Social Identity of Populist Right Wing Parties

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Constructing “US”: How is the social identity of “the people” created by political leaders in Populist Right Wing Parties?

The term populism has recently become more and more ubiquitous in nature.  Interest in populism has been recently catalysed by the use of the term to describe a number of different political phenomena. From political movements such as those in favour of the outcome of the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, colloquially called Brexit, to leaders such Donald Trump (Norris & Inglehart, 2016).  However, it is has been most popularly used to describe Right Wing Parties, the Front National in France. Due to their policy stances on asylum and immigration that has been linked to an increase in increase in xenophobia and racism in many nations including the United Kingdom (Mols & Jetten, 2016). Populist Right Wing Parties, is an umbrella term that encapsulates both Populist Radical-Right Parties and Neoliberal Populist Parties that espouse authoritarian, nativist and populist elements (Mudde, 2007).

Despite the recent prominence of the term populism, it has been studied for many years with initial scholarship focusing on populism in Latin America (Conniff, 1982) (Hawkins, 2009) (Hawkins, 2010).  Research can typically be sorted into three categories which see populism as: an ideology, as discursive style and a political strategy.  One concept that is shared by these 3 different approaches is the idea of a shared identity by the members of populist movements, although the source and reasoning for this is different.

Viewing populism as a political strategy, the aim of this research is to develop an understanding how the ‘virtuous people’ (us) vs ‘corrupt elite’ (them) is constructed (Bonikowski & Gidron, 2016). This will be through the analysis of how this shared social identity is constructed in Populist Right Wing Parties (PRWP).

The study has three major objectives:

  • To analyse research in the field of leadership and identity studies. Focusing on research of the development of shared group identity by leaders and the creation of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy in populism.
  • To select and build on a theoretical framework from sources considered in (a), that can be applied to PRWPs. Conceptualising the leaders and the people’s role in the construction of a shared social identity.
  • To provide a thorough comparative content analysis of PRWPs based upon the chosen theoretical frame work from objective (b)

Section One: Preliminary Literature Review

Populism as a strategy, Social Identity Theory and Populist Right Wing Parties (PRWPs)

The three approaches to populism as previously mentioned has produced various contrasting definitions of the term. However, this review will use the minimal definition of Populism which is accepted by all approaches. This definition views populism as the ‘righteous people’ vs ‘the corrupt elite’. Even though it does not fully encapsulate all aspects of the phenomena. This definition is a prominent feature in literature as highlighted by previous literature[1]. Expectedly, the definition of the elite and the people differ based upon each case study and approach. Furthermore, this does not account for the effects of culture and context in creating populist politics nor does it cater for how it effects the political domain.

This literature review will initially give a brief overview of the ideological and discursive view of populism and how they contribute to political strategy approach.  It will then examine the current state of research in politics regarding the social construction of identity and PRWP. Finally, it will briefly examine literature from the identity and leadership discipline, highlighting how research in the field of identity and leadership can further political scholarship of PRWPs.

Research that views populism as an ideology, has been the main analytical approach to European populism. One notable piece of research is that of Mudde (2004) and it is from this work that a clear definition of populism as an ideology can be drawn. He argues that the populism is a “thin – centred ideology” which cuts society into ‘two homogenous and antagonistic groups’. These two groups are ‘the corrupt elite’ and the ‘pure people’. Furthermore, this ideology maintains that populism is an ‘expression of the “volonté générale (general will) of the people”.  In defining this ideology as thin-centred, Mudde (2004) is highlighting the concept that an ideology is an interrelated set of ideas that seek to gain meaning not through rooted in political theory but in relation to one another. This is made possible through the forming of a cognitive schema of interpretation and placing these ideas into this framework (Stanley, 2008). This definition allows the compatibility of populism with other theories. Although this is dependent on the socio-political context that the populist actors foster (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2012).

A second approach sees Populist discourse style as a political tool. With linguistic constructions highlighting the tension between the ‘corrupt elite’ and the opposing ‘people’ (Kazin, 1995). It uses a Manichean binary dialect to create a ‘moral and ethical’ struggle between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’ (Hawkins, 2009) and (Hawkins, 2010) . This view is not ideological and states that the discourse style can be utilised selectively (Kazin, 1995)  by political actors (de la Torre, 2000) (Barr, 2009) and (Jagers & Walgrave, 2007). This view accounts for the varying severity of populist rhetoric employed by political actors.  However, that is also dependent on the broader socio-political environment (Deegan-Krause & Haughton, 2009).

