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Delineating “Identity” in Politics: Conflicting Definitions and Contexts

Françoise Orazi
p. 13-29

Résumé

Identity has become a core notion of UK political discourse. Despite its widespread use, its meaning is not clearly circumscribed and varies according to the discursive context. The article focuses on identity’s frequent contexts of usage. In the general media identity is heavily connoted while the meaning that is ascribed to it fluctuates according to the left-wing/right-wing-orientation of the source. In social and political science, identity has been contested as a valid category. Finally, the article traces the emergence of identity as a critical notion in the recent developments of political theory.

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Introduction

  • 1 Duffy, B., Hewlett, K. A., McCrae, J., & Hall, J. (2019). Divided Britain? Polarisation and fragmen (...)
  • 2 Ibid, p. 8.

1UK Politics has undergone substantial change in the past decade, with the Brexit debate serving as a catalyst for substantial evolutions or at least for their increased visibility. Evidence points “to two major trends in the UK: we’ve become more affectively polarised around Brexit identities, while fragmenting on issues and party-political support.”1. The turn towards polarisation is not an exclusively British phenomenon, with similar entrenched divisions emerging in several national contexts, including the US and France. As Duffy et al have shown, there are significant differences between these countries, for instance “issue polarisation” is smaller in the UK than in the US2. However, “affective polarisation” is a definite feature that cuts across national borders.

  • 3 Ibid, p. 23.

This type of ‘affective polarisation’ (also referred to as ‘social polarisation’) has its roots in social identity, measured by the distance and antagonism between in-groups and out- groups, ie a social group with which a person does or does not psychologically identify as a member3.

2As can be seen in the definition above, identity is now an essential notion in politics in the UK (and elsewhere). It appears therefore that any understanding or even simple description of the British political landscape requires an analysis of identity as it relates to politics. Indeed the notion is also a new one: in recent years, the frequency of the word “identity” (i.e. the number of times “identity” occurs in speech) has grown spectacularly. As an example of this progression, Figure 1 shows the number of occurrences of “identity” in The Guardian since 1893.

Fig.14: Matches for “identity” in the Guardian archives

Fig.14: Matches for “identity” in the Guardian archives
  • 5 See "identity, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2023, www.oed.com/view/Entry/91004 (A (...)
  • 6 For a presentation of competing conceptions of identity in sociology, see Timothy J. Owens, Dawn T. (...)

3The evolution includes the more specific social and political sense of the term. Identity has become a key-word of contemporary political discourse and, in some cases such as socio-political studies, it can even be said to have emerged as an indispensable category, that can, for example, be relied on to explain the behaviour of individuals within the political sphere, such as the way they vote or their opinion on key political questions. It does not follow from this successful trajectory that a clear simple definition of identity is available, even when considering the term solely in connection with a person (and not in the sense of sameness of objects nor as a principle of logic)5. Rather, its widespread use indicates that identity is a very broad term, whose meaning varies according to the discursive context. Identity is a fundamental notion, at least nowadays, in a wide range of discourses, general or academic, in particular in social sciences. Furthermore, within the research on identity in any given field, such as philosophy, sociology or psychology, there are competing definitions, though there appears to be a consensus that personal identity is determined both by self and social identity, notably through a process of identification or differentiation6. In the political field, taken to mean both discourse within politics and discourses on the political, identity has given birth to a famous and equally vague compound, or, at least, collocation, namely “identity politics”, which the Combahee River Collective famously coined in April 1977 in a statement foreshadowing intersectionality . Unsurprisingly, as shown by figure 2, its historical progress runs parallel to “identity” but rather than a sharp increase in frequency, “identity politics” went from non-existence to fame. Figure 2 follows up on the example given in figure 1: in The Guardian, the collocation made its first appearance in February 1994, though it was heralded by a few “identity and politics” in the earlier nineties.

4Such a dramatic lexical phenomenon begs many questions that cannot be addressed in a single article: what changes took place to account for the rise of “identity”? Who –or what- popularized the term? Does its newfound ubiquity indicate an evolution in the way we think about politics or have we merely rephrased older ideas? If so, which ones? If “identity” is so relevant to politics, then why is “identity politics” so often negatively connoted? These are just a few of the important questions that must be asked to determine what is meant when the term identity is used to point to a key-factor that shapes politics as well as a key-notion required in the analysis of politics.

