(B6) Ethnic Mobilization and Ideas about Ethnic Groups Held by State Elites

Cultural representations of an ethnic group play a notable role in the response of state elites to ethnic mobilization. Of particular importance appears to be the perceived level of cultural difference. When state officials view a particular ethnic group as amenable to assimilation into the larger society, they might be more compelled to channel public resources to expand the territorial reach of the state and provide public goods. This decision is primarily motivated by the expected returns following assimilation, in the form of political loyalty and/or economic contributions as new taxpayers. By contrast, perceptions of stark cultural differences might discourage state leaders and higher-level bureaucrats from investing extensively in state infrastructure or fiscal efforts. This mechanism expands on George Steinmetz's (2007) study of distinct types of German colonial state-building during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. German officials, inspired by dominant ethnographic representations, deemed the indigenous populations of South West Africa as having the potential for entering their 'civilization', and therefore responded to ethnic mobilization (i.e. local revolts) by combining severe repression with the expansion of territorial reach and the provision of public goods.[1] By contrast, ethnographic representations that portrayed Samoans as noble and endangered savages whose cultural survival was at stake, led colonial state officials to respond more mildly to local revolts and refrain from extensive infrastructure-building and public goods provision. For our purposes, Steinmetz's analysis reveals that dominant cultural representations of ethnic groups shape possible state responses to ethnic-based mobilization, with major implications for state capacity.

A similar argument can be made for official national narratives. In this perspective, state responses to ethnic collective action are influenced by the role state-sponsored nationalist discourses assign to a particular ethnic group. When state leaders and high-level bureaucrats see an ethnic group as a major security threat to state sovereignty and stability (and, by extension, their own political survival), they might be less likely to accommodate the demands of this group. In these instances, state infrastructure and public goods provision are not extended to parts of the state territory inhabited by the supposed threat-posers. A powerful example for this mechanism comes from Turkey. Official narratives that identify the Kurds as an imminent threat to the territorial integrity of the Turkish nation has led to a deliberate limitation of territorial reach and public goods provision in areas predominantly populated by ethnic Kurds (Yegen 2006).

Another variant of this mechanism emphasizes the central role of collective memory in shaping state elite perceptions of mobilized ethnic groups. How state leaders and high-level bureaucrats remember past patterns of ethnic mobilization has major ramifications for their interpretations of contemporary ethnic collective action. Often, elite threat perceptions are coloured by historical experiences of ethnic conflict. When state authorities maintain a historical memory of a group as a threat to their political survival, they might be less likely to accommodate (or even acknowledge) demands from this group. As Paul Brass (1994) illustrates for postcolonial India, state leaders such as Nehru were more likely to positively consider demands made by distinct linguistic groups. By contrast, ethno-religious mobilization was treated with suspicion, to a large extent because of the looming history of the partition of India. This line of argument thus stresses that state elite perceptions of particular ethnic groups are tinted by the memory of past interactions and conflicts, and that these memories influence state elite responses to ethnic mobilization.

In sum, this batch of causal mechanisms helps to open the black box of the state. In this perspective, ethnicity influences state capacity by shaping the actions of state elites. Whether directly driven by concerns about political survival and state resources, or mediated by cultural representations, official national narratives, or collective memories of past ethnic conflict, it is via the preferences and perceptions, and consequently behaviour, of state officials that ethnic exclusion or ethnic mobilization impact on state capacity.

  • [1] Other examples for a state expanding both its repressive apparatus and public goods provision (e.g. roads, health clinics) are Nazi Germany before the Second World War (1933-9) orChile under Pinochet (1973-90).
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