Social Psychology and State Identity: Japan, Polarisation in the International Whaling Commission

Speaker: Dr. Jonathan Symons
APEC Research Fellow, Lingnan University


Date: Friday, 27 February 2009

Time: 2:30 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.



Since 1972, pro- and anti-whaling states have fought to control the International Whaling Commission (IWC). This history raises puzzling questions for both constructivist theories of international norm change and neo-liberal institutionalist theories of international relations. First, why was the US backed preservationist anti-whaling norm internalised by some states, but rejected by others? Second, given the marginal economic stakes linked to whaling, why has the IWC become a site of passionate ongoing norm contestation between otherwise friendly states? This paper draws on social psychology's social identity theory (SIT), to develop an account of state identity and collective ideation which seeks to explain both the partial failure of a 'norm cascade' and the subsequent economically irrational polarisation. The proposed explanation treats the state-executive as a social identity group and focuses on SIT's expectation that groups will sometimes reinforce group identity by adopting polarised group positions. By explaining how group psychology mediates the formulation of state identity, this approach moves beyond the common constructivist assumption that state identity derives solely from interaction with structure. The potential for SIT-based analysis to explain why some norms do not 'cascade' is illustrated through analysis of polarisation within the IWC. Here, US promotion of a preservationist norm raised the salience of Japanese national identity by focusing attention on Western hostility to Japan's culture of whale consumption. Polarisation ensued, such that the Japanese cabinet moved to defend group identity through a pro-whaling policy position that is not justifiable in terms of broader economic or foreign policy priorities.

 Speaker's Biography:

Jonathan Symons is a research fellow with the APEC Studies Centre and Environmental Studies Programme at Lingnan University. Since receiving his doctorate from the University of Melbourne in 2007 he has taught international relations and environmental politics at Melbourne, La Trobe and Deakin Universities. His current research at Lingnan focuses on normative questions pertaining to the international politics of climate change in the Asia-Pacific region.


Co-hosted by:

Environmental Studies Programme


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