5Since, as already hinted, the meaning of identity appears to depend strongly on the discursive context, one obvious place to start is to map out the various contexts. This article attempts to contribute by pinpointing four different ones in order to capture the complex trajectory of identity in the political field. I begin with the media where identity politics often has a derogatory connotation -sometimes serving as a scarecrow- then move to the academic context where identity has become a staple category despite significant criticism, and focus, in the third part, on the example of identity as a notion in political sociology. The fourth part takes a brief look at the emergence of identity in political theory.

1. Identity politics in the general media

6A brief search of “identity politics” in three of the main national British newspapers from January 1st 2022 to November 7th of the same year yields interesting search results. There are 74 matches in The Telegraph, 115 in The Times and only 36 in The Guardian, of which 12 were quotes from right-wing politicians disparaging identity politics. This is characteristic of the predominantly negative use of “identity politics” in general discourse on politics, where the term is largely connoted as negative and applied to designate anything from an opinion seen as misguided to a trend or a policy with catastrophic consequences. The term is thus in wider use within right-wing media than amongst progressive ones and plays a central role as a discursive element of the culture wars that are one of the most striking expressions of the polarisation mentioned above.

7One striking example of this type of use can be found in Spiked8, where “identity politics” is granted the status of a topic, alongside “culture” “science and techs” or “politics”. Articles under this label deal with for instance “the trans-activist tantrum at the New York Times”, or “Racism is not to blame for deaths in police custody”. Even the Philip Schofield scandal is labelled “identity politics” as Spiked maintains “the Schofield scandal exposes the decadence and hypocrisy of the cultural establishment”. Spiked’s interpretation is that the cultural establishment it posits is guilty of protecting Schofield as a gay man more than they would have done had he been straight9. This rather disconcerting use of “identity politics” is part of a very widespread and influential reactionary rhetoric that clearly contributes to giving identity politics a bad reputation. Interestingly enough, a search of matches for “identity”, rather than” identity politics” yields the same type of results on Spiked online, showing that within this rhetoric “identity” is loosely conflated with “identity politics”. “Identity (politics)” tends to systematically imply an alleged alliance between “the elite” and those who wrongly, or too loudly, or too frequently, complain that their racial, sexual, gender, identity is causing injustice, while it is claimed that identity politics actually guarantees preferential treatment. It is in fact almost impossible to find out exactly who this “elite” and their allies are, without running into other fashionable and equally vague terms such as “woke” or “snowflake”.

8Media like Spiked with a libertarian editorial line, rated “Lean Right” by AllSides10, can be deemed too biased to offer an understanding untainted by the culture wars. Indeed, a less partial view on the subject may be found in a Lean Left (online) newspaper such as The Independent. However, a search over the three months preceding March 1st 2023 shows that the derogatory sense is partly internalized on this side of the political spectrum too. Figure 3 lists five articles that resort to the notion of identity politics, and all endow it with a -milder than Spiked’s- negative connotation. The first match on the list claims that even without exaggerating and going as far as identity politics, there aren’t enough women in Sunak’s government, implying that identity politics is too extreme a stance. The second and fifth matches all point to identity politics as belonging to an alt-right-wing rhetoric originating in the US. The third and fourth matches on the list point to another aspect of identity politics which also pinpoints its typical right-wing nature, by connecting identity in politics to nationalism.

9In a different way, identity politics is negative from a Lean Left point of view as well, though it refers to something else than the examples from Spiked. Identity politics is disapproved of both in a right-wing context because it is “woke”, and, to a lesser extent, in a left-wing context, because, from a left-wing point of view, it is a reactionary obsession and has nationalist undertones.

10In conclusion to this first part, a study of the meaning of identity politics in the discursive context of the general press does not lead to a precise definition. The term is loosely and partially connected with other notions, some of which are also unclear as summarized in figure 4.

2. Identity as a category in social science

11A more stable meaning of identity can be found in academic discourses where it has also increased in frequency. The term has gained prominence over the past decades in a number of fields, especially in the socio-political field, which this article focuses on. Here we must first focus on sociology before going back to socio-political analyses, as the latter are methodologically dependent on the former. Thus, in the 2021 edition of Giddens and Sutton’s popular handbook of sociology, identity is listed as one of the four central themes of contemporary sociology and defined precisely.

