Of Cairns and Cages

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



Alan C. Cairns, Identity, Democracy, Political Science


Ulrich Beck’s ruminations encapsulate our evaluation of Alan C. Cairns’ work on identity and democracy. If one substitutes the lions for collective identities, and if the cages in a zoo are taken to be traditional political institutions, it would not be a stretch to characterize this esteemed political scientist as an energetic, dedicated zookeeper. Throughout his impressive career, Cairns has taken pains to sustain and nurture understandings of collective identity in a political science discipline where such treatments have tended to be both rare and precious. And, just as many modern zoos have been updated, transforming the restrictive cages of the past into more contemporary, open-concept zoos in which lions roam seemingly unfettered, so too have Cairns’ endeavours expanded and evolved. For instance, in his early writing, Cairns portrayed collective identities as merely products of institutional catalysts. As a result, the intricacies of diverse identities, their varied pasts, mutability, intersections, and agency tended to be underrated. His more recent articulations in relation to identity are much more complex and nuanced, recognizing the heterogeneity of collective identities as well as their capacities as active agents.