Identity politics are a pervasive feature of the modern world. From caste-based politics in India to the rise of xenophobic Christian nationalism in Italy and Hungary, people are mobilising to defend perceived ethnic and religious group identities.
The strength of identity politics is surprising. Post-war modernisation theories argued that inherited ethnic and religious identities would weaken under modernisation, or at least for their “groupness” to diminish.
Urbanisation, education, mobility and communication technology were all supposed to weaken people’s identification with “primordial” ethnic or religious groups.
Challenging modernisation theories
This has not occurred. To be sure, modernisation has radically transformed traditional ways of life, but as social-anthropologist Fredrik Barth noted, members of ethnic groups may retain a strong sense of identity, despite or indeed because of radical changes in their ways of life.
Sociologist Rogers Brubaker emphasises that the “groupness” associated with ethnic and religious categories may actually increase in times of social change if it enables collective action or events threaten shared interests.
The persistence of identity politics worries many people. The problem is not with the diversity of ethnic and religious lifestyles as such – diversity is often acknowledged and even celebrated as a source of variety and innovation. However, attitudes become more anxious – even hostile – when these identity groups become politically mobilised and make claims for rights and recognition. This triggers worries about tribalism, balkanisation, and inter-group polarisation.
Multiculturalism at stake
Part of the difficulty is the sheer heterogeneity of such politics, spanning the spectrum in their ideologies and goals. Cases of fratricidal ethnic and sectarian civil wars tend to receive the most news coverage. Yet, it is important to remember the far larger number of cases where the political mobilisation of ethnic and religious groups is peaceful, benign and indeed progressive.
A prominent example is the political mobilisation of indigenous peoples in Latin America, demanding (and in part achieving) the adoption of what scholar Donna Lee Van Cott calls “multicultural constitutionalism”, with the constitutional recognition of the distinct legal status of indigenous groups. It included rights to self-government, land claims, reversing centuries of economic dispossession, political marginalisation and cultural denigration.
There are vibrant debates in Latin America about how well these reforms actually work in practice. Some critics argue that they involve merely symbolic changes, designed by elites precisely to deflect political attention away from underlying power structures.
Others argue that while providing tangible benefits to indigenous peoples, multicultural reforms are creating new ethnic hierarchies in the process – for example, by excluding Black (Afro-Latino) groups who are not typically considered as “indigenous peoples”.
Yet others argue that they are imprisoning people, labelling them in closed boxes, jeopardising individual freedom. To qualify for new multicultural rights, members of indigenous communities are expected to “act Indian”, which means to follow “authentic” cultural practices. Such an expectation strengthens the hand of conservative or patriarchal leaders within the community who assert the authority to determine what is “authentic”.
Most commentators, however, while acknowledging these risks, argue that the rise of indigenist politics in Latin America has been a positive force, and not just for indigenous peoples, but also for society generally. It has helped to enhance democratic participation among previously excluded groups, to reduce the danger of a return to authoritarian rule, to build legitimacy for the process of democratic consolidation, and indeed to serve as a laboratory for innovative experiments in citizenship.
For example, indigenous peoples’ participation in Colombia’s constitutional reform in 1991 played both a symbolic and catalytic role in the process of democratisation, as discussed in a recent report for the Global Centre for Pluralism.
In this sense, at its best, the new minority politics has been truly transformative – not only for the lives of minorities, but more generally in moving national politics in a more progressive, inclusive, democratic, tolerant, and peaceful direction.
Inspired by such examples from around the world, important international reports have strongly endorsed the idea of a “multicultural democracy”, including the UNDP’s ground-breaking 2004 Human Development Report on “Cultural Liberty in Today’s Diverse World”, and UNESCO’s 2008 “World Report on Cultural Diversity”.
Yet these ideas face strong resistance, including within the international community, in part because for every example of progressive ethnic politics, we can find counter-examples with very different results. Consider indigenist politics in West Africa or Southeast Asia.
In this context, claims of indigeneity or autochthony are often used, not to challenge inherited forms of hierarchy and exclusion, but rather to consolidate them: to permanently relegate “outsiders” from other parts of the country to a second-class status, thereby perpetuating relations of enmity and exclusion, rather than building more inclusive relations of democratic citizenship.
In Southeast Asia, for example, Indonesian politicians have singled out Chinese as being “not indigenous” and therefore as not really to be trusted. The Myanmar military and many Buddhist figures have justified the oppression of Rohingyas on (false) grounds that they are foreigners who should to “return” to Bangladesh.
What looks on the surface to constitute similar forms of “indigenist” politics turn out, in practice, to generate very different political results.
And of course, at the far end of the political spectrum, we have even more violent and intolerant forms of identity politics, grounded in what Arjun Appadurai calls “predatory identities” whose “social construction and mobilisation require the extinction of other, proximate social categories, defined as threats to the very existence of some group”. This is the sort of identity politics that leads to segregation, ethnic cleansing or even genocide.
International and national factors
Why does identity politics take an emancipatory form in some context, and a regressive form in others? The answer sometimes lies with external factors. One obvious example is the way Russia supports rebellious minorities in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, so as to maintain regional hegemony, as discussed by Neil MacFarlane.
Even when well-intentioned, international organisations can often be less than helpful. For example, the EU’s approach to conflict resolution privileges “civic” NGOs over “ethnic” or “sectarian” social movements. This is supposed to promote inclusion, but in fact arguably undercuts the potential for transformative minority politics.
Yet international actors can also have a constructive impact, as indeed they did in Latin America, where international human-rights organisations and global indigenous advocacy networks helped promote inclusive citizenship.
And of course minorities themselves have their own traditions of authority, accountability, debate and tolerance that may affect whether and how they take up the opportunities made available by international networks or domestic political structures.
How these different transnational, national and local factors interact to determine the direction of identity politics is an open question requiring further research.
Struggle against exclusionism
While regressive forms of identity politics remain common, we should also remember that political mobilisations along lines of race, ethnicity, religion or indigeneity are often struggles against exclusionary features of the dominant conceptions of social progress.
Modernisation theorists such as Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba typically assumed that the “public institutions” and “civic identities” they were defending were accessible to all. But we know that these institutions and identities are almost always marked by various cultural hierarchies, valorising certain groups as advanced, civilised and responsible, while denigrating others as supposedly backward and unruly.
Social progress was presented by these institutions as the natural outcome of the history, language and culture of certain groups, while the language, history and culture of other groups were presented as obstacles to progress.
To participate in “public” and “civic” life, members of these stigmatised groups were required to hide or suppress their distinct identities, and to constantly address prejudices about their worth and belonging, as with the Roma populations.
The behaviour of modernising states on this issue is marked by ambivalence and political reversals. For example, India’s affirmative action programs for lower-status tribes and castes fit the hopes of those championing civic equality, but this co-exists with a history of mobilising anti-Muslim violence around visions of a Hindu nation-state.
Even when the institutional rules do not formally discriminate on a racial or religious basis, they still may reproduce these hierarchies of status and recognition.
Insofar as mobilisation around subaltern group identities is intended to challenge these (implicit or explicit) hierarchies, they may be seen, not as evidence of uncivil sectarianism and tribalism, or as a futile rejection of cultural change or cultural influences, but as struggles for more inclusive and effective forms of democracy, citizenship and social progress. We need to be alive to these possibilities.
Of course, this is not to deny that uncivil sectarianism and tribalism also exist, but the challenge is precisely how to differentiate the more emancipatory from the more regressive forms of “primordial” politics.