identity theory and feedback on iterations of this work. I also thank the anonymous reviewers, Dr. Morgan, and Dr. Huebner for invaluable feedback and suggestions.


Through storytelling, we bind our personal selves to the various groups that give us definition, tie our individual experience with those of important others, and connect our present to our past and to our future (Smith et al., 2017). Life narrative is central to how we perceive our world (McAdams & McLean, 2013). My own identity is based on a personal story of scholarly pursuits and imagined accomplishments that cannot be fully understood disconnected from the larger histories of the social groups which help define me (Ajil & Blount-Hill, 2020; Blount-Hill & St. John, 2017a; Blount-Hill & St. John, 2017b).1 Humans link together independent events to form cohesive narratives and to find collective meaning. Recent history demonstrates this. The homicide of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, is seen as one scene in a long storyline of police murder and oppression of Black Americans that includes those of Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks. Publics, policymakers, and scholars must recognize that the anger which follows is directed at a grand narrative of abuse, not just one or a few incidents. It is impossible to understand police-minority relations without a narrative context.

The need to present the discontent of Black individuals with America’s criminal justice system through their own stories has been a persistent call in criminology and criminal justice (Brunson, 2007; Brunson & Wade, 2019). Nevertheless, while the importance of narrative may be implicit in the research methods of prominent qualitative criminologists, findings are not often interpreted through the lens of narrative identity. Moreover, though narrative criminology is offered as a means for critical analyses of justice systems (Presser & Sandberg, 2019), it has not been closely linked with psychological theories of narrative identity nor applied widely to explore narratives of Black responses to police injustice.

Narrative is defined as “a temporally ordered statement concerning events experienced by and/or actions of one or more protagonists” (Presser, 2009, p. 178) and storytelling as the act of communicating narrative to another. In recent decades, criminologists have explored life narrative as a crucial site for theorization and intervention for criminal offenders (Denver & Ewald, 2018; Dickinson & Wright, 2017; Presser, 2009), part of the “narrative turn” seen across social sciences (Presser, 2016). Meanwhile, criminal justice research and practice has been transformed by an ever-growing interest in the psychology of justice and processes of legitimation, drawing primarily from social psychology (e.g., Hamm et al., 2017; O’Brien, Tyler, & Meares, 2020; Radburn et al., 2018).

Shared master narratives are crucial convergence points for these expanding – yet separate – theoretical discourses. A person’s self-narrative guides actions important to their social group, such as criminal activity or compliance with the law, and is constructed by reference to the repertoire of templates acceptable within that group (McLean & Syed, 2015). According to McLean (2008), people frame their stories of self by drawing heavily from accepted and widely known cultural master narratives. The following study explores the linkage between narrative identity and social identity-based legitimation by examining the shared construction of master narratives about relationships with legal authority, namely the police. Specifically, I present results from 92 qualitative interviews with individuals, mostly Black, previously involved in the local criminal justice systems of Newark, New Jersey, and Cleveland, Ohio. Reviewing transcripts of their interviews, I find (1) shared narrative themes generally in line with Bell’s (2017) theory of legal estrangement, which I review below; and (2) shared interpretations of encounters with police that draw on social group identities and explicitly build on larger cultural narratives about police abuse.

LITERATURE REVIEW: Exploring a social identity theory of legitimation

The basic finding of social identity research is that individual identity is significantly defined by membership in social groups (ingroups), collectives defined by a common socially salient trait or set of traits (Tajfel, 1972). We categorize ourselves into social groups (self-categorization) and designate groups for others (social categorization; Jenkins, 2000). We favor ingroup members over members of social groups to which we do not belong (i.e., outgroups; Tajfel, 1969). People often default to behavior they believe prototypical of their group (i.e., depersonalize; Turner et al., 1994). Social categorization of minorities by criminal justice officials is a central, often problematic, feature of the American justice system (Georges-Abeyie, 2006; Jones-Brown, 2007) and publics also place justice officials into socially meaningful categories (Brunson, 2007).

Legitimation refers to “the process by which legitimacy is procured” (von Haldenwang, 2017, p. 270). Acceptance of an authority’s claim to legitimacy involves an act of social categorization, accepting the claimant as part of a social group having moral right to deference (Tyler & Blader, 2000; Tyler & Lind, 1992). Tyler’s (1988) procedural justice paradigm has formed the cornerstone for current research on legal legitimacy. Procedural justice concerns “the manner in which authorities exercise their authority” (Tyler, 2003, p. 286) and results when individuals believe that manner to be fair. According to the group value model (GVM), identification with a group enhances the salience of group norms about deferring to leaders collectively seen as legitimate (Tyler & Lind, 1992). Procedural injustice can signal individuals’ low value in the group, encouraging deidentification and the lowering salience of group norms. Under the group engagement model (GEM), authorities signal to individuals that they are members of the same ingroup through procedurally fair and respectful treatment, which encourages the individual to adhere to group norms of obedience (Tyler & Blader, 2000). Procedural injustice can instead show that the authority does not consider the individual an ingroup member, removing ingroup-based incentives to defer. These two social identity models are critically important as explanations linking procedural justice to legitimation (Blount-Hill, 2020; Radburn et al., 2018; Radburn & Stott, 2019).2 However, both models describe processes shaped by series of distinct encounters, or vicarious exposure to such encounters, as opposed to attitudes arising in response to an overarching narrative constructed over time.