Our fourth theme is identity, a concept that connects the individual’s experience to their wider social context. (…) All identities are social identities. There are many sources from which our identities are constructed: nationality, ethnicity, social class, gender, occupation, political affiliation, religion, sexuality, musical taste and lots more. We may find that, at different times, one of these seems to define our real, ‘authentic’ identity more than all others. Yet, if that perception shifts, has our identity then changed? Sociological studies show that questions of identity have become more significant today than in the past, and the book contains many discussions of the subject. (A. Giddens, P. W. Sutton, Sociology (9th edition), Cambridge, Polity Press, 2021, p xi.)

12Here identity emerges as a clear category. The handbook explicitly recognizes not only the lexical progress of identity but also its increased significance for people. The role played by social markers of identity such as listed in the above quote plays a greater part in the answer to the basic question raised by identity, both personal and social, namely “who am I?” and “who are you?”. However, precisely because of this progress, “understanding the increasing significance of personal and social identity construction has become an important part of sociological analysis.” (p. xii). Identity is therefore both a category for the sociologist to use and a sociological phenomenon for the sociologist to explain. Certainly, it is a crucial theme in the handbook, the term is repeated no fewer than 273 times.

  • 11 On the emergence of identity on social science, see, Andrew J. Weigert, “Identity: Its Emergence wi (...)
  • 12 Sinisa Malesevic, Identity as Ideology, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, p. 16.
  • 13 Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper “Beyond "Identity“”, Theory and Society, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Feb. (...)
  • 14 Ibid p .2

13This may leave us wondering how, given the contemporary centrality of identity, social scientists could ever have managed to work without it? Indeed identity was not in use in social science before the 1950s, when it was gradually introduced, first in psychology, through the work of Erikson in the 1940s and 1950s, then in sociology by the pioneers of identity like Anselm Strauss or Erving Goffman11. Sisina Malesevic notes that “since then this concept has attained almost indisputable recognition.” Yet she adds that “such an overextensive use of the term also creates a cacophonic confusion with many mutually competing understandings of ‘identity’.”12 Malesevic’s book provides a fascinating critique of identity, yet as Malesevic herself makes clear, her critique of identity is not the only one: Brubaker and Cooper provided just as sharp an attack on the notion in their 2000 article13 -which this article draws heavily on here- albeit from a somewhat more political angle. Like Malesevic in 2006, they reject the growing influence of identity as they notice “that the social sciences and humanities have surrendered to the word ``identity''; that this has both intellectual and political costs; and that we can do better”. They claim that there are available alternatives which should be preferred: “We take stock of the conceptual and theoretical work ``identity'' is supposed to do and suggest that this work might be done better by other terms, less ambiguous, and unencumbered by the reifying connotations of ``identity.''”14 . Brubaker and Cooper proceed to distinguish between categories of practice, notions and concepts that everyday people use and categories of analysis, which are what social scientists rely on to conduct research. They go on to debunk identity as a category of analysis.

  • 15 Ibid, pp. 5,6.

The problem, as Loïc Wacquant has argued with respect to ``race,'' lies in the ``uncontrolled conflation of social and sociological ...[or] folk and analytic understandings.'' The problem is that ``nation,‘’ ``race,'' and ``identity'' are used analytically a good deal of the time more or less as they are used in practice, in an implicitly or explicitly reifying manner, in a manner that implies or asserts that ``nations,‘’ ``races,'' and ``identities'' ``exist'' and that people ``have'' a ``nationality,‘’ a ``race,'' an ``identity”.15

  • 16 Ibid, p. 4.
  • 17 Malesevic, p. 17.

14For the purpose of this article, I retain two main ideas from Malesevic along with Brubaker and Cooper and leave aside the question of the reification that identity may inevitably imply. First, according to their critique, “identity” is too unclear as well as too weak a concept to be used in social science. Second, what is meant when the term is used could be expressed with more clarity by resorting to several other notions, precisely because one of the problems of identity as a category of analysis consists of a catch-all category where “devaluation of meaning” must take place as a consequence of “proliferation”16. Consequently, Brubaker and Cooper offer a few preferable notions in loco identity, thus dividing identity into three clearer sub-parts: (1) identification and categorization, (2) self-understanding and social location and (3) commonality, connectedness, groupness. It must be noted that in their attempts to replace identity with notions they consider more relevant, precise or stable, Brubaker and Cooper implicitly provide an interpretation of identity. The same kind of insight, which has the added advantage of being closer to the political science approach, can be found in Malesevic who insists on identity as “shared cultural values”17. She also offers an alternative to identity: after having delivered an in-depth analysis of the rise and fall of ideology and its gradual replacement by identity, she proposes a rehabilitation of ideology through the coining of an agency-oriented model of ideology.

