Examining the role of group identity in divided societies

June 27, 2022

Story by Rob Rombouts

Evenlyne Brie, Department of Political Science“Identity formation is a complex phenomenon,” said Evelyne Brie. “Often people will think identity is stable over time, but it is something that fluctuates both for individuals within a group, and for a single individual over their lifetime.”

Evelyne Brie is joining the Department of Political Science at Western University. Brie uses a quantitative approach to understand how group-level identities impact political resentment and voting behaviour.

Brie completed her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. For two years, she has also worked as a data scientist at the City Lab Berlin, applying quantitative approaches to political re-districting in the German capital and developing various prototypes, and making government data more open and publicly available.

“I’m interested in the way identity fuels political dissatisfaction in divided societies,” said Brie. While the media often focuses on the outcomes of group-level disenchantment, for instance support for populist parties, Brie said there also needs to be better understanding of its causes. For instance, resentment can be strengthened when there is a feeling of cultural threat or the existence of structural mechanisms perpetuating inequalities.

Her work has included examination of societal divisions in Canada and Germany. In one set of studies, survey respondents in Quebec were asked about their attitudes towards official language requirements and support for Quebec independence. When the survey included questions in English, respondents reported stronger support for in-group favoritism that when the survey questionnaire was solely in French.

There is an increasing level of regionalism and disconnect in many Western countries, including a divide between east and west Germany, and a resurgence of regional divisions in France and Italy. Brie’s PhD dissertation studies the role played by regional identity in explaining political divides in Germany, between the eastern and western states. Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the re-unification of the country, Easterners still display higher levels of regional identity than their Western counterparts. Her dissertation looked at how inter-group contacts, exposure to information about regional inequalities and inheritance disparities between the East and the West have contributed to fueling resentment in Eastern German states.

Some of Brie’s work on divisions in Canada is published in “A Divided Country: Identity, Federalism and Regionalism in Canada”, co-written with Félix Mathieu, and published in French by the Presses de l’Université Laval. In the book, the pair measured the level of dividedness across provinces and presented possible political or constitutional solutions.

“There is not a lot of social acceptability for a precise kind of reform of the Canadian constitution,” said Brie. “Some provinces may agree with certain changes, but not all of them do. For instance, Quebecers would want more power in terms of immigration, but not necessarily in terms of environmental issues. Each province has its own set of preferences.”

The book details possible approaches to deal with the growing divides in Canada. One approach is to do nothing, which will not address growing levels of resentment. Attempts to increase feelings of unity are unlikely to be successful. Breaking up the country and granting independence to Quebec, and possibly other regions, while legitimate, does not currently gather sufficient support.

In the end, Brie said the most realistic approach may be to develop political asymmetry, with each province designing or deciding their own level of constitutional power, an approach similar to the relationship of Scotland within the United Kingdom. An English edition of the book is to be published at the University of Toronto Press.

Brie is excited to join the department at Western and continue her work on deeply divided societies, and looks forward to “find exciting ways to use data while working alongside an incredible group of scholars in the field.”