The third approach, places populism as a political strategy of mobilisation, focusing on the supply side of populism. With certain theoretical frameworks of populist mobility illustrating the importance of a Populist discursive style such (Flic, 2009) and (Jansen, 2011) . Whilst other frameworks show the importance of both discourse and also ideology e.g. (Barr, 2009). In gaining, maintaining and creating political support.

 Diverse analytical methods have conceptualised multiple manners of mobilisation, such as economics based factors (Acemoglu, et al., 2011) and the use of Populist policies (Madrid, 2008). One method of mobilisation cited is the role of leadership. Weyland (2001) argued that a leader’s characteristics can have a significant effect on political mobilisation. Stating that a ‘personalistic’ leader seeks or exercises government power based on direct, unmediated, un-institutionalised support from large numbers of mostly unorganised followers. This has been echoed with research such as (Taggart, 1995) and (Pauwels, 2011). Finding, that populist parties are headed by a leader who are perceived as charismatic and strong, by their followers. However, this is a matter of debate with research conducted by Barr (2009) finding that a leader’s perceived “outsider” status, is more important. 

A large proportion of Populist research accepts that the people ‘share a united identity’ and this is presented by the ‘Us vs ‘Them’ dichotomy used to define Populism (Bonikowski & Gidron, 2016). However, analysis and evaluation of how this identity is formed normally focuses solely on the macro casual mechanisms due to populism being a politics focused on the masses. An example of this is the idea of societal cleavage creation (Enyedi, 2005) and the role of grievance mobilisation (Oesch, 2008). This has been considered explicitly with regards to PRWPs. Most notably in work such as (Rydgern, 2005)  and (Bornschier, 2010)  which are some of the most cited theoretical papers on the topic. However, notably, the research mentions the importance of a collective social identity but does not consider how it is constructed.

Certain, theoretical research has addressed both the macro and meso level of mobilisation such as (Pappas, 2012). Pappas (2012) develops a framework for the mobilisation of causal mechanisms based around three concepts, namely: The politicisation of cultural resentment of an issue, new cleavage formation and polarisation. Moreover, the research highlights three micro supply side categorises within the formation of new cleavages: 1) outstanding cultural resentment 2) new symbolic representation which is ‘the handicraft’ of the leader and 3) the creation of a new social identity.  Identity creation is also highlighted at the meso level by research on the construction of societal cleavages such as the work of Bartolini and Mair (1992). Who further postulate that in order to create a new social identity, a shared understanding is necessary. This has been supported by empirical evidence focusing on the micro demand side, which finds that individuals who identify with or are members of PRWP (Ivarsflaten, 2008)  have certain behavioural traits. Furthermore, that these are more pronounced than those who do not (MacWilliams, 2016). One paper in particular that supports this hypothesis cites the need for further research into this area (Mols & Jetten, 2016). It also cites the term ‘identity entrepreneur’, a term used within literature related to the social theory of identity and its respective discipline.

The field of identity, and the study of it has become one of the most popular topics in contemporary organisational studies (Sveningsson & Alvesson, 2003). The sub-field in itself has multiple areas of academic research focusing on different levels, from the individuals to groups. This review has surveyed the group level of research and in particular the Social identity theory of leadership. As it can be used to analyse the leader’s role in the construction of a collective social identity (Hogg, 2001) and (Van Knippenberg, et al., 2012). This provides an understanding and rationale for explaining leadership within a specific organisation or group. Furthermore, it argues that ‘people look to their leaders to define their identity (Van Knippenberg, et al., 2012). A good unit of analysis can be derived from Hogg’s (2001) concept of porotypes, which are cognitive frameworks individuals use to understand characteristics of a group. In addition, extending this this model, is the New Psychology of Leadership (Haslam, et al., 2011) which develops the concept of identity entrepreneurship. This idea highlights key behaviours and traits which are used in constructing the concept of ‘us’ (Steffens , et al., 2014). Furthermore, this is a process orchestrated by ‘identity entrepreneurs’ who use the tactics of rhetoric and strategic communication (Van Knippenberg, et al., 2012) as well as other discursive techniques (Reicher & Hopkins, 2001). 

