Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

What's It Worth to You? the Questionable Value of Instrumentalist Approaches to Ethnic Identification

Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

What's It Worth to You? the Questionable Value of Instrumentalist Approaches to Ethnic Identification

Article excerpt


In this article, I explore a very simple question: Do individuals identify more strongly with an ethnic group when they perceive economic advantages to group membership? This question is rooted firmly in an instrumentalist approach to ethnicity that posits a purposive and largely voluntaristic conceptualization of identification. Actors are seen to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of ethnic membership consciously, and to identify on the basis of ethnicity when an ethnic group is seen to provide the means for attaining desired social, political, and/or economic goals. The correspondence of shared interests and shared identities promotes group solidarity and thereby provides the basis for ethnic organization and mobilization.

The view of actors as optimizing agents constituted, for many years, a principal basis for understanding ethnic processes, particularly in response to the failed predictions of modernization theorists. During the past two decades, however, instrumentalism has fallen out of favor, largely because it is judged to give undue analytic priority to material interests. A number of theoretical orientations emerged or reemerged in response to this critique, shifting analytic attention away from material interests and towards the importance of primordial attachments, the circumstances in which ethnic-based interests emerge, or the role individuals and/or elites play in constructing ethnic identities. Nevertheless, the majority of approaches in the current literature continue to adopt and integrate instrumentalist assumptions.

In this article, I examine these assumptions in an effort to identify the conditions in which an instrumentalist approach may be appropriate. In the following sections I discuss the emergence of instrumentalist approaches to ethnicity and demonstrate how this perspective continues to underlie more recent theoretical developments. I then explore the relationship between instrumentalism and identification both within and across ethnic groups using survey data from the multiethnic society of Mauritius.

The Rise, Fall, and Resuscitation of Instrumentalism

Prior to the emergence of an instrumentalist approach to ethnicity, the prevailing view was that modernization and its attendant properties--industrialization, immigration and urbanization--would bring culturally diverse populations together and undermine ethnic attachments (Deutsch 1953: Eisenstadt and Rokkan 1973). Although there are variants of this model, a common assertion was that as heterogeneous populations began to experience industrialization, the spread of a market economy, increasing bureaucratization, and other aspects of modernity, universalistic criterion would begin to cut across traditional systems of ascribed status (see Lipset and Rokkan 1967). As modernization "homogenized" distinct cultures, the assignment of individuals to occupations and the distribution of societal rewards would occur increasingly on the basis of rational and achieved criteria that cut across ethnic boundaries. Ultimately, this would lead to the decline of ethnic attachments and the emergence of new kinds of socioeconomic roles and identities. These roles and identities would undercut the organizational bases upon which ethnic attachments rest and thereby reduce the likelihood of conflict based on these attachments (see Melson and Wolpe 1970: Nielsen 1985).

A rise in rates of ethnic conflict in numerous new multiethnic nation states created during decolonization, as well as in older nation states, led many to question these assertions (see Olzak 1983). Though it was clear that modernization led to a restructuring of society, a number of scholars maintained that these changes served to foster, not reduce, the importance of ethnicity. Modernization was seen to strengthen ethnic divisions in multiethnic societies because it stimulated ethnic competition. Ethnic identities in this mode of analysis do not reflect "traditional and narrower bonds of one's local place, kinship group, or caste," but are built around "wider loyalties to language or religious communities" (Brass 1976: 229). …

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