  • 18 Malesevic, p. 74.

Popular support for particular systematic beliefs and practices is often deeply grounded in the social or individual functions they fulfil. Their success is rooted in the promise of providing concrete symbolic or material rewards; they appeal to particular interests and affects; or they are simply seen as a part of traditional habitual action. The agency-oriented approach to ideology needs to analyse in particular this relationship between the reception and receptors of ideology. The main questions here should be: What do ideologies offer to individuals? Why and how can individual and collective agents be motivated or persuaded to believe in particular value systems? Why do individuals subscribe to one and not to another ideology? When, why and under which conditions is one articulation of an ideology preferred over another? and Why and when are some interpreters (‘articulators’) more trusted than others?18

3. Identity vs other categories in political science

  • 19 Maria Sobolewska, Robert Ford, Brexitland: Identity, Diversity and the Reshaping of British Politic (...)

15For the sake of clarity, the critique of identity as a category of analysis can perhaps be applied to a little exercise in rephrasing. One of the key recent British works of political science or sociology of political representation, Sobolewska and Ford’s Brexitland19 provides a case in point.

  • 20 Ibid, p. 5.

Three distinct groups have emerged in British society as a cumulative result of these changes. University expansion has driven the emergence of conviction liberals. University graduates have distinctive identities and values: they value individual freedoms very highly, have little attachment to traditional majority identities or values, and, crucially for our arguments, they are cosmopolitan, pro-migration and embrace diversity.20

16The critique of identity described in the second part of this article suggests that the extract can be reformulated by substituting the following where the term identity is used: “University graduates form a distinctive group with distinctive values: they value individual freedoms very highly, have little attachment to traditional majority values”. In the text under scrutiny, it appears there is little difference in the meaning conveyed by the original and the revised version with alternative wording. However, other passages are more problematic. If we consider for instance the extract quoted below, there appears to be no other solution to replace “identity” except to repeat the term the authors themselves offer, namely “cultural grievances”, which points to a specific notion coined by identity.

For example, researchers examining longer-term trends in the areas which voted for Brexit in 2016 have already shown how ethnocentric and xenophobic attitudes can develop as a defensive reaction to economic decline, and how these ‘cultural grievances’ in turn drove support for Brexit. Such research highlights how economics and identity are often not competing explanations for political outcomes, but complementary parts of a broader story. A better understanding of how new identity conflicts and old economic conflicts interact will therefore require further thinking about the distinctions we draw between these. A lot of research on the ‘left behind’ voters seen as a central factor in recent radical right and populist political movements has focused heavily on economic factors, yet it is often identity factors which most set these voters apart.

  • 21 Ezra Klein, Why We're Polarized, New York, Avid Reader Press, 2021, p. 14.

17Sobolewska and Ford appear to share Giddens’ view that identity is not just a category of analysis but also a social phenomenon that has gained much political weight recently. One can also mention Ezra Klein’s analysis of the state of US democracy that also describes the rise of political identity as the defining feature of American politics. “The most powerful identities in modern politics are our political identities, which have come, in recent decades, to encompass and amplify a range of other central identities as well. Over the past fifty years, our partisan identities have merged with our racial, religious, geographic, ideological, and cultural identities.”21

4. Identity in political theory

18The fact that the criticism of identity as a category of analysis dates back to the 2000s while the two acclaimed books taken as examples of the reliance on identity in academic research are far more recent is no mere coincidence. In social science, at least, identity has gained unchallenged prominence. Here one could go back to the introductory question: why has identity been so successful? Or to narrow it down to the question this last part focuses on: does the history of political theory offer another account of the success of identity in politics than identity partially replacing such highly contested concepts as ideology, filling, as it were, the conceptual space that has been left empty and thus owing its upper-hand to the difficulties and challenges of structuralism, post structuralism and post modernism?

  • 22 Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, (1963), NY, Simon and Schuster (...)
  • 23 Ibid., p .3.

