How Socioeconomic Revolutions Shape Ethnic Identities

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Maria Nagawa, covers the new article by Yannick Pengl, ETH Zürich , Phillip Roessler, William & Mary, and Valeria Rueda, University of Nottingham,Cash Crops, Print Technologies, and the Politicization of Ethnicity in Africa”.

What shaped modern ethnic landscapes in Sub-Saharan Africa? Yannick Pengl, Philip Roessler, and Valeria Rueda investigate this question by testing the impact of export agriculture and print technology on boundary-making and politicization across ethnic groups. Export agriculture and print technology constitute spatially concentrated socioeconomic revolutions that mobilized ethnic groups and diffused cultural norms, resulting in greater politicization of ethnic identities, and hardening of ethnic boundaries. This study highlights the fluidity of ethnic identities. Persistent, ethnic identities are not frozen in time. Rather, they have undergone historical transfigurations that are still observable today.

The authors utilize various sources of geo-coded data to test these effects. They identify and combine ethnic categories with maps on ethnic homelands. To capture cash crop production, they identify the source locations of five main cash crops for export (cocoa, coffee, palm oil, cotton, and groundnuts). Importantly, these five cash crops represented 80 percent of cash crop production at the time and were mainly produced by smallholder African farmers. For their measure of print technology, they construct a dataset on historical publishing in local languages that is geographically coded. And finally, they capture ethnic salience and politicization both at the group and individual levels. At the group level, they use measures of ethnic group relevance in national politics, and at the individual level, they use an indicator for whether a person identifies more in ethnic than in national terms. To measure the rigidity of ethnic boundaries at the individual level, they use a behavioral indicator—marrying outside one’s ethnic group.

Export agriculture and print publications transfigured ethnic landscapes differently. Export agriculture incentivized groups to mobilize around their commercial interests and exclude “outsiders.” This channel only worked through local smallholder farmers who experienced increasing competition for land on which to grow cash crops. To protect access to land from migrants seeking to benefit from the commercial revolution of agriculture, descent-based inheritance practices were enforced. This made ethnicity more salient and its boundaries more closed. Such groups currently have more influence on national politics, their members are more likely to identify in ethnic rather than in national terms and are also less likely to marry outside their ethnic group.

“This study provides insight into how modern ethnic identities in Sub-Saharan Africa were crystallized. Variation in the diffusion of cash crop production and print technology resulted in differences in ethnic groups’ mobilization capabilities and capacity to compete for state power.” Print technology, however, had a more expansionary effect. To facilitate the spread of Christianity, missionaries invested in the standardization, writing, and printing of previously orally transmitted languages. Bibles, religious texts, and educational materials were printed in these newly formalized languages. This phenomenon occurred predominantly in areas under British colonialism, where indirect rule was practiced. This process had a two-pronged effect: it increased the salience of ethnicity, but it also made printed cultures more accessible to outsiders. Groups with greater exposure to print technology, therefore, have more political influence today, are more likely to identify in ethnic rather than in national terms, but are more likely than groups with exposure to commercial agriculture to marry outsiders.

These findings remain robust to checks on alternative explanations such as group size, the type of colonizer-French or British, modernization and political engagement, resource types (rather it is who owns the resources-Africans), or religious and ethnic diversity.

This study provides insight into how modern ethnic identities in Sub-Saharan Africa were crystallized. Variation in the diffusion of cash crop production and print technology resulted in differences in ethnic groups’ mobilization capabilities and capacity to compete for state power. Moreover, these group-level differences affected individuals’ affiliation with ethnic identity and willingness to intermarry. These findings hold implications for how contemporary phenomena like internal migration, climate change, and competition for land will further affect ethnic boundaries.


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