Book chapter (electronic)

The Role of Social Identity in Decisions to Protest (2020)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics


Social identity processes play a crucial role in the dynamics of protest, whether as antecedents, mediators, moderators, or consequences. Yet, identity did not always feature prominently in the social or political psychology of protest. This has changed—a growing contingent of social and political psychologists is involved now in studies of protest behavior, and in their models the concept of identity occupies a central place. Decades earlier students of social movements had incorporated the concept of collective identity into their theoretical frameworks. The weakness of the social movement literature on identity and contention, though, was that the discussion remained predominantly theoretical. Few seemed to bother about evidence. Basic questions such as how collective identity is formed and becomes salient or politicized were neither phrased nor answered. Perhaps social movement scholars did not bother too much because they tend to study contention when it takes place and when collective identities are already formed and politicized.Collective identity in the social movement literature is a group characteristic in the Durkheimian sense. Someone who sets out to study that type of collective identity may look for such phenomena as the group's symbols, its rituals, and the beliefs and values its members share. Groups differ in terms of their collective identity. The difference may be qualitative, for example, being an ethnic group rather than a gender group; or quantitative, that is, a difference in the strength of collective identity. Social identity in the social psychological literature is a characteristic of a person. It is that part of a person's self-image that is derived from the groups he or she is a member of. Social identity supposedly has cognitive, evaluative, and affective components that are measured at the individual level. Individuals differ in terms of social identity, again both qualitatively (the kind of groups they identify with) and quantitatively (the strength of their identification with those groups). The term "collective identity" is used to refer to an identity shared by members of a group or category. Collective identity politicizes when people who share a specific identity take part in political action on behalf of that collective.The politicization of collective identity can take place top-down (organizations mobilize their constituencies) or bottom-up (participants in collective action come to share an identity). In that context causality is an issue. What comes first? Does identification follow participation, or does participation follow identification?