Dr. Robin Lauermann, Professor of Politics & Chair of History, Politics and International relations, pens this series.


(What is Civic Mind?  Read our welcome post for the series!)

My name is …

Conversation in the public sphere has recently revolved around fundamental questions of facts, made even more complicated by disinformation campaigns by foreign and domestic actors.  I would hazard to guess that many of us would treat our knowledge about our own basic identities as beyond question.  Yet, is it? I was a young child when I learned that my parents made a legal change before I was born from our family’s Polish surname to an English one.

Although I grew up with connections to this culture, particularly with foods and festivals, it was also very apparent in many statements that my father made that he saw its identity fundamentally tied up in the ways that people treated him and others with similar backgrounds.  One of the most memorable examples related to his continual discouragement to pass along the language that he learned as a second-generation American, even as he supported me in taking four other languages in high school.  Over the years of personal and professional reading, I have since learned that his experiences at that time were not unusual.  For all of the critiques against “identity politics,” such as those by Stanford professor Francis Fukuyama, the reality is that individual’s beliefs form from their experiences; when individuals that share a certain characteristic have shared experiences, they often produce similar responses, which account for differences between groups.  When that identity facet ceases to have relevance to policy, the issues have likely resolved.

Social identity has served as an essential building block for those who study political behavior.  Among the earlier researchers, Robert Lane offers probably the most essential definition in Political Life, Why and How People Get Involved in Politics:

Social identity . . . refers to the use of attributes derived from a man’s identification with social groups to describe and define himself. It is the contribution made to his answer to “Who am 1?”, by his sense of belonging to some specified part of human society, a community, a professional society, a church, a nationality group, even sometimes a neighborhood … “the Tenderloin,” “the West End” (235-255).

In the years since the birth of political psychology and sociology, analyses typically control for group identities that have relevance for specific questions about opinion formation, as well as the behavior resulting from those beliefs, attitudes and opinions.

Opinion formation in politics, as with other beliefs, results from an ongoing and complex process.  Our early experiences – be they positive or negative – have among the most significant.  Not only do those elements produce some of the strongest impact (primacy principle), they shape our processing of new experiences, including the interaction with ideas of other individuals (See, for example, American Public Opinion: Its Origins, Content, and Impact by Robert Erikson and Kent Tedin, Chapters 5 &7).  In turn, absent what we call cross-cutting influences – experiences that challenge or contradict prior ones – common experiences by those with similar social experiences tend to produce patterns of beliefs and opinions, making that identity politically relevant. Thus, identity is not inherently political, but becomes so due to historically relevant patterns; to the extent that a group experiences significant changes within society, an identity may lose its political relevance.  This recent article in the Annual Review of Political Science provides background and current context in this area of research.  The experience of Polish immigrants illustrates this flow and ebb, though it is only one of many group experiences in this country.

The history detailed in The United States and the Rebirth of Poland, 1914-1918 by M.B.B. Biskupski shares the political role of Polish American immigrants in the years leading up to World War I.  Beginning in 1870, a wave of individuals fled the oppressive rule by the empires that had, over time, gobbled up the Polish state.  Known as “Polonia,” the diaspora settled in the northern central and eastern portions of the country, as well as just over the border in Canada.  Despite a common national identity, this group did not have unified beliefs, differences that stemmed from not only social and economic factors but also the area of Poland from which they arrived.  Those Poles who settled in the Midwest/Great Lakes region hailed from territory then controlled by the Germans tended to have more conservative religious and economic values and adopted a pro-Russia stance. Poles who migrated to the eastern seaboard of the US had secular, socialist and pro-German stances.

Although they had limited success in raising funds and military support for Poland directly, they became an electoral force in American politics.  Motivated by questionable assertions about immigrants in writings and speech, Polonia came out as a force against Wilson in 1912, to which Wilson responded by vetoing immigration restrictions and, after winning their support in 1916, entering the war and advocating for the return of an independent Poland.  Ultimately, Wilson and other international actors would be successful in garnering this latter goal as part of the peace settlement of the war.  (If you would like to read a little more detailed analysis, check out the book review that I previously published in a special volume of Rocznik Przemyski on pages 201-206.  The larger volume offers a detailed portrait of the role of Polonia during the quest for the return of an independent Poland, as well as its experiences within America during and after the war.)

Although the key issue that motivated Polish Americans to political engagement had been resolved, their experiences still reflected a distinct status in society. Despite the perception of America as a “melting pot”, the process for many immigrants has been at best gradual, particularly for the waves that have come from different areas around the world than prior ones. In his book, Working Toward Whiteness, historian David Roediger examines the journey of many immigrant groups. His research notes that racial classifications came not solely from distinct characteristics of social groups, but also from policies that categorized individuals.  For example, Southern and Eastern Europeans were not considered white and thus were marginalized by disrespect and discrimination.  These groups sometimes made progress in gaining acceptance by perpetuating similar behavior against other marginalized groups such as Asian, African and Latinx Americans (See Chapters 1-3).  Even though name changes were not pervasive for Southern and Eastern European groups, they did manage to work their way into acceptance within society in subsequent generations.  As such, Polish ethnic identity does not make a noticeable impact on individuals’ political beliefs in America today than it did in earlier decades.

Social identity influences political opinion and behavior to the extent that groups of people share common historical experiences that are relevant to particular issues.  For some individuals, aspects of their identity that are relevant at one point may not always be so.  However, some experiences are so stark that huge challenges remain to overcome boundaries; where we observe group differences in opinion on issues, our first response should be to learn more about group experiences and discern the reasons for differing and even competing opinions.  For example, listen to and read about the work by Yosemite ranger Yenyen Chan to uncover the role of Chinese Americans or read this post about the experiences of Asian, African and Latinx Americans from our sister series Tocqueville Capital.  By listening and learning, we may not only gain a broader perspective and evaluate how policies affect ability of all individuals to enjoy the rights and freedoms of our country, but we may also acknowledge the history and respect the cultures that have shaped portions of the American population as well as the larger history of this country.



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