Taking Ethnic Group Construction Seriously: Towards a Better Understanding of Identity Appeals in Political Campaigns
Posted: 18 Oct 2012
Date Written: July 18, 2012
Research on ethnic politics within Political Science has been characterized by a curious imbalance of producing an elaborate set of expectations of what identity appeals do without the equivalent in-depth examination of what they actually are in practice. In an effort to escape the over-determinism of earlier work which saw identities as fixed and primordial, an entire research tradition has developed to emphasize the ‘social’ aspect of identity formation and stress that individual identities are fluid, mutable, context-dependent, and constructed. However, classifications and the formulation of expectations inducing group interests up from personal identity attributes have impoverished our understanding of the full scope and consequences of the politicization of ethnic identity.
Intended to aid the comparative work on identity in order to further our understanding of the processes behind identity redefinition and change, constructivism has been left unable to do so by blunt concepts and inadequate methodologies. Attributing causality to individual identity attributes alone, regardless of the extent of advanced combinatorics attached to their interpretation, cannot offer a satisfactory understanding of the consequences of social identity construction. I will argue that the ways, in which ethnic appeals are currently conceived and measured could not allow them to perform the function necessary for the theory to hold. Further, an over-emphasis on the performance of the appeal coupled with a perfunctory understanding of its nature leads to the lack of clear expectations and the adequate formulation of testable propositions regarding the conditions, under which various identity appeals are likely to be articulated. The latter is among the longest-standing and most consequential questions in politics.
The paper suggests that ethnic appeals in political campaigns be modelled as narratives combining claims about group authenticity and value with rhetoric of rights and entitlement into arguments about representation and redistribution. This structure is able to account for how political rhetoric both evokes and moulds personal identifications into mobilization for group action. A conceptual vocabulary for characterizing ethnic appeals is suggested, which privileges the internal logic of the narrative over categorical distinctions between groups. Theoretically, the argument contributes to linking social categories, individual identities and political behavior with obvious import for mobilization. Empirically, the paper provides a notion of the distribution of the types of ethnic appeals in political campaigns across countries and allows for testing hypotheses of their determinants.
Keywords: ethnic politics, ethnic appeals, political campaigns, political rhetoric
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