September 21, 2022

Ethnic Choices

How do ethnic identities change?

recall our definition…

ethnic identity categories are those in which membership is determined by:

  • descent based attributes (either actually or believed to be associated with descent)
    • restricted to those deriving from “genetic… features or pertaining to language, religion, place of origin, tribe, region, caste, clan, nationality, or race of one’s parents and ancestors”
  • which is an “imagined community”/impersonal (i.e. members don’t all know each other)

How do ethnic identities change?

From this perspective, ethnicity is “constructed” but cannot be invented out of nothing, nor infinitely changeable…

  • Chandra (2012) finds 5 ways ethnic identities can change
  • some ways are faster; some are slower

How do ethnic identities change?

\(1.\) change in the repertoire of descent-based attributes

what descent-based attributes are seen as “relevant” in defining ethnic membership

  • what attributes are “relevant”?
    • e.g. skin color; ear length; birth-place;
  • understandings of how they are relevant
    • e.g. what counts as “light” or “dark”?
  • This is changeable…
    • but must be variation for attributes to be relevant
    • hard to make a new attribute relevant to all

How do ethnic identities change?

\(2.\) change in the “full” repertoire of “nominal” ethnic identity categories

  • “nominal” ethnic categories are a bundle of descent-based attributes + label
  • “full” repertoire is all possible combinations of descent-based attributes
  • creation of new labels/set of possible combinations of attributes
    • e.g. “Helen”: birth in Trinidad, birth in Africa

How do ethnic identities change?

\(3.\) change in the repertoire of “operative” ethnic identity categories;

  • not all possible identities “make sense” to people, not “usable”
  • Examples:
    • “South-east side of Chicago”
    • jati in India vs Canada

How do ethnic identities change?

\(4.\) change in individual descent-based attributes:

  • passing/switching
  • Individuals can mis-represent or alter one’s descent based attributes.

How do ethnic identities change?

\(5.\) change in the ethnic identity categories activated from the repertoire.

  • which identity categories are we using or are others using to identify us in a specific context…

Ethnic repertoires

Metaphor of playing cards:

  • repertoire of descent attributes : suit, number
  • nominal ethnic identities : all combinations of suit, number
  • operative ethnic identities : subset of cards that can be used in a game
  • passing : altering the suit, number on card
  • activating identities : the card played on a given turn

How do ethnic identities change?

Explanations for ethnic change

  • repertoire of descent attributes : structural
  • nominal ethnic identities : structural
  • operative ethnic identities : structural, psychological, strategic
  • passing : strategic, psychological
  • activating identities : strategic, psychological


On your own

  • what is repertoire of possible ethnic identities you could select from?
  • think: do you ever use more than one of these? how so?

Together, let’s discuss:

  • what categories could you use
  • what determines when and how you employ these categories?

Ethnicity as Strategic

Strategic Ethnicity

Many scholars attempt to understand ethnic politics by taking the choice of ethnic identity from a repertoire as a strategic/instrumental choice.

  • take “repertoire” of “operative ethnic identities” as given
  • choose one to maximize some utility/gain
    • political power
    • economic gains
    • personal well-being

Strategic Ethnicity

Posner (2005) formalizes/generalizes these arguments:

  • there are mutually exclusive sets of identities along the same dimension (e.g. language-, racial-groups)
  • these “sets” of identities form a “cleavage”… “cut” through society

Example 1: Posner (2004)

Language (1) Language (2) Language (3)
Tribe (a) YES no no
Tribe (b) YES no no
Tribe (c) no YES no
Tribe (d) no YES no
Tribe (e) no no YES
Tribe (f) no no YES

Nested Cleavage

nested cleavage: when multiple dimensions of ethnic identities are organized such that membership in a smaller group implies membership in a specific larger group

Example 2: Laitin (1985)

Religion (1) Religion (2) Religion (3)
City (a) YES YES YES
City (b) YES YES YES
City (c) YES YES YES
City (d) YES YES YES


crosscutting cleavage: when multiple dimensions of ethnic identities are organized such that membership in a group along one dimension does not imply membership in one specific group along the other dimension

Strategic Ethnicity

Posner says, assuming that…

  1. People emphasize ethnic identity to maximize resources
  2. Resources distributed by sole “winner” of election, only to members of winner’s group
  3. Winner decided by who gets most votes
  4. Everyone knows how many people in each ethnic category…

People choose ethnicity to form minimum winning coalition

  • choose to emphasize ethnic identity that is large enough to win but as small as possible to reap the most benefit

Strategic Ethnicity

Strategic Ethnicity

Result of this process may vary depending on the size of groups, nature of cleavage structure (nested, cross-cutting), argues there is underlying rational process driving ethnic identification.

  • We’ll revisit the evidence for this later in the course.

Strategic choice of ethnicity

How does this logic resonate with your own decisions about which ethnic identity categories you use in everyday life?