Identity politics

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Identity politics are political arguments that focus upon the interest and perspectives of groups with which people identify. Identity politics includes the ways in which people's politics may be shaped by aspects of their identity through loosely correlated social organizations. Examples include social organizations based on race, class, religion, gender, ethnicity, ideology, nation, sexual orientation, culture, information preference, history, musical or literary preference, medical conditions, professions or hobbies. Not all members of any given group are necessarily involved in identity politics.

The term identity politics and movements linked to it came into being during the latter part of the 20th century. It can most notably be found in class movements, feminist movements, gay and lesbian movements, disability movements, ethnic movements and post colonial movements. Identity politics is open to wide debate and critique.[1] Minority influence is a central component of identity politics. Minority influence is a form of social influence whereby a majority is influenced by the beliefs or behavior of a minority. Unlike other forms of influence this usually involves a personal shift in private opinion. This personal shift in opinion is called conversion.


The term identity politics has been used in political and academic discourse since the 1970s.[citation needed] One aim of identity politics has been to empower those feeling oppressed to articulate their felt oppression in terms of their own experience—a process of consciousness-raising that distinguishes identity politics from the liberal conception of politics as driven by individual self-interest.

Identity politics is a phenomenon that arose first at the radical margins of liberal democratic societies in which human rights are recognized, and the term is not usually used to refer to dissident movements within single-party or authoritarian states. The elements of identity politics can be seen to be present in many of the earliest statement of feminists, ethnic movements and gay and lesbian liberation. Formally, it may even be taken back to Marx's earliest statements about a class becoming conscious of itself and developing a class identity. Class Identity politics were first described briefly in an article by L. A. Kauffman, who traced its origins to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an organization of the civil-rights movement in the USA in the early and mid-1960s.[2] Although SNCC invented many of the fundamental practices, and various black power groups extended them, they apparently found no need to apply a term. Rather, the term emerged when others outside the black freedom movements—particularly, the race- and ethnic-specific women's liberation movements, such as Black feminism— began to adopt the practice in the late 1960s. Traces of identity politics can also be found in the early writings of the modern gay movement such as Dennis Altman's Homosexual: Liberation/Oppression,[3][4] Jeffrey Week's Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the Present, and [5] Ken Plummer's ed The Making of the Modern Homosexual. One of the older written examples of it can be found in the Combahee River Collective Statement of April 1977, subsequently reprinted in a number of anthologies,[6] and Barbara Smith and the Combahee River Collective have been credited with coining the term; which they defined as "a politics that grew out of our objective material experiences as Black women.[7] Some groups have combined identity politics and Marxist social class analysis and class consciousness—the most notable example being the Black Panther Party—but this is not necessarily characteristic of the form. Another example is MOVE, who mixed black nationalism with anarcho-primitivism (a radical form of green politics based on the idea that civilization is an instrument of oppression, advocating a return to hunter gatherer society) and the related idea neo-luddism.

During the 1980s, the politics of identity became very prominent and was linked with new social movement activism.[8]

Debates and criticism[edit]

Nature of the movement[edit]

The term identity politics has been applied retroactively to varying movements that long predate its coinage. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. discussed identity politics extensively in his book The Disuniting of America. Schlesinger, a strong supporter of liberal conceptions of civil rights, argues that a liberal democracy requires a common basis for culture and society to function.

In his view, basing politics on group marginalization fractures the civil polity, and therefore works against creating real opportunities for ending marginalization. Schlesinger believes that "movements for civil rights should aim toward full acceptance and integration of marginalized groups into the mainstream culture, rather than...perpetuating that marginalization through affirmations of difference."[9]

LGBT issues[edit]

The earlier stages of the development of the modern gay movement were closely linked with identity politics. In order for gay and lesbian issues to be placed on the political agenda, gays and lesbians had to identify publicly with their homosexuality and 'come out' (See Weeks). By the 1980s, the politics of identity had become central to the gay movement's struggles. This opened the path for change but also critique. Some LGBT rights activists, along with queer theorists, came to criticize the identity politics approach to gay rights, particularly the approach based around the terms and concepts of queer theory. Other queer activists, drawing on the work of Judith Butler, stress the importance of not assuming an already existing identity, but of remaking and unmaking identities through performance. There are also conscientious supporters of identity politics who have developed their stances on the basis of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's work, and have described some forms of identity politics as strategic essentialism, a form which has sought to work with hegemonic discourses to reform the understanding of "universal" goals.

Liberal-reformist gay and lesbian activists continue to work for full acceptance of gays and lesbians in the institutions and culture of mainstream society, but queer activists instead make a point of declaring themselves outside of the mainstream and having no desire to be accepted by or join it. The former criticize the latter's approach as counterproductive and as perpetuating discrimination and societal attitudes against LGBT people, while the latter counter that the former seek to subsume LGBT identities in order to capitalize upon other forms of (racial, economic, geographical) privilege.[10][11]

Homogeneity and essentialism[edit]

Some critics counter that the intolerant homogeneity of mainstream culture is precisely the fact that makes full acceptance impossible and that social justice movements should aim toward not integration but rather multicultural pluralism, without recourse to the types of oppressive homogeneity now at play.[citation needed] (See the work of Urvashi Vaid for a discussion of the perils of homogeneity.)

