Identity Politics Essay

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Human society abounds with exercises of interpersonal power and identity politics. Power is the ability to get what you want with or without the consent or cooperation of others. Effects of deployed power are observable at the structural and institutional levels of society, and in face-to-face interactions. A discussion of identity politics (sometimes also called relational politics) may focus on either the class or group level or at the level of personal interactions. The subject of interpersonal politics rests within a set of related concepts, such as the distribution of social power, social location and status, and a stratified system in which these interpersonal resources may be valued and utilized for purposes of individual or group advantage over other individuals or groups.

Groups in a stratified system contend for advantage among themselves. Each group seeks to utilize group-level resources in addition to individual characteristics to secure a better or stronger position vis-a-vis the members of other groups. This may not be a result of actual conspiracy: often people acting in their own perceived self-interest serve the desires of others in a similar social position.

In the struggle for relative advantage, winning groups succeed in marketing the notion that their group members are the legitimate holders of a higher social position than members of other social groups. One example from recent American history was the successful claim by men that group characteristics associated with maleness and masculinity were more valuable to society and thereby more deserving of monetary compensation for paid labor than the group attributes of females in equivalent positions.

While some identity politics plays out at the level of the political order and public discourse, individuals also engage in identity politics in face-to-face encounters. Goffman (1959) notes: ”an individual may find himself [sic] making a claim or an assumption which he knows the audience may well reject … when the unguarded request is refused to the individual’s face, he suffers what is called humiliation.” Later (1963) he calls the resulting damage to identity a ”stigma” that is then managed well or poorly by the individual in succeeding interactions.

Blumer (1986 [1969]: Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method) describes how these patterned social interactions are real to their participants and result in mutual expectations for behavior in wider contexts.

One set of themes in the academic literature regarding identity politics involves the practices of identity claiming on the one hand, and altercasting on the other. In identity claiming, an individual seeks to portray herself or himself as a certain kind of person, which portrayal may or may not be met with agreement from others. Altercasting occurs when another or others attempt to impute an identity to an individual, which the individual may or may not embrace. These processes may also operate with groups.

A second theme in research and theory about identity politics is the ongoing debate between essentialist models of identity and social constructionism, also referred to as antiessentialist positions. Debating whether group level characteristics are innate (essential) or socially constructed obscures a basic misunderstanding about the difference between diversity and inequality. Over time, identity politics has shifted somewhat from demands for equality of opportunity toward demands for recognition of and structural access for persons and groups of diverse views and practices.

A third theme that may be observed in the literature on identity and relational politics is the relationship between individual experience, personal status, or social roles and political stance. For example, one might examine the expectation that part of being gay is being political, or that only members of oppressed minorities can legitimately ”belong” in their movements for equality, such as an African-American rights group that only accepts European-American members in ”auxiliary” roles.


  1. Bernstein, M. (2005) Identity politics. Annual Review of Sociology 31 (1): 47—74.
  2. Goffman, E. (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Doubleday, New York.
  3. Goffman, E. (1963) Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled      Prentice   Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
  4. Warnke, G. (2005) Race, gender, and antiessentialist politics. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture & Society 31 (1): 93—116.

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