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Those who reduce group difference to identity implicitly use a logic of
substance to conceptualize groups. Under this logic a group is defined
by a set of essential attributes that constitute its identity as a group.
Individuals are said to belong to the group in so far as they have the
requisite attributes. On this sort of account, the project of organizing
in relation to group-based affiliation and experience requires identify-
ing one or more personal or social attributes which make the group
what it is, shared by members of the group, and which clearly exclude
others. Identifying the group of Latinos, for example, means finding
the essential attributes of being Latino, such as biological connection,
language, national origin, or celebration of specific holidays. Saying
that gay people are a group, to take another example, means identify-
ing the essential attributes that members of the group share that make
the group a group. In their efforts to discover the specificities of their
group-based social positions and forge relations of solidarity among
Whether imposed by outsiders or constructed by insiders to the
group, attempts to define the essential attributes of persons belonging

Social Difference as Political Resource87


For some examples of critiques of essentialism and a politics of identity from within
theories and movements that support a politics of difference, see Elizabeth V. Spelman,
Inessential Woman(Boston: Beacon Press, 1988); Anna Yeatman, ‘Minorities and the
Politics of Difference’, in Postmodern Revisions of the Political(New York: Routledge,
1994); Michael Dyson, ‘Essentialism and the Complexities of Racial Identity’, in David
Theo Goldberg (ed.), Multiculturalism(Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1994); Steven
Seidman, ‘Identity and Politics in a “Postmodern” Gay Culture’, in Difference Troubles:
Queering Social Theory and Sexual Politics(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

to social groups fall prey to the problem that there always seem to be
persons without the required attributes whom experience tends to
include in the group or who identify with the group. The essentialist
approach to defining social groups freezes the experienced fluidity of
social relations by setting up rigid inside-outside distinctions among
groups. If a politics of difference requires such internal unity coupled
with clear borders to the social group, then its critics are right to claim
that such politics divides and fragments people, encouraging conflict
and parochialism.

Thirdly, the tendency to conceive group difference as the basis of a
common identity which can assert itself in politics implies for many
that group members all have the same interests and agree on the val-
ues, strategies, and policies that will promote those interests. In fact,
however, there is usually wide disagreement among people in a given
social group on political ideology. Though members of a group
oppressed by gender or racial stereotypes may share interests in the
elimination of discrimination and dehumanizing imagery, such a con-
cern is too abstract to constitute a strategic goal. At a more concrete
level members of such groups usually express divergent and even con-
tradictory interests.5
The most important criticism of the idea of an essential group iden-
tity that members share, however, concerns its apparent denial of dif-
ferentiation within and across groups. Everyone relates to a plurality
of social groups; every social group has other social groups cutting
across it. The group ‘men’ is differentiated by class, race, religion, age,
and so on; the group ‘Muslim’ differentiated by gender, nationality,
and so on. If group identity constitutes individual identity and if indi-

88Social Difference as Political Resource


Compare Anne Phillips, The Politics of Presence(Oxford: Oxford University Press,

1995), ch. 6.

viduals can identify with one another by means of group identity, then
how do we deal theoretically and practically with the fact of multiple
group positioning? Is my individual identity somehow an aggregate of
my gender identity, race identity, class identity, like a string of beads,
to use Elizabeth Spelman’s metaphor. In addition, this ontological
problem has a political dimension: as Spelman, Lugones, and others
argue, the attempt to define a common group identity tends to nor-
malize the experience and perspective of some of the group members
while marginalizing or silencing that of others.6
By conceiving social group differentiation in relational rather than
substantial terms, we can retain a description of social group differen-
tiation, but without fixing or reifying groups. Any group consists in a
collective of individuals who stand in determinate relations with one
another because of the actions and interactions of both those associ-
ated with the group and those outside or at the margins of the group.7
There is no collective entity, the group, apart from the individuals who
compose it. A group is much more than an aggregate, however. An
aggregate is a more or less arbitrary collection of individuals accord-
ing to one or more attributes; aggregation, when it occurs, is from the
point of view of outsiders, and does not express a subjective social
experience. Insurance companies may aggregate smokers for the pur-
poses of actuarial tables, and the Cancer Society may aggregate per-
sons known to have contributed to health insurance advocacy groups.
When constituted as aggregates, individuals stand in no determinate
relations to one another. The members of groups, however, stand in

Social Difference as Political Resource89


Spelman,Inessential Woman; Maria Lugones, ‘Purity, Impurity and Separation’, Signs:
A Journal of Women in Cultural and Society, 19/2 (Winter 1994), 458–79.