Social interactions take place in a narrative context. Legitimation has been described as a dialogic process, comprised of communication in reaction to others (Bottoms & Tankebe, 2012). Claims to legitimacy initiate a cycle of response between authorities and their audiences wherein the former claim a right to deference and the latter evaluate and accept or reject those claims (Blount-Hill, 2020; Nix et al., 2020). Central to the discursive process is meaning making, how an individual interprets and comprehends the external world both sensorially and semiotically, and questions of this sort are the core of narrative study (Adler et al., 2017; Bauer et al., 2008). Claims of legitimate authority are likely evaluated against longer running narratives justifying or invalidating that authority. Responses to those claims, likewise, do not flow sua sponte, but rather in response to these narratives, often in ways prescribed by them.

A life story is “a selective narrative of one’s past experiences and thoughts about those experiences that serves to integrate the self” (McLean, 2008, p. 1686), and narrative identity “an internalized and evolving story of the self that a person constructs in order to make sense of the remembered past, experienced present, and imagined future” (McAdams et al., 2013, p. 202). McLean explains that individual life stories are crafted to fit general templates prescribed by the norms of cultural ingroups with which individuals identify (i.e., biographical master narratives; McLean et al., 2018). Templates of individual life stories emerge as ways to incorporate, at the individual level, how one is expected to experience the collective narrative of the ingroup. Master narratives are “culturally shared stories that provide frameworks within which individuals can locate and story their own experiences” (McLean et al., 2018, p. 633), “prevailing cultural storylines that emphasize or even require particular ways of being, acting, or feeling” (Kerrick & Henry, 2017, p. 2). Evidence of cultural templates are seen in the preferred themes of individuals’ stories (Bauer et al., 2008). For example, the redemptive self – finding fulfillment and growth after setback – is a powerful theme emphasized in the life narratives of American respondents (McAdams & Guo, 2015; Pals & McAdams, 2004). A review of narrative studies identified common motivational themes like agency, communion and growth, and affective ones like contamination and positive resolution (Adler et al., 2017).

Studies connecting narrative identity to well-being have found that key to this connection is the role narrators assign to others in their stories of personal growth and development, creating then a process of communal growth (Bauer et al., 2008). Part of this is likely due to the psychological well-being that comes from belonging to a group (Hunter et al., 2004). Most individuals craft life stories consistent with the “canonical narrative,” the normative template for how one’s life should unfurl (McLean, 2008). This is especially true for those who highly identify with their ingroups and, subsequently, whose well-being is more strongly tied to their connection to ingroup others. Where this does not happen, individuals often find their stories, their voices, and their individual selves rejected, disapproved, or ignored (McLean et al., 2018).

Shared narrative as (de)legitimation process

Understanding master narratives as a tool by which cultural norms shape how individuals understand and convey their life stories is then powerfully important to interpreting the qualitative statements individuals make regarding their relationships to legal authorities. For those hailing from cultures whose master narratives position legal authorities as members of an antagonistic outgroup, their perceptions of authorities may be instantiations of wider held narrative canons. Urgently relevant to current events, studies of the American criminal justice system reveal Black Americans as the penultimate outgroup. Cynicism toward the status quo system and its legal authorities may be a defining characteristic of “Black culture” (Blount-Hill & St. John, 2017; Rodgers, 1974).3 Both the GEM and GVM assume common group membership between authorities and supposed subordinates. This assumption leaves a gap in explaining the reactions of individuals who see legal authorities as outgroup. A comprehensive social identity theory of legitimation requires considering whether the subjects of study (1) categorize the authority as ingroup or outgroup and (2) identify with a salient ingroup or not.

In the current study, I focus specifically on addressing this gap in the context of a sample selected for its history of contact with the police ending in arrest.4 I do so emphasizing narrative in the construction of perceptions about police, as shaped by social group identity. Perceptions are individual or collective beliefs or understandings about something, which shape our reality and determine what we believe to be true (Hoffman, 2016; Pickens, 2005). This sample is heavily Black, with the remainder living in predominantly Black neighborhoods. In a review of research on perceptions of police, I note that “Black Americans are much more likely to be dissatisfied with the police, to question police legitimacy, and be more cynical of police” (Blount-Hill, 2020b; Sampson & Bartusch, 1998). Perceptions are determined by (a) how individuals arrive at their conclusions and (b) what information is accessible in that perceptual process. Social groups shape perceptions through both aspects. We are more likely to interact with ingroup members, sharing stories that supply the informational bases of perceptions accessible information, and to accord those stories greater veracity than those of outgroup members. Those stories are often infused with interpretations of the factual events, interpretive templates we adopt and later rely on to understand and tell our own stories. Perceptions are also historically shaped: “Cumulative experience hardens perceptions over time because human tendency towards confirmation bias causes us to dismiss data contrary to previously held views; due to this, negative perceptions are persistent, even in the face of several positive experiences” (Blount-Hill, 2020b; Weitzer & Tuch, 2004).

