In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethnic, Linguistic, Religious, and Regional Minority Participation and Representation in Africa

  • Introduction
  • Defining and Conceptualizing Ethnic Identity
  • Measuring Ethnic Identity in Africa
  • Ethno-Regional Groups in (Violent) Contention with the Central State
  • Linguistic Identities in Africa and Political Participation and Representation
  • Religious Identities
  • Policies Surrounding Minority Inclusion and Representation

Political Science Ethnic, Linguistic, Religious, and Regional Minority Participation and Representation in Africa
Lauren MacLean, Kirk A. Harris
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0368


Understanding ethnic, linguistic, religious, and regional minority participation and representation in Africa is both empirically and normatively fraught. Who counts as a minority? Which minority identities are politically salient? Answering these questions is essential to the study of minority political participation, yet doing so requires making challenging decisions about how to describe the identities of individuals and groups, as well as how to regard the claims of leaders seeking to speak on behalf of group interests. It is also critical to explore whose interests are served by “minority” discourses. Given the centrality of identity politics on the continent the answers to these questions are pertinent to political scientists studying a range of phenomena, from conflict, to voting, to public goods provision or legislator behavior. Historically speaking, ethnic identities, most often defined on the basis of linguistic difference (with other cultural differences serving as secondary identity markers) have received the most scholarly attention. Scholars have understood minority participation in terms of citizens’ relation to state power. However, regional and religious identities that either cut across or reinforce ethnic boundaries have also been salient in certain contexts. For example, ethno-regional identities have been the basis for political party competition, civil conflict, and even secession movements. Of course, the salience of broader regional identities that cross national borders has been somewhat mitigated by the persistence of the borders imposed on African states during colonialism. While religion is essential to the identities of many Africans, its political role varies across the continent. While in some areas, religious identities may diffuse political differences and contribute to democratic peacebuilding, in others, they may be deployed to mobilize collective action from voter turnout to social protest or even civil war. Often, in these latter contexts, religious identities overlap with significant ethnic divisions or subnational inequalities between regions. Finally, the policies of African states toward the treatment of minority identities is as varied as the issues that they face, with states adopting a range of policies, including the conscious affirmation of minority identities; the suppression of identities in the name of liberal, inclusive citizenship norms; and the active persecution of certain identities. Transnational actors such as international donors, multinational corporations, intergovernmental organizations, and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also play an increasingly significant role in responding to minority group issues or putting pressure on states to modify their policies toward certain groups.

Defining and Conceptualizing Ethnic Identity

Defining and conceptualizing the nature of identity has been a key research agenda in the comparative study of ethnic politics in Africa, and in other parts of the developing world. A significant number of books, chapters, articles, and datasets have taken different approaches to the conceptualization and measurement of ethnicity in order to analyze its effects on political life on the continent. Scholars have moved away from the primordialist conception of ethnic identity highlighted by Horowitz 1985 that views ethnicity as fixed or exogenous. Instead, Ferree 2012 and MacArthur 2013 take a constructivist orientation that views ethnicity as endogenous to historical forces and political institutions. Chandra 2012, a conceptualization of ethnicity as a set of arbitrary social categories in which “descent” is necessary for membership, serves as a key for unlocking much of this constructivist scholarship. Chandra emphasizes that to the extent that language, religion, and regional identities serve as hereditary identity categories, each of these features can serve as ethnic “markers” distinguishing between groups. Chandra, and other constructivist scholars, thus recognize that individuals can hold multiple and overlapping “ethnic” identities which may or may not be salient in different political situations. Abdelal, et al. 2009 demonstrates this in a comparative context.

  • Abdelal, Rawi, Yoshiko M. Herrera, Alastair Iain Jonston, and Rose McDermott, eds. Measuring Identity: A Guide for Social Scientists. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    This edited volume is concerned with measuring “identity”: it includes ethnic and cultural identity, but also socially-relevant categories such as religion, gender, or class. The volume contains chapters on the best practices and tradeoffs associated with different measurement strategies. Most authors are political scientists, and the volume appears targeted at a broad cross section of political scientists interested in the mobilization of identity.

  • Chandra, Kanchan, ed. Constructivist Theories of Ethnic Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    This edited volume contains a number of important chapters on the conceptualization and measurement of ethnicity; the evolution of measures of ethnic demography; the relationship between ethnic politics and “pork-barrel” distributive politics; ethnicity and conflict; and ethnicity and national identity.

  • Ferree, Karen. “How Fluid is Fluid? The Mutability of Ethnic Identities and Electoral Volatility in Africa.” In Constructivist Theories of Ethnic Politics. Edited by Kanchan Chandra, 312–340. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199893157.003.0008

    This chapter in Chandra 2012 examines some of the core claims of constructivist work on ethnic politics and applies this to a study of electoral volatility (seats changing parties between elections) in Africa. The analysis is useful for understanding the relationship between ethnic identity and party politics.

  • Horowitz, Donald L. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

    Horowitz’s now-classic wide-ranging book examines political competition on the basis of ethnic identity in ethnically-divided societies around the world. Horowitz’s model of ethnicity views it as an “ascriptive” property related to kinship that extends beyond personal, face-to-face relations with group members. Horowitz attributes a strong role to ethnicity in motivating political behavior in divided societies—leading some to label his view of ethnic conflict as “primordialist.”

  • MacArthur, Julie. “When Did the Luyia (Or Any Other Group) Become a Tribe?” Canadian Journal of African Studies 47.3 (2013): 351–363.

    DOI: 10.1080/00083968.2014.893963

    MacArthur looks at the evolution and development of ethnic Luhya identity in Kenya, revealing the complex ways in which ethnic identities in Africa are often “nested” within one another, creating multiple different minority communities whose identities become salient depending on the relevant context. The article is useful for understanding the historical development of African ethnicities.

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