Constructivist Theories of Ethnic Politics

By Kanchan Chandra | Go to book overview

4
How Ethnic Identities Change

KANCHAN CHANDRA

Ways of thinking about ethnic identity in the social sciences are normally grouped into two families: “primordialism” and “constructivism.” “Primordialism” is a label imposed on many positions that are quite distinct—that ethnic identities are biologically determined, that conflicts take place because of ancient hatreds, that emotions matter in ethnic conflict, and that ethnic attachments are “deeply rooted.” But the minimal propositions that unite these positions, and thus justify the use of a common label, is that ethnic identities are singular, fixed, and exogenous to human processes.

The “constructivist” way of thinking asserts, by contrast, that ethnic identities can change, although they need not. “Constructivism,” like “primordialism,” is a capacious label that covers varied positions. Proponents of constructivist approaches differ over the variables they believe drive change in ethnic identities, the processes according to which they change, the agents of change, the motivations driving these agents, and the speed and frequency of ethnic identity change. The minimal propositions that unite constructivist arguments are three propositions that mirror and refute the primordialist view—that ethnic identities can be multiple, can be fluid, and can change endogenously to human processes.

This book’s definition of ethnic identities as a subset of identity categories in which membership depends upon descent-based attributes seems, on the face of it, to belong squarely to the primordialist camp. If ethnic identities are a product of descent, then they are “given” by the past. How can they change in the present and the future? This chapter shows that taking the descent-based nature of ethnic identities seriously is perfectly compatible with a constructivist position. Descent-based identities can and often do change. The difference between descent-based identities and non-descent-based identities lies not in whether they change but how. Change in descent-based identities—and therefore ethnic identities—is intrinsically constrained in the short term, on average, while change in non-descent-based identities is not. Descent, in other words, constrains but does not eliminate the possibility of change.

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