Given the process of perceptions formation, it becomes clearer the need to explore the narratives propagated by individuals’ cultural ingroups to explain individuals’ beliefs about police. Legal cynicism is the belief that the law and its agents are either ineffective or derelict (see Kirk & Matsuda, 2011), a cultural “distrust in the motives of the legal system and belief that it is not a reliable resource” (Blount-Hill, 2020, p. 127; Kirk & Papachristos, 2011; Sampson & Bartusch, 1998). Using a Black study sample and drawing from legal cynicism and anomie theory, Bell (2017) proposed a model of legal estrangement, “a marginal and ambivalent relationship with society, the law, and predominant social norms that emanates from institutional and legal failure” (p. 2083). It is three-pronged, precipitated by (1) procedural injustice, (2) vicarious marginalization, and (3) structural exclusion. In line with Tyler’s (1988) procedural justice theory, procedural injustice involves “a feeling that the police have behaved disrespectfully” (Bell, 2017, p. 2100). Structural exclusion refers to “the ways in which policies that may appear facially race- and class-neutral distribute policing resources so that African Americans and residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods tend to receive lower-quality policing than whites and residents of other neighborhoods” (Bell, 2017, p. 2113). Vicarious marginalization occurs when police maltreatment is targeted towards others, creating a “marginalizing effect” (Bell, 2017, p. 2104). Together, these three circumstances cause deep-rooted legal cynicism leading to an overall state of legal estrangement. Bell makes no attempt to root her model in Tajfel’s (1972) social identity theory. However, given her focus on how authorities assumed to be bias against an individual’s ingroup are perceived (i.e. legal cynicism) and her assumption of high ingroup identification (e.g., as suggested by vicarious marginalization), Bell’s work provides perhaps the most complete model for explaining the (de)legitimation processes among groups more likely to view government officials, including the police, as outgroup authorities.

To understand Bell’s (2017) legal estrangement model, we must also explore how master narratives are used to make meaning of individual events interpreting the role of legal authorities in the life stories of outgroup subordinates. Quantitative studies have demonstrated the connection between mistreatment and mistrust (Schuck & Rosenbaum, 2005), but the rawness of Black sentiments toward police may best be captured in presentations of their own words as highlighted in qualitative studies (Brunson, 2007; Brunson & Miller, 2006; Brunson & Wade, 2019; Cobbina, 2019). The effect of negative encounters with police are magnified when these stories spread throughout social networks and conjure expectations of mistreatment even in those who have not encountered the police (Warren, 2011; Weitzer & Tuch, 2004). Discriminatory treatment by police becomes, in the mind of many, just another instantiation of a ubiquitous, legalized social structure set to oppress them (Alexander, 2010). Episodes of police violence become a cohesive narrative of state violence (Desmond et al., 2016), wrapped in the context of structural racist violence (Farmer, 2004; Feagin & Bennefield, 2014), evidence of an anti-black world order (Curry & Curry, 2018).

What follows is a qualitative study identifying legal estrangement as a cultural master narrative among predominantly Black respondents. I also explore how social categorization and social identity is observed across several respondents.


The current study uses data collected in the summer and fall of 2016 by the Center for Court Innovation (CCI) for the purpose of measuring resident perceptions of procedural justice by police, the court system and correctional agencies in Newark and Cleveland (Swaner et al., 2018).5 CCI completed 101 semi-structured interviews with individuals using convenience sampling (52 from Newark; 49 from Cleveland). If individuals were over 18 years old, lived in either cities of interest and had an active case in municipal court within the last 2 years, the person was eligible to participate in the study. In Newark, survey staff recruited respondents at the municipal court and the sites of various community organizations. In Cleveland, recruitment took place at the municipal court, the Cuyahoga County Court, and various outdoor public spaces. Interviewers were armed with a standard introduction script, introducing the survey, and offering a $5 gift card to Dunkin Donuts at the end of the survey.

Skews in the criminal justice system were reflected in the final sample. In the end, 82% of the interviewees were Black, 10% White, 7% were Latinx, and 3% identified as some other race (Swaner et al., 2018). Seventy-seven percent of the sample identified as male. Nearly a third of the sample (29%) was between 25 and 35 years old, 24% were between 46 and 55, 19% were 18 to 24, 17% were 36 to 45, and 12% were over 56 years of age. After reviewing interview transcripts, three interviews were excluded due to the interviewee not being a resident of either city and six due to accidental erasures of the audio recording or substitution with written summaries at the request of the interviewee. This left a final sample of 92.

To code interview transcripts, I read through each, coding broadly for identity and legitimacy-related statements on policing. There was some variation in item-emphasis due to the flexible structure of the interview protocol and its use of open-ended questions. Nonetheless, protocols ensured the same general subject matter was covered in each interview. After initial coding, I composed a dataset quantifying basic themes important to this study, including: respondent perceptions of police (positive, negative or mixed); respondents’ explicit invocation of a social identity lens (yes or no); the presence of narratives about individual officers (yes or no); and justifications for why it is important to obey police, if any (e.g., avoiding use of force). At the conclusion of this phase, it became clear that Bell’s (2017) framework best organized emerging themes. In a second round of coding, I coded interviewee narratives using Bell’s components of legal estrangement, namely procedural injustice, vicarious marginalization, and structural exclusion. Finally, in a third round of coding, I coded narrative responses (i.e. those that told a full story of a specific event) and selected exemplary statements. A second researcher coded a subset of interviews. There was significant agreement between our coding, and all discrepancies arose from differences in assigning ambivalent categories (e.g., the point at which a respondent’s overall view of police shifts from negative to “mixed”). Follow-up discussion resolved these discrepancies. In presenting these findings, I substitute pseudonyms for interviewee’s names.