This field provides new avenues of academic investigation. As the construction of a social identity in PRWPs has not been previously examined through the lens of social identity theory. The application of social theory and related concepts is also limited to a few studies within the sphere of leadership studies (Lord, et al., 2017) . With empirical findings based on managers in organisations (Kroger & Marcia, 2011) (Lord, et al., 2017).

Examining PRWPS leadership through this literature can help to provide an insight between the supply and demand factors of Populism and how they interact. So far this, analysis at this level has only been explored statistically through formal modelling in the field of economics (Guiso, et al., 2017). Furthermore, it can provide further empirical evidence to support the claim that populism is a strategy of organisation and mobilisation utilised by political leaders. Therefore, this research may aid in countering the notion that populism is an individual identity, as expressed by recent micro level studies by (Hawkins, et al., 2012) and (Akkerman, et al., 2014).

Section Two: Proposed Methodology

Ontological and Epistemological Research Position

Ontologies and Epistemologies in research have been likened to the skin of research. They are fundamental and determine the approach and methodology of a project. As well as something that cannot be changed or just removed from the research process (Marsh & Furlong, 2002).

Ontology in political research seeks to answer ‘what is the nature of the social and political contest we might acquire knowledge about?  Whereas an epistemology is a way of understanding ‘what we can know about the world and how we can know it’. (Marsh & Furlong, 2002, pp. 18-19)

Analysing my research question and objectives I decided on the philosophical position of Scientific Realism. This is a middle position between positivist and interpretivist ontology and epistemology.  Ontologically it is similar to positivism maintaining the ‘naturalist’ view that there is a tangible real social world.  This is the antithesis of interpretivist ontology which argues that the social world is subjectively created (Heath & Halperin, 2012).

However, epistemologically it differs from both positivism and interpretivist views. It argues that there are ‘unobservable elements of social life’, contrary to the views of positivism and in line with interpretivist reasoning. Although, unlike interpretivism, it argues that social phenomena can be measured. With it being captured through theory and observed in method (Heath & Halperin, 2012). 

This position was chosen for two main reasons. Firstly, because the research question is focusing on construction of a social identity. Therefore, ontological taking an anti-fundamentalist position, akin to that of interpretivist ontology. Secondly, the research seeks to apply and generalise the way in this is constructed across different Populist Right Wing Parties, akin to that of scientific realism (Heath & Halperin, 2012).

Research Approach

The project, is an empirical desk based dissertation.  With the research initially employing a narrative literature review and then a comparative content analysis.

Initially the research began inductively based on the events of the 2016 Presidential elections however, in further investigation and the development of the preliminary literature review seen in the previous chapter, this changed, due to further refinement of what I wanted to achieve within this research. In conjunction with reading previous research that found evidence the role of digital media in political decision making is almost negligible in comparison to other factors at the macro and micro level (Gentzkow, 2016).  Resulting in the use of deductive reasoning to reach my current research questioning.

In addition, the dissertation will continue to use deductive research, although there will be need to use inductive reasoning in the research’s data analysis. Deductive research will be used in order to apply concepts and theories drawn from literature o the social construction of identity and the role of leadership and apply these concepts to the field of Populist Right Wing Parties. However, it is possible that the synthesis of results may result in the use of inductive reasoning to categorise certain findings.

This research project therefore will continue to use a quantitative approach to the research focusing on examining and reflecting on phenomena of qualitative data.  This can take the form of values and attitudes held by ‘the people’ as well as their perception of the socio-political situation. Moreover, findings and resulted will be categorised and represented in a quantitative manner. As this provides a way of account for scale and allows the presentation of findings in a structured and easily recordable manner. 

