Report: “Thick” vs. “thin” ethnic or racial identities: A comprehensive or thick ethnic identity or racial tie is one that organizes a great deal of social life and both individual and collective action. Thick identity powerfully shape most aspects of social life. Up until the 1990s in South Africa, race determined whom you could marry, where you lived, how you were treated by the police, employment opportunities, political power, etc. Basically, racial identity was exceptionally thick.
A less comprehensive or “thin” ethnic tie is one that organizes relatively little of social life and action. Today, ethnic identity for Italian Americans is relatively thin. They celebrate and express it in various ways, but other dimensions of social life- such as class, gender, or religion tend to be more powerful shapers of daily life and experience. However, identities change over time. First-generation Italian immigrants have thicker ethnic ties to their Italian culture than third or fourth as many of them have married non-Italians, don’t speak the language, or have any familial ties back in Italy. Not all timelines move in this way. When Europeans first began colonizing the United States, Native Americans had no sense of a unified, all-encompassing identity. However, Europeans still viewed them as one unit. As the awareness of this boundary grew stronger, Native American identity became a significant part of natives’ own self identity and became the basis for a collective action for civil rights. Circumstantialism helps explain how racial identity is thick in one context and thin in others. Social change, or groups’ economic, political, and social positions can also change ethnic identities.
Whether it is the call to “resist” Donald Trump and the radical right or a declaration that American citizens will “never again” be terrorized by gun violence, protest abounds in the digital age. Indeed, Information and Communication Technologies(ICTs)—or the technologies such as the Internet, cell phones, wireless networks, telephone lines and other communication media that give us access to information—challenge how scholars think about collective action.1 This is no less true of collective identity processes.2 Current scholarship includes the
role of communication in collective identity formation. Scholars, however, reach different conclusions regarding what constitutes collective identity and its importance in the digital age. For example, some scholars suggest that collective identity plays a peripheral role in contemporary mobilizations. In the hashtag era, mobilization results from individuals’ connections to issues rather than from their affinity for a collective or group (Bennett 2003; Bennett and Segerberg 2012). Thus, collective identity plays a diminished role in contemporary social
movements and can be understood by analyzing the connections among loosely-linked supporters who presumably share a common cognitive framework (Ackland and O’Neil 2011; Gerbaudo 2015; Monterde, Calleja-López, Auilera, Barandiaran, and Postill 2015). Other scholars disagree with this assessment, arguing that while communication protocols shape how movement supporters interact, ICTs provide spaces where adherents can form and maintain a
collective identity (Coretti and Pica 2015; Crossley 2015; Kavada 2015; Nip 2004). While it is not always clear what makes collective identity processes more or less successful, scholars contend that the evidence regarding the use of ICTs to cultivate commitment to a cause and organization is unambiguous.
We identify four factors that interact and make collective identity “thick” or “thin” in a group: the structure of communication; the breadth of its mobilization efforts; its goals (which may or may not include collective identity); and supporters’ interest in cultivating a political community. Thick identity results when an organization makes cultivating a collective identity a priority and structures communication in ways that facilitate interaction on- and offline. These groups allow interested supporters to interact freely and weigh in on organizational decisions. Interaction is critical, as it enables supporters to build trust, commitment, and solidarity, and it can facilitate in-person encounters that help collectivities define who they are and why participation matters. Activist groups trying to mobilize local (rather than national) constituencies may find it easier to create spaces on- and offline that encourage ongoing interaction and engagement in organizational decision making. Thin identity results when an organization does not make collective identity a priority and adopts a hierarchical structure of communication that allows leaders to control what and how information is disseminated to supporters as well as to determine the organization’s issues, campaigns, and goals. This structure of communication, which is more likely to be adopted by organizations mobilizing national constituencies, makes interpersonal interaction more difficult. This, in turn, makes it harder for supporters to build trust, commitment, and solidarity. Consequently, individuals are only superficially connected to one another and participation is primarily driven by their personal political priorities.
* If cultivating a collective identity is a priority, the organization will adopt a form that gives supporters a variety of ways to influence organizational agendas, actions, and goals (Staggenborg 1988). For example, an organization may adopt a decentralized and informal structure so that interaction is central to its decision-making processes. Ongoing interaction among group supporters not only nurtures collective identity, but also ensures that it is more representative of members’ particular political interests.
* If cultivating a collective identity is not a priority, an organization is far more likely to adopt a structure that minimizes supporters’ influence on organizational agendas, actions, and goals. In this case, a group’s structure may emphasize the role of leaders in making decisions and the importance of a professional staff in “doing activism” effectively. Members’ interactions with one another are minimized (Staggenborg 1988), and if members come together at all, it is typically on an annual basis to vote on a group’s leadership and staff. Consequently, while supporters may share a general political orientation (e.g., feminist or environmentalist),
they do not necessarily have a collective identity that reflects a shared sense of solidarity and commitment to a cause or group.
* Thick identity results when an organization makes cultivating collective identity a priority and structures communication in ways that facilitate interaction on- and offline. These organizations flatten information hierarchies, allowing supporters to interact freely and weigh in on organizational decisions. Interaction is critical, as it enables supporters to build trust, commitment, and solidarity over time. These emotional connections foster a thick identity because they provide a foundation for friendships and romantic relationships.