The 92 interviews reflect demographic disparities in the criminal justice system in that it is overwhelmingly poorer, Black, and male. The relative homogeny of this sample is critical to understand its results. Particularly, cynicism amongst Black respondents has been shown no matter socioeconomic status (Gaston & Doherty, 2018; but cf. Jones & Greene, 2016), but, for those in lower socioeconomic strata, life in largely segregated neighborhoods, both over- and under-policed, ensures frequent unwelcomed encounters initiated by officers and characterized by procedural injustice, disrespectful treatment, and, often, illegal uses of force (Brunson & Weitzer, 2009; Weitzer, 1999; Weitzer et al., 2008). Still, Kerrick and Henry (2017) note that “a common criticism of master narrative and counternarrative work is that the existence of a master narrative is often taken-for-granted” (p. 2). In the current sample, a master narrative about police contact, if one exists, should be present across most interviewees, as the racial homogeneity of the sample and the similarity of the Newark and Cleveland neighborhoods makes it likely that nearly all have been similarly socialized. Though evidence of a master narrative is expected to be widespread throughout the sample, variance is expected in the degree of adherence to this master narrative script. Integrating principles of narrative theory and social identity theory, adherence to the master narrative script should depend on the salience of neighborhood social group for the interviewee. Thus, once a master narrative is identified, I expect that it is most closely hewed to in narratives of those who explicitly reference social group identity (of themselves or of police) in framing their responses.

A master narrative of legal estrangement: Procedural injustice

Most of the sample had either negative (45%) or mixed (27%) views about the police (approximately 72% of the total).6 In all, 61 respondents (66%) recounted stories of direct experiences of procedural injustice. Fifty-seven of those were among the 73 interviewees that expressed an overall mixed or expressly negative view of police. As should be expected, procedural injustice significantly predicted negative or mixed views about the police when examined using bivariate chi-square analyses, .2(1, n = 92) = 21.9, p < .001. Law enforcement’s excessive use of force was prominent throughout the interviews. Noah, one of only five White respondents,7 quoted from an informal conversation with a Cleveland police officer: “From the police’s own mouth … ‘Yeah, sometimes you've got to show up and crack some skulls on the pavement.’”

Over and again, respondents recounted scenes of a disturbingly familiar narrative script in which officers make contact with a protagonist engaged in lawful behavior but is nonetheless accused without evidence of criminal activity and subjected to rough and disrespectful treatment.8 Where shared, outcomes are near invariably either a discontinuation of the encounter by police with no justification for the treatment or arrest for an undeserved criminal charge. The consistency of this story structure does not itself suggest the formation of a collective master narrative and may, in fact, solely be explained by the fact these episodes happen to play out the same way in each individual instance.9 What does reveal the potential presence of a master narrative is the consistency in how these events are interpreted. Respondents understood their stories as scenes depicting the legal estrangement of Black and/or poor people, indicative of systemic bias against the entire group.

Rafael’s is a typical scene using this narrative script:

“I was dressed-up nice; they automatically thought I was a dope boy. A cop pulled my sweats forward-out where I was exposed, where he was just looking down in my pants at all my privates, went underneath, smacked the bottom of my pants so that my privates flopped and told me, "Where's the dope?" He told me that he would have no problem putting a bullet in my head and going to sleep at night, going home to his wife and kids.”

It's a whole rig to meet their quota, to get the investors to keep investing towards the department and doing whatever else they need done.

According to Rafael, he is stopped by police (encounter) while merely being “dressed up nice” (engaged in lawful behavior). The police “automatically” assume he is in possession of illicit substances (accused without evidence) and proceed to expose his private parts and then touch him in his genital area (procedural injustice). Rafael does not tell whether the encounter ends in arrest or termination but interprets the encounter as motivated by systemic bias designed to “meet their quota.” Taylor told what happened to him when he panicked at the arrival of a “train” of undercover Newark police vehicles:

“Yeah, I did not know if they were cops. I ran. They all came and they caught me and slammed me hard. It was one white dude who put his foot to the back of my neck. Then I felt racially profiled, I started to go off. “What are you doing putting your foot on the back of my neck for?!” Then one of the cops that knew me said “No, he is good, he is good” because he knew me. He let off my neck because he was on my neck real hard. He asked me if I was involved in robberies and I said no, and that is when they brought me to the scene and all of [the victims] said, “That is not him.” Then I still went to the precinct and got charged with everything, so I got eight months for it.”

These and similar narratives reveal a shared narrative structure for stories about police encounters, showing, first, a common theme of procedural injustice across respondents and, second, similar interpretations that lead to a conclusion of systemic bias. The former is demonstrative of one element of Bell’s (2017) legal estrangement framework and the latter shows how the knowledge and use of shared narrative templates leads to a shared interpretation of events.

A master narrative of legal estrangement: Structural exclusion

Thirty-two respondents provided stories in which they were owed a service by the police and the police failed to provide that service. Police responses to calls for service were often accompanied by instances of procedural and interactional injustice occurred and “good” customer service denied. In other words, individuals were excluded from the ambit of service presumed an entitlement of membership in the societal ingroup, Bell’s (2017) structural exclusion. Structural exclusion significantly predicted a more cynical view of the police, .2(2, n = 90) = 10.2, p = .006. The common narrative structure of these stories further suggests that this estrangement is understood and conveyed, at least in part, through master narratives whose templates are used to interpret these encounters. These interactions reinforced a sense of legal estrangement due to the individual’s social ingroup being, in fact, an outgroup in relation to police.

