Constructivist Theories of Ethnic Politics

By Kanchan Chandra | Go to book overview

1
Introduction

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.1 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,

1 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

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