NEWS11 March 2020

Is identity politics eroding social cohesion?

Media News Public Sector Trends UK

UK – Qualitative research from Jigsaw has explored how the psychological aspects of identity politics – the need to belong, the need for meaning and the need for dignity/respect – manifest in people’s lives.

Speaking on the second day of the Market Research Society’s Impact conference, Peter Totman, head of qual at Jigsaw Research, said: “There are two political forces defining our age – one is populism and one is identity politics. Populism captures our attention as researchers, but what has gone unnoticed is identity politics.”

Imagining that these two groups have more in common that might first appear was a driver for the research, added Totman.

The company held focus groups with two ‘identity’ based groups – comprised of feminists and black activists – as well as with a group representing populism, who were middle-aged male ‘leave’ voters.

For the identity groups, the sense of belonging came through in participants’ comments about women’s shared struggles and a feeling of unity that emerged from women’s marches. Meaning came from a shared ideology, which has a common language around calling out culture and privilege. One of the participants said: “We are all racist in some ways… often unconsciously… the work has just started and may never be finished.” This sense of the work continuing gives people energy and a sense there is something to keep striving for, said Totman.

Thirdly, the need for recognition and dignity emerged in storytelling and the sense that issues such as the ‘male gaze’ are being challenged. Totman said: “The idea of people being listened to is hugely resonant in the world at the moment with the Me Too movement. Also, [there is a sense that] there is more to us than this narrow cipher – we are complex humans.”

In the populist group, participants felt the same drivers of belonging, meaning and recognition/dignity, but it emerged in different ways. Participants spoke “mournfully”about how they didn’t feel they were allowed to express love for their country, said Totman. However, this group lacked the support of an underlying ideology, unlike the identity groups.

While the psychological needs of the two groups are universal, “the delivery varies”, said Totman. “When it comes to how people debate with each other these groups are divided by common psychology.”

Both groups felt loss aversion in the sense that the gains they had felt transitory, so for example, the populist group were worried that Brexit wouldn’t happen while the feminist group felt women’s rights would see a backlash. Both were worried the other side had more power, and this lead to more radical agendas.

There is a clustering around identity, not ideas, that evokes tribalism, according to Totman. In terms of political debate this leads to in/out group behaviour, war-like language and politics as a zero-sum game. “Aggressive defence is easily mistaken for attack,” said Totman.

Totman initially wanted to bring the two groups together for a joint focus group, but this was not possible. “The differences I encountered were so marked I realised I couldn’t bring those two groups together because it would have been a blood bath. I would have been evoking all of that hostility.”

“The two groups are separated by shared psychology and ideological distance, so how can they be brought together? I’m not sure coronavirus is a big enough common enemy to bring them together, but the climate threat could be.”

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