Political identities in changing polities

Political identities in changing polities

Charles Tilly

HENRY VIII was, as we know, a bit of an opportunist. In 1521, at a time when Henry had allied England with the Habsburgs against France and also laid claim to the French crown, he wrote a pamphlet criticizing Martin Luther’s doctrines. For his efforts, the pope dubbed Henry “Defender of the Faith.” Churchmen, however, began voicing doubts about that tide no later than 1525, when Henry levied a major tax on church property to pay for his wars with Catholic France. As the pope himself delayed sanctioning Henry’s divorce from Catharine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn, Henry sacked his papal legate, Cardinal Wolsey, and, after some maneuvering, declared the English church independent of Rome. The break with the pope brought Henry substantial church revenues. In 1534, Henry rammed through the Act of Supremacy, which made him and his successors heads of an independent English church; he also rendered refusal to take an oath of recognition, a capital crime of high treason. Utopia author, former chancellor, and future saint Thomas More lost his head for just such a refusal.

By 1536, with the help of Thomas Cromwell, Henry was having Anne Boleyn executed on a trumped up charge of adultery, beginning dispossession of the monasteries, publishing William Tindale’s translation of the Bible, and putting down major rebellions against his religious innovations. Within three years, nevertheless, he issued the Six Articles, which defined beliefs and practices greatly resembling those of the Catholic Church except in their substitution of the king for the pope. Through all these gyrations, Henry’s enforcers missed no opportunity to seize church revenues or to raise money from church members. After Henry’s death in 1547, English believers had to follow twists and turns through reigns of a rather more Protestant Edward VI, a quite Catholic Mary, and a warily Protestant Elizabeth I. The sixteenth century dragged ordinary English people through a maze of alternating religious and political identities.

Eamon Duffy, in his dense, complex, but ultimately vivid reconstruction of parish life in sixteenth-century Morebath, Devon, has demonstrated how deeply the top-down turmoil stirred by Henry VIII and his successors shook local social relations and practices (Duffy, 2001). Duffy’s chief historical informant, the long-serving vicar Sir Christopher Trychay, did his best to protect his initially Catholic parishioners from the opposite dangers of over-eager reform and dogged resistance. But changing definitions of religious and political affiliation, with their accompanying obligations, impoverished the local church, destroyed the rough equality of household involvement in parish affairs that had characterized the early sixteenth century, and caused recurrent struggles of locals with outsiders who sought to impose or profit from the current realignment.

Henry’s 1547 Injunctions, for example, combined an attack on votive lights and sacred images with dissolution of the chantries that had supported memorial masses, the proceeds going to pay for war with Scotland. In sheep-raising Morebath, this reform simultaneously struck at practices that entwined religion with kinship and forced sale of the church sheep, whose wool had provided the major income supporting local devotions.

Most of the time Morebath’s people fought their identity battles with weapons of the weak. In 1549, however, they paid the expenses of sending five local men to a rebel camp near Exeter in what came to be known as the Western Rebellion. More or less simultaneously Edward VI’s regime had imposed the Protestant Book of Common Prayer plus new taxes on sheep and cloth to support the expanding wars against France and Scotland. The rebels of 1549 centered their demands on the restoration of religious life as defined toward the end of Henry’s reign: largely Catholic beliefs, practices, and identities within an independent Church of England. The king’s forces, backed by foreign mercenaries, slaughtered the rebels. No commoners were going to decide the content of England’s religious and political identities as seen from the top down.

Since the destruction of the World Trade Center’s two main towers on September 11, 2001, the United States and Europe have been reliving some of the sixteenth-century’s identity struggles. Insistence that rulers know better than citizens where the line between Us and Them falls, raising of revenue and restriction of liberties in the name of holy war, smiting of enemies and their unwitting or unwilling accomplices with massive military action, and public displays of support for all these measures have a surprisingly sixteenth-century air about them. But let me suppress the urge to catalog parallels between the American war against terrorism and the wars of Henry VIII in favor of another, related task: to point out how deeply negotiated political identities affect the work of changing polities.

