Crises, identity and the future of democracy: Upcoming research


This post by Clara Affun-Adegbulu outlines her upcoming research on how current crises are shaping identify in the black community and how this in turn may affect political engagement. This research is being supported by Democratic Society.

Why this research is needed

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the lack of resilience of our current economic and social arrangements and uncovered the inequities and inequalities that are inherent to our societies. While most people have been impacted by the pandemic in one way or another, Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities have been disproportionately affected. They are more susceptible to the disease, and they tend to have more severe forms as well as higher mortality rates. In addition to this, the measures taken to contain or mitigate the pandemic have had a disproportionate impact on these communities, they have, for instance, experienced and continue to experience more barriers to accessing education, health and social services, as well as higher rates of un/underemployment.

Addressing these inequities and inequalities will require action on their structural and social determinants. Given that these are shaped by macroeconomic, social and public policies, it is clear that the political representation of BAME communities in public policymaking processes is of vital importance. Yet, historically, political engagement among these groups is generally, relatively low (Gallego, 2007; Maxwell, 2010; Quintelier, 2009; Sanders et al., 2014; Simonsen, 2020), which means they are often under-represented in political institutions and unable to voice their opinions through legitimate organisations or representatives. It is therefore important to promote political engagement among these communities, so that they can be better represented in policymaking processes and contribute to the improvement of their well-being by pushing for laws and policies that further their interests. This will also have the added benefit of strengthening democracy.

The question then is how can we promote political engagement? A first step to answering this question would be to look at the determinants of political engagement among ethnic minorities.

One key factor, suggested by the literature, is identity (Fischer-Neumann, 2014; Masuoka, 2008; Scuzzarello, 2015; Valdez, 2011), which research has shown may be influenced by crises which contribute to the reconfiguring of personal and collective identities by disrupting dynamics of belonging, altering processes of homemaking, or changing the salience and primacy of ethnic, pan-ethnic and national identities  (Baser, 2014; Garcia-Rios et al., 2019; Hordge-Freeman & Loblack, 2020; Le et al., 2020; Peek, 2005; Pérez, 2015). Given the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the ongoing and often-fractious public debates about colonial symbols, racism, discrimination and migration, COVID-19 and reports that both the disease and measures to mitigate it are disproportionately affecting BAME communities, rising xenophobia across Europe, Brexit, the Windrush scandal, etc., it is not hard to imagine that many among these communities may be experiencing a shift in identities.

Tying all this together leads one to the next question, which is how are recent events influencing political engagement among BAME communities? As a black political scientist, I am particularly interested in answering this question from the perspective of the black community, which is also the group least likely to vote in the UK (The Electoral Commission, 2002). This is why, with the support of the Democratic Society, over the next year, I will be working a project titled “Un(B)elonging: Home, identity and the reinvention of democratic spaces in times of crisis and upheaval”. The project will attempt to answer the above question, by documenting the views and perspectives of members of the black community on how the ongoing crises may be impacting their identity, and how this in turn is affecting or may affect their political engagement.

While the overarching goal of the project is to improve representation, equality and equity for this community, in the short-term, it will contribute to the Public Square initiative which aims to improve participation at the local government level by gathering information from stakeholders on how to achieve this, and by testing and applying learnings from these information-gathering exercises. In the mid- and long-term, the project will contribute, more generally, to work on political engagement, since the learnings can be used by both the Democratic Society and other actors working on this subject matter, to inform the design and implementation of their initiatives.

Baser, B. (2014). The Awakening of a Latent Diaspora: The Political Mobilization of First and Second Generation Turkish Migrants in Sweden. Ethnopolitics, 13(4), 355–376.
Fischer-Neumann, M. (2014). Immigrants’ Ethnic Identification and Political Involvement in the Face of Discrimination: A Longitudinal Study of the German Case. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 40(3), 339–362.
Gallego, A. (2007). Unequal Political Participation in Europe. International Journal of Sociology, 37(4), 10–25.
Garcia-Rios, S., Pedraza, F., & Wilcox-Archuleta, B. (2019). Direct and Indirect Xenophobic Attacks: Unpacking Portfolios of Identity. Political Behavior, 41(3), 633–656.
Hordge-Freeman, E., & Loblack, A. (2020). “Cops Only See the Brown Skin, They Could Care Less Where It Originated”: Afro-Latinx Perceptions of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement. Sociological Perspectives, 0731121420961135.
Le, D., Arora, M., & Stout, C. (2020). Are You Threatening Me? Asian-American Panethnicity in the Trump Era. Social Science Quarterly.
Masuoka, N. (2008). Defining the Group: Latino Identity and Political Participation. American Politics Research, 36(1), 33–61.
Maxwell, R. (2010). Political Participation in France among Non-European-Origin Migrants: Segregation or Integration? Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 36(3), 425–443.
Peek, L. (2005). Becoming Muslim: The Development of a Religious Identity. Sociology of Religion, 66(3), 215–242.
Pérez, E. O. (2015). Xenophobic Rhetoric and Its Political Effects on Immigrants and Their Co-Ethnics. American Journal of Political Science, 59(3), 549–564.
Quintelier, E. (2009). The Political Participation of Immigrant Youth in Belgium. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 35(6), 919–937.
Sanders, D., Fisher, S. D., Heath, A., & Sobolewska, M. (2014). The Democratic Engagement of Britain’s Ethnic Minorities. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 37(1), 120–139.
Scuzzarello, S. (2015). Political Participation and Dual Identification Among Migrants. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 41(8), 1214–1234.
Simonsen, K. B. (2020). Politics Feeds Back: The Minority/Majority Turnout Gap and Citizenship in Anti-Immigrant Times. Perspectives on Politics, 1–16.
The Electoral Commission. (2002). Voter Engagement Among Black and Minority Ethnic Communities. The Electoral Commission.
Valdez, Z. (2011). Political Participation Among Latinos in the United States: The Effect of Group Identity and Consciousness*. Social Science Quarterly, 92(2), 466–482.
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