Constructivist Theories of Ethnic Politics

By Kanchan Chandra | Go to book overview

8
How Fluid Is Fluid?
The Mutability of Ethnic Identities and Electoral
Volatility in Africa

KAREN FERREE


1. Introduction

It has become commonplace in studies of ethnic politics to assert that ethnic identities are constructed, fluid, and responsive to political, social, and economic context. Few scholars today would contest this. Yet intriguing questions persist about the mutability of ethnic configurations. Just how fluid are ethnic identities? How quickly and easily can new ethnic groupings be constructed? Is the construction of new groups a process that spans generations and responds only to long-term trends and processes? Or do these creations emerge quickly, at the fingertips of politicians? Furthermore, are all ethnic coalitions equally possible and likely? Can new groups be assembled out of any social and cultural material lying around or are some combinations easier to stitch together than others?

These questions have great relevance to the study of elections. In countries where ethnic differences are highly salient (a large number of the new democracies in existence today), they likely affect the party system in numerous ways. Intuitively, the number of politically relevant ethnic groups probably shapes the nature of the electoral coalitions that form. Furthermore, the fluidity of ethnic groupings may also be important: Where ethnic groups are fluid, electoral coalitions are likely to be less stable. In contrast, fixed ethnic groups may constrain the number of coalitions that are possible.

Existing studies have explored some but not all of these issues. For example, work by Amorim-Neto and Cox (1997), Ordeshook and Shvetsova (1994), and others have looked at the impact of ethnic diversity on the effective number of parties in the party system. By and large, these studies have ignored constructivist intuitions, treating ethnic identities as fixed and frozen in time. In this chapter, I push beyond these studies in two ways. First, I focus on an

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