October 4, 2021

Origins of Ethnic Boundaries


  • Recap
  • A Puzzle
  • The state and ethnic boundaries
  • “Second nature”: naturalizing boundaries


Ethnic Boundary Practices

  • institutional use
  • institutional separation
  • social closure
  • power disparity
  • cultural differentiation
  • marking
  • performing groupness
  • explaining behavior/exemption

Causes of boundary change

  1. Encounter: new contact can generate new line (e.g. immigrants)
  2. Imposition: state/powerful actor uses categories in new way
  3. Borrowing: transposing boundary practices into a new domain
  4. Conversation: ordinary interactions
  5. Incentive shift: strategic behavior

A Puzzle

Yoruba in Nigeria

Ancestral City Identity

Pre-Colonial Origins:

  • Oyo Empire (15th-19th Cent.): coalition of cities, each with an identity
  • alaafin (king) in Oyo-Ile (dominant city)
  • tribute from lesser “kings” in other “ancestral cities”, protecting trade
  • basorun (army leaders) acquired wealth through conquest
  • shared religious practice legitimized Oyo leadership

Yoruba in Nigeria

Ancestral City Identity

  • 19th century: internal war between alaafin and basorun
  • alliance between basorun and Islamic armies, challenged traditional Oyo authority
  • war led to founding of new city Ibadan, populated by Yoruba from many ancestral cities

Yoruba in Nigeria

Competing identities

at end of 19th century…

  • increasing awareness of unified Yoruba identity
  • rise of identities tied to military factions
  • rapid spread of Christianity and Islam

Yoruba in Nigeria

Even though, at turn of the 20th century

  • Oyo political power had disappeared
  • War refugees settled outside ancestral cities
  • Political mobilization of Yoruba as a group
  • Most Yoruba are Christian (40%) or Muslim (40%)

    • divided by religious practice, limited intermarriage
    • Christians more educated, wealthier, politically influential

Yoruba in Nigeria

By late 20th century…

  • ancestral cities primary political form of identification
  • ancestral city competition informed political parties in Nigeria
  • city-specific rituals/festivals, pilgrimages to visit ancestral city
  • competition for civil service jobs/university spots by ancestral city
  • outright denial/refusal of possibility of politics around religion, despite strategic reasons to do so

A puzzle:

What might explain the persistence of ancestral cities as both a ethnic category and as the activated ethnic identity?

Colonial State:

British Colonial State intervened, using a system of indirect rule:

  • delegated powers to “traditional” political institutions