From Social to Political Identity...
From Social to Political Identity: A Critical Examination of Social Identity Theory Leonie Huddy State University of New York at Stony Brook Interest in the concept of identity has grown exponentially within both the humanities and social sciences, but the discussion of identity has had less impact than might be expected on the quantitative study of political behavior in general and on political psychology more specifically. One of the approaches that holds the most promise for political psychologists is social identity theory, as reflected in the thinking of Henri Tajfel, John Turner, and colleagues. Although the theory addresses the kinds of problems of interest to political psychologists, it has had limited impact on political psychology because of social identity theorists��� disinclination to examine the sources of social identity in a real world complicated by history and culture. In this review, four key issues are examined that hinder the successful application of social identity theory to political phenomena. These key issues are the existence of identity choice, the subjective meaning of identities, gradations in identity strength, and the considerable stability of many social and political identities. KEY WORDS: social identity, identity politics, political identification, intergroup relations Interest in the concept of identity has grown exponentially during the last decade or so within both the humanities and social sciences. Postmodern theorists in the humanities have challenged traditional conceptions of identity by arguing that the fixed subject of liberal humanistic thinking is an anachronism that should be replaced by a more flexible individual whose identity is fluid, contingent, and socially constructed (Butler, 1990 Novotny, 1998 Villancourt Rosenau, 1992 Young, 1997). Social scientists have also intensified their longstanding interest in the concept of identity in recent years (Jenkins, 1996). Sociologists have pondered and explored the tension between individual identity and the constraints of social structure (Giddens, 1991 Jenkins, 1996 Stryker, 1980). Anthropologists have examined the cultural expression of identity, its meanings, and how it is maintained at group boundaries (Barth, 1969 Cohen, 1986). Social psychologists have focused Political Psychology, Vol. 22, No. 1, 2001 127 0162-895X �� 2001 International Society of Political Psychology Published by Blackwell Publishers, 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA, and 108 Cowley Road, Oxford, OX4 1JF, UK.
on the multifaceted and situationally contingent nature of individual identity (Gergen, 1971 Hogg, Terry, & White, 1995 Markus, 1977). They have also identified social identity as a powerful ingredient in the development of ingroup bias and intergroup conflict (Tajfel, 1981 Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987). The discussion of identity has had less impact than might be expected, however, on the quantitative study of political behavior in general and on political psychology more specifically. Despite the recent emergence of identity politics around the world, researchers of political behavior have been slow to incorporate the concept of identity into their empirical studies. This seems odd, given that demands for group respect and recognition are at the heart of new social movements that argue for the rights of women, religious minorities, diverse ethnic and racial groups, and gays and lesbians (Taylor, 1994). Such movements cannot be explained away as a simple quest for material gain or tangible benefits, and they seem to call for an explanation that incorporates the notion of identity (see also Monroe, Hankin, & Van Vechten, 2000). Given their political impact, the emergence of strong social and political identities ought to be of interest to political psychologists, and a theoretical approach is needed to advance the study of identity within political science. One of the approaches that holds most promise for political psychologists is social identity theory, as reflected in the thinking of Henri Tajfel, John Turner, and colleagues (Tajfel, 1981 Turner, 1996 Turner et al., 1987).1 Social identity theory is useful for several reasons. It has spawned an enormous number of studies in a diverse group of countries (see Brewer & Brown, 1998). Its key findings, perhaps the most famous of which is the emergence of ingroup favoritism under the most minimal of conditions, have been widely replicated (Brewer, 1979 Brown, 1995). It has also generated testable hypotheses that can be applied to a wide range of groups, including those linked to politics. Finally, it addresses the kinds of issues of interest to political psychologists���intergroup conflict, conformity to group norms, the effects of low group status and the conditions under which it generates collective action, and the factors that promote the categorization of oneself and others into groups. Nonetheless, I believe social identity theory has had less impact on political psychology than it might have had otherwise because of various shortcomings and omissions in its research program. In the spirit of constructive dialogue, I critically evaluate the utility of social identity theory for political psychology by identifying 1 As will become clear, I focus on social identities and social identity theory but ignore a second strand of political psychology that has defined identity as more truly individual, ���something about who persons are in a deep psychological sense��� (Young, 1997, p. 32). Inspired by the work of developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, political psychologists working in this tradition have investigated, for example, the psychology of individual leaders, the mindset of altruists, and the psychological development of terrorists (Crenshaw, 1986 Monroe, 1994 Monroe et al., 2000). 128 Huddy
several key issues that hinder its application to political phenomena. I use this critique to outline a research agenda on the nature and impact of identity that cuts across political and social psychology. I begin with a brief summary of political research that has incorporated social identity theory, or notions of identity more generally, into research on intergroup relations. This is followed by a brief over- view of social identity theory. I then explore in greater detail the challenges posed by political research for social identity theory. Throughout, I argue that social identity theorists��� disinclination to examine the sources of social identity in a real world complicated by history and culture has placed serious limits on the theory���s application to political psychology. Current Research on Political Identity There are several strands of research in political psychology that have incor- porated the notion of identity. One research strand has emerged around questions of national identity, patriotism, and multiculturalism. An example is provided by Citrin���s and Sears��� investigations of American identity. They have examined the subjective meaning of being American and uncovered a consensus that it depends on support for the key American values of equality and individualism. Nonetheless, they have also discovered contested aspects of American identity that concern the need to believe in God or speak up for one���s country in order to be considered a ���true American��� (Citrin, Reingold, & Green, 1990 Citrin, Wong, & Duff, 2000).2 And it is these contentious aspects of American identity that mediate the political consequences of national identity. Individuals who support the less consensual, nativist aspects of American identity (such as being Christian) are more likely to oppose policies designed to benefit new immigrants, view negatively the impact of immigration, and believe it is difficult to become American without adopting American customs (Citrin et al., 1990 Citrin et al., 2000). Other researchers have also found that the political effects of patriotism depend on its subjective meaning (Schatz, Staub, & Lavine, 1999). Sears and Citrin also uncovered substantial evidence that members of diverse ethnic and racial groups in the United States identify primarily as American and only secondarily as members of their ethnic or racial group. This is at odds with the predictions of social identity theory, which suggests that minority group membership should be extremely salient to African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians, thus overwhelming national identity (Citrin et al., 2000 Sears, Citrin, 2 In a California poll, some 40% of respondents thought that believing in God was important in ���making someone a true American.