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Identity Politics

Panel discussion, held on 12 April 2005 (venue: The British Academy).

Culture and identity are now key words in political discourse. Identity politics are fostered by multiculturalists and feminists on the left and by nationalists on the right. This British Academy evening event reflected on the history, meaning and implications of this discourse and took the form of a panel discussion between Professor Anthony Appiah, Princeton University, Professor Adam Kuper FBA, Brunel University (chairing the event), and Professor Anne Phillips FBA, London School of Economics and Political Science.

All three speakers (an anthropologist, a philosopher and a political theorist) have published extensively on these topics. Professor Adam Kuper's Culture: The Anthropologists' Account was published by Harvard University Press in 1999. Professor Anthony Appiah’s The Ethics of Identity was published by Princeton University Press in the autumn of 2004. Two recent papers by Professor Phillips are: 'Recognition and the Struggle for Political Voice', in Recognition Struggles and Social Movements: Contested Identities, Cambridge University Press, 2003; and 'When Culture Means Gender: Issues of Cultural Defence in the English Courts', Modern Law Review 66, 2003. She is currently working on a textbook on identity politics for Blackwell.

Position statements:

Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah
I think that identity--in the sense of race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion i.e. the big social identities--is an inescapable feature of modern life and that therefore it would be pointless to be against it. I think too that it's inevitable that people should bring the things they care about to bear in thinking about politics and so I think it's equally pointless to be against identity politics in that sense. But I also think that identity can be mobilized in extremely unhelpful ways in political life--as when people vote for politicians because they share their religion or ethnicity rather than agree with their policies--so that there's obviously the possibility of a bad identity politics. Why vote for a fellow Catholic because he agrees with you about abortion or gay marriage (which he isn't going to be able to do much about) if he has economic and foreign policies you deplore. Or, for that matter, for an anti-feminist woman on feminist principle?

Professor Anne Phillips FBA, London School of Economics and Political Science
Identity politics was, in my view, an important way of breaking the previous hegemony of nation and class. It provided a language for those who defined themselves - and were defined by others - according to identities such as gender, 'race', sexuality, ethnicity, and made it possible for them to articulate new equality claims. It is also potentially a straitjacket. It can give a false unity to these identity groups; encourage a destructive politics of authenticity; and encourage people to turn in on their identity grievances, rather than looking outwards to wider concerns. But with all the criticism of identity politics, we cannot, in my view, simply go back to where we were before. I'm interested in the issues primarily in relation to feminism - where do we go with feminist politics, once we've deconstructed notions of 'women'? and in relation to multiculturalism - what kind of multiculturalism is possible once we abandon totalising notions of 'culture'?