A Social Identity Approach to Fostering Collective Action on Climate Change

Julia R. Hathaway

Advisor: Katherine E Rowan, PhD, Department of Communication

Committee Members: Timothy A. Gibson, Christopher Clarke,

Merten Hall, #1203
August 01, 2019, 10:30 AM to 12:30 PM


Individual actions that contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation, while important, are insufficient on their own. Unfortunately, there is still a disconnect between the seriousness of the problem and our ability or willingness to take appropriate collective action; political polarization is one explanation. The Social Identity Approach, which includes social identity (Tajfel, 1978; Tajfel & Turner, 1979) and self-categorization theory (Turner, 1985; Turner et al., 1987), provides crucial insight into whether people partake in collective action behaviors, such as voting, to address climate change. Drawing on that literature, this study explored whether highlighting the well-being co-benefits of collective action, benefits such as human health, could create social conditions for people across the political spectrum to shift social identification, or re-categorize, to identify more inclusively and less with their own partisan identity. To test these ideas, an experiment was conducted where participants read one of 8 versions of a vignette depicting a hypothetical community working together to address climate change. The goal was to learn whether emphasizing the well-being co-benefits of collective action would influence collective action intentions both directly and indirectly via two sets of mediators: (1) the degree to which individuals identified with people in the depicted community as well as perceived social support participants might feel in a similar situation, and (2) participants’ history of climate change-related interpersonal communication and efficacy, or the belief that collective actions work. In addition, I included information about the political makeup of community members to explore the influence of political cues in moderating these mediated pathways. I used Hayes’ PROCESS model to explore these relationships.

While exposure to the vignettes did not, by itself, yield significant effects on identification with the community or a sense that one would receive social support as part of the community, models of the relationships among a number of key variables explained considerable variance. Analysis showed that there was a significant indirect effect for identification with the vignette community on collective action though interpersonal discussion intentions, [b = 0.1967, BCa CI [0.1507, 0.2475]. This mediation model accounted for 47.5% of the variance in collective action intentions, F (2, 405) – 182.84, p < .001. Said differently, this set of indirect relations suggests that those with intent to talk about climate change with friends and family were also likely to identify with the vignette community and believe collective actions like voting will address climate change. Further, the analysis found that liberals gravitated toward political cue information that matched their political in-group. Conservatives, however, were able to identify with the vignette community when its members were depicted as an ideological mix, both liberal and conservative. This research advances climate change communication scholarship by elucidating the conditions that help build collective action intentions for those typically disinclined to engage on the topic of climate change. Results suggest potential pathways to enable individuals to self-select to engage in climate change collective action through social identification processes.