Rogers Brubaker and Fred Cooper, two students of social processes whose contributions deserve great respect, have recently proposed that we expunge “identity” from our analytic lexicon because the term has acquired too many meanings and too few specifications (Brubaker and Cooper, 2000). I propose instead that we get identity right. We can escape the search for inner selves about which Brubaker and Cooper rightly complain by recognizing that people regularly negotiate and deploy socially based answers to the questions “Who are you?” “Who are we?” and “Who are they?” Those are identity questions. Their answers are identities–always assertions, always contingent, always negotiable, but also always consequential. Identities are social arrangements.

Identities belong to that potent set of social arrangements in which people construct shared stories about who they are, how they are connected, and what has happened to them. Such stories range from the small-scale production of excuses, explanations, and apologies when something goes wrong to the large-scale production of peace settlements and national histories. Whatever their truth or falsehood by the standards of historical research, such stories play an indispensable role in the sealing of agreements and the coordination of social interaction. Stories and identities intersect when people start deploying shared answers to the questions “Who are you?” “Who are we?” and “Who are they?”

To be more precise, identities have four components:

1) a boundary separating me from you or us from them;

2) a set of relations within the boundary;

3) a set of relations across the boundary;

4) a set of stories about the boundary and the relations.

Thus, as of 1536 Henry VIII had forced a boundary between Anglicans and Catholics partially into place, relations within the Anglican category were undergoing rapid renegotiation, relations between Anglicans and Catholics had become matters of negotiation in some places and civil war in others; at the same time, many parties, including the parson of Morebath, had started to fashion, promulgate, and even believe new stories about Anglican Catholic relations as well as about the boundary separating the two categories.

Identities become political identities when governments become parties to them. The religious identities of Morebath parishioners politicized as Henry VIII and his successors began to manipulate and control permissible answers for religiously tinged versions of “Who are you?” “Who are we?” and “Who are they?” The identities of Americans as patriotic or otherwise become even more political as the United States government becomes a party to we-they boundaries. American Muslims and Arab Americans find themselves battling to locate on the right side of increasingly dangerous boundaries. Europeans maneuver around similar questions not only in deciding whether to align with United States military policy but also in deciding whether Turks are Europeans and whether Muslims in general lie on the opposite side of the we-they boundary.

Many people regard identity claims primarily as a form of self-expression, or even of self-indulgence–what others do when they are too comfortable, too confused, or too distressed for serious politics. I argue, on the contrary, that identity claims and their attendant stories constitute serious political business. Consider the social movement–the collective public stating of claims on power holders by means of meetings, marches, associations, petitions, and similar displays of worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment. Although every major social invention has precedents, we can reasonably date the invention of the social movement as a distinctive form of politics to the later eighteenth century, when advocates of civil liberties, opponents of slavery, zealots for democracy, and critics of war-bloated taxation all challenged authorities in new ways. Those new ways soon crystallized into institutions that remain familiar and potent today.

Invention of the social movement did not merely create a new vehicle for old demands; it also facilitated the staking of claims in the name of previously unrecognized political actors. At various points in American history, social movements helped establish opponents of slavery and enemies of alcohol along with women, African Americans, gays, Vietnam veterans, and indigenous peoples as viable political actors. Social movement actions typically couple program claims in the form “We demand, we support, we oppose” and so on with existence claims stating, in essence, “We exist, we have a right to exist, and you’d better pay attention to us.” That is precisely why authorities, rivals, and opponents of new movements so regularly denigrate their members’ worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment. Political rights and obligations are at stake.

Political rights and obligations themselves depend on negotiated claims linking members of established political categories, which means that they, too, involve identity claims. Working out accepted answers to the questions “Who are you?” “Who are we?” and “Who are they?” with widely accepted stories to back those answers is no serf-indulgence; it plays a consequential part in public politics. Answers to the questions affect the very feasibility of democracy. Without a distinctive identity called “citizen” or its equivalent, democracy cannot exist.

At a national scale, sixteenth-century England lacked democracy precisely because (despite the intermittent power of Parliament) no categorically defined rights and obligations related the large body of English people to their rulers across the boundary between them. The next century’s revolutions, which combined bloody civil wars with struggles between Parliament and whoever was currently ruling, laid some of the groundwork for such categorically defined rights and obligations. But not until the same period that brought us the social movement did the English people and their rulers–now including Parliament–begin to bargain out the broad protections, binding consultations, and mutual obligations that constitute democracy. In the process, they created an identity called “British subject,” implying something like citizenship, despite its name.

