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National Versus Ethnic Identification in Africa: Modernization, Colonial Legacy, and the Origins of territorial Nationalism

  • Amanda Lea Robinson

Communal conflicts, civil wars, and state collapse have led many to portray the notion of African nation-states as an oxymoron. Some scholars of African politics—often referred to as second-generation modernization theorists—have argued that strong ethnic attachments across the continent resulted from rapid economic and political modernization, the very forces credited with reducing parochial ties and consolidating European nations in classic modernization theory. Others have argued that national consolidation in Africa is particularly unlikely due to high degrees of ethnic diversity, colonial rule that exacerbated that diversity, and the partition of cultural groups. Despite the ubiquity of these arguments, there has been very little comparative empirical research on territorial nationalism in Africa. Using individual-level data from sixteen countries, combined with a novel compilation of ethnic group and state characteristics, the author evaluates the observable implications of these long-respected theoretical traditions within a multilevel framework. She finds that attachment to the nation, relative to one's ethnic group, increases with education, urbanization, and formal employment at the individual level, and with economic development at the state level—patterns more consistent with classic modernization theory than with second-generation modernization theory. Thus, if modernization in Africa does indeed intensify ethnic attachment, the impact is overwhelmed by the concurrent increase in panethnic territorial nationalism. Similarly, the results show that ethnic diversity and the partition of ethnic groups by “artificial” state borders increase, rather than decrease, the degree to which individuals identify nationally. Taken together, these results reject pessimistic expectations of African exceptionalism and instead suggest that the emergence of widespread national identification within African states is not only possible but even increasingly likely with greater economic development.

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* The author is grateful to James Fearon, David Latin, members of the Comparative Politics Workshop at Stanford University, members of the Working Group in African Political Economy (WGAPE), and four anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback, and to Caitlin Clary for her valuable research assistance

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World Politics
  • ISSN: 0043-8871
  • EISSN: 1086-3338
  • URL: /core/journals/world-politics
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