Ethnic fractionalization (EF) deals with the number, sizes, socioeconomic distribution, and geographical location of distinct cultural groups, usually in a state or some otherwise delineated territory. The specific cultural features might refer to language, skin color, religion, ethnicity, customs and tradition, history, or another distinctive criterion, alone or in combination. Frequently these features are used for social exclusion and the monopolization of power.
A crucial distinction is whether there is a commonly accepted value order above each distinct subculture (as in the “melting pot” idea) or each culture stands for itself (the “salad bowl” image). In addition one culture may be dominant in a relatively benign way (as in the British and Roman Empires, which had second-class citizens but with access to some public goods) or in a harmful way (the Tutsis and Hutus reciprocally, the Germans and Poles or Czechs, the Russians and the peoples in Caucasia and the Baltic States).
The distinction between majorities and minorities is important, though frequently some minorities are better off socioeconomically (Basques, Jews, the Indians in East Africa, the Chinese in Southeast Asia) or even rule over majorities. The conflict potential due to EF increases if disputed borders are involved (as in irredenta) or if the state collapses (as in sub-Saharan African examples) or does not exist at all (Palestine, the Kurdish state). Then there is a temptation either to exit into the other bordering state or to attack from there (Carment and James 2004).
Because ethnic or other cultural minorities often have suffered from other (majoritarian) groups in the past, they have vivid memories of their tragedies and fears for the future. Structurally they cannot trust the state as a benevolent mediator because there is always the possibility that it might command private information (information withheld from the opponent) to be used against the subgroup, thus wiping out any consociational arrangements. Such arrangements (as in Switzerland, the Netherlands, the European Union) usually follow the proportional rule of representation and engage in broad-based collective decision making. In cultural matters (e.g., language use, schooling, cultural symbols) there is even allowance for veto rights by cultural subgroups. Yet few of these arrangements have survived (Lijphart 1977).
All variations in numbers and sizes of EF seem possible. In theory two large groups equal in size could balance each other perfectly (consider the Israelis and Palestinians) or could provide ground for perennial self-reinforcing conflict. Likewise a small number of groups of equal size could balance each other but also provide sources of intergroup conflict, particularly if coalitions are considered (the tertius gaudens phenomenon, that is, the third party that is winning from a conflict of the other two parties). “Measures of polarization are more appropriate to capture the intensity of disagreements across groups” (Alesina et al. 2003, p. 164), reaching their maximum when two equally sized groups confront each other.
Three basic arguments explain how and in part why ethnic heterogeneity creates a potential for social cleavage and conflict. First, following Georg Simmel (1908), the “stranger” is considered untrustworthy and in possession of hidden knowledge. He or she can compare his or her past knowledge and experiences with his or her present ones. He or she comes from unknown places and may leave for unknown ones. In knowing less about the local rules and values, he or she intensifies we and they feelings, which carry mostly negative and threatening stereotypes. Second, group experiments show that these distinctions arise even when characteristics differ minimally (see minimal group theory, Tajfel 1981). Third, cultural groups reduce social costs within groups in daily interactions (with lower rates of misunderstanding and conflict), they give protection, and they produce a public good of shared norms. On this basis, EF will persist. Thus Michael Hechter (2000) recommends granting autonomy to distinct cultural groups and shunning centralism. Cultural autonomy and decentralization can buy off conflict. The paradigm at the macro and micro levels is the Roman Empire or the Islamic millet system.
When identities become politically salient in an ethnically diverse area can be explained (partially) by a number of theories, the most prominent being resource mobilization theory, which stresses entrepreneurism on the part of leaders and resource accumulation and collective action on the part of followers (Tilly and Tarrow 2006); relative deprivation theory; and more directly to the timely circumstances, the theory of political opportunity structure, which, for example, involves the collapse of a repressive multicultural empire such as the Soviet Union with ethnic strife in the Caucasus and the Baltics, external warfare, and shelter with groups beyond the national border (Carment and James 2004).
