Identity Politics Essay

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Identity politics refers to political activism of various social movements including, but not limited to, the civil rights movement, feminist movements, gay and lesbian movements, ethnic separatist movements for political recognition, self-determination, and elimination of discrimination. The term suggests that people who have suffered from actual or perceived social injustice can share a collective consciousness that stimulates them to take further action to advance their particular group’s interests. In the social sciences, identity politics refers to any social mobilization related to politics, identity, and culture. Depending on the school of thought, the term sometimes means cultural activism, other times political activism, and sometimes both. In any case, however, identity politics focuses on the contrast between the assumed social, political, and occupational privileges of the dominant group as compared with perceived discrimination against the oppressed group.

Historical Synopsis

During the 1960s, unprecedented large-scale political movements—such as second wave feminism, civil rights movements, gay and lesbian liberation activism, and the American Indian movements—launched their attack on the systemic injustices and inequalities that alienated them. These social movements developed a rich literature of questions about the nature, origin, and future of the particular identities traditionally left out of studies. Identity politics as a base for collective behavior was closely connected to the idea that some social groups were historically oppressed because of their particular identities; for example, one’s identity as a woman or as a Native American made him or her vulnerable to cultural imperialism (including stereotyping, stigmatizing, erasure, or labeling), violence, exploitation, marginalization, or powerlessness.

Defenders of identity politics called for new analyses of oppression and gave voice to those long silenced as they sought to reconstruct, redescribe, and transform the dominant discourse that stigmatized particular minority group(s). Intersections of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and ethnicity were the bases of new identities that began to draw the attention of social scientists. Although the description of identity politics goes back to intellectual writings of famous critics such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Frantz Fanon, sociologist Renee R. Anspach first employed the term in 1979. For the past several decades, however, the phenomenon of identity politics attracted numerous scholars. This focus on cultural identities marked a significant shift from the economically and politically based analyses that had long dominated the social sciences. Identity-based movements became the “new social movements” in sociology literature and drew the interest of both U.S. and European scholars. Works of Alain Touraine and Alberto Melucci, for example, hypothesized that the new social movements were “identity oriented” rather than “strategy oriented,” and these “expressive” movements were partially a product of the information age and postindustrial era of the Western, developed societies.

Critics of Identity Politics

Identity politics as a base for organized behavior and a set of political philosophical positions draws criticism from various divergent schools of thought, including liberalism, Marxism, and post-structuralism. Criticism of identity politics dates back to the 1970s when scholars began systematically outlining and defending the philosophical underpinnings of identity politics.

Obscurity of the Term

Critics argue that use of the phrase identity politics as popular rhetoric belies more possible analytical explanatory power of the term. Because the term is primarily descriptive rather than explanatory, rigorous empirical analyses of identity politics are absent in the field. Using or misusing identity politics as a blank term invokes a range of tacit political implications, making identity claims by some early political activists seem lacking in analytical content, misleadingly totalizing, and un-nuanced. As the notion of identity has become indispensable in contemporary political discourse, even as the public rhetoric of identity politics empowered the new social movement activism, it failed to produce coherent theoretical analyses on political inclusiveness and models of the self. In this regard, identity politics increasingly became a derogatory synonym for anti-racism, feminism, and anti-heterosexism.

Critics From the Right

Critics from the political right claim that it is inappropriate for an identity-based group to expect an enumeration of unprecedented rights. Particularly for Enlightenment liberal democratic theory, if a “right” extends to only a portion of society, it is no longer a right but a “privilege.” Thus, from the point of view of the political right, identity politics does not contend for “rights” as certain minority groups claim; instead, it functions as rhetoric to strengthen the discourses of some interest groups that demand special privileges.

Critics From the Left

Marxists, both orthodox and revisionist, often interpret the perceived ascendancy of identity politics as representing the end of radical materialist critique. For these critics, identity politics is factionalizing and depoliticizing, drawing attention away from the ravages of late capitalism toward superstructural cultural accommodations that hinder the reality of unchanged economic structures. A parallel criticism of identity politics comes from the radical leftists, who argue that identity politics unnecessarily divides the working class, who are the agents of the revolution against capitalism. As a result, identities are pitted against identities, creating an ideal condition for the ruling class.

“Queer” Dissent

Some lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists criticize the identity politics approach on the basis of the argument that identity politics has marginalized LGBT people rather than emancipating them. Although LGBT activists employed an “identity politics” approach to gain mainstream culture’s full recognition of sexual orientation freedom, their strategy essentially declared themselves as outside of the mainstream. These activists contend that identity politics is a counterproductive strategy, perpetuating discrimination and societal prejudices against LGBT people.

Post-Structuralist Challenge

Post-structuralist criticism of identity politics is perhaps the most philosophically developed and profound challenge to date. Post-structuralists claim that identity politics fallaciously regards actors as metaphysics of substance; that is, cohesive, self-identical subjects that can be identified and reclaimed from oppression. This essentialist position, they suggest, misrepresents both the psychology of identity and its political significance.

The alternative view offered by post-structuralists is that the subject is constantly reconstructed and redefined as a product of discourse. The post-structuralist view of agency reiterates the mutual construction of the opposites, as self versus other and identity versus difference. The danger of identity politics, then, is that it reifies “self” as a category of analysis, which is, rather, a category of practice, fluid, and always subject to interpretation.

Future Directions

Research on identity politics raises significant questions on individual experiences, cultural mobilization, and sociopolitical movements. Scholars of collective action have recently paid more attention to the complex nature of relationships between actors’ perceptions, preferences, and strategies and their identities. Analysts of identity politics, as Mary Bernstein suggests, should be careful when they assume that social movement actors’ strategic deployment of their identities shows the revelation of the identity in essentialist ways. The depiction and reconstruction of essentialist identities might not indicate that the actors are naive to realize that these identities are socially constructed; rather, it can reveal the dynamic of relationship between identities and strategies. In this regard, post-structuralist criticism of identity politics is in need of reassessment. In any case, the debate over identity politics invites scholars of all sorts to investigate how local discourses are produced, perceived, and consequently realized in the actors’ life-worlds, which only in-depth case studies can explore.

Bibliography:

  1. Bernstein, Mary. 2005. “Identity Politics.” Annual Review of Sociology 31:47-74.
  2. Butler, Judith. [1990] 1999. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.
  3. Calhoun, Craig, ed. 1994. Social Theory and Politics of Identity. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
  4. Larana, Enrique, Hank Johnston, and Joseph R. Gusfield, eds. 1994. New Social Movements: From Ideology to Identity. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  5. Monroe, Kristen R., James Hankin, and Renee B. Van Vechten. 2000. “The Psychological Foundations of Identity Politics.” Annual Review of Political Science 3:419-47.
  6. Ryan, Barbara, ed. 2001. Identity Politics in the Women’s Movement. New York: New York University Press.
  7. Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr. 1998. The Disuniting of America. New York: Norton.

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