Professor Mark Pickup awarded SSHRC grant for his project on political polarization

July 14, 2021

The Department of Political Science congratulates Professor Mark Pickup on his Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Grant. Professor Pickup received the grant for his project, Political Identity Norms, Trendsetters and their Influence on Political Polarization.

Insight Grants aim to build knowledge and understanding about people, societies and the world. By supporting and fostering excellence in social sciences and humanities research, the program deepens, widens and increases our collective understanding of individuals and societies, as well as informing the search for solutions to societal challenges. 

What follows is Professor Pickup's description of his project:

Many individuals identify with a party (e.g., the Liberal party in Canada) and/or with an ideological label (e.g., as a conservative in the U.S.). Trust of those with different partisan identities or ideological identities is in decline, while intolerance and stereotyping are on the rise. Individuals increasingly view those with different political (partisan and ideological) identities as an intolerable threat, and question the legitimacy of elections when their group does not win. Ironically, this polarization may have less to do with substantive policy disagreement and more to do with beliefs about how members of a political identity group ought to behave. Surveys show little change in the distribution of policy preferences across identity groups, and yet animosity between them has increased, with a breakdown in the tolerance and trust required for a healthy democracy. Still, despite these important revelations about the nature of polarization, the dynamics of polarization remain less clear.

To understand political polarization, research is needed in two areas. The first is to examine the role of the expectations accompanying identities (i.e. norms). Our past work (and that of others) shows that those with a particular political identity believe they are expected by others with the same identity to support certain policies and democratic values. We propose to build on this research by examining how such normative expectations have evolved to maximize perceived distinctiveness between groups. We posit that ideological and partisan identifiers believe that fellow group members expect them to hold opinions maximally different from other groups and to eschew democratic values designed to mitigate differences between groups. Therefore, polarization stems not from our own beliefs, but from our beliefs about what others who share our identity expect of us. The second area in need of study is the role of trendsetters—individuals that by virtue of their position in society and/or popularity in a group act as exemplars for that group. Our past work (and that of others) demonstrates that the discourse of trendsetters can create, foster and change identity-based normative expectations by convincing other group members that trendsetter views constitute a group norm. We propose to build on this research by examining how trendsetters’ influence on norms contributes to political polarization.

By studying the importance of both norms and trendsetters, we seek to understand how polarizing and anti-democratic normative expectations arise, and how they can be challenged. Building on our past findings, we propose to examine expectations regarding what policies/issues a group member should support (policy norms) as well as expectations of political tolerance, trust and inclusiveness (democracy norms). This work will allow us to develop and test interventions that can be used to strengthen democratic norms and counteract political polarization