Karl Deutsch (1966) adds an important macro perspective, emphasizing that modernization of one ethnocultural group usually leads to more integration via social mobilization. In case of different ethnocultural groups, however, massive conflict results, paradoxically at higher levels of overall economic development. In each subgroup, social movement entrepreneurs employ the forces of communication and indigenous integration for the benefit of cultural distinction (e.g., in Northern Ireland, Palestine, and Iraq). Forms of conflict resulting from EF include coups d’état, interethnic rioting and war, and even external warfare (Hibbs 1973; Carment and James 2004). States that have suffered from violent ethnocultural fractionalization and conflict usually exhibit lower overall levels of socioeconomic development and attract little foreign investment (Collier and Hoeffler 2004). The breakdown of the state monopoly of violence and territorial borders looms large, contributing to and ending in state failure (Rotberg 2004).
EF usually is measured as 1 minus the Herfindahl concentration index of ethnolinguistic group shares, which reproduces the probability that two randomly drawn individuals from the population belong to different groups. The theoretical maximum of EF at 1 means that each person belongs to a different group. Alberto Alesina and colleagues (2003) employ this measure separately for ethnic, linguistic, and religious fractionalization (with data mainly from the Encyclopedia Britannica ). EF correlates negatively with economic growth and government quality (from 1960s onward, n=190 countries), although its effects decline with intermediating channels, such as schooling, financial depth, fiscal surplus, and the use of telephones controlled (Easterly and Levine 1997). According to Alesina: “The thirteen most ethnically diverse countries are all in Sub-Saharan Africa, followed by Yugoslavia and seven more Sub-Saharan African countries. The least ethnically fractionalized countries are South Korea, Japan, and North Korea” (Alesina et al. 2003, p. 163).
EF may, however, be endogenously affected, for example by changes in different group fertilities, by the definition of groups, and by individual self-definitions. James Fearon and David Laitin (1999) point to reverse causalities (e.g., cases of rebellion leading to the inclusion of groups in the dataset or large-scale ethnic violence causing low gross domestic product [GDP]) in suggesting improvements in the minorities at risk data (Gurr 1993), another of the major datasets on EF. Groups included in countries with more than one million inhabitants and comprising at least 1 percent of the population had to meet at least one of four “risks”:
the group suffers “discrimination”;
it is “disadvantaged from past discrimination”;
it is an “advantaged minority being challenged”; or
the group is “mobilized,” meaning that “the group (in whole or part) supports one or more political organizations that advocates greater group rights, privileges, or autonomy.” (Gurr 1993, pp. 7, 65)
Fearon and Laitin provide numerous examples of dubious classifications on the basis of language or culture alone. The third and oldest measure is the ethnolinguistic classification from the Soviet Atlas Narodov Mira (Atlas of peoples of the world, 1964), which relies on linguistic distinctions and thus obscures other aspects of ethnicity, such as racial origin, skin color, and cultural traits (see Fearon 2003 for a further dataset).
Fearon and Laitin also report results on geographic concentration, “with widely dispersed and mainly urban groups being unlikely to be involved in ethnic violence”; on relative group size, “with a weak tendency for larger groups to be more disposed to violence”; and “degree of ethnic heterogeneity of the country, with greater heterogeneity associated with less violence once we control for GDP and other factors” (Fearon and Laitin 1999). Intermixing as such, and thus the alleged “security dilemma” (Posen, in Cederman 2002), is not enough to dispose ethnic groups to violent conflict.
The question remains why are some minorities engaged in large-scale separatist or autonomy-related violence while others are not? “Ecological” data must be supplemented by perceptual data on the deepness and unbargainability of conflict to go further in explaining the virulence of EF and participant groups and to avoid the logical pitfalls of sampling on the dependent variable.
SEE ALSO Coalition; Contact Hypothesis; Democracy, Consociational; Development and Ethnic Diversity; Ethnic Conflict; Ethnicity; Ethnocentrism; Identities, Deadly; Identity; Majorities; Minorities; Quotas; Secession; Separatism; Violence; Violence, Frantz Fanon on
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Simmel, Georg. 1908. Soziologie: Untersuchungen über die Formen der Vergesellschaftung [Sociology: Investigations on the forms of socialization]. Leipzig: Dunker and Humblot.
Tajfel, Henri. 1981. Human Groups and Social Categories. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
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