Tuesday, July 16, 2019 | ePaper

Go Ahead And Rock the Boat

Key Mechanisms Behind Identity Politics

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Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin :
Despite appearances, the powerful don't simply think politics is all about who gets more. At least, they don't behave as if they do. They certainly are concerned with their material standing relative to other groups. They recognize that reducing inequality means they get less and others get more. But that's not all they're concerned about.
They also care about their image, in particular, their moral image. People who highly identify as members of an advantaged group behave, at times, as if the most important thing is to make sure that they don't look responsible for maintaining an unjust social order. They're happy to dole out a few more slices of cake, so long as they can remain perched atop their moral high horse.
This is the main takeaway from recently published research looking at the reactions of members of advantaged groups to various forms of collective action by members of disadvantaged groups. The results suggest that their support is driven by two main factors: (1) whether the action will improve the social position of members of the disadvantaged group and (2) whether it will damage the social image of members of the advantaged group.
This finding is especially relevant, as the researchers note, because social change is unlikely to come about without some level of support from the privileged. Those in positions of power have the greatest ability to make things happen. The trick, it seems, is to challenge the status quo in a manner that doesn't appear to call into question the overall legitimacy of the relevant social hierarchy or the role those in positions of power have in creating and maintaining it.
The researchers conducted 10 experiments in four different intergroup contexts, involving 1,349 subjects from four countries. Their focus was on the reactions of members of advantaged groups to different forms of collective action by members of disadvantaged groups.
They distinguished between "normative" actions, which accorded with social norms, and "non-normative" actions, which transgressed them. A collective action was deemed normative or non-normative depending on how members of the advantaged group perceived it along two dimensions: (a) normality and appropriateness given the current system and (b) blaming the advantaged for inequality.
The researchers' central finding is that "the type of social change strategy enacted by low-status groups (i.e., normative vs. non-normative actions) shapes support for collective action among high-status group members varying in identification with the ingroup."
Compared to those who did not highly identify as members of the advantaged group, those who did were less supportive of non-normative action aimed at benefiting members of a disadvantaged group.
There was no discernible difference in support when it came to normative action. The researchers explain that "the effects of identification are due to differential sensitivity among high and low identifiers to the expected outcomes of normative and non-normative actions." Those who highly identify with the advantaged group are less supportive of non-normative action, it seems, because it is perceived as damaging to the legitimacy of their group's privileged social standing.
Collective action that flouts social norms appears to involve blaming the advantaged. It threatens the legitimacy of the social hierarchy
These results provide robust evidence that identity matters in contemporary politics. However, the limitations of this particular set of studies are worth keeping in mind, both in order to guard against hyperbole and to identify fruitful avenues for further research.
There are at least three notable limitations. First, these studies speak only to the role of identity in the political behavior of the advantaged. They do not, in themselves, tell us if or how those who identify as members of disadvantaged groups behave when the legitimacy of their identities are called into question. This would be one interesting area for further inquiry.
Second, though the researchers identify two mechanisms at play in the shifting behaviors of those who highly identify as members of an advantaged group-perceived gains by members of the disadvantaged group and damage to the social image of the advantaged group-their results do not explain precisely how these mechanisms interact to yield the relevant behaviors.
Though they find that lack of support for non-normative action is mainly driven by the perception that it damages the advantaged group's social image, there are at least two different ways this might come about.
It could be that considerations having to do with reducing inequality is simply trumped by considerations having to do with maintaining the legitimacy of one's group identity when that identity is called into question. On the other hand, it could be that threats to the legitimacy of one's identity make the claims of the disadvantaged look different and less weighty. It would be interesting to figure out precisely how support or lack thereof for inequality-reducing action is generated by the psychological mechanisms uncovered here.
A third limitation is that these studies do not speak to the extent of the behavioral shift they identify. These results pertain to contexts in which members of an advantaged group either support or not collective action aimed at benefitting a disadvantaged group. However, it would be interesting to know whether similar patterns arise in contexts where members of an advantaged group are faced with the decision of whether or not to support collective action aimed at benefiting members of a disadvantaged group as well as themselves.
There has been a great deal of discussion, especially recently, of this sort of phenomenon-oftentimes, it comes in the form of handwringing about members of the so-called "white working class" voting against their own material interests. Are people who identify as members of a historically advantaged group likely to oppose non-normative collective action aimed at benefiting members of a disadvantaged group, even when this action aims at social changes from which they, too, would benefit?
The research offers some suggestive avenues for exploring what seems to be a key element of our political moment: the inner workings of identity politics. Hopefully these findings spur more studies aimed at gaining a better understanding of the dynamics at play, both in our heads and on the world stage.
(Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Sam Houston State University).

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