In Newark, Jacob reported a response time of an hour and thirty minutes when there was shooting outside of his apartment building, and Ayana and Haji reported similar situations in Newark and Cleveland, respectively. Takisha and Kenya were both arrested on outstanding warrants when they reported being assaulted to the Newark Police Department. When Julian waved down a Cleveland officer for assistance after being assaulted by his girlfriend, he recalled the officer immediately being aggressive toward him. At one point, after Julian loudly protested being handled in a “forceful” manner, an officer drew his weapon. Fortunately, the incident ended without loss of life. Perhaps unfortunately, several stories involved not just a denial of customer service and respectful treatment, but negligence in the police duty to protect life. For example, in Cleveland, Lee told the following story:

“Couple years back, I was robbed. Next time I get robbed I might as well let him shoot me because you guys didn't do nothing for me. I was already in the ambulance when the police came and said that, if I didn't go to the hospital, they were going to take my baby because I was hit in the head and that can cause brain damage and trauma. So I ended up going, which was the plan anyway. The officer that came to my sister's house, even called my mom. "We got a description. Your daughter's seen him. Your daughter chased him." Told my mom everything I said, and that, if they have any information, they were going to call her. Two days went by. Three days went by. Four days, five days went by. Nothing. A week, two weeks. Nothing. When my mom called, the police said no one was found. Another description of a similar person was made for another robbery and they had them confused. There was no complaint made. My head was gushing blood. How was there not a complaint made? “

Meanwhile, Jamir told the story of his getting shot:

I got shot in my uncle ‘hood. It took [the police] 30 minutes to get there. I got shot two and a half inches away from main artery. It took the ambulance 45 to 50 minutes to get there. If I would have got hit in my main artery, I would have died. Like they was telling me all this at the hospital. They was like, “It really took them that long.” Honestly if you don't say a white man just got shot, they don't care.

Yael recounted being stabbed and waiting for 30 minutes for police response. Jamere said that, when he was shot, the hospital “stopped all treatment” once they found out he was arrested. Kwamin stated he could only get assistance after being shot only “after they get the information out of you.” Kentay noted that his criminal history essentially barred him from receiving aid from police: “Each time I was shot, after they find out who they was coming for … they was like, ‘Oh, it's you again. Just lock him up.’” These stories lead to the conclusion that the police were not in place to protect or to serve the respondents or their communities. Consistent and shared with others, they form a broader narrative of exclusion.

A master narrative of legal estrangement: Vicarious marginalization

Interviews showed evidence of vicarious marginalization. These scenes followed a general narrative script wherein the protagonist either hears of or witnesses an instance where police owe a service to a close associate, fail to provide that service, and the associate suffers for lack of service. Again, these stories end in the same takeaway: Respondents interpret their associates’ experiences as demonstrations not only of the specific persons’ legal estrangement from the police, but rather estrangement of their entire ingroup. Thirty-seven respondents reported instances of vicarious marginalization, a significant predictor of negative attitudes towards police, .2(2, n = 92) = 6.47, p = .039.

Xavier described an instance where he felt the value of a loved one diminished by the behavior of police:

“I lost a friend in Newark. The police came then. But when I got there, they left his body on the floor. Everybody see his body laying there. A little white towel over his body but, he had his head blown off. Why is his body still laying there on the street? The people was telling the cops, "Pick the body up. What y'all doing? What y'all doing?" They were trying to engage but they didn't really care. His body still sat there, like 10, 20 minutes.”

In this telling, Xavier sees his deceased friend on a Newark street (here, he witnesses an instance where police should act). He questions why the police have mishandled providing the service due (“Why is his body still laying there on the street?”). Read in toto, Xavier conveys the sense that his friend’s body and death was disrespected and that, while neighborhood residents (“they”) needed service, the police (“they”) “didn’t really care.”

It is eerily like what JaMarion shared:

“[Local shooters] killed my nephew five years ago. My nephew sat there for three hours with a bullet in his chest. I told them that it made me look different at them. That they don't care about the Black folks. All they all care about is the middle class and anybody got money. “If this was Cleveland Heights, you'd be over there in two minutes. Y'all don't care.”

Vicarious marginalization is, in many ways, the perfect manifestation of government being socially categorized as outgroup authority, as shown in JaMarion’s narrative. The “lesson learned” he takes from his ordeal is that police “don’t care about the Black folks.” Taken with the rest of the narrative, this statement encapsulates JaMarion’s identification with “the Black folks” as part of “us,” his ingroup. It also shows his cognitive separation of that ingroup from the police (“they”). He also suggests that the police socially categorize individuals (e.g., into members of “the Black folks,” “the middle class,” or “anybody who got money”).

Marginalization is comprised of social discrimination (i.e., the differentiation of one group from another) but also the subsequent devaluation of a differentiated group. From JaMarion’s narrative, it seems clear that he perceives “the Black folks” as not only outgroup to the police, but also as devalued by police. JaMarion’s narrative befits the term “estrangement.” According to the Merriam Webster definition of the term, estrangement technically involves negative affect in a relationship where positive affect once existed.10 For most Black individuals, it is likely that positive feelings toward police (e.g., seeing them as “the good guys”) diminish beginning very early in life, and JaMarion shares the exact moment when this shift occurred in his life course.

