Publication of Jennifer Todd’s Identity Change after Conflict

Last month the work of  Jennifer Todd, professor of politics at University College Dublin, was celebrated with a day-long conference at the Royal Irish Academy.

The conference was titled, ‘The Politics of Conflict and Transformation: Northern Ireland in Comparative Perspective,’ and featured contributions from outstanding scholars in the field. I was privileged to be among them.

The conference concluded by marking the publication of Prof Todd’s latest book, Identity Change after Conflict: Ethnicity, Boundaries and Belonging in the Two Irelands. It is the latest in Palgrave’s ‘Compromise after Conflict’ series.

These are my remarks on the publication of Identity Change after Conflict:

It is my pleasure to commend to you Prof Jennifer Todd’s latest book, Identity Change after Conflict: Ethnicity, Boundaries and Belonging in the Two Irelands, published by Palgrave as part of its ‘Compromise after Conflict’ series.

I have been given the opportunity to read Identity Change after Conflict, and introduce it to you. I can say without hesitation that it is a landmark study. Its theoretical and empirical insights make it required reading not only for those interested in the island of Ireland, but for generalists seeking greater understanding of how identities change.

I vividly recall the first time I read Jennifer’s 1996 book, co-authored with Joe Ruane, Dynamics of Conflict in Northern Ireland. I was an MA student in Politics at UCD. Even then, I was struck by how this book provided a theoretical framework for understanding Northern Ireland that allowed the reader to grasp the complexity of the conflict in all its dimensions. It was unlike anything I had read before about Northern Ireland and it has rightfully taken its place as one of the defining studies of the causes of the conflict. Identity Change after Conflict seems to me to have that same enduring quality.

While I am among the privileged few who have had sight of the book, I am not alone in my assessment. Michele Lamont has said it is ‘a major book … required reading for those interested in how group boundaries change.’ Series editor John Brewer has said, ‘It is a work of considerable theoretical insight … teasing out the relationship between social transformation and identity change, and of impressive empirical endeavour, with several interconnected pieces of interview research and related secondary data analysis.’

The book’s depth of insight is grounded in at least 15 years of focused research on the dynamics of identity change. The theoretical chapters are substantial contributions to scholarship in their own right, weighing the strengths and limitations of approaches to identity formation and change from a range of disciplines, especially politics and sociology. But even though Jennifer has an astounding ability to critique and develop theory, she cautions against becoming caught in paradigmatic theoretical debates. In this book, she leads by example, grounding her own theoretical developments in her empirical research programme, which spanned those years.

The empirical programme was a series of inter-related projects, which included interviews with 240 ‘ordinary’ citizens on this island; that is, people who are not political leaders or grassroots activists. Jennifer was interested in how these people’s identities changed (or not) in interaction with the macro-level changes taking place around them. Over those years these changing contexts ranged from the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement, to the same-sex marriage and abortion referendums in the Republic, and the flags protests in Northern Ireland.

Strikingly – and surprisingly – what Jennifer found was that identity change has been ‘pervasive’, especially in Northern Ireland. She introduces concepts to explain why this has been so, including ‘individual identity innovation’ and ‘grammars of nationality’, which help us understand how the contents of identities can change – if not the categories. Crucially for a context in which Brexit seems to be polarising identities, especially in Northern Ireland, she explores how not all types of identity change can be sustained, especially where ‘cultural repertoires, social resources and ideological encouragement’ create ‘identity traps.’ There are especially keen insights in chapter nine, on Identity Politics and Social Movements, about how the Protestant population in Northern Ireland can be particularly prone to identity traps.

Jennifer is one of the few scholars to seamlessly integrate the comparison of Northern Ireland and the Republic, an aspect of her work that will become even more important for scholars and policy makers as the repercussions of Brexit begin to emerge. Yet this book is enhanced by a further comparative element: it contrasts the identities of those in ‘mixed’ Catholic-Protestant marriages in Northern Ireland, the Republic and the Gard in France. This chapter brings out how even the most open individuals in a divided society like Northern Ireland have difficulty sustaining identity change, due to a lack of institutional support and ‘cultural signposting’ rather than something essentially ethno-national about their identities.

It should be clear from the rich, diverse examples in my brief account that Identity Change after Conflict is a work of considerable scholarship and significance, with all this and more skillfully integrated into a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts.

It is another original and important contribution which I expect to influence scholars and policy makers for years to come.

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