Collective Identity Essay

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Within social movement theory, collective identity refers to the shared definition of a group that derives from its members’ common interests, experiences, and solidarities. It is the social movement s answer to who we are, locating the movement within a field of political actors. Collective identity is neither fixed nor innate, but, rather, emerges through struggle as different political actors, including the movement, interact and react to each other. The salience of any given collective identity affects the mobilization, trajectory, and even impacts of social movements. Consequently, collective identity has become a central concept in the study of social movements.

The concept of collective identity emerged in the 1980s in Europe within new social movement (NSM) theory. Most locate its origin in the work of Alberto Melucci (1995). Researchers, dissatisfied by what they believed to be the overly structural depiction of social movements offered by the dominant resource mobilization and political process theories, adopted concepts from new social movement theory, like collective identity, to bring the cultural back into the study of social movements. Researchers acknowledge the relevance of collective identity not only for ”new social movements, but also for a variety of movements, both ”old and ”new.

Collective identity is not predetermined. Political actors do not share a de facto identity as a result of their common structural position. Rather, identity emerges through various processes in which movement actors instill it with significance, relevance, and form. The three major processes through which movements construct an identity are: (1) the establishment of boundaries, (2) negotiation, and (3) the development of consciousness. In boundary making, social movements create new group values and structures that delineate who they are in relation to other political actors. In negotiation, movements engage with other political actors, continually enacting their shared identity and working to influence symbolic meanings. Finally, the development of consciousness imbues the collective identity with a larger purpose by embedding it within an ideological framework that assigns blame for the injustice against which the movement is mobilized. Further, collective identity becomes manifest in the day-today activities of the social movement. Movements not only have a collective identity, they also act in accordance with that identity. The line between “being”  and “doing”  is blurred.


  1. Melucci, A. (1995) The process of collective identity. In: Johnson, H. & Klandermas, B. (eds.), Social Movements and Culture. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, pp. 41—63.
  2. Polletta, F. & Jasper, J. (2001) Collective identity and social movements. Annual Review of Sociology 27: 283—305.

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