Delegitimisation (also spelled delegitimation) is literally the withdrawal of legitimacy, usually from some institution such as a state, cultural practice, etc. which may have acquired it explicitly or implicitly, by statute or accepted practice.

A sociopsychological[1] process which undermines or marginalises an entity by presenting facts and/or value judgments which are construed to withdraw legitimacy is generally observed.[2]

A necessary process for the advancement of human culture, it can in some cases be a self-justifying mechanism,[3] with the ultimate goal of justifying harm of an outgroup.[4]

The concept applies to a wide spectrum of social contexts ranging from disputes about political entities to chronic illnesses.[5]

Definition, function and mechanisms

Delegitimization is the process of constructing a "categorization of groups into extreme social categories which are ultimately excluded from society".[6] Delegitimization provides "the moral and the discursive basis to harm the delegitimized group, even in the most inhumane ways".[4]

Daniel Bar-Tal identified five rhetorical strategies by which delegitimization occurs: dehumanization (e.g. "uncivilized savages"), trait characterization ("idiots", "parasites"), outcasting ("murderers", "terrorists"), use of political labels ("Nazis", "imperialists"), and delegitimization by group comparison (e.g. with the Huns).[7] Volpato et al. found eight delegitimizing strategies,[8] including trait characterisation, political labels, group comparison, segregation, outcasting and using a delegitimized group to stigmatize another group. For example, images of derogated target groups were published in the Italian Fascist magazine La Difesa della Razza in the 1930s.[9]

A process affecting actual beliefs rather than mere rhetoric is presumed to be at work however. An early controlled study published in 1960 showed that "serious and violent conflict can change previously held positive views of the other group" as in the case of the 1959 border disputes between India and China, eventually leading to the 1962 Sino-Indian War. "Before the dispute, Indian students considered the Chinese to be artistic, religious, industrious, friendly, progressive, and honest. But, as the conflict developed, the Chinese were stereotyped by the same Indian students also as aggressive, cheating, selfish, war-mongering, cruel and shrewd."[10]

Bar-Tal found that the process mostly occurs in the cases of intractable conflicts and ethnocentrism.[7] According to Bar-Tal, in these contexts delegitimization is part of an unholy trinity together with beliefs in justness of own goals and collective self-victimhood.[11]

History and examples

In 1975, "delegitimization" became a kind of "buzz word" when then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Daniel Patrick Moynihan accused the international body of delegitimizing Israel by passing a "Zionism is racism " resolution.[12] After United States President Barack Obama included the term in a 2011 speech, it developed wider international currency.[13]

During the same period, it has been suggested that the main effect of the 'Consciousness Revolution' was to at least partially delegitimize all aspects of the socio-political-economic system in the United States, with effects that are seen to this day. (Robert Bellah's 'The Broken Covenant').

The paired concepts of "legitimize" and "de-legitimize" have gained currency in discussions about nuclear disarmament.[14]

Arthur Kleinman found that a delegitimation discourse affects the social course of many chronic illnesses, including pain patients, disorders like chronic fatigue syndrome, and other stigmatizing illnesses like schizophrenia, depression or epilepsy.[5]

See also


  1. The Oxford Handbook of Intergroup Conflict edited by Linda Tropp, p. 29
  2. Clabaugh, Gary et al. (2007). Analyzing Controversy, p. 36., p. 36., at Google Books
  3. Volpato, Chiara et al. "Picturing the Other: Targets of Delegitimization across Time", International Journal of Conflict and Violence (Germany). Vol. 4, No. 2 (2010), p. 273, citing Daniel Bar-Tal. (1990). "Causes and Consequences of Delegitimization: Models of Conflict and Ethnocentrism," Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 46, pp. 65-89; retrieved 2011-09-19.
  4. 1 2 The Oxford Handbook of Intergroup Conflict edited by Linda Tropp, p. 31
  5. 1 2 Arthur Kleinman, "The Social Course of Chronic Illness" in Chronic Illness: From Experience to Policy edited by S. Kay Toombs, David Barnard, Ronald Alan Carson, p. 181
  6. Volpato, p. 272; retrieved 2011-09-19.
  7. 1 2 Delegitimization entry in The Encyclopedia of Peace Psychology edited by Daniel J. Christie.
  8. Volpato, (abstract); retrieved 2011-09-18.
  9. Volpato, p. 275; retrieved 2011-09-19.
  10. The Oxford Handbook of Intergroup Conflict edited by Linda Tropp, p. 35
  11. The Oxford Handbook of Intergroup Conflict edited by Linda Tropp, p. 37
  12. Rosenberg, M.J. "Israel: 'Delegitimization' is just a distraction," Los Angeles Times (US), July 17, 2011; Lis, Jonathan. "Livni: Delegitimization of Israel exacerbates other threats," Haaretz (Israel). August 24, 2010; retrieved 2011-09-19.
  13. Institut de hautes études internationales et du développement (Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies) mirroring Kohen, Marcelo. "Oui au Kosovo, non à la Palestine?" Le Temps (Switzerland). September 15, 2011; excerpt, "1. «La démarche palestinienne délégitimise Israël.» (Obama, 19 mai 2011). La démarche palestinienne ne remet pas en cause l’Etat d’Israël. Au contraire, elle implique la reconnaissance de son existence et consolide la solution des deux Etats"; retrieved 2011-09-19.
  14. Blair, Bruce et al. "Smaller and Safer, A New Plan for Nuclear Postures," Foreign Affairs (US), Vol. 89, No. 5, September/October 2010; excerpt, "These postures also perpetuate a mutual reliance on nuclear weapons that lends legitimacy to the nuclear ambitions of other nations"; compare Berry, Ken et al. "Delegitimizing Nuclear Weapons: Examining the Validity of Nuclear Deterrence," Monterey Institute of International Studies. May 2010; retrieved 2011-09-20.


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