A terrible beauty is born: Teaching about Identity Salience and Conflict

12 Pages Posted: 2 Feb 2012 Last revised: 14 Feb 2012

Victor Asal

State University of New York at Albany

Date Written: 2012


There is little debate left about how important identity is in understanding political phenomenon. Whether it is in the study of social movements or ethno-nationalism at either the national (Holloway 2011) or international level (Gurr & Harff, 1994; Gurr, 2000; Fearon & Laitin, 2003), or even broader discussions of identity and culture in international relations (Patten, 2011) and international relations theory (Lapid & Kratochwil 1996, Wendt 1999), identity has continued to move to the center of the study of political phenomenon (Smith 2004). And while there may not be universal agreement on how best to operationalize identity across the array of research agendas that engage it (Abdelal et. al., 2006) as well as on-going debates about how exactly identity interacts and drives political action (Huddy, 2001), an effective vocabulary for the study of identity has emerged that centers on identity formation, identity salience, and identity mobilization. This vocabulary can be used with students to introduce them to the key aspects of identity as a political phenomenon. It is also is not hard to get students to recognize the importance of identity in the politics around them. Whether it is the partisan nature of American politics (Bartle 2009), the situation on the ground in Iraq (Dawisha, 2008) or Afghanistan (Riphenburg, 2005), or any of a wide range of 2 other national and international examples ( for example Johnson, 2008), few students should have to be sold that group identification plays an important role in explaining political behavior. But while it is easy to introduce students to the potential impacts and implications of ethnonationalism, religion, ideology, and/or minority status both in their own countries and overseas, it is more of a challenge to get the vast majority of students, particularly students who see themselves as from the ethnic/religious majority in the largely multicultural United States, to truly grasp the concepts and issues associated with identity formation, salience, and mobilization. In a society where identity can be easily hyphenated, remain multilayered, and where crosscutting identity cleavages are seen as foundational to an open civil society, few students have a deep personal identification with a single, determinate identity that defines their world view, or at least few are aware of such an identity or the power of such. We provide a two part identity exercise that provides an effective mechanism for getting students to engage directly with issues of identity formation, salience, and mobilization. Our exercise first seeks to have students confront their own identity and its salience to themselves. Unlike the well known Invisible Knapsack exercise (McIntosh, 1988), which is designed to specifically make those in majority groups confront their previously unstated or unexplored societal privileges or prejudices, our exercise seeks to address identity without provoking a discussion about the value of any one specific identity over or in direct contrast with another. Next, the exercise utilizes highly mobilized identity rhetoric in the form of nationalist poetry to provide the students with an opportunity to sample quickly but effectively the impact and nature of identity politics in conflict cases, again without provoking a distracting debate about the value of the particular identity or the reality of the cases in question on the ground. Using this exercise, students are able to grapple with their own identity formation, its potential salience and possibility for mobilization, as well as the power of identity mobilization writ large, in a powerful but controlled and relatively apolitical manner that supports teaching about identity as a political phenomenon.

Suggested Citation

Asal, Victor, A terrible beauty is born: Teaching about Identity Salience and Conflict (2012). APSA 2012 Teaching & Learning Conference Paper. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1997599 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1997599

Victor Asal (Contact Author)

State University of New York at Albany ( email )

135 Western Ave
Building, Room 109
Albany, NY 12222
United States

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