Identity-based forms of organising in civil society: good or bad?

Disability protest outside County Hall Norwich
Image: Disability protest outside County Hall Norwich by Roger Blackwell licensed under CC BY 2.0

Identity-based forms of organising in civil society: good or bad?

Gay, lesbian, old, young, black, white, disabled… we often organise around distinct identities. But are these really helping us – or will they hold us back unless we adapt?

Identity is a powerful force. It can give us a purpose, a sense of self. It can provide us with a shared sense of affiliation and belonging with others and a shared sense of injustice if people from that group are treated unfairly. With such systemic and damaging inequalities in society faced by particular groups it’s hardly surprising that we would want to protect particular identity groups and stand up for their rights.
But there are also risks and downsides to identity-based forms of organising in civil society. Civil Society Futures has set itself a task to explore which aspects of civil society we need to nurture to create a healthy future. As inequalities and divisions within English society continue to grow, now is a good time to ask if organising along identity-based lines in civil society is helping us to respond effectively to inequality.

For me, there are three important limitations often associated with identity-based forms of civic organising that we need to confront in the future if we can.

Firstly, there is the issue of choice. We regularly talk about and campaign for the black ‘community’, the Muslim ‘community’, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans ‘community’. Yet the challenges associated with these sorts of communitarian forms of politics (where ‘community leaders’ often speak on behalf of their community) are becoming more visible as our society becomes more diverse. In particular, there is often an underlying assumption in civil society that community representatives’ judgments are informed by the prevailing norms and values of the ‘community’ they are from. Perhaps this is true sometimes, but we shouldn’t rule out the claims of competing norms and values on somebody’s priorities and affections. When we think that a group’s preferences are predestined by their affiliation with a particular identity, we can rule out choice.

Why is this choice important? It’s mainly important because we can have many affiliations at different parts of our lives. I can be a father, a British-Pakistani, a man pushing 40 and so on. I hold these identities simultaneously and I’d like to think I could choose what priority I give to these various identities at different points – I don’t need somebody else to do that for me. There are lots of things that influence the choices I make, I don’t automatically lose the ability to do that just because I identify with or see myself as a member of a certain group. This is really important in the context of civil society because having a choice about what priority we give to our various identities could help us to develop more shared understandings of our priorities and more collective forms of action on topics like inequality and human rights.

Secondly, there is the issue of voice. In my work I’ve seen many examples of civic engagement about equality. Local ward committees, national policy consultations, direct lobbying of politicians by charities and so on. The vast majority of engagement and lobbying I have seen relies heavily on making representative claims about the needs of particular identity groups. This is a politics of recognition. Charities, members of the public, community leaders typically emphasise the level of inequality particular groups face and explain why it is important that the needs of their particular group are recognised. But this pattern of representative claim-making can carry with it a repertoire that is hard to break. When I say that my group (let’s say British-Pakistanis) is experiencing inequality and in need of support and I am the only British Pakistani in the room, it is rare for others to challenge me or critically discuss my claims. My legitimacy to make these claims is seen as tied to my identity. If I were a White British person, who would I be to challenge this claim or discuss its importance in relation to other claims made about inequality?

This politeness or lack of confidence to critically discuss what other people say about equality can lead to problems. When we tie legitimacy to make and challenge a claim solely to ‘identity’ we narrow the space for critical, reasoned debate and dialogue about what is most important for us to do to address inequality in society. We can also limit the scope for compromise and accommodation. We may sometimes hear about inequalities that are more pressing to address in society than those we, ourselves are campaigning to address. But the political culture of civil society rarely allows us to have conversations that would help us to prioritise and ‘give up’ our own interests for the greater good. Civil society groups shouldn’t have to rely on funders or the State to tell us what is most important and needs to be tackled first. We should be able to have that conversation within civil society ourselves, too.

