Defenders and Explorers: An identity conflict over belonging and threat

The aim of this project is to provide systematic empirical findings to accompany the diverse discussions on cultural and identity-related conflicts. We do so by using a comprehensive database to explore the following four questions: Can we observe consistent camps in society that differ with regard to their notions of identity? Do these camps also diverge with regard to other issues of conflict that relate to societal and political representation? What factors influence membership to one of the two camps? What political attitudes and positions are associated with the diverging societal camps?

An initial empirical study included 5,000 respondents in four countries (Germany, France, Poland, Sweden). First, the results show that a substantial share of the population is indeed split into two camps that differ in their notions of identity – measured by a narrow vs. open definition of belonging, as well as by a high vs. low perception of threat from strangers defined in ethno-religious terms. We call these camps Explorers and Defenders. Explorers endorse an open definition of belonging and do not feel threatened by strangers (Muslims, refugees). Defenders, on the other hand, are more likely to endorse a narrow definition of belonging, and feel more threatened by strangers. Second, our findings demonstrate that these camps are also diametrically opposed in terms of their perceived societal marginalization and their assessment of political representation. Explorers see themselves as well represented, i.e. are less likely to feel marginalized, are more likely to be satisfied with democracy in their country, and trust political institutions more. Defenders feel marginalized by society, are more dissatisfied with democracy in their country, and trust political institutions less. Third, our data show that Explorers and Defenders differ substantially in relatively stable cultural, religious and psychological characteristics. Fourth, our findings demonstrate that being an Explorer or Defender has ramifications for the desired form of democracy in the population. Our findings, thus, indicate that cultural conflicts over identity have become strongly entrenched politically, and now structure the societal and political views of the population to a significant extent.
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To comprehensively capture one key construct to understand the identity conflict, perceived societal marginalization, we have developed and validated a new scale, the Perceived Societal Marginalization (PSM) scale. The PSM scale captures individual differences in people’s subjective perceptions of the insignificance and lack of recognition of their own social groups in the domains of economy, culture, and politics. It shows a clear factor structure, good reliability and a theory-consistent nomological net. See for details.