Unlike stories of personal interactions with police, most vicarious experiences of marginalization were presented as generalized summations of several events. That lack of narrative detail, typically seen as inferentially important in narrative identity research, is likely here reflective of the limitation of using secondary data for exploratory research. The qualitative interviewing instrument used by CCI did not ask about the marginalization of others. That such stories were told unprompted might be indicative of the importance of this aspect of legal estrangement. Each taught a similar lesson, that the police “do not care.”

Social group identity in narration

Reviewing the interviews, 52 (approximately 57%) invoked social groups as a basis for interpreting their relationships with the police. Negative, mixed, and positive views were not equally distributed across these two groups. Those who expressed their opinions of police in social group terms were strongly skewed toward negative opinions about the police, whereas those who expressed their views individualistically where more evenly distributed, .2(1, n = 92) = 6.06, p = .014. This supports the presence of a master narrative framing police encounters as negative, a narrative held more consistently among those who explicitly reference their social group status in comparison with the police. It seems that not only are negative perceptions of police not individually constructed (as previous research has shown already; e.g., Gau et al., 2012), but that narratives about the social group landscape help interviewees understand and explain the origins of these perceptions.

While many respondents characterized police as a defined social group separate from the interviewees and their communities, several of them pointed to the police themselves as the cause of this group division. Narratively, these were explained by two primary script structures.

First, officers make clear their ingroup allegiance to one another when an officer engages in misconduct and other officers favor the offending officer as against resident constituencies. Second, officers make clear their bias against a perceived outgroup when officers target an individual and show their motivation is rooted in bias through overt procedural injustice and rough treatment. Again, the takeaway from either of these stories is that police favor others in their law enforcement ingroup and view Blacks and other marginalized groups are disfavored outgroups.

Jacob provided a narrative example of the first of these:

“One day I was having a seizure. I started sliding down a wall and went to go into my pocket to get my pill. One of the transit cops kicked me right here, right on my nose. I have a little scar right here. Then he hit me, kicked me. I have a bruise. I was hit with a flashlight when I was handcuffed by transit because he said I attacked him first, but when they look at the cameras, they see that the cop kicked me first. All of them know that I'm an epilepsian. Every time they see me they say, "Don't press charges on our brother. He didn't mean it." "Bro, this on camera, it shows him kicking me. What you want me to do?" Every time something go wrong, you all want to stick up for each other.”

Jacob’s general sentiment was reflected throughout the interviews. In Cleveland, Keegan put it this way: “If you're a cop who is supposed to be a good cop but you know that you're partner's doing stuff he's not supposed to be doing then you're a bad cop.” Dakota invoked the group-based dynamics of crime-fighting: “War on this and war on that – if you have a war, you have an enemy in your head. You have a target. Too often I feel like me, as a Black man, we are targeted.” Noah, a White male, offered evidence of a social group divide in a different way: “Just because I'm a white guy, I don't have to worry as much about them. When they've been drinking, and they just straight-up tell me, ‘Yeah, we're the top gang in the city.’” In fact, some of the best articulators of law enforcement’s bias against disfavored outgroups came from White respondents who observed the operation of white privilege, “an invisible package of unearned assets … like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear and blank checks” (McIntosh, 1989, p. 10). Noting story elements, below is a narrative from Parker, a White male, described an incident that occurred in Cleveland:

“When I'm with my friends, get treated differently. They mainly look for the Black guys. I was selling weed and they raided my buddy's house. That was scary because they came in and kicked the back-door in. My buddy's dad has epilepsy and they threw him off the bed. He has a bad back and they put the gun on his back, and he had burn marks because the barrel was hot. They kneed him and he actually peed himself. When he was on the ground, they kicked him. They didn't even do nothing to me. They didn't want to believe me that the stuff was mine, probably because I was the only white guy in the house. They were like, “What are you doing down here in this neighborhood. They just didn't believe me. They thought that I was taking the rap for somebody else. When the police pull up and everybody run, I don't. They run after other people because I'm white.”

The affective impacts of direct personal experiences of procedural injustice and denial of service, along with vicarious experiences of marginalization combined to produce cynicism towards police shared across respondents. There are ample examples throughout the interviews of respondents expressing a deep legal cynicism towards Newark and Cleveland police, including accusing some of engaging in illegal drug trafficking, sexual assault, and murder, as well as indifference to human suffering. Bell (2017) proposes that the result of this combination of factors is the socio-psychological recipe for group-based, macro-level legal estrangement. Implicit, then, in this framework is that members of a social group are marginalized by the police due to their outgroup membership, that they perceive this difference as a social group phenomenon (e.g., a matter of “us versus them”), and thereafter psychological position themselves as separate from, cynical of, and possibly even oppositional to, the police. Evidence of normative misalignment (e.g., procedural injustice) and systemic bias (e.g., vicarious marginalization and structural exclusion) gets framed in accordance with a master narrative script commonly known and drawn upon by individuals within neighborhood ingroups.


The current work has sought to explore how we might expand understanding of a more comprehensive explanation of legitimacy attitudes and processes of legitimation, first, by a more nuanced and complete application of the social identity theory that has formed the basis of so much legitimacy theorizing. Second, by integrating advances toward a more sociological narrative identity theory with insights derived from social identity, legitimacy theorists and the criminal justice field more widely might become a site of novel theory development. This is particularly important in this moment in history, when many search with great hope for evidence that their stories matter. When members of the public accept claims of government authority, civilians are more likely to comply with official directives, be satisfied with government efforts, be supportive of the justice system mission, cooperate when asked and initiate positive engagement (Blount-Hill, 2017; Tyler & Huo, 2002). The present study sought to enhance the effectiveness of strategies to do this by highlighting the importance of social identity in legitimation and answering important questions about how legitimation processes are influenced by perceptions of one’s social group in relation to government and the justice system. If legitimation operates in the way I suppose, officials may divide the public into two important constituencies – those who view them as ingroup authorities and those who perceive them as outgroup enforcers.