��� In a national sample (National Opinion Research Center, 1996), 54% of all respondents felt that being a Christian was important in ���making someone a true American.��� From Social to Political Identity 129
Vidanage, & Valentino, 1994 Sears & Henry, 1999).3 The inability of simple group salience to account for ethnic identity is reinforced in a study by Gurin, Hurtado, and Peng (1994) on national and ethnic identity among Mexican Americans. They found that Mexican Americans who regularly come into contact with Anglos, and for whom Mexican ethnicity is therefore highly salient, are no more likely to hold national (Mexican) or ethnic identities (e.g., Chicano) than are other Mexican Americans. This raises important questions for social identity theory about the extent to which the salience of one���s ethnic or racial group���the key ingredient in identity development for many social identity researchers���explains the emer- gence of ethnic and racial identities. Taken together, research on ethnic and national identities suggests at a mini- mum that identity formation cannot be simply explained by the salience of a group designation. Rather, it hints at the first of four key issues���the subjective meaning of identities���that I believe need to be addressed by social identity researchers before the theory can be successfully applied to political phenomena. As research on patriotism demonstrates, American identity does not mean the same thing to all Americans. And it is the meaning of American identity, not its existence, that determines its political consequences. Yet social identity researchers have tended to ignore this subjective aspect of identities, paying considerable attention to the existence of simple group boundaries while ignoring their internal meaning. In a second, related strand of research on ethnic and racial identities, strong identities have been found to undercut national unity and promote intolerance and intergroup antipathies. Thus, Sidanius, Feshbach, Levin, and Pratto (1997) found that a strong identity as a member of a subordinate group in the United States or Israel (e.g., African Americans in the United States, Arabs in Israel) results in a diminished sense of patriotism. Likewise, Gibson and Gouws (1999) found that strong racial and ethnic identities among South Africans increase their perceived need for group solidarity, which in turn produces greater antipathy toward out- groups, increases the perception that such groups pose a threat, and promotes intolerance. These findings build on a large body of work that documents the importance of subjective group membership in shaping political attitudes and behavior (Conover, 1988 Miller, Gurin, Gurin, & Malanchuk, 1981). On the surface, these results appear compatible with social identity theory because they suggest that membership in a salient minority results in ingroup identity and outgroup antipathy. Yet upon closer examination, it is clear that the crucial ingredient in the development of outgroup antipathy in these studies is the existence of a strong, internalized subjective identity, not simple group member- ship. Moreover, it is clear that not everyone identifies strongly with their ethnic or racial group. These findings thus raise two additional challenges for social identity 3 In contrast, Sidanius et al. (1997) reported that black students who identify with their race are less patriotic than black students who do not. This finding contradicts Sears and Citrin���s results and is more consistent with the predictions of social identity theory. 130 Huddy
theory. First, how do we explain an individual group member���s decision to identify as a group member? This aspect of choice has typically been ignored by social identity researchers whose key experimental paradigm���the minimal intergroup situation���assigns members to groups and simply assumes the uniform develop- ment of group identity. Second, social identity theorists typically regard social identity as an all-or-none phenomenon. When the group is salient, group identity is paramount. When group membership is not salient, individual identity domi- nates. But how then do we account for identities of variable strength that persist across situations? When assessed over time, a wide range of group identities demonstrate remarkable stability in both their nature (e.g., African American) and strength. I believe it is difficult to adapt social identity theory to political phenom- ena without coming to terms with both issues���identity choice and gradations in identity strength. A third strand of research in political psychology has focused on the nature of political identities, including an identification with a major political party or the adoption of an ideological moniker as a term of self-description (Abrams, 1994 Duck, Hogg, & Terry, 1995 Duck, Terry, & Hogg, 1998 Kelly, 1989). Deaux, Reid, Mizrahi, and Ethier (1995) examined the social nature of political identities such as conservative, environmentalist, liberal, pacifist, radical, and socialist, concluding that they ���would expect predictions from social identity theory to be most applicable to ethnic, religious, [and] political��� identities because they are more ���collective in nature��� than other individual aspects of identity (p. 286). My own research on feminist identity provides an example of this approach. I apply social identity theory to the development of feminist identity and examine the ease with which feminist identity changes in response to information about the social and political characteristics of feminists and their opponents (Huddy, 1997b, 1998). My findings support the extension of social identity theory to political identities and at the same time challenge the theory���s view of identities as highly fluid. In support of a social identity approach, I find that feminist identity depends on feeling similar to the types of women depicted as feminists, independently of their beliefs (Huddy, 1998). At the same time, I uncover considerable stability in feminist identity that is at odds with Turner and other social categorization researchers��� view that social identities are highly changeable (Haslam, Turner, Oakes, McGarty, & Hayes, 1992 Hogg, Hardie, & Reynolds, 1995). In essence, I find that it is difficult to reverse cultural definitions of a typical feminist and, more important, such culturally established group prototypes create a powerful source of identity stability (Huddy, 1997b). The considerable stability evinced by diverse political identities, not just feminist identity, provides an important fourth chal- lenge to social identity theory that has previously gone unexplored. From Social to Political Identity 131