Political drama over the past few years has driven us to take a new look at bridging social division. Pundits worry about filter bubbles, cultural enclaves, and the way “identity politics” might be driving us apart into groups that understand each other less and less. The theory assumes we do a lot of identity policing—we figure out who we are, anchor that on who we are not, and spend a lot of time and effort policing that boundary to keep other people out. If everyone self-sorts into similar identity communities, it can be harder to connect in a diverse society.
But is that really what’s happening? Sociologists know that identities are a key part of cultural membership, but we often complain about “identity politics” for certain groups and ignore it for others. Now, new research shows how focusing on one kind of identity can bring people together, rather than pushing them apart.
In a new study published in Sociological Science, Adam Horowitz and Charles Gomez look at “identity override”—a process where a shared identity can lead people to bridge other social divides. Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent to Adult Health, they find evidence for an interesting case of identity override: people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (GLB) have more friendships and relationships with people from different racial groups.
Identity was the key factor here; people who reported same-sex relationships but didn’t identify as LGB didn’t show the same patterns. Rates of interracial relationships also held after the authors controlled for other demographics and whether respondents lived in urban areas. Racial segregation still persists in the United States, but it looks like coming out and coming together encourages interracial social ties that can overcome some of these barriers. Horowitz and Gomez write,
the cross-racial nature of GLB membership allows it to override the otherwise high borders between people without such a second salient identity.
This research provides a little bit of good news for a world that seems full of conflict. In this case, there’s some evidence that investing in an identity doesn’t always mean cutting other people off.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.