In addition to race and other group-level variables, the social psychology of group belonging is a critical aspect in determining how neighborhoods see themselves in relation to their local governments, whether as members in a common social collective or as competing social groups. Exploring, I find evidence of how commonly held master narratives become important interpretive frames for individuals evaluating their interactions with, and perceptions of, legal authorities. First, I found that interviewees’ recalled encounters with police tended to contain common narrative elements and leading to the same overall conclusion. The shared “lesson learned” was, put succinctly, that the police were not a reliable or effective resource and, in many cases, were outgroup authorities acting counter to the interests of the respondents’ ingroup. There seemed to be three primary narrative themes leading to this conclusion, characterized in Bell’s (2017) model of legal estrangement. Respondents provided stories of experienced procedural injustice, structural exclusion, and vicarious marginalization, all leading to feelings of legal cynicism and estrangement. These stories, consistent, coherent, and common, evinced features suggestive of an underlying master narrative being used to explain and give meaning to police encounters.

While Bell’s (2017) framework is a helpful shorthand for organizing these themes, they are long known in literatures across disciplines that examine police relations with heavily minority communities like those reflected in these samples. What was learned by this particular analysis, though, was the connection between the two: How do individuals go from a bad experience with police to adopting a broad cynicism towards the law and, still more, how does this norm get so replicate near identically across individuals within a neighborhood? The answer offered here is narrative. It became evident that interviewees had a ready template by which they could structure stories about police encounters that also supplied them with a ready interpretation of those encounters. Depending on situational circumstances, narrative structures differed somewhat, yet consistently featured unjustified suspicion and mistreatment on the part of the police. Interviewees then made a leap that was not necessarily apparent from the facts of the story but somehow was a strikingly consistent takeaway – the police saw the interviewees not as an individual but rather as part of a disfavored and criminally-inclined social group. Belief that police harbor racist views are widespread and the commonality of this belief amongst interviewees, by itself, does not reveal anything that might not be explained by individuals being generally aware of reports about race and policing. What is more revealing, but requires a more nuanced examination to notice, is that a group of individuals from similar neighborhoods independently reference similar themes of legal estrangement, independently assume group-based discrimination as its cause, and then use a similar narrative structure to make the connection between legal estrangement and its social identity roots.

Moreover, the narrative structure used by interviewees was not random. The negative feelings endorsed by the narrative were more concentrated among those who explicitly referenced social group identity in their stories. Legitimacy theorists within criminal justice have only recently re-emphasized early foundations in social identity (e.g., O’Brien, Meares, & Tyler, 2020; O’Brien & Tyler, 2019; O’Brien & Tyler, 2020; O’Brien, Tyler, & Meares, 2020; Radburn et al., 2018; Radburn et al., 2020; Radburn & Stott, 2019), but narrative themes invoking social identity in these respondents suggests its continued salience. That said, current criminal justice theorists should familiarize themselves with the nuances of identity theories (e.g., differences in Tajfel’s (1972) work and Stryker’s structural symbolic interactionism or “identity theory”), and should be part of contemporary debates and developments in the field (e.g., critiques of the theory by system justification theorists and notable rebuttals; see Blount-Hill, 2020). The trouble this causes for policymakers is that master narratives not only provide a template for story structure, but they also provide an interpretive lens to discern the meaning of the story. Efforts to enhance legitimacy, to demonstrate normative alignment and systemic neutrality, will run into the countervailing headwinds of an oppositional master narrative lending easy explanations for even innocuous police encounters. To the extent larger cultural templates shape individual conceptions of narrative identity, those norms will also exert powerful influence over how individuals interpret even well-meaning attempts at reconciliation by government or police officials. Government officials, especially the police, need also to give attention to how this narrative might be changed. A significant part of that change in narrative must address feelings of exclusion or marginalization, in addition to procedural injustice. The way to address this and to enhance legitimacy appears rooted in the same phenomena policymakers have ostensibly tackled for decades – fair treatment, good intention, neutrality – nothing new. Why, then, if we know the answers, have we continued to fail? If respondents’ stories are to be believed, a start is for police to deliberately engage in changing that narrative.

Finally, social identity was not referenced in about forty percent of the sample. While this does not mean that social identity was not at work in the conscious or subconscious minds of the other respondents, this suggests the need for exploring the alternative narratives of those who are not as guided by ingroup master narratives. Brewer’s (1991) theory of optimal distinctiveness suggests that individuals are in constant search of how best to embrace individual uniqueness while also fitting in. Criminal justice researchers may contribute to mainstream identity theorizing by exploring alternative, deviating narratives as both the consequence of low group identification and/or attempts at individual distinctiveness, inter alia.

