Ethnicity and Politics
- LAST REVIEWED: 23 January 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0152
- LAST REVIEWED: 23 January 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0152
Ethnicity is now universally regarded as a key element in the political process in African states. Paradoxically, despite its contemporary currency, the word itself in current usage is recent, first appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary only in 1953. In earlier times, African ethnic groups were commonly labeled as “tribes,” a term that has mostly disappeared from academic usage, owing to its pejorative overtones of “backwardness.” In colonial times, “tribe” was usually regarded as part of the natural order, and widely used as the basis for administrative organization. Anticolonial nationalists at the time of decolonization viewed “tribalism” as an obstacle to nation building, legitimate only in the private realm. However, expectations that ethnicity could be banned from the public square are mostly abandoned. Understandings of ethnicity have evolved in more recent decades. The notion still persisting in popular commentary that early-21st-centry ethnic conflicts reflect “ancient tribal hatreds” is refuted by the historical evidence, showing that they originate no earlier than the 20th century. Indeed, ethnicity is an evolving identity form; many of the early-21st-century ethnonyms are of relatively recent derivation, most emerging no earlier than the 18th century. They were often reshaped by the classification systems of the colonial state or the language unification projects of mission orders. The 19th-century colonial partition took little note of ethnic boundaries; hence the great majority of African states are multiethnic. Ethnicity is variously defined by analysts; in my view, the concept has three basic elements: shared cultural attributes, consciousness, and boundaries. The variable roster of common properties includes shared ancestry, language, social practices, naming conventions, rituals, and culinary and sartorial preferences. Group consciousness is embedded in the name, common history, and ideologies of collective selfhood of an ethnic community. Boundaries are a third defining feature; the ethnic group self-consciousness is defined by awareness of “the other” beyond the cultural border. “We” acquires meaning in face of “they.” Ethnicity varies in its intensity. Not all individuals in a group attach the same importance to ethnic identity. Context matters; the social competition for employment and public goods is more intense in the multiethnic cities than in the countryside. Conversely, rural ethnic competition frequently revolves around competing land claims, especially where indigenous communities confront numerous migrant populations. Electoral competition tends to mobilize identity. Critical defining issues revolve around domination (who rules) and distribution (relative shares of the “national cake”). Elaborated ideologies of identity matter; so also does gender.
Studies of ethnicity in Africa are intertwined with broader comparative study, often situating the phenomenon in a more global setting. Horowitz 2000 and Young 1976 were early contributions to this approach. Anthropology is on home terrain with this topic; valuable overviews from this disciplinary perspective are provided in Erickson 1993 and the French scholarship in Amselle 1998. Cahen 1994 invites French political science to overcome its reticence in acknowledging the central importance of ethnicity. Hyden 2013 situates the ethnic phenomenon in the moral economy of social reciprocities that governs rural society. In the 1980s, as the enduring significance of ethnicity became clearer, conceptual debate emerged around competing analytical perspectives, coalescing in three major orientations: primordialism, instrumentalism, and constructivism. These are reviewed in Young 2012. More ambitious versions of constructivism gave rise to the contested notion that early-21st-century ethnicity was a mere “invention” (Hobsbaum and Ranger 1983, cited under Constructivism; Vail 1989, cited under Constructivism). With the democratization wave sweeping Africa around 1990, many analysts turned their attention to reconciling democracy and ethnicity. Various institutional formulas were explored, such as federalism (Nigeria and Ethiopia), or electoral systems (Reynolds 1999, cited under Consociationalism and Electoral Systems). The simultaneous rise in Africa of violent civil strife, often perceived in ethnic terms, likewise drew analytical attention; Ted Gurr and his Minorities at Risk research center at the University of Maryland was a major contributor (Gurr 2000). In particular, the 1994 Rwanda genocide galvanized research on ethnic violence; Lemarchand 2009 and Straus 2006 (both cited under Genocides) are leading examples. Protracted (Sudan, Senegal) or intermittent (Mali, Niger) civil wars triggered by ethnic or regional secession claims were another stimulus to inquiry. The issue of citizenship also acquired new meaning after 1990; in the previous overwhelmingly autocratic decades, issues of individual or group rights were occluded by arbitrary rule. Liberal philosopher Will Kymlicka (Kymlicka 1995, cited under Consociationalism and Electoral Systems) proposes a formula for reconciling individual and ethnic group rights. Geschiere examines the toxic consequences of new discourses of “indigeneity” in his seminal work Geschiere 2009 (cited under Indigeneity, Citizenship, and Exclusion).
Amselle, Jean-Loup. Mestizo Logics: Anthropology of Identity in Africa and Elsewhere. Translated by Claudia Royal. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.
Translation of Logiques métisses: Anthropologie de l’identité en Afrique et ailleurs, first published in 1990, a seminal work by a leading French anthropologist, drawing upon social construction theory. The ambiguities of ethnic identity for some major West African groups receive illuminating attention.
Cahen, Michael. Ethnicité politique: Pour une lecture réaliste de l’identité. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1994.
Urges French scholarship to engage directly with the phenomenon of ethnicity.
Erickson, Thomas. Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives. London: Pluto, 1993.
Provides synthesis and useful guide to anthropological literature bearing upon ethnicity and nationalism.
