Daniel Posner’s “Institutions and Ethnic Politics in Africa”

Systematic analysis of ethno-linguistic cleavages and competition in Africa, and the world more broadly, are often chalked up to “ancient ethnic hatred” or over-simplistic cultural analyses of legacy political economics.  Daniel Posner’s “Institutions and Ethnic Politics in Africa” takes the question of ethnicity in African politics and unpacks the cleavages between ethno-linguistic groups in Zambia using a rational choice methodology backed by a probabilistic model of primary actor behavior when choosing members of a coalition.  He performs robustness checks on his analysis of Zambia and, importantly, discusses both the limitations of his analysis and its universal value outside of Zambia.  It’s an interesting approach, which helps bridge theories of colonial legacies and rational choice.

Posner starts with the assumption that political grouping is a function that generally involves rational decision making around access to goods and services provided by the state.  In this case ethnic or linguistic identity is not the variable that drives people to organize politically, it is the variable around which they decide to organize into coalitions to gain the most access to government goods and services.  Ethnicity and language are variables that are flexible, and depending on demographic distribution during election cycles ethnicity and language are the demographic factors that define political coalition making.  Posner builds a hypothetical model of how cleavages develop using a straw man model of ethno-linguistic groups in Los Angeles, demonstrating how coalitions organize and which groups will remain on the sidelines out of power.

To demonstrate his theory, Posner uses the case study of Zambia’s ethno-linguistic demography and the effects on political development in Zambia.  He unpacks the effects of colonial administration and labor economics in the copper industry to explain how ethno-linguistic norms developed in modern Zambia, and demonstrated through ethnographic research why people did not group ethnically, but instead relied on access to goods and services to guide their political decision making.  The core of the model is that the largest ethno-linguistic group (in this case, Bemba-speaking Bembas), will have to decide between whether to build alliances with other language groups or other ethnic groups.  In Posner’s model, the prime group will organize with the smaller of the two options to form a governing coalition.  This model, a prime coalescing with the smaller of two possible variable groups, is how Posner defines ethnic politics both in Zambia and beyond.

His logic is effective at getting the reader to think of ethnicity in more complex, analytically rigorous ways than just viewing them as simple followers of ethnically defined political parties.  Decision making in terms of coalition building is a complex process that defies simple definitions of ethnicity or linguistic grouping, which comes through in Posner’s interviews with voters in Zambia.  He also does a robust job of testing for endogeneity, analyzing the variable of ethnic cleavage to make sure that it is indeed causal in the process of shifting from multi-party, through a single-party, and back to a multi-party polity.  He also is quick to point out that the model does not tell the whole story, and that politics are complex beyond ethnic or linguistic grouping; his model does not account for any number of human complexities, and he makes no claim that it does.  What he does effectively is demonstrate the causal role played by ethno-linguistic coalition building in political environments.

His argument becomes less persuasive as he moves away from Zambia and looks at comparative cases from Kenya and larger world.  The model is useful for viewing Kenyan politics, and this makes sense given the colonial legacy of ethnicity and political access.  While still potentially causal, applying the model to Kenya effectively would require the same level of fine-grained analysis of Kenyan ethno-linguistics, which is beyond the scope of the book.  Beyond Africa, the model starts to suffer from endogeneity, existing non-causally with the ebbs and flows of politics.  Again, this could be a function of a lack of detailed analysis, but given the drastic differences between the American and African political experiences the model may not be able to describe ethno-linguistics in politics universally.

This book provides audiences with a robust model of ethno-political behavior using a case study that is under-reported but provides insights that “sexier” cases might not.  Posner builds a useful model of political behavior using mixed-methods which is both accessible to a wide audience and conclusive in its findings.  He also avoids the trap of granting his model too much explanatory power, focusing on his core question of why particular ethnic cleavages cause shifts in political structures.  The model remains valuable as he looks as Kenya and provides useful general insight into political behavior outside Africa.

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