Other critics of identity politics claim that it tends toward essentialism, arguing that some of its proponents assume or imply that gender, race, or other group characteristics are fixed or biologically determined traits (or, in the case of gay liberation, based on the Freudian idea that all are driven by our sexuality), rather than social constructions. Such criticism is most common with regard to groups based on claims of gender or sexual orientation, where the nature of the defining trait is in dispute.

Shared identity[edit]

Still other critics have argued that groups based on shared identity, other than class (e.g.: religious identity or neurological wiring), can divert energy and attention from more fundamental issues, such as class conflict in capitalist societies. Even those who support gay rights, freedom of religion or ending racism, for instance, may consider these side issues at best.

Such arguments have been expressed by a number of writers, such as Eric Hobsbawm,[12] Todd Gitlin,[13] Michael Tomasky, Richard Rorty, Sean Wilentz, Robert W. McChesney, Bart Landry, and Jim Sleeper.[14] Hobsbawm, in particular, has criticized nationalisms, and the principle of national self-determination adopted internationally after World War I, since national governments are often merely an expression of a ruling class or power, and their proliferation was a source of the wars of the 20th century. Hence Hobsbawm argues that identity politics, such as queer nationalism, Islamism, Cornish nationalism or Ulster Loyalism are just other versions of bourgeois nationalism.

In art and culture[edit]

Many artistic and cultural movements have articulated identity politics, such as the hip hop, skinhead and punk subcultures. Identity politics have been expressed in music genres (e.g. hip hop music, punk rock, reggae, soul music), film and fanzines. Punk rock genres that have been centred on identity politics include anarcho-punk, queercore and riot grrrl. Aside from gender and sexual orientation, class identity has been expressed in Oi!, originating in the working class East End of London.

Skinhead identity has traditionally been based on class, with many skinhead reggae, 2 Tone, Oi! and hardcore punk songs expressing working class pride and racial unity. When soul and reggae lyrics became expressions of black nationalism and/or the Rastafari movement, many white skinheads were alienated at the shift in lyrical themes. However, White power skinheads are focused on white pride, and their music and zines reflect this. White power rock music, also known as Rock Against Communism, often has lyrics about white pride and white separatism.

Hip Hop music has expressed identity politics in the form of black and Chicano nationalism, while Homo hop has expressed Queer identity politics, much like queercore has in the punk and indie scene. Hip-Hop activism draws on black liberation movements but also encompasses issues like environmentalism.

Lowrider culture was made into an artistic expression of identity politics by the Royal Chicano Air Force, an organisation established to support equality for Mexican Americans. Some lowriders have made murals celebrating Chicano culture and history.

Disco, though considered vapid by some (especially the punks, mods, etc.), was heavily tied to the gay rights movement, along with the black, feminist and Latino ones. It has been noted that British punk rock critics of disco were very supportive of the pro-black/anti-racist reggae genre.[15] Robert Christgau and Jim Testa have said that there were legitimate artistic reasons for being critical of disco.[16][17]

Examples of identity politics[edit]

The rise of the right-wing in Europe, particularly following the elections to the 2009 European Parliament, was seen as an establishment of identity as reflected against the "other" minorities.[citation needed] A Le Monde/IFOP poll in January 2011 conducted in France and Germany found that a majority felt Muslims have "not integrated properly," something the paper called "Islam and integration: French and Germans admit failure." An analyst for IFOP said the results indicated something "beyond linking immigration with security or immigration with unemployment, to linking Islam with a threat to identity."[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Heyes, Cressida. "Identity Politics". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Metaphysics Research Lab, CSLI, Stanford University). Retrieved 2012-11-11 
  2. ^ L. A. Kauffman, "The Anti-Politics of Identity," Socialist Review (Oakland, Calif.) 20, no. 1 (January–March 1990), 67–80.
  3. ^ Altman, Dennis (1971). Homosexual: Liberation/Oppression. Australia. 
  4. ^ Weeks, Jeffrey (1977). Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the Present. London: Quartet. 
  5. ^ Plummer, Ken (1981). The Making of the Modern Homosexual. London: Hutchinson. 
  6. ^ See, e.g., Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, ed. Zillah R. Eisenstein (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978)
  7. ^ Harris, Duchess. From the Kennedy Commission to the Combahee Collective: Black Feminist Organizing, 1960–1980, in Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement, eds: Bettye Collier-Thomas, V. P. Franklin, NYU Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8147-1603-2, p. 300
  8. ^ Calhoun, Craig (1994). Social Theory and the Politics of Identity. Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-55786-473-4. 
  9. ^ M.A. Chaudhary & Gautam Chaudhary, Global Encyclopaedia of Political Geography, New Delhi, 2009, ISBN 978-81-8220-223-7, p.112
  10. ^ 27067
  11. ^ 27052
  12. ^ articles
  13. ^, Thinktank transcript 235
  14. ^
  15. ^ Disco, Allmusic
  16. ^ Christgau, Robert. "Pazz & Jop 1978: New Wave Hegemony and the Bebop Question". Retrieved May 4, 2014. 
  17. ^ Mark Andersen; Mark Jenkins (1 August 2003). Dance of days: two decades of punk in the nation's capital. Akashic Books. pp. 17–. ISBN 978-1-888451-44-3. Retrieved 21 March 2011. 
  18. ^ "European poll: An Islamic threat?". Al Jazeera. 6 Jan 2011. Retrieved 2012-10-19. 


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