Political Affiliation and Ethnic Categorization in the Malay Identity
29 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2017
Date Written: April 25, 2017
Intersubjective ethnic categorization is typically treated as obvious and stable, under the assumption that it is a function of matching sticky descent-based attributes to ethnic categories. This paper presents evidence that political affiliation, which is not descent-based, can alter intersubjective ethnic categorization: under some circumstances, individuals deny the (self-professed) ethnic identity of political adversaries to delegitimize and punish them, while endorsing the ethnic identity of political allies. This is illustrated through the Malay ethnic identity in Malaysia, which has highly ambiguous boundaries and is strongly politicized. The findings have several implications: they demonstrate the complexity of intersubjective ethnic categorization, which challenges parsimonious conceptualizations of ethnic identity. They also illuminate a channel through which politicizing ethnic identity increases the risk of ethnic unrest: the vulnerability to attacks on their ethnic identity by political adversaries can create an ethnic outbidding dynamic in which political leaders compete to demonstrate their ethnic credentials.
Keywords: ethnic categorization, political affiliation, Malay, ethnic outbidding, identity politics
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