This leads me to my third and final point. Identity-based forms of organising can limit the scope of equality we imagine and work towards as a society. As Nancy Fraser was saying in the 1990s, group identity and a struggle for recognition (based on ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and so on) has replaced social class as the key mobiliser in civil society. Civil society has moved from a ‘politics of redistribution’ to a ‘politics of recognition’. Cultural recognition has replaced socioeconomic redistribution as the remedy for injustice and the goal of political struggle. Recent debate about the ‘culture wars’ in America are a good example of this. In English civil society too we struggle to convincingly incorporate discussions about social class, distribution of wealth and poverty in parts of civil society that are concerned with lobbying around topics of ‘equality’ and ‘human rights’. When we do talk about these issues, it tends to only be in relation to one particular identity group. We can miss opportunities to respond to bigger, structural challenges that affect many more of us. We miss opportunities to improve the things that could make us all most happy as a society when civil society only follows well-trodden routes to decision-making and reasoning associated with politics of identity and recognition.

So what can we do in the future to reduce some of these risks associated with identity-based forms of organising in civil society? I’m going to suggest three things that might help.

Firstly, we need to recognise the many identities we all hold simultaneously and to create routes to civic engagement and representation that can cope with that complexity. I can choose the identities and the interpretations of those identities I wish to affiliate with and draw upon. When that is chosen for me I am put into a box not of my choosing and my opportunities to understand and collaborate with people from other identity groups is reduced. Sometimes I may choose to affiliate with my identity as a ‘human’ (over and above my religion, sexual orientation, gender and so on). That is ok too.

Secondly, we need to nurture our ability and our willingness to hear what people from other ‘identity groups’ are saying about the inequalities they are facing and the effect this is having on their lives. Sometimes I may need to compromise and ‘give up’ my own interests as an organisation, or the interests of my ‘identity group’ in order to respond to a bigger threat to inequality or human rights faced by others in society. This is a mind-set that we should try to cultivate in the politics of civil society.

Finally, to achieve this type of compromise, we need to do what we can to spot when ‘identity’ limits good, critical conversations. In particular, we should acknowledge when ‘identity’ gives somebody presumed legitimacy to speak on behalf of a group and recognise when this prevents others from engaging in critical discussion with them about priorities for addressing inequality and improving our society.

24th November 2017


  1. Rob Berkeley says:

    This is a really important area of contention and I’m glad it is on your agenda. I agree with Asif’s typification of many of the limitations of identity-based organising, but also think that most of his objections could equally apply to so-called (by default?) non-identity based civil action.

    I’d also argue that the identity-based/non-identity based dichotomy is less than helpful – we never act as simply ‘humans’ we have identities whether unspoken or not. Are trades unions identity-based (workers)? The IoD (bosses)? The Church of England (Christians)? Women’s Institute? Scouts?

    There is a problem with illegitimate ‘community leaders’. (Interestingly the identification of these problems is often racialised, and I am wary of the ‘so-called community leader’ trope being used to silence citizens who may ‘over-claim’ their standing – perhaps that is the honest conversation we need to have; is this related to imported political cultures, attempts to entrench existing power structures (particularly particularly patriarchy), and could it be addressed by better supporting voices who value democratic practices?

    I’ve been working on models of asset based community development by and for black gay men through We are particularly careful not to speak for anyone but ourselves as individuals or based on research (we’re still remember having been erased and excluded from our communities by so-called community leaders in the past), I worry that discounting those who engage in identity-based organising due to the behaviour of some self-appointed mavericks could have the effect of undermining the voices of those who are often on the margins.

    This concern was a driver of the response of several racial justice focused civil society organisations to Hazel Blears proposals against ‘single-group funding’ when she was Communities Secretary in 2008 –

    My sensibilities are naturally drawn to the marginalised, so I worry that approaches that try to tell people along which axes they should organise their political/civic action along can quickly become at minimum tone-policing and at worst victim-blaming.