Gurr, Ted R. Peoples versus States: Minorities at Risk in the New Century. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2000.
Author has tracked ethnic conflicts around the globe for more than three decades, provides thorough documentation of the major cases.
Horowitz, Donald. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Proposes a basic framework for conceptualizing ethnic conflict across the Third World, leaning toward a primordialist perspective; highly influential and widely cited book defining the field. First published in 1985.
Hyden, Goran. African Politics in Comparative Perspective. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Seminal capstone work by distinguished Africa scholar, whose career extends over the half-century of African independence. He argues that African politics are driven by an “economy of affection,” whose communal orientation underlies ethnic solidarities. Ethnic factors in politics among others are closely examined, while at the same time avoiding overstating their significance. First published in 2006.
Young, Crawford. The Politics of Cultural Pluralism. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976.
Combines a conceptual review of types of cultural pluralism, including race and religion as well as ethnicity, and paired comparisons of a number of prime country examples; argues fluid and situational nature of identity, anticipating subsequent instrumentalist and constructivist approaches.
Young, Crawford. The Postcolonial State in Africa: Fifty Years of Independence. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012.
Provides half-century narrative of postindependence Africa, marked by three cycles of hopeful developments, followed by disappointing outcomes. Extended coverage is provided of the interaction of democratization and ethnicity, cases of protracted internal war implicating ethnicity, and the interface between territorial nationalism and ethnic solidarities.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
- Achebe, Chinua
- Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi
- African Socialism
- Africans in the Atlantic World
- Aid and Economic Development
- Arabic Language and Literature
- Archaeology and the Study of Africa
- Archaeology of Central Africa
- Archaeology of Eastern Africa
- Archaeology of Southern Africa
- Art, Art History, and the Study of Africa
- Arts of Central Africa
- Arts of Western Africa
- Asante and the Akan and Mossi States
- Bantu Expansion
- Benin (Dahomey)
- Botswana (Bechuanaland)
- Brink, André
- British Colonial Rule in Sub-Saharan Africa
- Burkina Faso (Upper Volta)
- Cape Verde
- Central African Republic
- Children and Childhood
- China in Africa
- Christianity, African
- Coetzee, J.M.
- Colonial Rule, Belgian
- Colonial Rule, French
- Colonial Rule, German
- Colonial Rule, Italian
- Colonial Rule, Portuguese
- Communism, Marxist-Leninism, and Socialism in Africa
- Comoro Islands
- Congo, Republic of (Congo Brazzaville)
- Congo River Basin States
- Conservation and Wildlife
- Crime and the Law in Colonial Africa
- Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire)
- Development of Early Farming and Pastoralism
- Diaspora, Kongo Atlantic
- Disease and African Society
- Early States And State Formation In Africa
- Early States of the Western Sudan
- Economy, Informal
- Education and the Study of Africa
- Egypt, Ancient
- Environmental History
- Equatorial Guinea
- Ethnicity and Politics
- Europe and Africa, Medieval
- Family Planning
- Farah, Nuruddin
- Food and Food Production
- Fugard, Athol
- Genocide in Rwanda
- Geography and the Study of Africa
- Gikuyu (Kikuyu) People of Kenya
- Gordimer, Nadine
- Great Lakes States of Eastern Africa, The
- Hausa Language and Literature
- Health, Medicine, and the Study of Africa
- Historiography and Methods of African History
- History and the Study of Africa
- Ijo/Niger Delta
- Image of Africa, The
- Indian Ocean and Middle Eastern Slave Trades
- Indian Ocean Trade
- Invention of Tradition
- Iron Working and the Iron Age in Africa
- Islam in Africa
- Islamic Politics
- Kongo and the Coastal States of West Central Africa
- Language and the Study of Africa
- Literature and the Study of Africa
- Lord's Resistance Army
- Maasai and Maa-Speaking Peoples of East Africa, The
- Mau Mau
- Media and Journalism
- Military History
- Modern African Literature in European Languages
- Music, Dance, and the Study of Africa
- Music, Traditional
- Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
- North Africa from 600 to 1800
- North Africa to 600
- Northeastern African States, c. 1000 BCE-1800 CE
- Obama and Kenya
- Oman, the Gulf, and East Africa
- Oral and Written Traditions, African
- Police and Policing
- Political Science and the Study of Africa
- Political Systems, Precolonial
- Popular Culture and the Study of Africa
- Popular Music
- Population and Demography
- Postcolonial Sub-Saharan African Politics
- Seychelles, The
- Slave Trade, Atlantic
- Slavery in Africa
- São Tomé and Príncipe
- Social and Cultural Anthropology and the Study of Africa
- South Africa Post c. 1850
- Southern Africa to c. 1850
- States of the Zimbabwe Plateau and Zambezi Valley
- Sudan and South Sudan
- Swahili City States of the East African Coast
- Swahili Language and Literature
- Tanzania (Tanganyika and Zanzibar)
- Traditional Religion, African
- Trans-Saharan Trade
- Urbanism and Urbanization
- Wars and Warlords
- Western Sahara
- Women and African History
- Women and Colonialism
- Women and Politics
- Women and Slavery
- Women, Gender and the Study of Africa
- Women in 19th-Century West Africa
- Yoruba Language and Literature
- Yoruba States, Benin, and Dahomey