Three kinds of evidence could, in principle, tell us that such creations of shared political identities do not merely form as byproducts of deeper political processes but actually make a difference in their own right. First, we might discover that when political identities change, so do a wide range of other meanings, practices, and relations. Second, we might observe that similarly situated people in different times and places adopt different collective identities, which organize public claim-making in distinctly different ways. Third, we might notice bundles of rights and obligations that vary with the identities activated, and visibly bind the participants in political action.

In sixteenth-century Morebath, we saw all three kinds of evidence of identity effects: widespread consequences within the parish of the new Anglican identity’s emergence, distinctly different public religious politics that prevailed across villages elsewhere in sixteenth-century Europe, and painful negotiation of new rights and obligations tied to locations on the Anglican and Catholic sides of an increasingly formidable frontier. My reading of the historical evidence assigns large effects to changes in political identities.

How do such changes occur? The question leads to more specific agendas for the study of political identities, of stories, of political change, and of their interactions. In each case, we need new work on two classes of problems: generation and constraint.

Generation: What causes the processes involved to begin and then to change? How did Europeans, for example, put together the stories, relations, and boundaries that now distinguish the European Union and its members from their continental neighbors and make crossing boundaries so desirable to outsiders?

Constraint: Once they are in operation, how do the processes affect both small-scale and large-scale social behavior? For example, at what point and how should we expect participants in European social movements routinely to make claims on behalf of categories that span long-established national boundaries?

My own earlier analyses of these problems have used entrepreneurial-interactive accounts of generation and constraint. Political entrepreneurs in the forms of would-be ethnic leaders and movement organizers figure prominently in those analyses.

These political entrepreneurs draw together credible stories from available cultural materials, similarly create we-they boundaries, activate both stories and boundaries as a function of current political circumstances, and maneuver to suppress competing models. Yet interaction among parties to struggle alters stories, boundaries, and their social reinforcements. In this regard, my account resembles John Walton’s conclusions concerning the narratives of public history:

Public history is constructed, not, in the main, for the purposes

of posterity or objectivity, but for the aims of present

action (conquest, social reform, building, political reorganization,

economic transformation). Narratives make

claims for the virtues of their individual and institutional

authors, often as counterpoint to rival claimants. They characterize

the past in certain ways for the purpose of shaping

the future. The ability of narratives to effect change

depends in the first instance on their institutional power;

whether they are produced by a powerful church, conquering

state, fledgling town, or contending voluntary associations

(Walton, 2001: 294).

Something like this process often does occur. But such an account contains an excessively instrumental bias. It offers no explanation of the fact that most would-be political entrepreneurs generally fail. Nor does it provide a satisfactory explanation of day-to-day interactions around political identities, much less why people sometimes risk their lives in the course of those interactions. Clearly, we need more subtle and comprehensive explanations of generation and constraint.

In the case of identity stories, we have a few clues concerning generation. Although no one lives without stories, interacting people create new stories about their interaction after the fact, as they terminate sequences and seal agreements. The beleaguered sixteenth-century parson of Morebath mediated between his parishioners and outside authorities in negotiating new shared accounts of Christianity and the practices it entailed. Those accounts connected religious and political identities in a new way, cementing the Anglican Church in place without entirely transforming daily practices within the village. In that regard, political stories resemble peace treaties, commencement addresses, memoirs, annual reports, and labor-management contracts. To be sure, materials for stories come largely from existing cultural repertoires. Visibly viable new stories reassemble familiar elements. Certifying agents such as elders, peers, public authorities, and international organizations monitor stories, and often provide models for their proper construction.

Nationalist stories, for example, bear a striking resemblance from one part of the world to another. They speak of shared culture, longstanding tradition, connectedness, common geographic origin, and distinctness from others with whom the claimed nation might be confused. Those common properties do not spring from primordial consciousness, but from a body of nationalist models and practices that have spread through the world since 1789. Still we have no convincing general account of the process by which the specific contents of politically consequential stories–nationalist or otherwise–form and gain credibility. Nor do we have a persuasive account of change in prevailing stories. We lack a compelling and comprehensive explanation for the generation of the particular boundaries, relations, and stories that constitute political identities.

As for constraint, how do stories and identities produce their effects? In the construction and deployment of politically effective stories, what happens at the small scale of an individual or a pair of individuals, at the large scale of a state or a national movement, and in the interaction between those scales?

