In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Identity and Political Behavior

  • Introduction
  • Early and Foundational Contributions
  • Assimilation and Acculturation
  • Intersectionality
  • Methodological Challenges and Strategies
  • Journals
  • Related Bibliographies

Political Science Identity and Political Behavior
Candis W. Smith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0190


Over the past several decades, there has been an increasing amount of attention given to the concept of “identity.” While most political scientists recognize that the social identities they focus on the most—race, ethnicity, gender, class, and, increasingly, sexuality—are socially constructed, they also are cognizant of the fact that these identities have real implications for politics, writ large. Even though these identities are not necessarily rooted in biology, genetics, or objective categories, they do have symbolic, material, and political consequences. With the increased attention given to this concept, there has also been a proliferation of definitions, conceptualizations, and measurement strategies, so much so that some scholars have suggested that “identity is so elusive, slippery, and amorphous that it will never prove to be a useful variable for the social sciences” (Abdelal, et al. 2009, p. 18, cited under Methodological Challenges and Strategies). “Identity” can mean many different things, depending on one’s approach, focus, and outlook; what’s more, an additional layer of complexity arises from the changing nature of (personal and political) identities, many with expanding and contracting boundaries. Despite this contention, and for the sake of our purposes, identity is defined here as a psychological attachment to a group. Despite the sometimes ambiguous nature of the concept of identity, there is a great deal of evidence revealing that the way one self-identifies, or the way that members of a society impose a set of value-laden characteristics on various groups, structures beliefs about who should get what and where power should reside—the very essence of politics. The categories that social scientists focus on most are politically relevant because they tend to be hierarchical; in other words, power, resources, benefits, and disadvantages are doled out on lines of race, ethnicity, gender, class, status within a nation, and even sexuality. Relatedly, a society’s particular political environment can influence the salience of individuals’ personal and groups’ shared identity. As such, these identities will be the focus of this bibliography. The literature on the political effects of being in a particular group or identifying with a particular group is vast. One of the major pushbacks of the literature on identity politics is that it is implicitly essentialist. Essentialism embodies the idea that simply belonging to a group means that one will behave in a certain way or have a specific set of political ideas. However, social scientists, especially those who employ large-N, representative samples, are most likely to argue that they are exposing patterns of behaviors across or within groups, rather than crafting arguments of causality. To be clear, identity is one of the many factors scholars associate with political preferences and behavior, and, of course, not all social scientists believe that identity is even important, or at least not important for all groups at all times. The focus of this article will largely center on the American political context, but since one can better understand the effects of these aforementioned politically relevant identities by examining patterns across the globe, influential texts that focus on how identity and politics interact in other countries will also be incorporated.

Early and Foundational Contributions

Barth 1969 and Tajfel 1981 remain important, foundational contributions to the identity and politics literature, because these works present theories explaining how groups are formed, maintained, and changed, thus providing a theoretical apparatus to launch predictions concerning what happens when social groups and individuals interact with one another. To be specific, there are some works, like Tajfel 1981, that put forward a general social-psychological theory of how attachment to a group can influence attitudes and behavior. Meanwhile, works like Barth 1969 seek to develop theories around group boundaries and identity. This distinction is illustrative of the fact that, in general, there are some works that focus on specific types of identities, while others focus on identity more broadly. Overall, the literature reveals how power, self- and group-interests, prejudice, and interdependence influence how individuals and groups behave in the political realm. Indeed, social identity theory, as presented in Tajfel and Turner 1986, is the lynchpin of the literature, although Huddy 2001 puts forward an attention-worthy critique of both the theory and the oft-used methodological strategies of social psychology. Considering the fact that one’s identity may influence political attitudes and behavior, Jackman and Jackman 1973 examines the link between objective group membership and subjective group attachment (and differentiates between the two). Despite the notion that “identity matters,” Fearon 1999 steps back and takes on the challenge of pinning down an accurate definition of identity, a concept that is used widely by social scientists but rarely defined in many scholarly books and articles.

  • Barth, Fredrik. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Difference. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969.

    In the introduction of his edited volume, Barth challenged scholarly assumptions of rigid and impermeable group “boundaries,” especially ethnic boundaries, and instead shifted scholars’ focus toward the notions that people flow in and out of ethnic groups and, further, that cultural differences can persist despite contact and interdependence.

  • Fearon, James D. “What Is Identity (As We Now Use the Word)?” Working paper (unpublished). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Department of Political Science, 1999.

    Fearon defines and explains a concept that many scholars use casually: identity. He argues that there are two primary ways to conceptualize identity—“social” and “personal”—and suggests that these are not necessarily overlapping. This paper is important due to the fact that defining this broadly used concept is actually quite complicated.

  • Huddy, Leonie. “From Social to Political Identity: A Critical Examination of Social Identity Theory.” Political Psychology 22.1 (2001): 127–156.

    DOI: 10.1111/0162-895X.00230

    Huddy critiques social identity theory (SIT), arguing that it does not shed light on the development of identities. He addresses the constraints of a focal methodological strategy—controlled, laboratory experiments—and argues for a concept based on a continuum of identities from weak to strong, and for a theory that explains how people acquire identities.

  • Jackman, Mary R., and Robert W. Jackman. “An Interpretation of the Relation between Objective and Subjective Social Status.” American Sociological Review 38.5 (1973): 569–582.

    DOI: 10.2307/2094408

    The authors clarify some important concepts in the literature; namely, identification and consciousness. Contending that although many are ascribed a particular identity (an objective identity), many do not necessarily feel an attachment to or have a consciousness of that group membership. They also assess the determinants of subjective social status.

  • Tajfel, Henri. Human Groups and Social Categories. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

    Tajfel asserts that even though the overwhelming majority of individuals’ interactions are one-on-one, people tend to think of themselves as members of particular social groups when they are interacting with others; when we see conflict between individuals, this conflict is representative of conflict between large-scale social and political groups.

  • Tajfel, Henri, and John C. Turner. “The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behavior.” In Psychology of Intergroup Relations. Edited by Stephen Worchel and William G. Austin, 7–24. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1986.

    The authors argue that scholars either focus on interpersonal relations or intergroup relations, without thinking much about how we move from one to the other. Here, they develop social identity theory, helping researchers to explain how and why individuals think of themselves as group members, and why they tend to prefer their group over out-group members.

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