Instrumental and constructvist conceptualizatons of ethnicity: implicatons for Latn American social movements research/Conceptualizaciones instrumentales y constructvistas de la etnicidad: aplicaciones para investgaciones de movimientos sociales en Latinoamerica.

Autor:Thomson, Catarina P.

'We, the Quechuas, Aymaras and Guaranties of Bolivia keep hearing from our governments: that we are narcos, that we are anarchists. This uprising of the Bolivian people has been not only about gas and hydrocarbons, but an intersection of many issues: discrimination, marginalization, and most importantly, the failure of neoliberalism'. (Evo Morales, President of Bolivia) Throughout the past decades, ethnically-based social movements and political parties have been gaining momentum in Latin America. It's not that the members of these groups had never been represented in organizations before; it is just that the ethnic "label" had not been employed. Why would those formerly identified as peasants decide to re-group as something else? Might identifying along ethnic lines yield higher payoffs to those mobilizing? 'Yes', would be the consensual answer among most current race and ethnicity scholars.

The fluidity of identities that instrumentalist and constructivist approaches conceptualize has allowed researchers to focus on the incentives that actors may have to select one identity over another. Since individuals have several potential identities, the ones that can yield higher political payoffs, they argue, will be chosen to label a certain group. Grouping along ethnic lines would be advantageous in the Latin American political arena in a way it hasn't been in the past.

In what follows, I will first briefly describe instrumental and constructivist conceptualizations of ethnicity. I will then proceed to illustrate the type of research questions and designs that have resulted from these conceptual frameworks. Finally, I will identify how these paradigms could be fruitfully applied to research examining Latin American social movements.


One of the reasons ethnicity has become a concept of increasing scholarly interest in the field of comparative politics, has been the rise of intra-state conflict in post-authoritarian regimes. As stated by Fearon and Laitin, 'an influential conventional wisdom holds that civil wars proliferated rapidly with the end of the Cold War and that the root cause of many or most of these has been ethnic and religious antagonisms' (2003, p. 75). That ethnic differences correlate with animosity between groups seems like a plausible argument. This seems particularly likely in newly democratized nations where previous authoritarian regimes had suppressed dissenting voices and where elections with the potential to divide citizens across ethnic lines had been a rare phenomenon. However, ultimately, the plausibility of the argument depends on what we are referring to when we say 'ethnicity'.

The use of the term intensifed in the late 1970s. As noted by Cohen, 'quite suddenly, with little comment or ceremony, ethnicity is a ubiquitous presence. Even a brief glance through titles of books and monographs over the past few years indicates a steadily accelerating acceptance and application of the terms "ethnicity" and "ethnic" to refer to what was before often subsumed under "culture," "cultural," or "tribal" (Cohen 1978, p. 379). However, the concept had been defined many years earlier by Weber (a definition still used today) (Chandra 2006). For him, 'ethnic groups are those human groups that entertain a subjective belief in their common descent because of similarities of physical type or of customs or both, or because of memories of colonization or migration; this belief must be important for the propagation of group formation; conversely, it does not matter whether or not an objective blood relationship exists' (quoted in Hutchinson and Smith, 1999, p. 35). Other (more recent) widespread definitions include Horowitz's argument, who focuses on members of groups believing in a mythical common ancestry, noting that 'ethnic groups can be placed at various points along the birth- choice continuum. But there is always a significant element of descent' (Horowitz, 1985, p.55)

According to primordialist, definitions of ethnic identities are fixed, immutable. It is assumed that ethnic identities primarily affect both actions and worldviews (Yashar, 2005), and that 'one is invariantly and always perceived as a Serb, a Zulu, or a Chechen' (Lake and Rothchild, 1998, p.5). This translates into research that takes ethnicity as an independent variable or factor of interest, which can affect important outcomes such as the onset of civil conflict.

Scholars who adopt a fixed, primordialist, stance on ethnicity rarely define the concept. When identities are innate and fixed, it is assumed that observers and objects of study utilize similar ethnic classifications, rendering further explanations unnecessary. As noted by Chandra, 'many comparative political scientists do not define the term [ethnicity] before using it' (2006, p. 398).

An alternative approach includes instrumentalist and constructivist approaches to ethnicity.

Although they slightly emphasize different relationships between variables, the research questions they lead to are similar. An instrumental approach will define ethnic identity within a rational choice framework. This enables scholars to theorize regarding when it will be in the best interest of a set of actors to signal to national or international communities that they are part of an ethnic group. This focus on individual actors' decisions, as opposed to biology, it allows assessments regarding expected benefits and costs to be made. As noted by Yashar, 'to explain why individuals choose to act, therefore, they asses the costs and benefits alongside the positive and negative incentives. In other words, one needs to look at individual intentionality and its collective consequences' (Yashar, 2005, p.11).

Constructivism focuses on the central role that shared ideas and norms play in social and political life. The core tenants of constructivism are: '(a) human interaction is shaped primarily by ideational factors, not simply material ones; (b) the most important ideational factors are widely shared or "inter-subjective" beliefs, which are not reducible to individuals; and (c) these shared beliefs construct the interests and identities of purposive actors' (Finnemore and Sikkink, 2001, p. 393). Applying this framework to...

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