Dispute Resolution in Heterogeneous Societies

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Author(s): Paige Bollen, Volha Charnysh 

Status/Format: In Progress

Date: 2021


Across sub-Saharan Africa, formal legal institutions compete with customary institutions for influence. Customary leaders, such as chiefs, have retained considerable powers even in states that abolished or weakened their positions upon gaining independence. Existing research attributes the resilience of customary institutions to the tenacity of precolonial ethnic institutions, the legacies of chief empowerment by colonial powers, and weak state capacity. We instead advance a novel demand-side explanation for the subnational variation in reliance on state and customary institutions for dispute resolution. We hypothesize that reliance on customary institutions decreases with local ethnic heterogeneity because communal leaders are less equipped to sanction opportunistic behavior and resolve disputes across ethnic group boundaries and because neocustomary law typically disadvantages ethnic outsiders. We support the hypothesis using data from Afrobarometer Rounds 4 and 5. We also present a design for an experiment in Ghana that aims to evaluate the causal effect of coethnicity and heterogeneity on dispute resolution preferences and to explore the underlying mechanisms.