19To catch a glimpse of the theoretical evolution that brought identity to the fore in political theory, we can go back to one of the pioneers of identity, at least of identity in sociology. Erving Goffman’s book, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (1963)22, studied attributes that were “deeply discrediting”, that would cause a person to be “tainted, discounted”23. In modern terms, this was one of the first studies into discredited identities. Goffman divided stigma into three subcategories: “physical deformities”, “blemishes of individual character” (including homosexuality), and the ‘tribal stigma of race, nation and religion”. As can be easily inferred, this definition seems to pave the way for identity in politics. Whether Goffman initiated the awareness to discrimination or whether he must be regarded as one of the early examples of a budding zeitgeist awareness is beyond the scope of this article. In any case, his contribution signalled a major shift in mentalities that gradually challenged the demeaning of discredited identities –or stigmatized individuals. Until the great struggles for equality in the sixties and seventies, there was a certain blindness to the systematic depreciation of particular identities. Stigmatized identities justified unequal treatment, symbolic, material or otherwise, including, of course, civil. In the wake of the civil rights movement and the second wave of feminism, no political theory or philosophy could carry on ignoring this kind of injustice or pretending that it was merely of an economic nature. This evolution was to lead to the later emergence of the recognition paradigm, and the recognition vs redistribution debates. The work of Charles Taylor, one of the great advocates of recognition, clearly echoes the sociological awareness Goffman had initiated:

  • 24 Charles Taylor Multiculturalism: examining the politics of recognition, Princeton, Princeton Univer (...)

Equal recognition is not just the appropriate mode for a healthy democratic society. Its refusal can inflict damage on those who are denied it, according to a widespread modern view, as I indicated at the outset. The projection of an inferior or demeaning image on another can actually distort and oppress, to the extent that the image is internalized. Not only contemporary feminism but also race relations and discussions of multiculturalism are undergirded by the premise that the withholding of recognition can be a form of oppression. We may debate whether this factor has been exaggerated, but it is clear that the understanding of identity and authenticity has introduced a new dimension into the politics of equal recognition (…)24

  • 25 Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference, (1990) Princeton, Princeton University P (...)
  • 26 Taylor, Multiculturalism, p. 39

20This extract frames the modern notion of identity in politics in very clear terms. First, it echoes the dual nature of identity as always personal and social at the same time. Then it pulls identity closer to the political with words like “oppress” and “politics”. Identity politics thereby comes to mean the politics that recognize the persons who used to be stigmatized, as having an identity worthy of recognition and of equal respect. In the wake of the development of the politics of recognition, political theory that opposed identity-based discrimination came to be known as the politics of difference, as it argued in favour of differential treatment. Political philosophers like Taylor or Young described the evolution from “Enlightenment ideals of liberty and political equality”25 to the politics of difference as a crucial step and a necessary evolution at the same time. “The politics of difference grows organically out of the politics of universal dignity through one of those shifts with which we are long familiar, where a new understanding of the human social condition imparts a radically new meaning to an old principle”26. This sheds further light on the progress of identity as the consequence of a new scientific insight that enables a better understanding of social situations.

  • 27 Ibid.

Just as a view of human beings as conditioned by their socioeconomic plight changed the understanding of second-class citizenship, so that this category came to include, for example, people in inherited poverty traps, so here the understanding of identity as formed in interchange, and as possibly so malformed, introduces a new form of second-class status into our purview.27

  • 28 Ibid.

21The politics of difference cannot be reduced to a mere extension of universal equality to all human beings whatever their stigma/differences, though it remains a significant part of it. According to Taylor or Young, the politics of difference imply (in Taylor’s words) that “we give acknowledgment and status to something that is not universally shared.28”Otherwise put,

  • 29 Ibid.

(It) involves a reconception of the meaning of equality. The assimilationist ideal assumes that equal social status for all persons requires treating everyone according to the same principles, rules, and standards. A politics of difference argues, on the other hand, that equality as the participation and inclusion of all groups sometimes requires different treatment for oppressed or disadvantaged groups.29

  • 30 Ibid., p. 40.
  • 31 Ibid., p. 61.
  • 32 Ibid., p. 64.
  • 33 Ibid., p. 65

22This may explain the resistance to identity politics common in reactionary groups, since it implies a positive discrimination in favour of the formerly stigmatized, forming, as such, a radical agenda. Moreover, in some cases such as special rights for native “minorities (…) to exclude others in order to preserve their cultural integrity”30, the politics are not transitory, in order to repair historical injustice and revert in due time to the difference blindness of universal equality, but are conceived as permanent, for the beneficiaries’ identity can only be fostered under such differential treatment. Taylor is well aware of the potential backlash against identity politics from those who favoured a society “inhospitable to difference”31 but firmly believes that “misrecognition has now graduated to the rank of a harm”32 and that policies, including cultural policies must be revised to allow for the recognition of the “hitherto excluded”33. His identity politics was then a major shift in political theory that aimed at the inclusion of the excluded within a political frame that did not demand conformity in exchange.

