Ethnicity as a potential tool for political mobilization

By Eddy Kalonga*

The instrumentalization of ethnicity as the primary means of mobilization has become an inescapable fact of political life in Malawi. For too long, the resignation by scholars, activists, and civil society on the politicization of ethnicity in Malawi has led to a stagnating of the discourse when it comes to approaches to address ways of – managing ethnic identity in relation to the sharing of power, resources, and opportunities.

In as far as scholars and activists have worked to address the topic of ethnic divisiveness in the country; their efforts have been limited in two ways. First, scholarly work has not been effective in influencing discussions on ethnicity beyond academic circles. Many Malawians may experience the vast effects of ethnic politics without necessarily ever having encountered analyses and explanations for this phenomenon.

Many of these analytical tools have the potential of revolutionizing how Malawians view ethnic identity, ethnocentrism, and ethnic discrimination by, for example, making light of the intersection between ethnic, gender, and class discrimination. Secondly, many activists, perhaps due to the urgency of addressing the consequences of ethnic politics such as corruption and political violence, employ simplistic explanations for this phenomenon, leaving the public with an incomplete picture of the nuances and idiosyncrasies of ethnicity and politics across  Malawi.

Vimbuza dancer

What is ‘ethnic mobilization’? Political mobilization can be defined as the process whereby political actors encourage people to participate in some form of political action. In its concrete manifestations this process can take on many different shapes. Political mobilizers typically persuade people to vote, petition, protest, rally, or join a political party, trade union or a politically active civic organization (for more on the definition of political mobilization see, Johnston 2007, Vermeersch 2010).

All political mobilization has in common that it is initiated by mobilizing agencies looking for adherents to a collective cause. These agencies try to persuade potential adherents to take part in public actions in order to defend that cause. Therefore, political mobilization usually has a distinctly collective dimension to it. There is strength in numbers, mobilizers know, and so they seek to influence the behavior of large groups of citizens in order to achieve well-defined political aims.

These aims, however, may vary. There are myriad types of public action that are considered to best serve these causes, and there are many strategies used to persuade people to participate. In order to situate the phenomenon of ethnic mobilization adequately in a wider sociopolitical context one needs a broad conceptualization of the term ‘political mobilization’, that goes beyond merely the field of electoral politics.

Traditionally, political mobilization is often understood as closely tied to elections (Rosenstone and Hansen, 1993). Studies of political mobilization for example, focus on the effects of electoral campaigning (Shanto and Simon 2000) or seek to explain fluctuations in voter turnout (e.g. Franklin 2004). Mobilization in this sense is seen as consisting of those actions that elites undertake in order to garner a growing group of supporters and persuade them to express their affinity through the ballot box.

Among the questions that researchers have traditionally asked are: What determines voters’ decisions? And to what extent is the success of electoral mobilization dependent on existing affiliations, organizational capacities, or persuasive ideas? More specifically, the study of ethnic electoral mobilization weighs the relative importance of different potential sources of ethnic voting: cultural affiliation, political manipulation by elites, and existing socioeconomic divisions that coincide with ethnic boundaries (Leighley 2001).

Political scientists would, however, only have a narrow understanding of the process of ethnic mobilization if they were to exclude from their scope those forms of political action that take place outside the electoral process, ranging from peaceful protest to violent revolutions. So, there is a need to adopt a broader definition of political mobilization in order to study the complexity of ethnic mobilization.

The notion has to be extended to include the field of unconventional political action, or as it is sometimes referred to, contentious politics. Many now view extra-electoral action as an inherent aspect of political mobilization. Such non-electoral initiatives – including protest marches and civil disobedience, but also lobbying, strategic litigation, and press conferences – may have profound consequences on policymaking, even though researchers still disagree on how effective their influence is (Amenta et al. 2010, Baumgartner and Mahoney 2005, Skocpol 2003).

Despite that disagreement, political scientists generally agree on the idea that such unconventional expressions are ever more becoming a part of regular politics. It is a form of politics that does not diminish with the advent of modernization. In fact, especially in advanced democracies they are increasingly viewed as a ‘normal’ characteristic of politics. Political mobilization thus covers a broad spectrum of public action, from the covert to the disruptive, and from the institutionalized to the unconventional.

The study of political mobilization outside electoral politics has deep roots in political sociology and, in particular, in the study of mass protest and social movements (Amenta et al. 2010, della Porta and Diani 1999, Edelman 2001). This sociological view on political mobilization has allowed analysts to look for factors beyond electoral campaigns. These studies have examined the way in which protest waves and social movements have emerged, how they have developed, and what impact they have had on policy outcomes or social change.