    A revived and refreshed civil society is unlikely to succeed if people are asked to leave their identities at the door in favour of a mythical, context-free, ‘humanity’. Or when large parts of society are told that their minoritised identity is somehow worth less than an unexamined ‘norm’ – the default will likely privilege WASP-benefiting solutions, while at the same time removing the ability to be critical or reflexive about which social groups are doing well out of any new settlement, since identities are now secondary to a notion of universal humanity. Experience has shown that ‘universality’ can quickly become shorthand for the will of the dominant group: “The power of Whiteness, however, is manifested by the ways in which racialized Whiteness becomes transformed into social, political, economic, and cultural behaviour. White culture, norms, and values in all these areas become normative natural. They become the standard against which all other cultures, groups, and individuals are measured and usually found to be inferior” (Henry, F., & Tator, C. (2006). The colour of democracy: Racism in Canadian society . 3rd Ed. Toronto: Nelson)

    Asif’s suggestion that having a sense of belonging to a particular identity somehow stops one from empathising with others seems counter-intuitive to me. Solidarity among social justice movements suggests otherwise. Surely empathy is enhanced by people being fully themselves rather than a deracinated, non-gendered cypher?

    Really look forward to further discussion on this – its crucial work

  2. asif afridi says:

    Great to hear your thoughts on this Rob sorry only picked them up now. Completely agree this is an important area of debate, and it’s good to have the opportunity to respond and clarify some of what I put in the post above. Here goes…

    I loved what you said in your comments. I was struck by what you said about humanity in particular. I totally agree with you about the risks of putting people into a singular box of ‘human’ identity. To be honest I think we could be more sensitive to the downsides of organised attribution of identity (in any form) when we’re taking action to promote equality in civil society. Attributing a singular identity to anybody can be problematic (whatever that identity is). Assuming somebody wants to be seen and to reason as a ‘universal human’ is problematic. I totally agree. I also think that assuming somebody wants to be seen and to reason as a member of a particular social group can be problematic too. Both approaches are open to distortion and the effects of inequality and dominant power relationships in society (such as whiteness, patriarchy, hetero-normative values etc).

    I certainly don’t think it’ll be helpful for people to leave their identities at the door in favour of a mythical, universal ‘human’ one. But I do think that shared experiences of humanity can be compromised when our differences are only viewed through one, linear system of categorising groups (which tends to focus on – what are often assumed to be – static social group identities like gender, race, sexual orientation and so on). More than anything, personally I hope we can create better conditions for people to critically reflect on different aspects of their identity in this civic space. People may choose to draw upon different aspects of their identity to campaign, represent others, argue for change, provide services etc – but the important point is they have a choice that they value and is free from coercion or peer pressure. I agree there’s little merit in telling anybody how they should choose to organise their political / civic action. I’m arguing for a civil society that gives people the choice and autonomy to make that decision more freely.

    Personally I don’t feel we always have that freedom of self-reflection at the moment. When fighting for equality, we can feel that we have to act in particular ways that restrict our engagement with other social groups and with diverse voices within our own social group that disagree with us. For example, we can feel that we need to frame our claims to policy-makers in exclusive terms that relate only to ‘our’ group and that we are in competition with others. We can also create boundaries about who is ‘authentic’ within minority groups, who can be an anti-racist campaigner, who can be a feminist and so on. I think the ‘solidarity amongst social justice movements’ that you describe is definitely something we could learn from. I think the empathy that you describe could come from us developing a better understanding of our own identities, values and experiences and those of others within civil society. In short, recognising our own plural identities could help us with empathy. I think there a number of barriers to achieving this empathy though and solidarity is not always straightforward on emotive topics like equality and discrimination, particularly when social groups feel they are on their own in raising the concerns of the group they represent. I’ve talked (clumsily) about a few barriers in the article. Despite the provocative title of the blog (my bad!), I don’t think the question is whether we can do without identity-based groups. I think it’s a constant balancing act between achieving the (by definition) specific goals of identity-based groups and focusing on wider goals that encompass more people. At the moment, I’m not sure we always get that balance right.

    You talk about us being ‘fully ourselves’ to enhance empathy– it’d be great to think about what that might look like and what could help to promote that in civil society if you have any ideas? Thanks again for the comments – look forward to further discussion – yours in solidarity

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