PSR Interviews #11: Rethinking Identity in Political Science – an interview with Scott Weiner and Dillon Stone Tatum

We can’t even say what identity is, we can’t truly understand why it’s having an effect on the mediation of power. We often want to make causal arguments in political science, so this gap is a real problem. Having a better framework for talking about identity would help us have smarter discussions about it as political scientists” – say Scott Weiner and Dillon Stone Tatum. Learn about identity, identity politics and its meaning for political scienece. A fuller analysis of these topics can be found in the PSR article: Rethinking Identity in Political Science.

PSR: What is the most precise definition of identity? And what are its specifics in the field of political science?

Scott Weiner, Dillon Stone Tatum: Identity is essentially our “address” in the social and political world. That’s not a bad definition but it’s vague. In fact, it’s really hard to say exactly what identity is, and that’s why we wrote this piece. This paper found ten different definitions of identity in major political science scholarship over just a 25 year period. And that’s only in political science, not the rest of social science. Different kinds of political science each have great scholarship on identity (we discuss three in the piece), but each kind of identity works totally differently. We can explain precisely why a Prius, a Porsche, and a Model T are all cars, but we can’t say precisely why these three frameworks are all identities. Given how central identity is to political science, that’s a big problem. We’re trying to understand how identity mediates power without knowing what identity is.

You claim that “political scientists lack a common framework for addressing questions about what identity is, how it relates agents with social and political structures, and how it changes over time”. Would a common framework or toolbox benefit social and political science?

Yes, because identity is a central concept of political science. For the most part, our discipline studies why, when, and how some entities get power while others don’t. One way to do that is to look at identities like ethnicity, gender, or nation and see whether being part of one group is a good prediction of getting power or not. But if we can’t even say what identity is, we can’t truly understand why it’s having an effect on the mediation of power. We often want to make causal arguments in political science, so this gap is a real problem. Having a better framework for talking about identity would help us have smarter discussions about it as political scientists. It would also help us create better and more respectful ways of having discussions with and about members of society whose identity is outside of the norm in some way.

In your article, you focused on three dimensions of identity: ethnicity, gender and national identity. Do you consider these three to be the most important dimensions of identity? If so, why?

Ethnicity, gender, and nation are three highly developed subfields of political science with which readers are likely to have familiarity. We picked these three so it would be easier to make our key point that they all work differently, using examples that readers know and to which they can relate. We also are both really fascinated by these particular identities. This paper actually started out as a series of online chat messages about our research, and we realized that our conversations spoke to a larger issue in political science. Our paper is based off a discussion of these three identities but we don’t claim that they’re necessarily the most important. They are, however, very different in how they conceptualize identity, so they happen to be excellent examples of the point we’re making in this paper.

Having a better framework for talking about identity would help us have smarter discussions about it as political scientists

Could you briefly elaborate on your model of elements of identity? How can studying changes and shifts within recognition, visibility and conceptualisation benefit political science?

In considering identity as a political phenomenon, we focused on three elements of identity. First, we focused on recognition—to what degree are one’s identity claims recognized as legitimate by a political community? Second, we looked at visibility—to what degree are attributes associated with one’s identity (i.e., markers of race, gender, ethnicity, etc.) visible and recognizable to others? Third, we considered the issue of conceptualization—to what extent is the identity conceptualized(able) by a socio-political group. The ability to even have debate about terms like “transracialism” are limited, in a sense, by the way we can express identity frames in language in the first place.

Studying shifts is important for understanding the ways that political movements are able to change (or not) social attitudes. The internet’s role, for example, in allowing asexual people to gain more recognition and stronger conceptualization of their identity has implications for LGBTQ+ politics.

You claim that identity is the way we orient ourselves in a given community on the basis of recognizable attributes. What about the identities with dark visibility or low recognition such as in the case of Rachel Dolezal you highlight? Where is the boundary of this debate?

Identity is inherently social and relational—in other words, identity is not just something we can claim about ourselves, it’s something that depends on recognition and visibility. There are two things that the unrecognizable or invisible forms of identity highlight for us: (1) The continuing struggle that some groups and individuals experience in having their lives affirmed by society. It has only been since the 1970s, for instance, that homosexuality was de-pathologized as a psychological diagnosis. Recognition is not a given—it is a site of contentious politics; (2) It allows us to interrogate the why question in regards to non-recognition—in thinking about cases like Rachel Dolezal’s, we were less interested in commenting on the claims she was making than by the conflict that ensued as her identity claims were rejected.

Identity is inherently social and relational—in other words, identity is not just something we can claim about ourselves, it’s something that depends on recognition and visibility.

What are the key contributions your article brings to the field?

The biggest contribution we hope to bring to the field is to create a common frame of reference for diverse research agendas to talk about identity. While identity is a central feature of political research, we found that there were deep sub-disciplinary boundaries that foreclosed dialogue. We want to poke holes in those boundaries, and expand the frontiers of what we can do with a more comprehensive framework.

MORE

Article: Weiner S, Dillon S T (2020), Rethinking Identity in Political Science, Political Studies Review 2021, Vol. 19(3), 464–481.

ABOUT

Scott Weiner is a professorial lecturer in political science at George Washington University. His research focuses on identity politics in the Middle East with a focus on state building, kinship, and gender politics on the Arabian Peninsula. From 2013-2014, he was a Visiting Research Fellow at the American University of Kuwait.

Dillon Stone Tatum is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Francis Marion University. His research focuses on liberalism and world politics, critical security studies, and international political theory.

Questions and production: Eliza Kania, Brunel University London

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