Identity as a Variable
Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 4, No. 4, pp. 695-711, December 2006
17 Pages Posted: 5 Mar 2008 Last revised: 13 Aug 2009
As scholarly interest in the concept of identity continues to grow, social identities are proving to be crucially important for understanding contemporary life. Despite - or perhaps because of - the sprawl of different treatments of identity in the social sciences, the concept has remained too analytically loose to be as useful a tool as the literature's early promise had suggested. We propose to solve this longstanding problem by developing the analytical rigor and methodological imagination that will make identity a more useful variable for the social sciences. This article offers more precision by defining collective identity as a social category that varies along two dimensions - content and contestation. Content describes the meaning of a collective identity. The content of social identities may take the form of four non-mutually exclusive types: constitutive norms; social purposes; relational comparisons with other social categories; and cognitive models. Contestation refers to the degree of agreement within a group over the content of the shared category. Our conceptualization thus enables collective identities to be compared according to the agreement and disagreement about their meanings by the members of the group. The final section of the article looks at the methodology of identity scholarship. Addressing the wide array of methodological options on identity - including discourse analysis, surveys, and content analysis, as well as promising newer methods like experiments, agent-based modeling, and cognitive mapping - we hope to provide the kind of brush clearing that will enable the field to move forward methodologically as well.
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