In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethnicity and Politics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Volumes
  • Online Resources
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals

African Studies Ethnicity and Politics
Crawford Young
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • 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.

General Overviews

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.

    NNNTranslation 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.

    NNNUrges French scholarship to engage directly with the phenomenon of ethnicity.

  • Erickson, Thomas. Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives. London: Pluto, 1993.

    NNNProvides 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.

    NNNAuthor 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.

    NNNProposes 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.

    NNNSeminal 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.

    NNNCombines 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.

    NNNProvides 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.

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