For an account of groups as constituted relations, see Larry May, The Morality of
Groups(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); and Sharing Responsibility(Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1993).

determinate relations both to one another and to non-members. The
group, therefore, consists in both the individuals and their relation-

Associations are one kind of group. An association is a group that
individuals purposefully constitute to accomplish specific objectives.
These may be as minor and transient as forming a neighbourhood wel-
coming committee or as grand and long-lasting as a constitutional
state. Certainly associations are constituted relationally. Their mem-
bers or affiliates stand in certain relations with one another around
particular objectives, and those relations are often defined by explicit
rules and roles, although many of the relationships in associations will
also be informal and tacit. The argument of this chapter requires con-
ceptualizingsocialgroups, however, as distinct from associations.8
Considered relationally, a social group is a collective of persons dif-
ferentiated from others by cultural forms, practices, special needs or
capacities, structures of power or privilege. Unlike associations, social
groups are not explicitly constituted. They emerge from the way
people interact. The attributes by which some individuals are classed
together in the ‘same’ group appear as similar enough to do so only by
the emergent comparison with others who appear more different in
that respect. Relational encounter produces perception of both sim-
ilarity and difference. Before the British began to conquer the islands
now called New Zealand, for example, there was no group anyone
thought of as Maori. The people who lived on those islands saw them-
selves as belonging to dozens or hundreds of groups with different
lineage and relation to natural resources. Encounter with the English,
however, gradually changed their perceptions of their differences; the
English saw them as similar to each other in comparison to the
English, and they found the English more different from them than
they felt from one another.
In a relational conceptualization, what makes a group a group is less
some set of attributes its members share than the relations in which
they stand to others. On this view, social difference may be stronger
or weaker, it may be more or less salient, depending on the point of
view of comparison. A relational conception of group difference does
not need to force all persons associated with the group under the same
attributes. Group members may differ in many ways, including how
strongly they bear affinity with others of the group. A relational
approach, moreover, does not designate clear conceptual and practical

90Social Difference as Political Resource


In earlier work I have distinguished these three terms, aggregates, associations, and
social groups, and I rely on these conceptualizations here. See Justice and the Politics of
Difference(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), ch. 2.

borders that distinguish all members of one group decisively from
members of others. Conceiving group differentiation as a function of
relation, comparison, and interaction, then, allows for overlap, inter-
spersal, and interdependence among groups and their members.9
Groups differentiated by historic connection to territories and by
culture have received the most attention both in recent political theory
and practical politics, for example in nationalist politics, on the one
hand, and in efforts to institute multicultural policies, on the other.
Cultural groups are differentiated by perceived similarity and dissim-
ilarity in language, everyday practices, conventions of spirituality,
sociability, production, and the aesthetics and objects associated with
food, music, buildings, the organization of residential and public
space, visual images, and so on. For those within it or who practice it,
culture is an environment and means of expression and communica-
tion largely unnoticed in itself. As such, culture provides people with
important background for their personal expression and contexts for
their actions and options. Culture enables interaction and commun-
ication among those who share it. For those unfamiliar with its mean-
ings and practices, culture is strange and opaque. Cultural difference
emerges from internal and external relations. People discover them-
selves with cultural affinities that solidify them into groups by virtue
of their encounter with those who are culturally different in some or
many respects. In discovering themselves as distinct, cultural groups
usually solidify a mutual affinity and self-consciousness of themselves
as groups.

Political conflict between cultural groups is common, of course.
Outsiders condemn or denigrate a group’s practices or meanings,
and/or assert the superiority of their own, sometimes attempting to
suppress the denigrated group’s practices and meanings, and impose
its own on them. It is important to remember, however, that much of
the ground for conflict between culturally differentiated groups is not
cultural, but a competition over territory, resources, or jobs. The last
chapter of this book focuses on some issues of cultural difference by
examining contemporary arguments about liberal nationalism and

Social Difference as Political Resource91


Martha Minow proposes a relational understanding of group difference; see Making
All the Difference(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), pt. II. I have referred to a
relational analysis of group difference in Justice and the Politics of Difference,ch. 2; in that
earlier formulation, however, I have not distinguished group affiliation from personal iden-
tity as strongly as I will later in this chapter. For relational understandings of group differ-
ence, see also William Connolly, Identity/Difference(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University
Press, 1993); and Chantal Mouffe, ‘Democracy, Power and the “Political”’, in Seyla
Benhabib (ed.), Democracy and Difference(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

self-determination. Later in this chapter I will discuss the politics of
multiculturalism as a kind of ‘identity politics’.
More important for the central argument of this chapter, however,
is the concept of structural, as distinct from cultural, group. While
they are often built upon and intersect with cultural differences, the
social relations constituting gender, race, class, sexuality, and ability
are best understood as structural.10

The social movements motivated
by such group-based experiences are largely attempts to politicize and
protest structural inequalities that they perceive unfairly privilege
some social segments and oppress others. Analysing structural differ-
ence and structural inequality, then, helps to show why these move-
ments are not properly interpreted as ‘identity politics’. I turn, then,
to an account of structural differentiation.

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