Constructivist Theories of Ethnic Politics

By Kanchan Chandra | Go to book overview

5
A Combinatorial Language for Thinking
about ethnic Identity Change

KANCHAN CHANDRA AND CILANNE BOULET

The previous chapters argued that “ethnic identities”—Black and White, Hindu and Muslim, Serb and Croat, Sinhala and Tamil, Mestizo and Ladino—are categories of classification in which membership requires the possession of descentbased attributes. Ethnic identity change in the short term consists simply of the process of reclassification of fixed descent-based attributes to generate new ethnic categories. In the long term, ethnic identity change also takes the form of change in the underlying set of descent-based attributes themselves.

This chapter shows that an ethnic identity category as defined above can be understood as a combination of elements from a fixed set. Based on this simple reformulation, we propose a new combinatorial framework for thinking about ethnic identity and ethnic identity change. This allows us to describe the complexity of a constructivist world, with its large identity repertoires, in multiple dimensions, that differ across individuals and populations, in a way that is amenable to theory building.

This framework turns on one key property intrinsically associated with ethnic identities: the stickiness of the descent-based attributes that constitute them. Descent-based attributes, the previous chapter argued, are disproportionately sticky in the short term compared to non-descent-based attributes. Thus, they can be taken as fixed in the short term. This opens the door to a combinatorial formulation, which requires a choice of elements from a fixed set. Ethnic identities are disproportionately based on such attributes, and so especially amenable to such a formulation. But in principle, this combinatorial framework should apply to any identity that is generated from a fixed set of attributes.

Once we express an ethnic identity category as a combination, we can translate each of the concepts introduced in this book in the language of combinatorial mathematics. Our emphasis throughouthis on translating rather than justifying

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