Ethnicity is one of those subjects where explanation tends to become intertwined with moral evaluation. Enquiry tends to be permeated and inhibited by the preconception that it involves either a primitive and backward instinctual trait (tribalism), a moral sickness (racism, chauvinism), or a progressive virtue (the communitarian spirit, the ‘people’, for some, the nation). Faced with one or other of these assumptions or feelings, any attempt at extended explanation is likely to be criticized in so far as it fails to accord with, or provide ammunition for, the given evaluation. The best that one can hope for, and the purpose of this book, is that in outlining one partial perspective as regards some of the terrain, the discussion provokes critical reflection and offers occasional enlightenment.
My initial interest in ethnic politics developed out of research on local-level politics amongst the Ewe community of West Africa. From this research grew the perception that fluctuating political alignments within an allegedly ‘tribal’ community, and in relation to other such communities, could be explained only by rejecting any primordialist assumptions and examining the shifting situations engendered by successive state régimes. This in turn generated an interest in the comparative politics of ethnicity, from which developed a concern to make sense of the variations in its manifestation. My move to Southeast Asia in 1982 then implied the need to re-examine and re-evaluate my understanding as to how political science might contribute to illuminating the ethnic politics of this particular region.
The book developed out of an initial suggestion by Professor Chan Heng Chee for a set of edited readings on ethnic politics. The task of searching for coherence in the writings of others