  • 34 Most recently, for instance, Walter Benn Michaels; Adolph Reed, Jr, No Politics but Class Politics, (...)

23As already hinted in part 1, there is also criticism of “identity politics”, or rather of the politics of recognition, from a left-wing perspective. The steadiest critique can be found in the Marxist tradition which sees departure from the centrality of class-struggle as mistaken. It is pointless to attempt a presentation of the extensive literature34 that reflects this approach in this article, but perhaps Žižek’s account of a German joke can serve as a –far too brief-description.

  • 35 Slavoj Žižek, “Class Struggle Against Classism”, The Philosophical Salon, 10 May 2021, https://thep (...)

There is a nice joke from Germany about a debate between an identitarian progressive and a Marxist. The identitarian says “gender” and the Marxist replies “class.” The identitarian says “gender, race” and the Marxist replies “class, class.” The identitarian says “gender, race, class” and the Marxist replies “class, class, class”… Although the joke is supposed to make fun of the Marxist position, the Marxist is right here. There is truth in his tautology: class (struggle) overdetermines the totality of social identities. When an identitarian says “ethnic identity,” a Marxist analyzes how this identity is traversed by class struggle, how this group is included in – excluded from – social totality, which obstacles or privileges they face, which professions and educational institutions are open or closed to them, etc.35

  • 36 Nancy Fraser, “From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a “Postsocialist” Age”(19 (...)
  • 37 Ibid p. 10.

24It must be admitted that the analysis is rather compelling, at least inasmuch as it does not rest on a distortion or caricature of the theoretical framework of “identity politics”. According to Nancy Fraser however, this difference in approach must not be seen as irreconcilable. Though she shares the concern that the focus on identity/recognition may divert attention from the necessary struggle against maldistribution, recognizing that “the redistribution-recognition dilemma is real”36, she calls for a reconciliation “adequate to the demands of our age.”37

  • 38 Ibid, pp. 10-11

Instead of simply endorsing or rejecting all of identity politics simpliciter, we should see ourselves as presented with a new intellectual and practical task: that of developing a critical theory of recognition, one which identifies and defends only those versions of the cultural politics of difference that can be coherently combined with the social politics of equality.38

  • 39 See for instance, Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal. After Identity Politics, New York, Harpe (...)

25Another frequent trend in the progressive critique of “identity politics” focuses on the retreat from the universalist ambition of reformist politics. This is said to lead to a fragmentation of progressive forces, thereby surrendering power to reactionary forces. It also amounts to an ill-conceived form of narcissism, tribalism, and, rather predictably, to the facile use of “woke”39. Indeed this second left-wing critical trend appears less convincing than the first one, as it tends to rely on a rather loose definition of identity and vague identification of its advocates.

Conclusion: identity politics for everyone?

  • 40 See Taylor p. 38.
  • 41 Klein, p. 13.

26This presentation of four discursive contexts that focus on identity has shown that though the meaning of identity in politics can appear vague, clear definitions are available, especially in political theory. If the success of identity as a lexical phenomenon does not mean it is universally seen as a positive evolution, some discursive contexts now take it for granted or consider it a staple element of their environment. Here we think of the political theory mentioned in part 4 as well as the socio-political approach which part 3 focuses on and contemporary sociology as presented in part 2. What remains to be done is to reconcile these approaches into a coherent whole. Indeed, there seems to be a gap between the understanding of identity as the social phenomenon behind Brexit for instance and the social phenomenon that led to the recognition of a previously stigmatized group. Once more, we can draw inspiration from Taylor who reminds us the politics of difference does have a universalist basis in so far as everyone has an identity for which they should be recognized40. This short sentence has far-reaching implications. Is politics therefore always identity politics? Or at least is everyone, at one point, involved in identity politics? This, I believe, depends on our understanding of identity. Either identity politics is the political stance that argues in favour of equal dignity based on the same rights or it inherently leads to focus on, and actively recognize, difference. In the second case, it seems the meaning of identity is adjacent to stigma, and must target specific groups to the exclusion of “un-stigmatized” ones. In contrast, the first approach defines identity as close to individuality, which inevitably leads all politics to become identity politics, or makes it possible for each side to accuse the other of identity politics, which amounts to the same thing. This is for instance Ezra Klein’s view who claims “everyone engaged in American politics is engaged in identity politics. This is not an insult, and it’s not controversial: we form and fold identities constantly, naturally.”41 Obviously, this is a generalization that deflates the meaning of identity politics. As it happens, this seems to be Klein’s intention in this passage as he is fending off the accusation of identity politics, “weaponized” todescribe politics as practiced by members of historically marginalized groups”. The use of identity politics Klein refers to is the use described in part 1. It fits neither the individuality understanding he advocates nor the stigma conception.

