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Thinking Like A Somali About Ethnicity
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April 09, 2012, 07:09 PM
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Plato talked about carving nature at the joints, and, at the most historic level,  much of politics consists of figuring out where institutions and groups can best be cut apart and where put together. Consider, say, Washington and Franklin. They helped take apart the British Empire and later helped weld together the federal government to rule the 13 states.

This is the kind of subject that deserves the most careful consideration, but usually doesn`t get it.
The Implications of Constructivism for Constructing Ethnic Fractionalization Indices  
David Laitin (Stanford University), Daniel Posner (UCLA)   
[appeared in APSA-CP: The Comparative Politics Newsletter 12 (Winter 2001)]   
In recent years, ethnic fractionalization has emerged as a central variable in  quantitative analyses of outcomes ranging from economic growth rates (Easterly and  Levine, 1997) and the quality of governance (La Porta et al, 1999) to ethnic conflict (Kay  et al, 2000) and the frequency of coups d’etat (Londregan and Poole, 1990).  Almost all  such analyses employ, either alone or in combination with other measures, the same  measure of ethnic fractionalization.  This index, called ELF (for Ethno-Linguistic Fractionalization), is available for 129 countries – indeed, its broad coverage is the  principal reason for its widespread adoption – and reflects the likelihood that two people  chosen at random will be from different ethnic groups.  It is calculated using the  Herfindahl concentration formula from data compiled in a global survey of ethnic groups  published in the Atlas Narodov Mira (1964) and subsequently included in Taylor and  Hudson (1972).  
Atlas Narodov Mira was a 1964 compilation by Soviet ethnographers of, in their opinion, all the ethnic groups in the world. It had the advantage of being a standard source. 
Users of the ELF index have analyzed their results, to their peril, without any   regard to the constructivist findings in the literature on ethnicity. Constructivist findings would make the standard ELF index suspect for four different reasons.  
First, the users of  the ELF index assume that a country’s degree of ethnic fractionalization is fixed,  analogous to its topography or its distance from the equator.  To the extent that a  country’s boundaries do not change, it is assumed, its ELF score should remain constant.   Constructivist theories of ethnicity, however, would compel us to challenge this  assumption.  They would lead us to expect changes in the level of ethnic fractionalization  over time, as people over generations assimilate, differentiate, amalgamate, break-apart,  immigrate and emigrate.     
Take the case of Somalia. 


It used to be said that Somalia was a lucky country because the colonialists had happened to draw the boundaries right and thus there was only one tribe in Somalia, divided up merely into clans. But then in the late 1980s the country fell apart, and suddenly we started hearing about the deep divisions between clans and sub-clans.

At independence, Isaaqs (from former British  Somaliland) and Hawiyes (from former Italian Somalia) insisted they spoke the same  language, and any survey of linguistic diversity undertaken at the time would have  reflected this.  In recent years, however, Isaaqs have begun consciously differentiating their speech forms from those of the Hawiyes as part of an attempt to justify recognition for their secessionist republic – much as Croat and Serb intellectuals and linguists have  done over the past fifteen years in the Balkans (Greenberg, 2000).  A linguistic survey  conducted today would thus produce a quite different accounting of linguistic divisions in  both former Yugoslavia and former Somalia.     
Clan distinctions in Somalia have undergone a similar metamorphosis.  With the  decline of the dictatorship of Mohammed Siyaad Barre in the late 1980s, what had  previously been considered one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in Africa became severely divided by inter-clan fractionalization, with a concomitant change in the  level of aggregation that is considered appropriate by political analysts.  Studies of  Somalia in the 1960s that focused on clan-based divisions tended to concentrate their  analysis at the highest level of division (the clan family), of which there are three.  
But amid the fractionalization caused by the civil war that broke the country apart a decade  ago, more recent analyses have tended to emphasize distinctions among clans and even  sub-clans.  Thus, due to the civil war, a survey of ethnic fractionalization today would  yield a substantially larger number of clans (and a correspondingly higher  fractionalization index value) than one undertaken  forty years ago.  Contrary to the  assumptions of most users of the ELF index, levels of ethnic fractionalization in Somalia  have been dynamic over time, not stable givens of the landscape.  Constructivist findings would thus seem to demand that fractionalization scores be provided over a time series to  accommodate such changes.

The message that I would take from this is that when things fall apart, as in Black Hawk Down-era Somalia, to survive anarchy, people tend to go, as Tom Wolfe would say, Back to Blood. Family ties are the most likely default system for organizing for self-defense.
On the other hand, in a better ruled country, there are multiple ways to construct social ties, and the more they criss-cross, the more stable the country. On the other other hand, peoples that are used to stability and impose high standards of fair play upon themselves are ripe for exploitation by outsiders from chaotic lands where family ties are the basis for all organization. Think of, say, what Lake Wobegon would be like after Somali refugees had a couple of generations to get themselves organized.

A major problem that Republicans face in the 21st Century is a lack of much of a Brain Trust to think about these underlying questions in a cool-headed fashion. Instead, much of this analysis is carried out by people like, say, Karl Rove, who rose up the ladder of influence as PR men, as spinners. They are used to coming up with rationalizations for existing interests rather than in thinking about fundamentals and how to rearrange them.

For example, is there a single Republic operative within the Beltway who ever thinks about how the current racial/ethnic categories used by the federal government in dispensing goodies drives political behavior and how those categories could be altered for the long-run benefit of the GOP?