Perspectives on Politics

Identity as a Variable

Rawi  Abdelal  a1 , Yoshiko M.  Herrera  a2 , Alastair Iain  Johnston  a3 and Rose  McDermott  a4
a1 Harvard Business School (E-mail:
a2 Government Department, Harvard University (E-mail:
a3 Government Department, Harvard University (E-mail:
a4 Political Science Department, University of California at Santa Barbara (E-mail:

Article author query
abdelal r   [Google Scholar] 
herrera ym   [Google Scholar] 
johnston ai   [Google Scholar] 
mcdermott r   [Google Scholar] 


As scholarly interest in the concept of identity continues to grow, social identities are proving to be crucially important for understanding contemporary life. Despite—or perhaps because of—the sprawl of different treatments of identity in the social sciences, the concept has remained too analytically loose to be as useful a tool as the literature's early promise had suggested. We propose to solve this longstanding problem by developing the analytical rigor and methodological imagination that will make identity a more useful variable for the social sciences. This article offers more precision by defining collective identity as a social category that varies along two dimensions—content and contestation. Content describes the meaning of a collective identity. The content of social identities may take the form of four non-mutually-exclusive types: constitutive norms; social purposes; relational comparisons with other social categories; and cognitive models. Contestation refers to the degree of agreement within a group over the content of the shared category. Our conceptualization thus enables collective identities to be compared according to the agreement and disagreement about their meanings by the members of the group. The final section of the article looks at the methodology of identity scholarship. Addressing the wide array of methodological options on identity—including discourse analysis, surveys, and content analysis, as well as promising newer methods like experiments, agent-based modeling, and cognitive mapping—we hope to provide the kind of brush clearing that will enable the field to move forward methodologically as well. a b


a Rawi Abdelal is Associate Professor, Harvard Business School ( Yoshiko M. Herrera is Associate Professor, Government Department, Harvard University ( Alastair Iain Johnston is Professor, Government Department, Harvard University ( Rose McDermott is Associate Professor, Political Science Department, University of California at Santa Barbara ( Research for the paper was made possible by the generous support of the Weatherhead Initiative of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. We are grateful to those who commented on earlier versions of this paper: Peter Burke, Lars-Erik Cederman, Jeff Checkel,

b Michael Dawson, James Fearon, David Frank, Erin Jenne, Michael Jones-Correa, Cynthia Kaplan, Peter Katzenstein, Herb Kelman, Paul Kowert, David Laitin, Daniel Posner, Paul Sniderman, Werner Sollors, Jeff Strabone, Philip Stone, Ronald Suny, Charles Tilly, Mary Waters, and three anonymous reviewers. We would also like to thank participants of the 2004 Identity as a Variable conference, including Henry Brady, Kanchan Chandra, Jack Citrin, Neta Crawford, Jennifer Hochschild, Jacques Hymans, Ted Hopf, Cynthia Kaplan, Ulrich Krotz, Taeku Lee, Will Lowe, Jason Lyall, Kimberly Neuendorf, Roger Petersen, Kevin Quinn, David Rousseau, Rogers Smith, Donald Sylvan, Kim Williams, and Michael Young, for comments on this version.