Civic Identity

Civic identity constitutes individuals' sense of self-definition within a larger community, including their attachment to that community and their perception of their role in political and civic life. Traditional notions of civic identity assume an association with a geographic locality, such as a neighborhood, town, state, or nation. Civic identity also encompasses a connection to a community defined by proximity, such as students in a school, members of a political organization, or participants in a social club. Other forms of community attachment are based on an individual's race, ethnicity, gender identity, religious affiliation, partisanship, ideology, class, socioeconomic status, and other deeply held characteristics. In addition, civic identity incorporates the responsibilities and entitlements associated with community membership. Responsibilities promote the well-being of the community and include voting, participating in community organizations, serving on juries, and performing military service. Entitlements are the rights and privileges related to being part of a community, such as freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial, and the ability to hold a driver's license.

Civic identity can overlap with moral identity, which denotes a person's respect for common humanity. Moral identity is the extent to which moral values, such as fairness, kindness, and compassion, guide an individual's actions. In the United States, the republican form of government encourages people to embrace civic virtue and set aside private interests in favor of the public good. People with strong civic and moral identities tend to work collectively toward common goals. They take part actively in community service initiatives. They often have high levels of interpersonal trust and are tolerant of those whose opinions differ from their own. Civic identity, along with moral identity, can promote generalized reciprocity and respect for the common good which are important for the civic health and stability of nations and communities.

Civic identity in postmodern society is complex, as people have cross-cutting identities. Amartya Sen ( 2006 ) argues that people typically do not have a single identity, but instead embody multiple identities—a human being, an American, a woman, a Latino, a Catholic, or a business executive, for example. There are times, however, when a particular identity may become especially relevant, triggering intolerant or violent reactions to others. The development of “solitarist identities” creates a situation of “us” against “them.” Sen provides the example of a Hutu who identifies as a laborer, family man, and Rwandan, but who kills fellow countrymen because they are Tutsis. The reasons why his identity as a Hutu dominates and can lead to violence are difficult to explain.


National identity represents a person's sense of belonging to a state, nation, or territory that transcends citizenship. A nation's history, culture, traditions, folklores, symbols, and common language forge bonds among its people. National identity is associated with patriotism, or loyalty and devotion to one's country. Nationalism, people's belief in their country's superiority, is sometimes a feature of national identity. Strong feelings of nationalism can lead people to think that the interests of their own country are more important than of those of other nations, and that their country's culture should be exported or be protected from outside influence. American nationalist sentiments are supported by the prevalence in other countries of American brands and products, as well as television programs, films, and books. Extreme nationalism is often associated with chauvinism, which can lead to intolerance of and aggression against other nations.

American national identity is often defined by a commitment to democratic principles of justice, fairness, and protection of civil liberties. The American flag is a unifying symbol that people associate with positive aspects of democratic political culture, for example, respect for liberty and equality. American identity also assumes support for the nation's system of government and related processes, including the electoral and judicial systems. Historically, American national identity has been premised on the notions of American exceptionalism and the American creed. American exceptionalism is the conviction that the United States has a special place in the world and serves as an example to other countries. This viewpoint harkens back to the early days of the republic when the country's vast frontier represented boundless opportunities for people to achieve their goals. Political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset ( 1979

National identity is complicated by immigration and the increased salience of ethnic and cultural diversity within nations. Members of diverse groups living in a nation may maintain strong allegiances to their country of origin. Immigration has been accompanied by a rise in bilingualism, dual citizenship, and religious pluralism. Samuel Huntington ( 2004 ) controversially asserts that American national identity is being undermined as immigrants, especially from Mexico, establish communities within the country whose values are at odds with the American creed. He argues that these communities will form a distinct cultural bloc with its own language, educational system and business practices that will divide the United States and endanger the established democratic system of government. Globalization also poses a challenge to people developing a strong sense of national identity as it fosters greater interconnectivity among people in geographically dispersed nations. Transnationalism results when the formal borders between nation states become less relevant for economic and social transactions.


The formation of civic identity requires that people have knowledge about their community and how it works, take part in community affairs, and accept the community's fundamental principles. According to Knefelkamp ( 2008 ), adolescents begin to grapple seriously with how they fit into a world beyond their immediate friends and family. Agents, such as the family, school, peer group, and mass media, help young people develop an awareness of the roles and responsibilities associated with community membership. Adolescents also begin to acquire values and beliefs that underpin their relationship to the political world. Early adulthood is another prime period for identity formation, as young people have gained an understanding of society's civic expectations and assume greater agency in charting their own course. Civic identity can shift over time, as people's experiences broaden and their social status shifts. College students who are detached from politics may transition to being engaged adults once they establish roots in a community, start a family, and work in steady jobs.

People do not develop their civic identities in isolation, but through interactions with others who have diverse personal characteristics, life experiences, and views about society. Identity formation also occurs through the actions people take to fulfill their community obligations. A person who protests government policies that prohibit same sex marriage may identify as a gay rights activist, whereas a peer who remains politically aloof except for voting in presidential elections may have a more diffuse identity as a citizen. Enhanced communication, especially in the era of the Internet and digital media, makes it possible for people across the globe to form online communities based on shared identities and interests. People whose civic identity is rooted in environmentalism can unite and work together to combat global warming.


Some scholars argue that in recent years Americans' civic identity has become politically polarized. Traditionally, American parties have been broad umbrella organizations that accommodated people with widely varying beliefs. The Democratic Party, which attracted liberals, had room for moderates and conservatives. Similarly, the Republican Party, which was heavily conservative, had a moderate and liberal wing. According to Matthew Levendusky ( 2010 ), the Democratic and Republican parties have become more distinctly ideological and have encouraged citizens to place themselves within a partisan camp. Liberals and conservatives are now firmly entrenched in the Democratic and Republican parties respectively. Partisan sorting also occurs along religious lines, as evangelical Christians and Mormons are primarily Republican, and mainline Christians split their allegiances between the two parties. The media reinforce partisan sorting by characterizing states as “red” for Republican and “blue” for Democrat. There is even evidence that people are choosing to live in communities that reflect their partisan identity.

SEE ALSO Citizenship ; Geographic Mobility and Sorting ; Polarization ; Political Culture ; Political Socialization .


Huntington, Samuel. Who Are We? The Challenge to America's National Identity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Knefelkamp, L. Lee. “Civic Identity: Locating Self in Community.” Diversity & Democracy 11, no. 2 (2008): 1–3.

Levendusky, Matthew. The Partisan Sort. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Lipset, Seymour Martin. The First New Nation. New York: W.W. Norton, 1979.

Sen, Amartya. Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

Yates, Miranda, and James Youniss, eds. Roots of Civic Identity: International Perspectives on Community Service and Activism in Youth. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Diana Owen
Georgetown University