A Comparative Perspective on Racial Polarization

ethnic politics2

Like many of you, I’ve been thinking a lot about the politicization of race and ethnicity lately. Most of this has surrounded the emerging national conversation on systemic racism present in America and its impact on racial minorities in the country. This is an important, necessary conversation, but I’ve been especially interested in the ways race is politicized in the US- some subtle, some quite overt. Literature from Sociology, Psychology, Political Science, Anthropology and Ethnic Studies regularly address issues of race around the world. However, I am most familiar with the political science and economics scholarship on ethnic fractionalization in the developing world.

From an economic standpoint, research linking ethnic cleavages to economic underdevelopment is a hallmark of recent efforts to explain economic growth (See Easterly and Levine 1997; Nauro et al. 2011; Scheuler and Weisbrod 2010; Campos et al. 2007; Habyarimana et al. 2007). Similarly, the rule of law as a credible commitment to property rights and contract enforcement is also identified with economic development (See Keefer and Knack, 2002; De Soto 2003; Maravall and Przeworski 2003; Glinavos 2008; Haggard et al. 2008). Rather than treating these factors as rival explanations for economic development around the world, I propose the rule of law as the causal mechanism through which ethnic fractionalization influences growth in many countries in a recent paper in The Journal of Economics, Management and Financial Markets. I argue ethnic diversity negatively impacts the rule of law due to the prevalence of ethnically-based patronage networks in developing countries. Public officials, I argue, face greater incentives to undermine the rule of law in societies with pervasive ethnic cleavages than in those without.

ethnic bribes

Yet, other scholars contend fractionalization is not to blame (Fearon and Laitin 2003). For many, polarization, not fractionalization, is the key factor in violent conflict (Montalvo and Reynal-Querol 2002; Esteban et al. 2012). Dividing ethnolinguistic groups into several stronger coalitions or simply having two or three powerful groups in a country is more conducive to violent conflict than having dozens of less powerful groups. An aspect of both concepts that can be difficult to measure from a quantitative, cross-national standpoint is the degree to which these different ethnic groups are politicized.

ethnic politics

The politicization of ethnically distinct or polarized groups is important and overlooked. Why does one ethnically diverse country break out in conflict while other seemingly similar countries maintain peaceful internal relations for decades? One answer may be politicians’ ability to exploit ethnic grievances and promote armed conflict. My point here is that increasing ethnolinguistic fractionalization in and of itself may create opportunities for politicization, for patron-client politics and perhaps for future conflict, but it does not generate the lion’s share of these problems on its own. Instead, the extent to which political agents can convince groups to mobilize politically around race has a potentially large, immediate role to play in bringing about violent conflict. In other words, racial diversity is not dangerous, but dividing races into political in-groups and out-groups in the developing world may be deadly.


De Soto, H. (2003). Mystery of capital: why capitalism triumphs in the West and fails everywhere else. Basic books.

Easterly, William, and Ross Levine. (1997), “Africa’s Growth Tragedy: Policies and Ethnic Divisions,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 112(4): 1203-50.

Esteban, J., Mayoral, L., & Ray, D. (2012). Ethnicity and conflict: Theory and facts. science336(6083), 858-865.

Fearon, J. D., & Laitin, D. D. (2003). Ethnicity, insurgency, and civil war.American political science review97(01), 75-90.

Glinavos, Ioannis. (2008), “The Law-Growth Nexus: The Rule of Law and Economic Development” Development and Change 39(2):334-336.

Habyarimana, James, Macartan Humphreys, Daniel Posner and Jeremy Weinstein. (2007), “Why Does Ethnic Diversity Undermine Public Goods Provision?” American Political Science Review. 101(4):709-725.

Haggard, Stephen, Andrew MacIntyre, Lydia Tiede. (2008), “The Rule of Law and Economic Development” Annual Review of Political Science 11: 205-234.

Hodler, R. (2006). The curse of natural resources in fractionalized countries.European Economic Review50(6), 1367-1386.

Keefer, Philip and Stephen Knack. (2002), “Polarization, Politics and Property Rights: Links Between Inequality and Growth,” Public Choice 11(1-2): 127-154.

Knack, Stephen, and Philip Keefer. (1997), “Does Social Capital Have an Economic Payoff? A Cross-country Investigation,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 112(4):1251-1288.

Maravall, Jose Maria and Adam Przeworski. Eds. (2003), Democracy and the Rule of Law. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Montalvo, J. G., & Reynal-Querol, M. (2002). Why ethnic fractionalization? polarization, ethnic conflict and growth (No. 660).

Campos, Nauro, Ahmad Saleh and Vitaliy Kuzeyev. (2011) “Dynamic Ethnic Fractionalization and Economic Growth” Journal of International Trade and Economic Development 20(2): 129-152.

Scheuler, Dana and Julian Weisbrod. (2010), “Ethnic Fractionalisation, Migration and Growth” Empirical Economics 39(2): 457-486.

About Michael Touchton

Mike Touchton (Ph. D., University of Colorado) is an assistant professor of Political Science at Boise State University. He studies the comparative political economy of development and underdevelopment around the world- particularly in Asia and Latin America.

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