Conceptualizing and Measuring Ethnic Politics: An Institutional Complement to Demographic, Behavioral, and Cognitive Approaches

Author(s): Evan Lieberman, Prerna Singh 

Status/Format: Published

Date: 2012

Publication Type: Journal Article

Publisher: Studies in Comparative International Development

Volume and Issue: 47

Page Numbers: 255 - 286


The influence of “ethnic politics” has been demonstrated in a range of empirical studies of economic growth, violence, and public goods provision. While others have raised concerns about the measurement of ethnic variables in these works, we seek to situate such discussions within a more thoroughgoing conceptual analysis. Specifically, we argue that four conceptual approaches—demographic, cognitive, behavioral, and institutional—have been used to develop theories in which the mechanism that relates causes to outcomes is ethnic political competition. Within this literature, we believe that institutional approaches have been relatively under-appreciated, and we attempt to address that imbalance. We begin by critically reviewing the three main ways in which ethnic variables have been specified and operationalized, delineating the assumptions and trade-offs underlying their use. Next, we describe an institutional approach to the study of ethnic politics, which focuses on the rules and procedures for differentiating ethnic categories. We propose some new indices based on this latter approach that might be developed and used in future research. Subsequently, we analyze the relationship between each of these approaches and patterns of ethnic political competition in a set of six country cases, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses, as well as theoretical links between them.