Furthermore, the research project will seek to take an applied research stance, with the application of findings, from field of social identity creation and leadership and potential construction of a new theoretical framework based on these principles to the PRWPs. This will result in the creation of non-normative knowledge about the how leaders create a shared social identity

Methods of Data Collection

A comparative content analysis has been chosen as it allows the application of theoretical frameworks across multiple case studies in a consistent manner. Accrediting more support for the generalisation of findings and the reliability of causal results. The method of content analysis will investigate how leaders construct a social identity.  Through analysing the content of speech acts and manifestos. As it is the content of these artefacts that is used to create a given perception and identity in the ‘people’.

Primarily, comparative analysis will be conducted at the micro-level and will be society centred. Allowing the comparison of process within a certain societal group of countries, in this case the focus on English speaking Populist Right Wing Parties (Peters, 1998).  This will allow the application of theory to the case studies, evaluating if social identity theory is transferable across academic disciplines. As well as generalizable across the unit of analysis which is Populist Right Wing Parties (Heath & Halperin, 2012).

There are a range of processes on conducting content analysis are plentiful, although the main processes remain the same in almost all accounts. This methodology will not attempt to review all these methods but highlight key strengths and weaknesses of the method.  It can be defined as ‘the research technique for the objective, systematic and quantitate description of the manifest content of communication’ whether, written spoken or published (Hansen , et al., 1998).

In this methodology objective refers to clear categories of analysis that can be easily applied by other researchers to the same sources and generate the same results. This done through the development of a framework of analysis which is systematically applied in the same way to all sources. The quantitative aspect is in representation of the data numerically as stated in the research approach section. One issue arises from the concept of manifest content, which arguably permits subjective reading of sources (Stempl, 1989). This research supports this however in line with Krippendorf (1980) and seeks to use a system based on high levels of inference when conducting the analysis.  This is because trying to code qualitative content into certain theoretical frameworks is a process of inference.  This however may present an issue, as using highly inferential coding will require clear explained and demarcated contextual categories. Therefore, this research will have to be very clear when designating the boundaries of the categories.

This however does raise a second potential weakness of content analysis, which is quantification of qualitative and then analysis based upon the qualitative findings using percentages or counting word or phrase frequency. The research must be cognisant that analysis can not only be based upon frequency, instead it must seek to place the result found within a relevant theoretical and conceptual model, which can provide rules for inferences drawn from previous studies in identity research (Krippendorf, 1980). This can be done through sticking to methodological steps of content analysis such as that developed by Hansen et al (1998), and looks at identification of a question, which has been addressed previously, coding and sampling which will be evaluated in the subsequent sections.

A second weakness of using content analysis comparatively is the potential difference in meanings and values associated to different words and phrases (Turner, 1990). In particular, if source content has been translated. Therefore, the research must consider, historical, social, cultural and semantical differences and similarities when selecting the sample and constructing the framework of analysis.  Moreover, using a methodology such as the constant comparative method can help to delineate clear categorises of analysis and identity sources of analysis to foster a defensible causal analysis.

Data Sources and Sampling

In the research project, manifestos and other speech acts such as recorded interviews, or information directly posted onto a Party’s websites will be used. Access to manifestos will be directly though party websites or through large depositaries of manifestos, which provide a comprehensive list of manifestos and policy positions of parties such as, (The Manifesto Project, 2016) and (Poltical Party Database, 2017). In the case where data is not available the study may use other forms of data. Such as speeches made by parties can be found in databases such as (British Poltical Speech archive, 2016) with videos and recordings of interviews and speeches found on party pages as well as on video sharing and hosting websites.

It is necessary to choose a representative sample from the plethora of Populist Right Wing Parties.  Attempting to use all parties as a sample population would not be possible under word and time constraints of the dissertation. Sampling will focus on PRWPs that are from English speaking countries, as this is my mother tongue and first language. Thus, removing any possible errors with translation errors when examining texts. Secondly, the research will focus on a ‘small-N’ comparison which is common in political research (Heath & Halperin, 2012).  Focusing specifically on 3 parties from three different nations, namely: Australia, The United Kingdom and The United States of America. This sample will also be able to draw source material from a 9-year period. This is because each of the aforementioned states have had at least 3, Federal, General or Presidential elections since 2008[2].

