Constructivist Theories of Ethnic Politics

By Kanchan Chandra | Go to book overview

2
What is Ethnic Identity?
A Minimalist Defnition

KANCHAN CHANDRA

Over the last two decades, comparative political scientists have come to agree that ethnic identities include some identity categories associated with one or more of the following types: religion, sect, language, dialect, tribe, clan, race, physical differences, nationality, region, and caste. But we do not have a definition that captures our classification. Many of us who theorize about the effect of ethnic identity, therefore, proceed without a definition. Those definitions that have been proposed do not match the classifications employed by their own authors (Horowitz 1985, Fearon 2003, Chandra 2004).1

This chapter proposes a definition that captures the conventional classification of ethnic identities to a greater degree than the alternatives. Ethnic identities, according to this definition, are a subset of categories in which descent-based attributes are necessary for membership. All categories based on descent-based attributes, according to this definition, are not ethnic identity categories. But all ethnic identities require some descent-based attributes for membership. Nominal ethnic identities are those ethnic identity categories in which an individual is eligible for membership based on the attributes she possesses. Activated ethnic identities are those ethnic categories in which she professes membership, or to which she is assigned by others as a member.

1 Horowitz, for instance, counts Hindus and Muslims in India, Christians and Muslims in Lebanon, and Creoles and Indians in Guyana and Trinidad as ethnic categories even though they do not possess his primary defining characteristic of a myth of common ancestry (Horowitz 1985). Fearon counts “Hindi speakers” as an ethnic group even though individuals who either speak Hindi or have Hindi as their mother tongue do not meet his definitional criterion of having a distinct history as a group or a shared culture valued by the majority of members (Fearon 2003). And Chandra often counts categories based on region as ethnic, even though it is not clear whether these groups meet her definition of ethnic groups as “ascriptive” groups (Chandra 2004, 2005).

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