Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Work


Lyle S. Hallman Faculty of Social Work

First Advisor

Nick Coady

Advisor Role

Dissertation Supervisor


The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore the experiences of individuals who had voluntarily disengaged from social groups that had once been central to their self-understandings. Theoretical underpinnings of the study proceeded from the distinction made by social psychologists between personal identity, self-definitions derived from an understanding of one’s self as unique, and social identity, self-definitions derived from an understanding and identification of one’s self as a member of social groups. The overarching aims were to: 1) determine if a disengagement process exists, and if so, to discover its defining characteristics and phenomenological aspects; 2) describe the shifts in personal and social identity that accompany a disengagement process; and 3) consider the implciations for direct social work practice.

Two in-depth audio-recorded interviews were conducted with sixteen participants (9 females, 6 males, and 1 transgendered individual) who disengaged from a total of9 different types of social groups (e.g., occupational groups, religious groups, territorial socio-economic groups, sexual orientation groups, gender groups, and extremist groups). Interview transcripts were examined using narrative analysis with particular attention paid to the revelatory and constructive relationship between the disengagement stories and the identity of the participants.

The findings of this study suggest that social groups disengagement is a definable social process, one that can be mapped using a three phase, nine stage model. Disengagement is the product of mounting feelings of incongruence between one’s personal and social identity, with the individual, in the end, deciding to privilege personal identity over social identity. The results of this study speak to the indomitable nature of the self to develop and the painful and destructive ramifications that occur when living with high levels of personal and social identity incongruence. An argument is made that social work, with its person-in-environment focus, is a profession uniquely suited to helping individuals who are disengaging from social groups. Guidelines for direct social work practice are presented.

Convocation Year


Included in

Social Work Commons