This will allow the systematic analysis of parties with adequate contextual depth as well as an analysis across 3 countries. Looking to find patterns of identity creation in both which is neither specific nor too general.  However, these case studies need to be carefully selected in order to not lead to the misrepresentation of the political situation and factors attributed to it. Therefore, a clear justification for their selection is needed. Additionally, a consistent awareness of potential selection bias is needed while still strategically selecting case studies to test theories pertaining to the social creation of identity (Heath & Halperin, 2012). This research will aim to use the most similar systems design approach for case selection (Przeworski and Teune 1970) (Heath & Halperin, 2012). As English speaking PRWPs are all similar in many characteristics, such as a democratic systems of governance an ideology. Yet different in the structures of the political systems they operate in.

The data will be appraised through the construction of specific analytical categories or coding categories. This is arguably the most important as well as the most difficult aspect of the analysis process. This can be broken down into specific stages, the first stage involves defining the unit of the text that is classed as a single unit.  This can take the form of a whole text, a theme, paragraph, sentence or a word. With the smaller the unit of analysis increasing its reliability.  This study will use a paragraph as a unit of evaluation as it provides an ability to gain contextual understanding of how identity is constructed while at the same time being able to be categorised into a distinct theme. This is not possible in the analysis of a whole text that may contain many themes. It is also more useful than a sentence which can provide reliable data of a specific word or topic. However single sentences do not provide enough information about context or the interaction of concepts. Such as how leaders may relate the economic situation to the disadvantage of ‘the people’ but to the advantage of ‘the elite’ (Norris & Inglehart, 2016). Secondly, categorise chosen will have to be mutually exclusive as if a unit can be placed in more than one category it can question the validity of the findings.  Furthermore, the scope of categorises has to be assessed and decided upon. This research proposes the use of broad categorise made up of several smaller subcategories. This can be accounted for in coding systems that have already been developed although it will require the evaluation and editing of these frameworks to make sure that it can analyse and capture the linguistic structures used in social identity formation.

 Furthermore, it allows a systematic presentation of findings and a platform to draw logical and rational casual conclusions from, as well as raising any future research questions.

This data will be synthesised in tables and descriptively in the discussion section of the dissertation. It will also present key information about the population, such as it has source, the country of origin and comparable statistics gained from the coding analysis.

Foreseeable Issues

In the development of a coding scheme there maybe issues with reliability of results as well as potential inconsistencies. This may be as a result of the coding scheme not having enough analytically robustness. This can be resolved through the use of a test run using a small sample of the data and an inter-coder reliability test. This is to make sure that different coders do not produce different results from the same coding schema. A coder’s intra-coder reliability may also be effected by temporal factors and therefore this test will have to be carried out over a specific period of time. AS I am the sole coder, I plan on checking my inter-coder reliability against at least 2 other people and also conducting an intra-coder reliability check.

However, this proposal anticipates that additional research time would further confirm the validity of results found in the comparative study. As findings of strong causal correlation supporting the predictions developed by theory, does not confirm the hypothesis. This can only be done through the use of focus groups of the ’In groups’ and supporters of Populist Right Wing Parties. Something that is not feasible under this dissertations time constraints.

Ethical and Professional Considerations

There are two key ethical considerations that should be considered in this dissertation. The first is that regarding transparency in regards to findings and methods of data collection and transparency in the reporting of results. This will be done through the submission of all coding schemas as well as an accounting for the data collation process. This will be done in order to show that no data has been falsified in the findings of the research.

A second ethical consideration is that of plagiarism and the independence of research. This work will seek to properly and full cite and reference all sources used. Furthermore, all work on this dissertation, other than inter-coder reliability testing will be carried out by myself. This work and progress (provisional given by timetable in the next section) will also be monitored by my supervision tutor. This will result in all research being independent, transparent, cited correctly and conducted with integrity.

Section Three: Proposed Research Timetable


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[1] This can be highlighted by the systematic review of the literature given by (Gidon & Bonikowski, 2013) . This review seeks to collate all relevant research on populism and provide and understanding of the interrelation of the three approaches

[2] The United Kingdom has only had 2 elections, however by the time this research is completed the third election will have taken place. PRWPs will be campaigning and constructing a social identity running up to this election. Therefore, there will be available new as well as previous data in order to develop an accurate coding schema.

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