Treating Identity as a Variable


Johnston, Alastair Iain, Rawi E Abdelal, and Yoshiko Margaret Herrera. 2001. “Treating Identity as a Variable”. Copy at

Date Published:

Oct 17, 2001


This paper outlines our initial thoughts on treating identity as a variable. It is part of a longer-term project to develop conceptualizations of identity and, more importantly, to develop technologies for observing identity and identity change that will have wide application in the social sciences. Heretofore the usual techniques for analyzing identity have consisted of non-replicable discourse analysis or lengthy individual interviews, at one extreme, or the use of large-N surveys at the other. Yet, much social science research relies on historical and contemporaneous texts. Specifically we hope to develop computer-aided quantitative and qualitative methods for analyzing a large number of textual sources in order to determine the content, intensity, and contestation of individual and collective identities at any particular point in time and space. These methods will allow researchers to use identity in a more rigorous and replicable way as an independent (and dependent) variable in a wide variety of research projects. They will also allow more rigorous testing among identity-based hypotheses—such as those drawing on social identity theory, role theory, or cognitive theories—along with other variables in explaining behavior. Researchers may also be able to develop early warning indicators that might be used to track growing intensity of out-group differentiation, a development which makes subjected groups more susceptible to identity-based mobilization for conflict. Perhaps most important, scholars will, using these methods, be able to observe more systematically the contestation and construction of identity over time.


Paper prepared for presentation at APSA, August 30–September 2, 2001, San Francisco.
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