  • 42 Ibid.

If you’re black and you’re worried about police brutality, that’s identity politics. If you’re a woman and you’re worried about the male-female pay gap, that’s identity politics. But if you’re a rural gun owner decrying universal background checks as tyranny, or a billionaire CEO complaining that high tax rates demonize success, or a Christian insisting on Nativity scenes in public squares—well, that’s just good, old-fashioned politics. With a quick sleight of hand, identity becomes something that only marginalized groups have.42

27It now seems strikingly obvious that one could describe this conception of identity politics as the return of the stigma, first because, along the conclusions drawn from part 1, the negative connotation of identity politics amounts to a disgrace, but mostly because the accusation of identity politics targets individuals on account of their common features with a specific group, like Philip Schofield. On the whole then, it seeks to invalidate the legitimacy of some formerly stigmatized group’s claim to justice, subverting the emancipatory potential of a focus on identity.

  • 43 Iris Marion Young, Inclusion and Democracy, Oxford, OUP, 2000, p. 107.

28The great Iris Marion Young, who advocated a politics of difference as well, appears to have been reluctant to the kind of generalization of identity in politics that has become common. But her approach was different as she focused on the type of politics rather than on the people that advocated or opposed it. She wrote in favour of a distinction between “some group-based political discourses and demands [that] can properly be labelled ‘identity politics’”. Such demands were about “multicultural politics concerning freedom of expression, the content of curricula, official languages, access to media, and the like” while “Most group-conscious political claims, however, are not claims to the recognition of identity as such, but rather claims for fairness, equal opportunity, and political inclusion.”43. This analysis tends to distance identity politics from people and to posit it as a category for a certain type of cultural policies, leading Young to diverge from the interpretation of identity politics described above, and deny for instance that gay people’s claims can be described as “identity politics”:

  • 44 Ibid.

They do claim that they ought to be free to express their desires and to cultivate institutions without hiding, and without fear of harassment, violence, loss of employment, or housing. Many claim, further, that same-sex partners should have access to the same material benefits in tax law, property relations, and access to partner’s employment benefits as heterosexual couples can have through marriage. For the most part, these claims of justice are not ‘identity’ claims. Nor are they simple claims to ‘recognition’. They are claims that they should be free to be openly different from the majority without suffering social and economic disadvantage on account of that difference.44

29From a different perspective than Klein’s, Young is implicitly warning us against the return of the stigma.

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Bibliographie

Brubaker, Rogers; Cooper, Frederick, “Beyond "Identity“”, Theory and Society, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Feb., 2000).

Duffy, B., Hewlett, K. A., McCrae, J., & Hall, J. (2019). Divided Britain? Polarisation and fragmentation trends in the UK. https://www.kcl.ac.uk/policy-institute/assets/divided-britain.pdf.

Fraser, Nancy, “From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a “Postsocialist” Age”(1997), in Kevin Olson(ed), Adding Insult to Injury, Nancy Fraser Debates her Critics, London, Verso, 2008.

Goffman, Erving, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, (1963), NY, Simon and Schuster, 2009.

Klein, Ezra, Why We're Polarized, New York, Avid Reader Press, 2021.

Malesevic, Sinisa, Identity as Ideology, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Owens, Timothy J., Robinson, Dawn T., Smith-Lovin, Lynn “Three Faces of Identity”, Annual Review of Sociology, 2010, Vol. 36 (2010).

Sobolewska, Maria, Ford, Robert, Brexitland: Identity, Diversity and the Reshaping of British Politics, Cambridge, CUP, 2020.

Taylor, Charles Multiculturalism: examining the politics of recognition, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1994.

Young, Iris Marion, Inclusion and Democracy, Oxford, OUP, 2000.

Young, Iris Marion, Justice and the Politics of Difference, (1990) Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2022.

