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What shapes our political and ethnic identities and are the two related?

Iser's long running esrc research centre on micro social change has watched how society is changing over time with valuable insights for informing and improving government policy

Ethnic identity is subject to increasing analysis and political debate in Western European countries with claims about the failures of multiculturalism rife. In new research published in a special issue of the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies and using data from Understanding Society, the UK Household Panel Study, Dr Alita Nandi and Professor Lucinda Platt (LSE) look at how factors such as party affiliation, experience of harassment and political context shape our political and ethnic identities.

They find that across all across minority and majority populations in the UK, political and ethnic identity are less important than some other aspects of an individual’s sense of self, such as gender or class or occupational identity. They also find that political and ethnic identities of minority and majority groups are associated with individual characteristics and local context in similar ways. One exception is gender: majority group women have weaker ethnic identities than men, while minority women have stronger ones than men.

There were a few surprising findings. For UK-born ethnic minorities, ethnic as well as political identity is more important for them than for the first generation. They also find that where the share of the vote for BNP / UKIP is higher, it is ethnic identity rather than political identity that is stronger, showing the ways in which politics triggers a sense of ethnic identity. Conversely, experience of ethnic and racial harassment is influential for political, but not ethnic, identity among minorities.

The study finds that individuals with stronger (weaker) political identities are also likely to have stronger (weaker) ethnic identities; but this association is not entirely due to individual similarities between those with strong or weak identities. Broader influences such as political discourse around ethnicity also play a role. These broader influences are particularly important in shaping the political and ethnic identities of the white majority.

At a time where political discussions of minorities focus on separation and the failure to integrate, and populist nationalism is re-emerging, these findings provide timely insights into the formation of ethnic and political identity, which may help to inform strategies on civic participation and engagement of both majority and minority populations.

Read the full paper published in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies:
Special Issue: Ethnic Diversity in the UK: new opportunities and changing constraints