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How Do Settings Strengthen Individuals?

Colleen Loomis
Department of Psychology
Stanford University
December 2001

My research focuses on understanding the relation between people and their settings. I am particularly interested in the interaction between individual psychology and settings, for there is always a subjective aspect that accompanies any real change. For example, an individual's self-esteem and sense of community with a particular setting shape forms of participation in both personal and community development. This line of research, documenting factors affecting the relation between individuals and settings, has implications for addressing individual and social problems such as low self-esteem, school dropout, poverty, substance abuse, etc.

At first, I explored the effects of two settings (a university community and the U.S. society) and ethnic identity on self-esteem. These relations were explored using anonymous questionnaires in a group of academically successful African Americans attending a predominantly White university. Findings suggest that some African American students can excel in academics without forfeiting their ethnic identity. Furthermore, the relation between ethnic identity and self-esteem for students may be affected by the extent to which students feel that U.S. ideals-such as freedom of speech, economic opportunity, and the democratic process-personally apply to them. These findings have implications for interventions for individuals and society. For example, enhancing ethnic identity development and removing barriers to equal opportunities may be important aspects of protecting self-esteem and creating a more just society.

I further developed my understanding of the effects of a community on individual change through a study of the Caroline Center, an innovative welfare-to-work program developed by the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Baltimore, Maryland. Many welfare-to-work programs use a sequential process, either providing employment services first (and assuming that educational development would follow), or the reverse. A sequential-process approach does not enable recipients to leave welfare and become self-sufficient in the long run (even though some other programs showed short-term gains) and does not address psychosocial well-being and other barriers to work. Within a program evaluation, using focus-groups and individual interviews, my co-researchers and I examined the process of how the Caroline Center facilitated women's transition to living-wage jobs. Findings from this study showed that a parallel-process addressing educational, occupational, and personal needs simultaneously while valuing relationships and providing rules, rewards, and rituals facilitates women's personal and professional development. The Center provides an educational community where women belong, have their needs met, can experience mutual influence, and feel a shared emotional connection, facilitating their transition to living-wage work. In the field of community-social psychology we refer to these factors as an individual's 'psychological sense of community.'

Responding to local happenings, I proposed an investigation of the relation between psychological sense of community and participation in an urban, historically Black university. Two studies were conducted 18 months apart in which students attending randomly selected courses completed anonymous questionnaires. In the first study, the relation between psychological sense of community and participation in peaceful protest activities (supporting the university and opposing the city's mayor to restructure and relocate the university) showed that positive psychological sense of community predicted participation in peaceful protest activities. Similarly, 18 months later students' psychological sense of community predicted participation in university-related social activities (e.g., meeting with peers for lunch, attending a university art show or sporting event, etc.). Specifically, higher sense of community was related to higher participation. In a separate analysis comparing psychological sense of community at two different times findings showed that sense of community was higher when a threat was present than when it was not. This research adds to the extant literature on the relation between psychological sense of community and participation as well as has implications for the theory of sense of community, particularly the dynamic nature of psychological sense of community.

Currently, I am investigating the interaction between an individual and his or her setting in a drug and alcohol abuse treatment program. Using Rudolph Moos Community Oriented Program Environment Scales, I am looking at how the extent to which a program takes a community-oriented approach affects drug and alcohol treatment outcomes for patients.

So far, my research in settings of institutions of higher education and a welfare-to-work program suggests that individual's perceptions of their sense of being part of a setting influences their active participation in and benefit from those settings. Thus, one of the ways that settings strengthen individuals is by providing a psychological sense of community through offering social and material resources within a cohesive, nurturing, and supportive environment.