Of course, the current study has limitations. The narratives explored here were obtained through a qualitative study not intended to gather narratives. While this can be done where respondents nonetheless communicate in stories (Adler et al., 2017), levels of detail decline when researchers do not prompt and encourage narrative elaboration. This study was exploratory. An imperfection of using secondary data is that the researchers’ questions were not in the mind of those designing study instruments and so are not optimally captured. The sample was not randomly selected. It was administered to a non-general sample obtained through nonrandomized methods for a purpose different than what it has been used for in this study. Social identity theory emphasizes that group differences become most salient in times of group-based contention. Because the survey was conducted with individuals who were either currently involved in criminal adjudication, or had recently been so involved, this likely increased the salience of group tension against the police and criminal justice system. This fact makes it impossible to generalize these findings to the overall population, though one might argue that critically low perceptions of legitimacy are also not randomly distributed – we should do more to study those populations for whom legitimacy is most in crisis.

This study took place across two cities, Cleveland and Newark and, so, there may be important differences in perceptions due to the location at which the respondent resides. In fact, previous studies have shown that neighborhood perceptions of legitimacy are influential to individual perceptions (Gau et al., 2012). Another consideration is that there is not information about the composition of those individuals who were approached in either Newark or Cleveland but declined to participate in the study. This opens the possibility that the difference between the participating sample and those who did not participate is due to an important variable yet unknown or unaccounted for. Still more, I have no information regarding the baseline demographics of the cities’ population who have been touched by the criminal justice system. I could not find accurate demographics for the cities’ jailed population, much less at the time of the study, and certainly not those who are released from jail or were never incarcerated but were nonetheless engaged by police or arrested and released, all aspects of the sample population under study. This means that it is unclear how representative the CCI sample is of the population it may be seen to represent.


Narrative identity scholars have done much to advance knowledge on how individuals construct personal life stories, using themes of redemption and growth, among others, to give continuity to their pasts, their present, through to their futures (McAdams, 1985; McAdams, 2013; McAdams & Guo, 2015; McAdams & McLean, 2013). These scholars, coming from the field of personality psychology, have begun to explore how the narratives of our lives are constructed using scripts from our broader cultural context – master narratives – serving to link our stories to one another through common narrative structures and general plot points (e.g., McLean, 2008; McLean et al., 2018; McLean & Syed, 2015). It is here that the personal meets the social, a transition from a purely personal to a social psychological process through which issues of sociological import, such as crime and justice, both influence and are influenced by individuals through shaping meaning making through narrative. By integrating advances toward a more sociological narrative identity theory with the insights derived from social identity, legitimacy theorists and the criminal justice field more widely might become a site of novel theory development. Here, I have begun inquiry into what might be called a social identity theory of shared narrative, in which the social group norms influence individual perceptions and behavior through enculturating master narratives that shape how events are interpreted and assigned meaning. The integration of social identity theory and narrative identity theory lead us further down the pathway to the “complete theory of self” that Stets and Burke (2000) called for.


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1 Epistemologically, I subscribe to the view that scholarly standpoints have profound influences on researchers’ choice of research questions and method, and selection of and access to data. Whether or not there is objective truth, data revealing that truth is incomplete and complicated, leaving several opportunities for subjective decision-making in determining the “truth” revealed. For this reason, I encourage first-person authorial voice in scholarly writing.

2 While competing definitions of legitimacy are less clearly rooted in social identity (e.g., Bottoms & Tankebe, 2012), it is also not certain that these exclude a social identity explanation. For example, the causal linkages from social identity to compliance, one might also run through the distributive justice, police effectiveness, legality, or bounded authority aspects specified by other theories. One might incorporate Jackson et al.’s (2012) definition of legitimacy as normative alignment into social identity merely by specifying this means alignment with group norms for both the authority and subordinate.

3 “Black culture in the United States arose at the convergence of post-British colonial American culture and that of diverse African ethnic groups, in reaction to the oppressive, suppressive, and dehumanizing experience of chattel slavery …. The primary point of divergence from a common American experience has been Blacks’ persistent encounter with racial discrimination” (Blount-Hill & St. John, 2017, p. 112).

4 By “police,” researchers studying perceptions of police focus mainly on municipal police forces performing order maintenance (e.g., patrol) and investigatory activities, as I do here.

5 CCI’s report describe Cleveland and Newark as similar enough to justify their selection as sites of study (Swaner et al., 2018). Both cities are the most populous in their states, with large minority populations, and significant rates of poverty and criminal justice entanglement. Their use as sites of study here are a matter of convenience, and not meant to be representative of any population.

6 “Mixed” views about the police are exemplified in statements such as “there are good cops and there are bad cops” (from respondents like Aubrey and Addai), or explicitly middling reviews such as “in the middle” (e.g., Kalifa) or “fifty-fifty” (e.g., Dakota or Indiana).

7 Throughout, due to most respondents being Black, I will note wherever the speaker is not Black.

8 In narrative identity research, a script is defined as “schemas [(i.e., “organized bodies of knowledge”)] that contain information about sequences of events and the causal linkages that bind these sequences together” and scenes are “the manifestations in a given moment in time of these abstracted affect-event sequences, along with the unique imagery that accrues to a specific episode from one’s life” (Singer, 2004, p. 441; brackets [ ] added by me quoting a definition from the same source, same page).

9 Here I aim to explore is not the “objective” truth of the interviewees’ statements, but rather how they express stories about their police encounters to an ostensibly neutral other. The narration process – how interviewees choose to craft the story, selecting which parts to include, to omit, to emphasize, and then supplying a “lesson learned” synopsis of their tale (or not) – reveals something about their interpretive tendencies and, at least, about the self they choose to present to the researcher asking.

10 Forty-two respondents reported that their views of the police had change, mostly from vaguely positive to negative.

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