Constructivist Theories of Ethnic Politics

By Kanchan Chandra | Go to book overview

10
A Constructivist Model
of Ethnic Riots

STEVEN I. WILKINSON


1. Introduction

Ethnic riots are generally explained in one of two ways. First, many sociologists, political scientists, and economists argue, from either a hard or sof rational choice perspective, that ethnic riots are the result of increased political and economic competition between what they implicitly consider to be solid ethnic groups. Empirically, scholars have found that levels of ethnic heterogeneity or recent increases in the proportion of minorities in a population are highly significant and positively related to levels of violence, and that this is true for both cross-national and intra-national analyses of ethnic riots (Wanderer 1969; Spilerman 1976; DiPasquale and Glaeser 1998). Most scholars argue that this is because high levels of heterogeneity or recent increases in ethnic heterogeneity, especially when accompanied by economic crises, increase the level of intergroup competition for political power and economic resources. Riots are the bloody means by which one group defends its political or economic privileges against another.

Second, many social psychologists and some political scientists highlight the key role of ethnic antipathy in explaining ethnic riots. Beginning with the work of Gordon Allport and Leo Postman in the 1940s, social psychologists have argued that ethnic group antipathies, when combined with rumors that assume a “specifically threatening form” are the direct precipitants of violence (Allport and Postman 1947). Although recognizing that other motivations can come into play, the supporters of a social psychological approach point out that rationalist elite-driven accounts fail to recognize the importance of ethnic bonds and ethnic antipathies for many people and they also argue that rationalist accounts give too much credence to elites’ ability to manipulate members of their groups

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