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The Political Salience of Cultural Difference: Why Chewas and Tumbukas Are Allies in Zambia and Adversaries in Malawi


This paper explores the conditions under which cultural cleavages become politically salient. It does so by taking advantage of the natural experiment afforded by the division of the Chewa and Tumbuka peoples by the border between Zambia and Malawi. I document that, while the objective cultural differences between Chewas and Tumbukas on both sides of the border are identical, the political salience of the division between these communities is altogether different. I argue that this difference stems from the different sizes of the Chewa and Tumbuka communities in each country relative to each country's national political arena. In Malawi, Chewas and Tumbukas are each large groups vis-à-vis the country as a whole and, thus, serve as viable bases for political coalition-building. In Zambia, Chewas and Tumbukas are small relative to the country as a whole and, thus, not useful to mobilize as bases of political support. The analysis suggests that the political salience of a cultural cleavage depends not on the nature of the cleavage itself (since it is identical in both countries) but on the sizes of the groups it defines and whether or not they will be useful vehicles for political competition.

Corresponding author
Daniel N. Posner is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Box 951472, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1472 (
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American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
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