Mark Howard Ross, “Culture and identity in comparative political analysis”, in Mark Lichbach and Alan Zuckerman (eds.), Comparative Politics: Structure, Culture, Rationality (1997), pp. 42-80.

‘Summary: discusses the use of identity in social analysis.


Important Insight: “identity” should not be used as a category of analysis, nor should it be conceptualized as something all people have, seek, construct, and negotiate. Whatever its suggestiveness, whatever its indispensability in certain practical contexts, “identity” is reified, too ambiguous, and too torn between “hard” and “soft” meanings, essentialist connotations and constructivist qualifiers, to serve well the demands of social analysis. Alternative terms can do the same work without the ambiguity, contradictoriness, and confusion of ‘identity’ as it is currently used.


Terms to use instead:

*identification (of the self) and identification and categorization of oneself by others: these are active, processural terms which call to mind particular acts of identification and categorization performed by particular identifiers and categorizers.

*self-understanding and social location: one’s sense of who one is, of one’s social location, and of how (given the first two) one is prepared to act.

*commonality (the sharing of common attributes), connectedness (the relational ties that link people together), groupness (the sense of belonging to a distinctive, bounded, solidary group).






*the introduction of “identity” into social analysis occurs in the US in the 60s, largely popularized by Erik Erikson.

*identity is understood in a number of key ways, pointing in sharply different directions:

*as a ground or basis of social or political action, ‘identity’ is often opposed to ‘interest’ in an effort to highlight and conceptualize non-instrumental modes of social and political action.

*as a specifically collective phenomenon, ‘identity’ denotes a fundamental and consequential sameness among members of a group or category.

*as a core aspect of (individual or collective) ‘selfhood’ or as a fundamental condition of social being, ‘identity’ is invoked to point to something allegedly deep, basic, abiding, or foundational

*as a product of social or political action, ‘identity’ is invoked to highlight the processural, interactive development of the kind of collective self-understanding, solidarity, or ‘groupness’ that can make collective action possible.

*as the evanescent product of multiple and competing discourses, ‘identity’ is invoked to highlight the unstable, multiple, fluctuating, and fragmented nature of the contemporary ‘self.’

*strong/hard conceptions of ‘identity’ preserve the common-sense meaning of the term – the emphasis on sameness over time or across persons.

*weak/soft conceptions of identity breaks from the common-sense meaning of the term, stressing that identities are in flux, that multiple identities can exist in the same individual, etc.