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Diversity and the Dilemmas of Collective Action

James Habyarimana, Macartan Humphreys, Daniel N. Posner, Jeremy M. Weinstein

Publication Year: 2009

Ethnically homogenous communities often do a better job than diverse communities of producing public goods such as satisfactory schools and health care, adequate sanitation, and low levels of crime. Coethnicity reports the results of a landmark study that aimed to find out why diversity has this cooperation-undermining effect. The study, conducted in a neighborhood of Kampala, Uganda, notable for both its high levels of diversity and low levels of public goods provision, hones in on the mechanisms that might account for the difficulties diverse societies often face in trying to act collectively. The Mulago-Kyebando Community Study uses behavioral games to explore how the ethnicity of the person with whom one is interacting shapes social behavior. Hundreds of local participants interacted with various partners in laboratory games simulating real-life decisions involving the allocation of money and the completion of joint tasks. Many of the subsequent findings debunk long-standing explanations for diversity’s adverse effects. Contrary to the prevalent notion that shared preferences facilitate ethnic collective action, differences in goals and priorities among participants were not found to be structured along ethnic lines. Nor was there evidence that subjects favored the welfare of their coethnics over that of non-coethnics. When given the opportunity to act altruistically, individuals did not choose to benefit coethnics disproportionately when their actions were anonymous. Yet when anonymity was removed, subjects behaved very differently. With their actions publicly observed, subjects gave significantly more to coethnics, expected their partners to reciprocate, and expected that they would be sanctioned for a failure to cooperate. This effect was most pronounced among individuals who were otherwise least likely to cooperate. These results suggest that what may look like ethnic favoritism is, in fact, a set of reciprocity norms—stronger among coethnics than among non-coethnics—that make it possible for members of more homogeneous communities to take risks, invest, and cooperate without the fear of getting cheated. Such norms may be more subject to change than deeply held ethnic antipathies—a powerful finding for policymakers seeking to design social institutions in diverse societies. Research on ethnic diversity typically draws on either experimental research or field work. Coethnicity does both. By taking the crucial step from observation to experimentation, this study marks a major breakthrough in the study of ethnic diversity.

Published by: Russell Sage Foundation

Series: Russell Sage Foundation Series on Trust

Title Page

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiv

Much of this book was drafted around the dining room table of a country house on Pender Island in British Columbia. Although we faced many challenges in analyzing data and melding our four distinct voices into one, one of the greatest hurdles we confronted involved conserving water from the well that fed our writing retreat. A long shower, too many loads of laundry, a tap left running...

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About the Authors

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pp. xv-xvi

James Habyarimana is assistant professor of public policy at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. Macartan Humphreys is associate professor of political science at Columbia University. Daniel N. Posner is associate professor of political science at the University of California–Los Angeles. Jeremy M. Weinstein is associate professor of political science at Stanford University and an affiliated faculty...

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Chapter 1: Diversity and Collective Action

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pp. 1-24

Just off the main road that cuts through the slum area behind Kampala’s main hospital lies the local council zone (LC1) of East Nsooba.1 An ethnically mixed neighborhood, it is set at the base of a steep hillside with small, closely spaced houses stretching down the incline and across the swampy valley floor. The houses are simple, with...

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Chapter 2: Public Goods Provision in Kampala

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pp. 25-35

Our inquiry into the mechanisms that link social diversity and collective action failure is motivated by the observation that heterogeneous communities tend to provide lower levels of public goods for their members than homogeneous communities. This chapter lays the foundation for our discussion by doing three things. First, we...

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Chapter 3: Ethnicity and Ethnic Identifiability

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pp. 36-67

Any claim that ethnic diversity is associated with better or worse public goods provision requires some notion of what ethnic diversity means. Yet the very idea of ethnicity or ethnic diversity is itself a contentious issue. As measured by most scholars, the concept of ethnic diversity appears simple at first: if two people are paired...

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Chapter 4: Testing the Mechanisms

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pp. 68-104

Across Mulago-Kyebando, local council chairs bemoan the lack of cooperation from members of the community when they launch initiatives to fight crime, collect garbage, and maintain drainage channels. Their frustration is shared by people living in other ethnically diverse communities around the world. The problems these...

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Chapter 5: A Closer Look at Reciprocity

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pp. 105-131

Our examination of differences in how coethnics interact has pinpointed a number of mechanisms that could account for the higher levels of cooperation we observe in ethnically homogeneous communities. In the last chapter, we found evidence for a number of technological advantages. Coethnics are more likely to know one another directly, and even if they do not, they...

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Chapter 6: Beyond the Lab

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pp. 132-150

In the preceding chapters, we have emphasized the importance of norms that facilitate the sanctioning of noncontributors. The results of our experimental games suggest that such norms are stronger when people are interacting with coethnics, in part because coethnics engage in repeated interactions and to be closely linked through social...

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Chapter 7: Conclusions

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pp. 151-174

The communities of Mulago-Kyebando sit nestled in a valley between two of Kampala’s seven hills, nearly a sixty-minute drive (ninety minutes during the rainy season) from the house we rented during our four months of fieldwork in 2005. Every morning we traveled in our well-worn minivan with our mobile computer lab and thousands of coins to our research site. Potholes and...

Appendix A: Sampling Procedure

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pp. 175-184

Appendix B: Main Statistical Results

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pp. 185-194

Appendix C: Images of the Field Site, Experimental Games, and Research Team

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pp. 195-200


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pp. 201-218


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pp. 219-228


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pp. 229-235

E-ISBN-13: 9781610446389
Print-ISBN-13: 9780871544209

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Russell Sage Foundation Series on Trust