Foreign Policy Blogs

Identity & Culture; Scholarship & Public Policy

Ivory TowerA recent article in Perspectives on Politics discusses the study of ethnic, religious, national, and other kinds of collective identity.  Specifically, Abdelal, et al note that political scientists use words like "ethnicity", "religious group", and "national identity" without regard to analytic rigor.  They present six different methods to ascertain group affiliation and bring scholarship back to earth. 

Nevertheless, I found myself reflecting less on methodology and more on the authors’ descriptions of the components of identity.   These components are also relevant to domestic lawmaking, diplomacy, and cross-cultural policy prescription. 

A. Collective identity, whether ethnic, national, linguistic, religious, gender-based or class-based, varies in content‚ what it means, for instance, to be Muslim or Kazakh or Irish-American. 

1. Group membership pre-conditions choices that individuals make.  They define boundaries and distinct practices.  These "rules" may be conscious ones, such as deciding to vote in a way that is consistent with one's religious values.  The rules may be fleetingly conscious, such as "I'm just using common sense when I hire people that share my habits and practices".  Or these rules may be so ingrained that each of us does not even realize how much we have assimilated the rules of our identity.

2. Collective identities have social purpose: they provide goals and the means to goals.  For instance, Russian-speakers across the CIS and Eastern Europe can seek others with like language skills to develop international and regional business.

3. Identity also involves comparison and contrast to other groups:  "Unlike these others (fill in the blank), we know how to (fill in another blank). ” I would say that comparison can be a part of strength, but also a means to complacency or discrimination.

4. Last of all, all of these aspects of identity make the frame and a lot of the picture in an individual or collective world view.

B. The next part of their description of identity has to do with its cohesiveness within.  Under global exchange, we can see that the agreement about identity within groups is beginning to change.  In some cases, the fidelity can become more marked; in others, more varied.  With globalization, individuals world-wide find themselves deciding which of their many affiliations are the most important.  As always, force may impel others to affiliate, but good politics makes affiliation compelling.

Ethnicity Map of Central Asia

Recent Identity-Related Central Asian Political Events:
President Rahmon's recent decision about his name and his intent to go on the Hajj bespeaks a change in identity for himself and possibly for national identity.

One could look at Uzbekistan's recent persecution of Akramiya as counter-productive because it tends, through persecution, to highlight the otherness between Akromiya members and the government.  Group persecution also strengthens collective identity under adversity.  Some also say that persecution of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, from the UK to the Russian Federation to Central Asia, falls in this category.

Under identity-based criteria, forbidding Kyrgyzstani girls to attend school in hijab (or in French students or students from Minneapolis, for that matter) focuses identity at the point of the identity marker‚ identity as shown by contrasting dress.  By forbidding school attendance, they miss the opportunity to foster multiple identity: as common speakers, as educated, or as national citizens (Kyrgyz or French or Americans); as readers of Vecherny Bishkek, Le Figaro, or The New York Times

Psychologically, identity is highly ingrained, right after food, water, and shelter.  Policies which seem well-crafted by its authors, may unduly challenge identity and create conflict.  These new policy prescriptions look like a blunt stick, battering those who must live them.  At the same time, politicians cannot always avoid goals obstructed by identity politics, norms, and practices.  But considering identity affiliation can only help craft better policies and procedures. 

Understanding the components of identity also serves to show just how well we know our neighbors and ourselves.  It also helps us analyze how far each of us have come, individually and as part of numerous collectives, in our world relationships and views of others.

See Sourcenotes: General, for Abdelal, et al
Cathryn Cluver writes extensively on France's politicization of identity and its hazards, posted on FPA's Migration blog

Photo:  Trinity College
Map: University of Texas, Perry-Castaneda Library (Map link, Central Asian Newsroom)