Weigert, Andrew J., “Identity: Its Emergence within Sociological Psychology”, Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Fall 1983).

Žižek, Slavoj, “Class Struggle Against Classism”, The Philosophical Salon, 10 May 2021.

Online ressources

Allsides. https://www.allsides.com

OED Online, Oxford University Press, www.oed.com.

The Guardian. https://theguardian.newspapers.com.

Spiked. www.spiked-online.com

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Notes

1 Duffy, B., Hewlett, K. A., McCrae, J., & Hall, J. (2019). Divided Britain? Polarisation and fragmentation trends in the UK. https://www.kcl.ac.uk/policy-institute/assets/divided-britain.pdf, p. 29.

2 Ibid, p. 8.

3 Ibid, p. 23.

4 https://theguardian.newspapers.com/search/?query="identity". Accessed 30 May 2023. In 2022: 950 matches in 2022, 2930 in 2003, 193 in 1893.

5 See "identity, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2023, www.oed.com/view/Entry/91004 (Accessed 31 March 2023).

6 For a presentation of competing conceptions of identity in sociology, see Timothy J. Owens, Dawn T. Robinson and Lynn Smith-Lovin “Three Faces of Identity”, Annual Review of Sociology, 2010, Vol. 36 (2010), pp. 477-499.

7 https://theguardian.newspapers.com/search/?query=%22identity%20politics%22&dr_year=1893-2023, Accessed 30 May 2023. 36 matches in 2022.

8 All references: https://www.spiked-online.com/

9 https://www.spiked-online.com/2023/05/30/phillip-schofield-and-the-moral-wasteland-of-itv/. Accessed 1 June 2023.

10 https://www.allsides.com/news-source/spiked-media-bias. Accessed 30 May 2023.

11 On the emergence of identity on social science, see, Andrew J. Weigert, “Identity: Its Emergence within Sociological Psychology”, Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Fall 1983), pp. 183-206.

12 Sinisa Malesevic, Identity as Ideology, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, p. 16.

13 Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper “Beyond "Identity“”, Theory and Society, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Feb. 2000), pp. 1-47.

14 Ibid p .2

15 Ibid, pp. 5,6.

16 Ibid, p. 4.

17 Malesevic, p. 17.

18 Malesevic, p. 74.

19 Maria Sobolewska, Robert Ford, Brexitland: Identity, Diversity and the Reshaping of British Politics, Cambridge, CUP, 2020.

20 Ibid, p. 5.

21 Ezra Klein, Why We're Polarized, New York, Avid Reader Press, 2021, p. 14.

22 Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, (1963), NY, Simon and Schuster, 2009

23 Ibid., p .3.

24 Charles Taylor Multiculturalism: examining the politics of recognition, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1994, p. 36, my italics.

25 Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference, (1990) Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2022, p. 157.

26 Taylor, Multiculturalism, p. 39

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid., p. 40.

31 Ibid., p. 61.

32 Ibid., p. 64.

33 Ibid., p. 65

34 Most recently, for instance, Walter Benn Michaels; Adolph Reed, Jr, No Politics but Class Politics, NY, Eris, 2023.

35 Slavoj Žižek, “Class Struggle Against Classism”, The Philosophical Salon, 10 May 2021, https://thephilosophicalsalon.com/class-struggle-against-classism/, accessed 23 August 2023.

36 Nancy Fraser, “From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a “Postsocialist” Age”(1997), in Kevin Olson(ed), Adding Insult to Injury, Nancy Fraser Debates her Critics, London, Verso, 2008, p. 39.

37 Ibid p. 10.

38 Ibid, pp. 10-11

39 See for instance, Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal. After Identity Politics, New York, HarperCollins, 2017, or Susan Neiman, Left Is Not Woke, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2023.

40 See Taylor p. 38.

41 Klein, p. 13.

42 Ibid.

43 Iris Marion Young, Inclusion and Democracy, Oxford, OUP, 2000, p. 107.

44 Ibid.

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Françoise Orazi, « Delineating “Identity” in Politics: Conflicting Definitions and Contexts »Observatoire de la société britannique, 30 | 2023, 13-29.

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Françoise Orazi, « Delineating “Identity” in Politics: Conflicting Definitions and Contexts »Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 30 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2024, consulté le 17 juin 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/osb/5998 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/osb.5998

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Françoise Orazi

Professeure de civilisation britannique à l’Université Lumière Lyon 2

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