Examining social identity influence: A meandering series of thought exercises

At the annual MAPOR conference a few weeks ago, we held the third in a series of panels built around Doug Hindman’s “belief gap” hypothesis. Following the panels in 2011 and 2012 I posted summaries of where my thoughts had gone based on what we’d all presented and talked about in these fruitful sessions. I had planned to do the same this year, but the thoughts have gotten too big. Instead, I have some thoughts on where the belief gap model has gone and how it can integrate with other similar models of social identity influence, to be followed by several posts exploring the deeper questions that are raised by what current research has done with this model.

First, a bit of a reset on what the model is and how it has changed. Hindman’s original belief gap study posited that beliefs about politically contested issues should be affected by political ideology over time, creating a widening gap between liberals and conservatives. It’s structurally the same as the knowledge gap hypothesis, only by focusing on politically contested beliefs rather than knowledge, the independent variable is moved from education to ideology. In a study presented at MAPOR in 2011, and recently published in Mass Communication & Society, two co-authors and I extended the model to include information relevant to one’s political identity — from both media and talk — as a mediating factor. Additionally, our theoretical approach incorporates work from a couple parallel but as yet disconnected areas — cultural cognition theory and recent research on misinformation correction.

In the paper I presented last month (and in another recently submitted to ICA), my research group expands and extends the model in a couple significant ways. First, we build on our previous paper’s examination of multiple outcomes by broadening the model from political identities and beliefs to any type of contested belief and its salient identities. In this case, we’re looking at beliefs about vaccines, and instead of political identities, we focus on environmental, religious, and parenting identities. We also conceptualize social identity as deriving from both group affiliation and adherence to group attitude norms. This gives us an affiliation → attitudes → information → belief pathway, which we model sequentially even while suspecting the relationships may be reciprocal. Notably, political identity does not lend itself to this affiliation/attitude disaggregation, providing an additional benefit to our addition of non-political identities. We also model two independent outcomes — belief that vaccines cause autism, and belief that vaccines are effective in preventing disease — and find that effects on them are different. So here’s what this looks like across this set of papers.

The findings of those last two, as well as the paper submitted to ICA and another by Ben Lyons presented at MAPOR, reveal the complexity of the actual phenomena we’re trying to uncover. Different identities might impact the same belief differently, and one identity might have different impacts on two seemingly closely related beliefs. Identities might also influence beliefs in the complete absence of explicit communication from elites to rank and file members, or even simply among rank and file members, about the belief in question — that is, as Ezra Klein put it, members of a group might “intuit” what they should think about a given topic based on what they understand the principles of their identity to be. That sounds a lot like an identity acting as an ideology. The complicating factor is that when we think about ideology in this way, we are primarily concerned with what we call “politics.”

What does this mean? In subsequent posts, I’ll dig into four areas in the model that require both more detailed conceptualization and more extensive empirical exploration. First, the nature of identity and the relationship between affiliation and attitudes — that is, identification as a member of a group and expression of the group’s shared ideology. But because so much of what has been written about ideology is implicitly or explicitly about politics, I’ll follow that with some thoughts on how we define and constitute politics, per se, when the identities and attitudes that we think of as political are coming to align more and more with those that are “non-political.” Specifically, I want to address cleavages between elite, institutional, and mass politics. Third, because the role of information in the current model has not been solidified as yet, I will look at how selective exposure fits and doesn’t fit the model, which must be able to accommodate active media use, as well as passive information reception from social groups or co-members of social groups, which would not fit the typical definition of “selection.” Finally, I’ll end at the end of the model, talking about how we conceptualize belief and how we might think about issues as collections of characteristics that implicate different sets of antecedent identities.

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    • Guest

      Write those follow-ups