Identity as a Variable


Abdelal, Rawi E., Yoshiko Margaret Herrera, Alastair Iain Johnston, and Rose McDermott. 2005. “Identity as a Variable”. Copy at
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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. Our paper proposes to solve this longstanding problem by developing the analytical rigor and methodological imagination that will make identity a reliable variable for the social sciences. Such work is important and, indeed, long overdue.

Social identity scholarship suffers from two sets of problems: conceptual issues and coordination gaps. The conceptual problems include the question of how to compare and differentiate types of identities, as well as the question of how to exploit theoretical advances in operationalizing identity as a variable. The other weakness in identity scholarship concerns what we term “coordination” problems. These include a lack of consistency and clarity in defining and measuring identities, a lack of cross–disciplinary and cross–sub–field coordination of identity research, and missed opportunities to take advantage of expanded methodological options. The analytic framework developed in this paper addresses these problems and offers a way forward.

Our paper offers more rigor and 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–mutuallyexclusive 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 paper 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.

Our paper thus offers two ways forward for social scientific work on identity—by developing a more rigorous, more precisely defined analytic framework, and by providing a methodological roadmap for further integrated progress in identity scholarship.

Last updated on 07/14/2016