Identity politics has recently superseded interest-based politics in many countries, including Russia, Türkiye, India, and the United States. How might certain actors facilitate such change? This seminar will address how institutional entrepreneurs promote identity politics via understandings of social identity. Institutional entrepreneurs—including charismatic politicians, media figures, religious leaders, and celebrities—exert political influence by investing resources into shaping informal and formal institutions, along with behavioral responses. They manipulate social identities—that is, conceptual frameworks that relate individuals to social groupings, such as race, gender, ethnicity, religion, social class, and ideology. Social identities are partially chosen and partially socially constructed. Discretion responds to perceived social distances and relative group status, which depends on relative resource access. Social imposition reflects pre-existing and expected social categorization and norms. Social identities are, in principle, pluralistic. One may identify with family, occupation, race, gender, ethnicity, or sports clubs. Yet, sometimes social identities converge on one element, such ethnicity or race: identity singularity. Singularity molds conceptions of acceptability, often spawning group prejudice, systemic discrimination, and conflict. Institutional entrepreneurs promote singularity via narratives concerning ‘appropriate’ behavior and threats to the existence or ‘purity’ of their groups. They may stress social distance between groups; they may alter understandings of ‘fairness’ by arguing that certain groups, perhaps immigrants, free ride on the work of others. Stories about resource conflict may enter. A rival group’s access to land, oil, or political position may undermine another’s conception of itself, its reputation, and its viability. Identity politics thus builds on the efforts of institutional entrepreneurs to spread and enhance social identity singularity.

About the speaker

William Ferguson

William Ferguson is the Gertrude B. Austin Professor of Economics at Grinnell College. After majoring in history at Grinnell College, he worked as an urban community organizer in Seattle, WA. In 1989, he earned a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and began teaching at Grinnell College. These experiences inform his scholarship on political economy theory. His early scholarship focuses on labor economics, emphasizing bargaining theory and collective action. In the early 2000s, he broadens his focus to game-theoretic institutional political economy. His 2013 Stanford UP book, Collective Action and Exchange: A Game-Theoretic Approach to Contemporary Political Economy, opens with microfoundations of collective-action problems before proceeding to a game-theoretic approach to power, informal and formal institutions, policymaking, and economic growth. His 2020 Stanford UP sequel, The Political Economy of Collective Action, Inequality, and Development, proposes a framework for development theory using a typology of political settlements to analyze collective-action problems of political-economic development. He continues this theme as a coauthor of the 2022 Oxford book Political Settlements and Development: Theory, Evidence, Implications. His current manuscript for the Cambridge Series in Development Economics, Developmental Dilemmas: The Role of Power and Agency, focuses more specifically on how power shapes developmental prospects.


Research Themes

Research Programmes