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  • Ethnicity and Nationalism in Africa: Constructivist Reflections and Contemporary Politics
  • Cati Coe
Yeros, Paris , ed. 1999. Ethnicity and Nationalism in Africa: Constructivist Reflections and Contemporary Politics. New York: St. Martin's Press. 144 pp.

Perhaps no subject has involved the interaction between scholarly and popular models as much as ethnicity and nationalism; academic theories of ethnicity and nationalism, and their political uses have perhaps always been intertwined. Since the 1980s, constructivist studies of ethnicity, in which "ethnicity" is considered to be invented and imagined, were catalyzed by Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities (1983) and Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger's The Invention of Tradition (1983). Constructivist theories of ethnicity and nationalism have grown in appeal among academics at the same time as more and more local populations are making claims for greater political and human rights under the banner of ethnicity or tradition. Hence, a volume that examines constructivist theories of ethnicity and nationalism in Africa, and their political implications, is particularly welcome at this time.

The seven essays in this book are overwhelmingly theoretical, seeking to review and revise constructivist theories of ethnicity and nationalism in Africa from the past two or three decades. The essays by editor Paris Yeros stress that constructivism is not a unified totality. In "Towards a Normative Theory of Ethnicity," he examines four different kinds of constructivism and their political implications: (1) Frederik Barth's transactionalism, in which ethnic groups are formed and persist through interaction with one another; (2) the instrumentalist approach of Abner Cohen and Robert Bates, in which ethnic groups coalesce as economically driven interest groups; (3) the work on the "the invention of tradition," by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, in which ethnic ideology was invented and supported in colonial periods as an ideological instrument of colonial administration and social control; and (4) the "moral ethnicity" associated with John Lonsdale (Yeros also adds Steven Feierman), in which the language of ethnicity and tradition is used as a moral debate about the nature of the political community. All these studies used an empirical approach, but Yeros argues that theory should be seen as political practice, and that a moral judgment, not facts, should be the initial point of inquiry for a study of ethnicity and nationalism. His analysis shows that even empirical studies make moral claims (from which political implications follow); therefore, he argues that scholars should enter these politically fraught arenas [End Page 223] with political acumen and responsibility, in which their scholarship would contribute toward a moral universe with the most effect. However, it seems to me that academics gain their authority through the empiricist focus on facts, distance, and objectivity, and I am unsure whether the normative approach which Yeros advocates would enhance our chances of influencing these moral contestations.

The other essays are more empirically oriented, but also seek to review studies of ethnicity and nationalism in Africa. Ronald R. Atkinson argues that because historians have focused on ethnicity as an invention of the colonial period in Africa, the resonance and relevance of precolonial collective identities have been ignored. Terence Ranger responds that many precolonial collective identities were based on kinship, regional cults and religious associations, lifestyle and occupation patterns, and towns, rather than on language and on blood, which he sees as the ideological basis of ethnicity. While "ethnicity" was one possible ethnicity available in precolonial Africa, it required the presence of a powerful ideological elite.

In a related vein, Thomas Hylland Eriksen argues that many studies of ethnicity ignore other associations and identities that are actively "imagined" and used by Africans in their daily lives, such as those based on gender, age, class, religion, town or locality, political allegiance, language, and kinship. He makes a distinction between ethnicity in Europe, where ethnicity is modeled on the abstract, distant, imagined communities in Anderson's sense, and Africa, where ethnicity is tied to kinship and reasserts its importance in times of necessity when the state fails to deliver essential goods and services.

John Markakis also ties ethnicity in Africa to the strength of the state. He argues that contestations in the language of nationalism and ethnicity in the Horn of Africa were driven by the...


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