Identity Politics

Having been recently reminded of a debate between Kenan Malik and Amartya Sen, which was published in Prospect magazine in April 2006, it is worth examining the points they made in relation to some of the ‘patterns of power’ which were described in the recently-published book of that name.

Malik argues that cultural identity is more important than some of the other identities which were listed in Sen’s book.  In terms of people’s moral outlook and habits of behaviour it is hard to disagree: individuals are very powerfully (and perhaps unconsciously) affected by their upbringing (4.2.1), and cultural groups are conditioned by their collective experiences (4.2.5).

Sen’s points about choice of identity are also valid.  Firstly, individuals have to take responsibility for making moral choices within the context of their own circumstances; they have to resolve apparent contradictions between the different pressures upon them (4.4.4).  Secondly, Sen was surely right to argue that people’s political representation should not necessarily be dominated by their cultural identity; identity politics ( is problematic and most political choices are about issues which are not affected by a person’s ethnicity.

The point which Anne Phillips made, when writing about multiculturalism (, was a good one: that people should be treated as individuals and not as cultural stereotypes.


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