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Identity Politics

Identity Politics throughout the Social Sciences


"The term identity politics is widely used throughout the social sciences and the humanities to describe phenomena as diverse as multiculturalism, the women's movement, civil rights, lesbian and gay movements, separatist movements in Canada and Spain, and violent ethnic and nationalist conflict in postcolonial Africa and Asia, as well as in the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe. The seeds of these partially overlapping conversations are apparent from the very first uses of the term identity politics in the scholarly journals. In 1979, Anspach first used the term identity politics to refer to activism by people with disabilities to transform both self and societal conceptions of people with disabilities. Over the next decade, only three scholarly journal articles employed the term identity politics in their abstracts, to describe (a) ethnicity as a contemporary form of politics (Ross 1982); (b) a form of critical pedagogy that links social structure with the insights of poststructuralism regarding the nature of subjectivity, while incorporating a Marxist commitment to politics (Bromley 1989); and (c) general efforts by status based movements to foster and explore the cultural identity of members (Connolly 1990) By the mid-1990s, references to identity politics as violent ethnic conflict (Meznaric 1993), and nationalism more generally (Alund 1995), emerged. 

In addition to using the term identity politics to describe any mobilization related to politics, culture, and identity, scholarly analyses have often elided normative political evaluations of identity politics as a political practice with sociological analyses of the relationship between identity and politics. Brubaker & Cooper (2000) argue that the literature on identity politics has too many protagonists and not enough analysts. Lichterman (1999) calls identity politics "a slippery term" (p. 136), while Bickford (1997) claims that the concept has developed more as a critique of certain political practices than as a coherent area of study. Fraser (1997, p. 113) concludes that "the expression 'identity polities' is increasingly used as a derogatory synonym for feminism, anti-racism, and anti-heterosexism." This review shows that beneath the normative political claims about identity politics lie competing theoretical ways to understand the relationship between experience, culture, identity, politics, and power. Although I occasionally reference multiculturalism and ethnic/nationalist movements and suggest some benefits to research that crosses these divides, I focus this review on research that views identity politics as the activism engaged in by status-based social movements and do not address those movements based on ethnic/nationalist status."

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Individual views espoused in this article/paper do not necessarily reflect the views of the Portmir Foundation and have been included to represent the variety of different opinions that may exist on a single issue. In accordance with our democratic charter, the Portmir Foundation values debate in a spirit of mutual tolerance and understanding, even when such views contradict those of the Foundation. 

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