Three bad answers spring to mind. The first is that stories alter individual consciousness in closely similar ways across individuals, before individual consciousness aggregates into collective consciousness. This answer is bad because it provides no account of how exposure to stories interacts with previous learning across individuals who have varied considerably in previous experience. We could, after all, plausibly expect such individuals to adopt different, even contradictory, stories. How does relative uniformity in public storytelling come about? Much less does the aggregation of individual consciousness explain how people who have their doubts about shared stories nevertheless cooperate in their public promulgation. At the beginning of 2001, it was easy for outsiders to suppose that the Taliban had brainwashed their Afghan compatriots. By year’s end, any such conversion seemed utterly implausible. Sic transit gloria victoriae.

The second commonly proposed bad answer is that society does it: those stories that serve society as a whole or (more likely) reinforce the interests of dominant groups prevail. This second answer is woefully inadequate because it invokes a dubious agent–society as a whole or a unified dominant group–and begs the question of how that agent does its work. Holistic ontologies keep returning to social science in such forms as evolutionary models and world-system analyses. But their vagueness with respect to agency–who does what to whom, why, and how–has greatly diminished their popularity among social scientists at large. That vagueness renders “society does it” answers unhelpful explanations for the prominence of stories and identities in political change. It was not the “social system” that broadcast and implanted new tales of religious identity in sixteenth-century England.

A third frequent bad answer credits culture, as the repository of collective experience, with the production of constraint. This answer is even worse than the first two because it combines their defects: it begs the question of how culture–that is, shared understandings and their representations in objects and practices–changes as it invokes a dubious agent. Like “society does it,” the cultural answer fails to specify how that agent creates its effects in social life. It is unquestionable that available culture figures importantly in political storytelling and identity politics. People undoubtedly draw on previously known representations and practices as they struggle with one another. But how? Since struggling people are constantly modifying their definitions of who they are and what they are fighting about, exactly how does culture constrain them? Social movements always draw on their ambient cultures, thus producing distinctive variation in social movement forms and practices from one setting to another. But in no way can we explain social movements as straightforward emanations of existing culture.

Let me suggest three possible good answers as possible alternatives to the bad answers. Call them entrepreneurship, creative interaction, and cultural ecology. The three would take future work in somewhat different directions, but they would not necessarily yield incompatible results.

Entrepreneurship? We might improve a crude entrepreneurial account by looking at analogies with intellectual, artistic, and religious schools. In those fields investigators usually discover strong network effects, polarization effects, and mutual reinforcement of common culture; brokers both connect and divide crucial actors. In religious, artistic, and intellectual fields, brokers play crucial roles in establishing or activating boundaries between professionals and lay people, between leaders and followers, between schools of thought. We can certainly see glimmers of the same effects in the history of identity politics. In British social movement politics, for example, offstage connections among such entrepreneurs as William Cobbett and Francis Place clearly affected which stories and identities became prominent in successive campaigns for parliamentary reform. They spent a significant portion of their efforts erecting or activating Us-Them boundaries. An entrepreneurial account of identity effects would, however, lead us not so much toward individual entrepreneurs as toward social processes that produce connections and shared boundaries where they previously did not organize political action.

Creative interaction should help us explain the contingency, mutability, and negotiation of identity claims. Creative interaction appears most visibly in such activities as jazz and soccer. In these cases, participants work within rough agreements on procedures and outcomes; arbiters set limits on performances, individual dexterity, knowledge; and disciplined preparation generally yield superior play. Yet the rigid equivalent of military drill destroys the enterprise. Both jazz and soccer, when well executed, proceed through improvised interaction, surprise, incessant error and error-correction, alternation between solo and ensemble action, and repeated responses to understandings shared by at least pairs of players. After the fact, participants and spectators create shared stories of what happened, and striking improvisations shape future performances.

We can see creative interaction at work, for example, in the two-century-old process by which solemn processions and presentations of petitions evolved into street demonstrations. Although you will not find it inscribed in constitutions, the demonstration is a remarkable political creation. It consists of:

* gathering deliberately in a public place, preferably a place combining visibility with symbolic significance;

* displaying both membership in a politically relevant population and support for some position by means of voice, printed words, or symbolic objects;

* communicating collective determination by acting in a disciplined fashion in one space or moving through a series of spaces–for example by marching from Washington’s Vietnam Memorial to Capitol Hill.

