Constructivist Theories of Ethnic Politics

Constructivist Theories of Ethnic Politics

Constructivist Theories of Ethnic Politics

Constructivist Theories of Ethnic Politics


Most research on the effect of ethnicity on economic and political outcomes is driven by the "primordialist" assumption that ethnic identities are fixed. But "constructivist" research across the social sciences and humanities tells us that ethnic identities change over time, and are often aproduct of the very political and economic phenomena that they are used to explain. Constructivist Theories of Ethnic Politics is a first cut at rebuilding theories of the relationship between ethnicity, politics and economics on a fortified constructivist foundation. It proposes a new conceptual framework for thinking about ethnic identity. It uses this framework to synthesizeconstructivist arguments into a set of propositions about how and why ethnic identities change. It translates this framework - and the propositions derived from it - into a new, combinatorial language. And it employs these conceptual, constructivist, and combinatorial tools to theorize about therelationship between ethnicity, politics and economics using a variety of methods.The conceptual tools provided here open new avenues for theory building by representing the complexity of a constructivist world in an analytically tractable way. The theoretical arguments challenge the bad name that ethnic diversity has acquired in social scientific literature, according to whichit is associated with regimes that are less stable, less democratic, less well-governed, less peaceful and poorer than regimes in which the population is ethnically homogeneous. Taking the possibility of change in ethnic identity into account, this book shows, dismantles the theoretical logicslinking ethnic diversity to such negative outcomes. Indeed, ethnic diversity can sometimes serve as a benign force, strengthening rather than threatening democracy, preventing rather than producing violence, and inhibiting rather than accelerating state collapse or secession. Even more importantly, it defines new research agendas by changing thequestions we can ask about the relationship between ethnicity, politics and economics.


Kanchan Chandra

“If you are born poor, you may die rich. But your ethnic group is fixed” (Economist, May 14–21, 2005, 80). So goes the “primordialist” way of thinking about ethnic identity. According to it, each of us belongs to one and only one ethnic group, that group membership remains fixed over a lifetime, and it is passed down intact across generations. Wars begin and end, states grow and die, economies boom and crash, but through it all, ethnic groups stay the same.

This way of thinking about ethnic identity drives theorizing in the social sciences on the relationship between ethnicity and political and economic outcomes and processes. Like many influential ideas, its power lies in its invisibility. It is rarely stated explicitly and almost never defiended. But it is pervasive in the commonsense assumptions that inform statements about other things. When political scientists and economists build and test theories of the relationship between ethnicity and democratic stability, party systems, voting behavior,

in general, while constructivist assumptions dominate studies of ethnogenesis and ethnic identity change (indeed, even asking the question of how ethnic identities are created and change presumes a constructivist perspective), primordialist assumptions dominate theories that are concerned with the effect of ethnic identity on some political or economic outcome. For a survey of primordialist assumptions in theories of ethnicity, politics and economics in general, see Chandra 2001a, 2006a, and 2008a. For a survey of these assumptions in theories of democracy, see Chandra 2001b, Chandra 2005, and Chandra 2008b, and Chandra and Boulet, Chapter 6 in this volume. For a survey of these assumptions in empirical work, see Laitin and Posner 2001, Posner 2004a, Chandra and Wilkinson 2008, and Chandra 2009a, 2009b. For a discussion of these assumptions in theories and arguments about empirical works on specific subjects such as theories of violence, see individual chapters in this volume. For a representative sample of these works on democratic stability, see Rustow 1970, Dahl 1971, Rabushka and Shepsle 1972, Geertz 1973, Rothschild 1981, Horowitz 1985, Mill [1861]1991, Guinier 1994, Snyder 2000, Chua 2003, and Mann 2005; on party systems and voting behavior, see Ordeshook and Shvetsova 1994 and Cox 1997; on economic growth, see Easterly and Levine 1997; on violence, see Posen 1993, Van Evera

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.