The semi-nomadic people of Ovahimba and Ovazimba tribes of Northern Namibia

They have brought several new dimensions of mobilization to the attention of political scientists: the social grievances underlying collective action, the importance of resources, the role of meaning manipulation and ideas, and the political context (the opportunities and constraints) shaping such action. For example, contemporary researchers do not simply view the American black civil rights movement as a spontaneous mass response to social grievances (McAdam 1982).

They have examined the political opportunity structures that have shaped this movement, the resources that have supported it, and the global spread of human rights norms that has given the movement’s ideas, claims and demands a universal validity (Jackson 2006). Social movement research has thus considerably altered political scientists’ understanding of what is ‘political’ in mobilization.

Political scientists are now increasingly inclined to question the neat division social scientists once made between the political significance of political parties and interest representation in state institutions, on the one hand, and the social and cultural (but supposedly less political) weight of social movements, on the other. Of course, social movements have important cultural and social implications; but they are also inherently political, even when they, as they sometimes do, propagate methods that are disruptive to political and social stability and peace such as such as rioting or ethnic cleansing.

Sometimes the mobilization of people into non-electoral and non-institutionalized types of public action may lead to new and stable political interest cleavages. These interest cleavages, in turn, may serve as a new basis of electoral mobilization. Ethnic mobilization is thus far more than electoral campaigning on the basis of ethnicity. It occurs not only at the time of elections but also during other points in time, most likely at the time of particular events that can form a basis for mass action, be it in the form of collective street protests or less visible forms of petitioning.

Theories of ethnic mobilization

 It is perhaps surprising that theorizing on ethnic mobilization in political science literature cannot look back upon a long history. Not that ethnic politics was entirely discounted; but scholars often assumed that the politics of ethnic solidarity would disappear with the ongoing development of modernization and the spread of liberal-democratic values (Kymlicka 2000: 184).

For others, mainly before the 1960s, ethnicity was a transitional phenomenon or a factor that did not, and would not, have any influence on the formal political system (Taylor 1996: 886). In some cases this argument was inspired by the Marxist reasoning that class identity would prevail over other types of identity through the struggle against capitalism. Still others, especially in the 1980s, dismissed the subject, and even predicted the decline of ethnic attachments because of the advancement of liberal democracy.

Glazer and Moynihan dubbed this the ‘liberal expectancy’ (Glazer and Moynihan 1974: 33); ethnic identities were seen as merely transitory and were assumed to vanish into the inevitably growing cosmopolitan ethnic melting pot (Moynihan 1993: 27–28). The resurgence of political mobilization of territorially based linguistic groups in Western Europe in the 1970s – think of the mobilizations of the Bretons and Corsicans in France, the Celtic-speaking populations in Great Britain, or the Flemish-Walloon cleavage in Belgium – clearly contradicted the expectations of classical social theory (Ragin 1987: 133).

One of the many ethnic groups in South Africa

This historical development called for a refocusing of attention on the need to think about the relationship between ethnicity and politics. Since the 1990s political scientists have indeed written a considerable amount of literature on the phenomenon. In this broad literature, which has its roots in the 1960s but grew considerably in the 1990s, one can now discern roughly four different theoretical perspectives on ethnic mobilization: the ‘culturalist’ perspective, which emphasizes the significance of strong subjective bonding and values within ethnic groups for shaping the lines of ethnic mobilization.

The ‘reactive ethnicity’ perspective, which uses an economic perspective to argue that the primary cause of ethnic mobilization lies in the coincidence of ethnic bonding and relative deprivation; the ‘competition’ perspective, which focuses on ethnic leaders making rational calculations about their identity and invoking ethnicity in their struggle for resources and power;  the ‘political process’ perspective, which emphasizes the role of the macro political context, consisting of  the institutional environment and  the dominant political discursive context.

Each perspective takes a different set of factors to be primarily responsible for causing and shaping ethnic mobilization. This four-pronged distinction is of course a rough analytical device but it offers an opportunity to structure the literature and gain insight into the pattern of explanatory variables that theorists have considered to be pivotal in driving ethnic mobilization. 

When attempting to analyze the emergence of ethnic conflict it is important to keep in mind that ‘ethnic conflict’ is a diverse phenomenon. As Rogers Brubaker and David Laitin have argued already in 1998: instances of ethnic violence are ‘composite and causally heterogeneous, consisting not of an assemblage of causally identical unit instances of ethnic violence but of a number of different types of actions, processes, occurrences, and events’ (Brubaker and Laitin 1998: 446).

*Kalonga is a regular contributor to The Lamp magazine