Ethnic Inequality and the Strength of Ethnic Identities in Sub-Saharan Africa

Masaaki Higashijima and Christian Houle

Ethnic inequality has been argued to have numerous pernicious effects. Among other things, scholars have argued that ethnic inequality breeds civil wars and coups, destabilizes democracies, impedes economic development, reduces the provision of public goods, and encourages individuals to vote along ethnic lines.

The arguments developed by these literatures, however, rely on the implicit assumption that ethnic inequality increases the degree to which individuals identify with their ethnicity. If ethnic inequality does not strengthen ethnic identification, there is little reason to believe that it should, for example, increase people’s willingness to vote along ethnic lines. Although based on an influential literature, this key assumption has yet to be tested empirically at the individual-level. We have no large-N quantitative evidence supporting the claim that ethnic inequality strengthens ethnic identification.

Our forthcoming paper in Political Behavior addresses this question. We argue that between-group inequality (BGI) strengthens citizens’ ethnic identity but only when within-group inequality (WGI) is sufficiently low. That is, individuals identify most strongly with their ethnic identity when ethnicity is reinforced by inequality. This relationship is driven by two mechanisms. First, when WGI is low, BGI increases the salience of ethnicity: individuals share similar living conditions as them but have very different living conditions than members of other ethnic groups, drawing a clear demarcation between “insiders” and “outsiders.” Exploiting this fact, political entrepreneurs appeal to ethnicity and mobilize co-ethnics, which further strengthens ethnic identities.

The second mechanism operates through policy preferences. BGI increases the gap in the preferences over economic policies between ethnic groups. For example, members of poor groups will be more supportive of pro-poor policies, such as a public health, than members of richer groups. At the same time, when WGI is low, members of the same ethnic groups tend to share similar policy preferences. Under such conditions, individuals will be more likely to identify with their co-ethnics because they perceive themselves as having fundamentally different preferences than members of other groups.

We test our argument with individual-level data from the Afrobarometer surveys (Rounds 3-5). The analysis covers 21 sub-Saharan African countries and 85 ethnic groups. We find strong support for our hypothesis: when WGI is low, BGI increases the likelihood that a respondent identifies as member of his/her ethnic group (as opposed to his/her nationality). We also provide evidence in favor of the two causal mechanisms.

Our analysis thus suggests that, as assumed by the previous literature, between-ethnic group inequality strengthens ethnic identification. However, we show that the magnitude of its effect is contingent on how income is distributed among members of the ethnic group: BGI’s effect is strongest when WGI is low. This finding implies that patterns of social cleavages constrain people’s repertoire of identity: in societies in which ethnic cleavages are reinforced by inequality, people tend to identify with their ethnicity. Yet, in societies with cross-cutting cleavages, people are more likely to identify with their nationality.


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