American and British opponents of royal policy in North America used existing rights of assembly and petition to fashion large, regular displays of popular opposition despite efforts by royal authorities to disperse them with troops, militias, and constables. Although the term “demonstration” itself only emerged during the 1830s, by then North Americans and Western Europeans had created a new, distinctive, durable, and effective political form. It became a standard instrument of social movement activists.

Creation of the demonstration also generated a new, relatively nonviolent set of police practices for containing public assemblies, displaced immediately destructive forms of assembly such as the sacking of dishonored houses, and thus reduced the overall violence of collective claim making. If we could explain how human beings bring off such improvisatory adventures, we would be well on our way to accounting for how sets of interacting people store histories in contentious repertoires, conversation, rights and obligations, war and peace, and similar phenomena. The study of creative interaction would lead us deep into the actual processes by which people change their collective answers to the question “Who are you?”

Cultural ecology? Social life consists of transactions among social sites, some of them occupied by individual persons, but most occupied by shifting aspects or clusters of persons. None of the sites, goes the reasoning, contain all the culture–all the shared understandings or representations–on which transactions in its vicinity draw. But transactions among sites produce interdependence among extensively connected sites, deposit related cultural material in those sites, transform shared understandings in the process, and thus make large stores of culture available to any particular site through its connections with other sites.

Although all this may sound mysterious, implausible, and difficult, as a practical matter we often assume a simple version of cultural ecology: challenged by an impending purchase, an intellectual conundrum, or a weighty personal choice, we turn to a wise friend or colleague not necessarily because she will have the right answer, but because she will know whom to ask or where to search. A computer model of cultural ecology would feature distributed intelligence. Such a model would, in turn, clarify what observers of political conflict often call spontaneous organization: the formation or activation of coordinating connections among small pockets of individuals who initiate attacks or demands at a local scale on their own, but somehow articulate with larger-scale identities and collective struggles.

A politically sensitive version of cultural ecology would take us into the thick of meaningful, solidarity-sustaining social ties. It would help us learn why ostensibly irrational high-risk activism occurs, and how mobilized people manage the contradictions of small-scale bonding and large-scale confrontation. Thus we might discover that identity politics creates its illusions of unity by means of incessantly negotiated interchange among distinct sites; it then fixes its illusions by means of collectively produced stories. We can see signs of cultural ecology, for example, in James Scott’s, Viviana Zelizer’s, and Eamon Duffy’s documentation of dispersed local knowledge as a counter to uniform top-down templates (Scott, 1985, 1990, 1998; Zelizer, 1999, 2001; Duffy, 2001). They see people’s joint action–including their collective answers to “Who are you?” questions–as outcomes of negotiated interactions between top-down and bottom-up exercises of power (Tilly, 1999).

Consider entrepreneurship, creative interaction, and cultural ecology to be three cloudy mirrors held up to narrative and identity processes from different angles. Analysts of stories, identities, and political change face the challenge of clearing the mirrors, or creating better glasses. Improved vision should help us explain how Europeans are creating new identities, acting as if they believed their own shared answers to the question “Who are you?” and creating consequential stories about the past, present, and future of Europe. It should also help us explain how scattered Muslim activists enter into connected confrontations with the world’s great powers, how and why ostensibly ethnic conflicts swelled to lethal proportions in Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union, why civil war has over the last haft century displaced interstate war as the primary site of large-scale killing, and whether transnational coalitions have a chance of checking the excesses of global capital.

Identity processes, in short, do not merely concern people’s individual states of mind. They figure centrally in the world’s great political struggles today, as they did in sixteenth-century England.

* An earlier version of this paper served as keynote address at the conference “Redefining Europe,” New York University, November 30, 2001. A few paragraphs are adapted from Tilly (2002).


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–. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

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Walton, John. Storied Land: Community and Memory in Monterey. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Zelizer, Viviana. “Multiple Markets, Multiple Cultures.” Diversity and its Discontents: Cultural Conflict and Common Ground in Contemporary American Society. Eds. Neil Smelser and Jeffrey Alexander. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

–. “Transactions intimes.” Geneses 42 (2001): 121-144.

Charles Tilly is Joseph L. Buttenweiser Professor of Social Science at Columbia University. His most recent book is The Politics of Collective Violence (2003).

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