* MoveOn primarily focuses on raising money for professionally executed political campaigns and does not prioritize collective identity. Instead, it seeks to cultivate long-term donors, who occasionally participate in a campaign effort. To do this effectively, MoveOn adopts a hierarchical structure of communication and works to maintain control over its agenda, campaigns, and messages. Supporter input is limited, as is interaction. FTPM is interested in engaging the citizenry in local politics and thus puts more emphasis on the importance of cultivating a common collective identity, particularly among individuals who may agree on very little politically. In order to do so, the FTPM adopts a horizontal structure of communication, allowing supporters and leaders to interact and to directly determine the course of the movement and facilitating the development of groups and events that support, but are separate from, the FTPM.
* MoveOn’s tight control over the structure of communication also makes it difficult for activists to build connections with one another, particularly for those new to activism. For example, MoveOn does not provide ways for individuals to keep in touch after they participate in an event.
* FTPM cultivated thick collective identities by encouraging and facilitating interaction on- and offline. The supporters who stayed involved with the FTPM over the entire two-year observation period pointed to the importance of the Facebook page as well as the on the-ground groups for the creation of a political community that connected patriots to one another.
* the FTPM cultivated a thick collective identity among its supporters, in part, because Anthony made identity construction central to the movement from the outset. Anthony encouraged interaction among supporters while mitigating partisanship and political conflict. Initially his efforts were effective because he drew on affective emotions (pride and love) and patriotism, which simultaneously created a sense of “we-ness” and allowed for political disagreement. Consequently, unlike MoveOn supporters, individuals engaged with one another directly on issues in which they did not agree politically. FTPM’s horizontal structure of communication also enabled conservative groups to use the Facebook page to build their memberships on-the-ground. Leaders and members of Christians for Responsible Government and Citizens Holding Government Accountable interacted with FTPM supporters online and encouraged like-minded patriots to attend meetings offline. On the one hand, this created the grassroots infrastructure and political community necessary to ensure supporter engagement over time, even in Anthony’s absence. On the other hand, the FTPM’s collective identity constricted and became explicitly hostile to Democrats, people of color, and Muslims on- and offline, causing some supporters to leave the organization.
* the contrast between ‘thick’ traditional and historical rooted well-established regional identities, and ‘thin’ regional identities which are more transitory and focus more on economic competitiveness.
* Traditional regional identities take—like national identities—many generations to develop. They are rooted in a long political history linked to the development of the nation state. Sometimes regions are more or less artificial constructions of the central state which over time develop a regional identity based on their political importance. Strong regional identities are however more frequently based on centuries old conflicts over the loss of political autonomy to the central state, like for instance in Catalonia and Scotland. Other conflicts within a nation state can also strengthen regional identities. Flanders regional identity is based on linguistic conflicts within the Belgian state. Long term conflicts over the spatial distribution of taxation and public spending can also boost regional identity.
* Globalisation also dramatically extends the reach of social networks. Together with the individualisation of society this transforms social networks and identity formation.’We replace the few depth relationships with a mass of thin and shallow contacts.’ (Bauman 2004, p. 69). The small stable local networks in which individuals were bound together with multiple bonds of kinship, friendship, work, church and mutual care disappear. These social ties are still important for individuals, but these ties become more separated from each other. Individuals increasingly choose with whom they have what kind of relation. The bonds in these individual centred social networks are weaker and more changeable. These individual networks are larger than traditional networks and the overlap between these individual networks decreases. The stable collective network is broken up into many changeable individual networks. Individual choice, rather than collective conventions and spatial proximity now determine social networks (Blokland 2003; Bauman 2004, 2001). Liquefaction takes place of social frameworks and institutions. Stable collective identities are replaced by chosen, fluid and temporary individual identities. ‘In the brave new world of fleeting chances and frail securities, the old-style stiff and non-negotiable identities simply won’t do.’ (Bauman 2004, p. 27). Discussing and communicating identities becomes more important while in the current phase of liquid modernity identities are undermined. Identities are sometimes temporarily fixed, but are lighter than tradition identities and can be changed more easily (Bauman 2004, pp. 13–46). Especially conflicts can temporarily strengthen communities. Shared identities are usually mobilised when interdependencies cause problems, like for instance economic restructuring affecting specific areas (Amin and Thrift 2002, p. 30; Savage et al. 2005, p. 56; Donaldson 2006). Despite the decline in the localised nature of social networks, residents are still in many ways interdependent. Living together in space makes them interdependent for their quality of life (Blokland 2003, pp. 78–79). Proximity, propinquity (Amin and Thrift 2002), or throwntogetherness (Massey 2005), are the basis of many temporary spatial identifications. Shared interests in a specific place and at a specific moment can create a new, but transitory, regional identity. The relation between identity and space, which has never been straightforward, is thus now further complicated through individualisation, migration, economic changes and political rescaling.
* Thin and thick are sometimes used as metaphors to characterise these changing social relations. Anton Zijderveld (2000) uses them to analyse the changing role of institutions and networks. ‘Today thick, greedy and closed institutions, conditioned by a heavy handed, often religiously and magically tabooed, coercive tradition, have been superseded by thinner, more voluntary, more open, and looser institutions which in the behaviour of people are often alternated or temporarily suspended by flexible networks.’ (Zijderveld 2000, p. 128). The distinction between thick and thin identity is also sometimes made. Thick identity is more based on a shared culture and community relations. Thin identity is more related to a specific problem and requires less direct involvement with other individuals. Thick identities have a normative aspect, while thin identities are more practical and utilitarian (Shelby 2005; Hinman 2003). Thick identities are more fixed and rooted in culture and history, while thin identities are more fluid and based on dialogue (Delanty and Rumford 2005, pp. 68–86).