When are Identities Politically Consequential?

Benjamin G. Bishin and Harry G. Muttram

Identity is among the most common explanations for political outcomes. Despite this, studies of politics often fail to clearly conceptualize or define identity, leading to tremendous variation in the use and application of the concept, much of which is at odds with fundamental tenets of research on the topic. Decades of research in psychology, sociology, and political psychology inform a family of related theories referred to as “Social Identity Theory” (SIT) which demonstrates that identity requires three conditions in order to affect attitudes and behavior: cognitive classification, psychological attachment to the group, and a social context that causes a group identity to become salient. In this paper, we build on these conditions to develop a typology to help identify when and for whom identity should be politically consequential. Using national election data from 2012, 2016 and 2020 we show that failing to differentiate between these concepts, particularly what we call Descriptive and Substantive identity, can lead to mistaken inferences about the behavior of identity groups in politics. Applying insights from SIT also promises to help advance an improved understanding of questions of race, representation, and intersectionality.

Bishin, Benjamin G. and Muttram, Harry G.. "When are Identities Politically Consequential? Identifying Conditions of Descriptive, Substantive, and Allied Group Identity" The Forum, vol. 21, no. 3, 2023, pp. 339-357.