Leveraging identities: the strategic manipulation of social hierarchies for political gain

Abstract

Much scholarship on boundary-making focuses on dyadic relationships between “us” and “them.” Yet the presence of multiple categories within societies allows for complex interactions among more than two potentially relevant groups. To capture this phenomenon and its dynamics better, we develop the concept of leveraging: the strategic manipulation of social distance among three or more constructed groups for political gain. The use of one group as a lever against another may involve stigmatizing or elevating categories of people along boundaries of race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, class, sexual orientation, or other salient social markers. We theorize these processes and identify the motivations of the initiators of leveraging as well as the range of possible responses to it. We use a pair of empirical case studies drawn from contemporary Europe and additional examples from other settings to demonstrate the relevance of the concept. Conceptualizing leveraging both improves our scholarly understanding of group-making processes and offers political actors tools for interpreting and responding to a common set of strategic practices.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-pol-trump-wisconsin-rally-20160816-snap-story.html; http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/02/us/politics/transcript-trump-immigration-speech.html

  2. 2.

    Sawyer (2006) has identified a similar cross-cutting placement of blacks in Cuba in a dyadic relationship, as they are simultaneously elevated and distanced relative to white Cubans.

  3. 3.

    Ancheta (1998, p. 160) offers a more agential approach in showing how conservatives portrayed affirmative action as disadvantageous to Asian Americans as part of a strategy to divide advocates of these programs. And Jung’s (2006) analysis of early twentieth-century Hawai’ian labor politics uncovered how the white planters manipulated distinctions among Portuguese, Japanese, and Filipino labor in order to fragment worker solidarity. The focus of Jung and Ancheta on elite strategies is salutary but leaves open the question of whether or not these dynamics are context-specific or indicative of more general patterns of behavior.

  4. 4.

    Surveys show a drop in favorable opinions of Muslims during the mid-2000s and then some rebound by 2008–2009, without returning to the less negative views of the late 1990s (Gijsberts and Lubbers 2009).

  5. 5.

    https://www.vvd.nl/nieuws/zonder-angst-hand-in-hand-kunnen-lopen-heel-normaal/

  6. 6.

    For instance, the proportion of people disagreeing with the statement that gays and lesbians should be able to live as they choose dropped from 36% in the late 1960s to a mere 5% in the 1990s (Keuzenkamp 2010).

  7. 7.

    Attacking homosexuality was not a high priority for these parties, however.

  8. 8.

    https://www.pvv.nl/36-fj-related/geert-wilders/9415-speech-geert-wilders-op-het-enf-congres-in-koblenz-21-01-2017.html.

  9. 9.

    https://forumvoordemocratie.nl/standpunten/wet-bnw; https://www.trouw.nl/home/homorechten-als-breekijzer~a0116450/

  10. 10.

    Speech by Geert Wilders in Bornholm, Denmark, June 13, 2015. https://www.pvv.nl/index.php/36-fj-related/geert-wilders/8411-speech-geert-wilders-bornholm-danmark-june-13-2015.html

  11. 11.

    Verdonk geeft geld voor allochtone homo’s.” Trouw 12/11/06.

  12. 12.

    https://www.volkskrant.nl/columns-opinie/bang-vlucht-niet-in-homonationalisme~b469ec1c/

  13. 13.

    This study shows that support for the PVV is roughly the same for gay and straight voters, at around 10%, and that gay voters are overrepresented among supporters for the Green party, an animal rights party, and D66.

  14. 14.

    https://www.coc.nl/politiek-2/coc-geschokt-over-discriminerende-uitspraak-wilders; https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/lesterfeder/geert-wilders-the-netherlands#.imLvNN0ov.

  15. 15.

    Laïcité is the French principle separating religion and the state.

  16. 16.

    http://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/evenements/mariannes.asp

  17. 17.

    See also http://www.frontnational.com/2014/11/violences-faites-aux-femmes-pour-une-tolerance-zero/

  18. 18.

    http://www.frontnational.com/videos/fnj-filles-de-france-notre-premier-droit-cest-notre-securite/

  19. 19.

    http://www.frontnational.com/videos/discours-de-marine-le-pen-a-nantes/

  20. 20.

    http://asianamericanforeducation.org/en/home/

  21. 21.

    http://aapidata.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/2018-aavs-crosstabs-combined-categories.html

  22. 22.

    The five groups referred to here are European Americans, Asian Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans (Hollinger 2006, p. 24).

  23. 23.

    The Twa formed a small third group that was also regarded as a class of subordinates.

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Acknowledgments

For feedback on early versions of this project, the authors thank Ian Barrow, Christophe Bertossi, Jan Willem Duyvendak, Cybele Fox, Tom Guglielmo, Lisel Hintz, Anna Korteweg, Michèle Lamont, Jeffrey Lunstead, Paul Mepschen, and Vilna Bashi Treitler. For comments on the article, we thank the three reviewers and the Editors of Theory and Society.

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Bleich, E., Morgan, K.J. Leveraging identities: the strategic manipulation of social hierarchies for political gain. Theor Soc 48, 511–534 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-019-09355-3

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Keywords

  • Boundary-making
  • Gender
  • Immigration
  • LGBTQ
  • Muslims
  • Social distance