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Identity and ideology

How identity gives people power and has power over people. How intersectionality is a more nuanced look at identity.
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Your identity has power – including over you.

Identity can divide people or help them organise together, and is a key concern when facing global challenges.

Here, we will review a few aspects of how our own identity comes to be, and how we draw on them in the communities we care about.

In their book Democracies Divided, Carothers and O’Donohue (2019) argue that clashes between social identities are related to a diverse spectrum of identity being reduced to stark binaries in how we live (political) life: it is too often ‘us vs them’.

They argue this division is a manifestation of two forms of identity:

  • Ascriptive identity: The identities we’re born into, such as race, gender, or ethnicity, which have direct material implications on how our lives will play out in terms of power and privilege. Notably, religion and national affiliations have historically been catalysts for both collaboration and conflict (Carothers & O’Donohue 2019: p. 258; Gutmann 2003: p. 117).
  • Ideological identity: A more modern phenomenon where ideology, or our set of beliefs about the socio-political world (Freeden 1998), fuses with our ascriptive identity. This merges political discourse with identity, opening the door to profound forms of polarisation, as described by Malka and Lelkes (2010: p. 156, 181).

Carothers and O’Donohue caution that when values become synonymous with identity, the democratic principle of compromise is endangered. For instance, economic views transform from mere opinions to integral facets of one’s identity (2019: p. 260). This confluence of thinking around ideology and identity has transformed ‘identity politics’ into new forms of polarisation.

Amidst this polarisation of identity in pursuit of political impact or power, marginalised peoples have been able to use the politics of identity to mobilise and gain leverage for social justice, while elite actors capitalise on these differences to drive further division. For example, think about who on social media drives political narratives for parties, public, and broadcast media.

Amidst polarising identity politics, there are ways to reconsider the nuance of identity and the impact it can have on individuals’ power in systems. For instance, certain ascriptive (and ideological!) identities connote privilege while others accrue stigma.

Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term ‘intersectionality’ to underscore the overlapping nature of identities, and how systems might be unable to see them. As a law professor writing about a specific discrimination case, she saw and sought to point out how the judicial system in America couldn’t handle someone being both a woman and Black. The system didn’t understand the intersection of identity, where race and gender met in a specific type of disadvantage.

Put another way, Crenshaw might look at a system of patriarchy and argue that ‘the violence that many women experience is often shaped by other dimensions of their identities, such as race and class’ (1991: p. 242). There is nuance to identity that can be lost in an identity politics that creates stark categories and us vs them dichotomies.

Crenshaw discusses intersectionality some more in the following talk:

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Consider ideas around collective politics, like union movements. Traditionally, group solidarity equated unity with uniformity. Labour becomes a unitary category that serves to bind people into a political group. The logic is that, based on a uniform set of experiences (in this case, as workers), you can assert an identity with a specific set of politics.

There is power in defining the category or unit of politics in this way. Workers in Melbourne are credited with offering the world the first eight-hour workday without reduction in pay (Lewis et al 2006: p. 57). Here, shared goals come from a shared salient political identity.

But what happens when the assumed identities that people hold are actually multifaceted and ever-changing? This can make organising to solve global challenges difficult. We will return to this topic later in this section.


Reflect on your own identity, and how it positions you in the world. Consider the following questions:

  • How has your identity empowered you?
  • How has your identity hindered you?
  • How has your identity changed since its ‘ascriptive’ beginnings?
  • Who and what decides your identity? Is it other individuals or the contexts around you?

Respond to at least two of these questions in the comments section.


Carothers, T., & O’Donohue, A. (Eds.). (2019). Democracies divided : the global challenge of political polarization. Brookings Institution Press.

Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241–1299.

Freeden, M. (1998). Ideology. In The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Routledge.

Gutmann, A. (2003). Identity in democracy. Princeton University Press.

Lewis, W., Balderstone, S., & Bowman, J. (2006). Events That Shaped Australia. New Holland.

Malka, A., & Lelkes, Y. (2010). More than Ideology: Conservative–Liberal Identity and Receptivity to Political Cues. Social Justice Research, 23(2–3), 156–188.

© Deakin University
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