Academic journal article Ibero-americana

A Push - Pull Model of Ethnic (Re)configuration in a Plural Society: Trinidad and Tobago

Academic journal article Ibero-americana

A Push - Pull Model of Ethnic (Re)configuration in a Plural Society: Trinidad and Tobago

Article excerpt


The purpose of this essay is to attempt an analysis - albeit a preliminary one - of the shifting ethnic configurations in the plural society of Trinidad and Tobago with the help of a push-pull model. It basically argues that the boundaries of ethnic groups and identities can be fluid and can be redrawn depending on external and internal factors. These two factors, which I call push and pull factors, can alter the configuration of ethnic relations. External in the sense of forces that ethnic groups have little control over and yet these forces influence their behavior (colonialism, capitalist penetration, globalization and regionalization). Internal in the sense their relationships with other social groups with whom they have to coexist and even compete, politically and economically, within a national territory. A brief historical sketch is provided to illustrate how ethnic configurations have taken shape in Trinidad during the colonial and the post-colonial periods. The latter half of this presentation alludes to the impact of the current processes of globalization and regional integration on ethnic (reconfiguration. The push-pull model used in this essay is adapted from Albert O. Hirschman's (1979), Shifting Involvements. This is a dynamic model that helps explain changes and (re)configurations in ethnic relations.

There are two approaches in studies on ethnicity: primordialists and instrumentalists. The primordialists attribute ethnicity to ties of religion, blood, race, language, region and customs. The instrumentalists treat ethnicity as a social, political and cultural resource for different interest and status groups. For the instrumentalists, ethnicity is a 'social construct'. In this view, the social content of ethnicity can vary a lot depending on what I identify as 'push-pull factors' - i.e. circumstances under which ethnic identities undergo transitions or ethnic (re)configurations. (Figure 1 below summarizes the two approaches).

When it concerns ethnicity, one is not talking about what people are like, but rather how and for what particular purposes they identify themselves along ethnic lines. In this sense, the primordialist approach can be of little help, as it will be shown in the discussion that follows. Thomas Hylland-Eriksen (1993:1) aptly remarks that ethnicity emerges through social situations and encounters, and through people's ways of coping with demands and challenges of life - social, political and economic. Ethnic identities are neither ascribed nor achieved; they are both. They are wedged between situational selection and imperatives imposed from without.


Caribbean societies have been categorized as plural societies wherein differential incorporation of social groups has established a kind of hierarchy based on inequalities in the society's public domain - i.e. a kind of differential level of social access to public benefits and facilities. Inclusion is segmentai that assumes prior identification of individual with the group it incorporates.

Lloyd Braithwaite has written about stratification in Trinidad. He rejects the plural society theory as a loose concept. The important point he makes is that the social structure in Trinidad is founded on 'ascriptiveparticularistic basis'. To quote Braithwaite (1953:49);

"Ethnic affiliation and ethnie purity were the values upon which the social stratification system was erected and, therefore, this served as a positive encouragement to non-Negro groups to try to retain their ethnic identity".

M.G.Smith (1991:18) notes, however, that while a society may have equal access to common 'public domain' and share a same political culture, they can differ institutionally in the 'private domain'. The former he calls as de jure and the latter, de facto.

"Cultural pluralism only occurs outside plural societies when collectivities incorporated universalistically in a common society differ in their basic private institutions. …

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