Political Efficacy, Ethnicity and Political Action

Political efficacy is a feeling that one’s efforts and actions have impacted or can impact on politics or its processes. (Campbell, A., G. Gurin and W. E. Miller, 1954:187). The concept has been linked with studies examining voter turnout and other forms of participation (Finkel, 1985) . Political knowledge and experiences often result in different behaviors in political participation. Kensink and Stroud (2006) emphasize the significance of efficacy and its role in aligning democratic principles and norms in a political system. Efficacy is largely contextual and has its roots in behavioral psychology.

Although Bandura (2006) proposed collective efficacy as a new dimension of efficacy, most scholars see the construct political efficacy as a compound of two uncorrelated dimensions of internal and external efficacies (Balch, 1974).

Internal political efficacy involves an individual’s belief that one can positively influence the direction of policy outcomes or politics in a political system (Balch, 1974; Campbell, A.; G.Gurin and W.E Miller., 1954). It is based on self-assessment of one’s ability, knowledge and skills to impact change.

Recent researchers on the same subject have referred to the concept as “political-self efficacy (Caprara G. V., Vecchione M., Capanna C., and Mebane M. , 2009) but its operationalization has not changed. Internal political efficacy is a strong influence on individual choices in electoral politics. Pursuit of political endeavors is closely linked with knowledge about politics. Scholars argue that the likelihood of pursuing political endeavors like public offices or participation in political activities is higher when one feels that they can comprehend political discussions and also raise their opinion on issues of governance (Condon and Holleque, 2013; Schulz, Ainley, Fraillon, Kerr, and Losito, 2010; and Jung, Kim, & de Zúñiga, 2011).

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On the other hand, external efficacy captures the perceived responsiveness of a government by the citizens (Bandura, 2000). It measures an individual’s belief on whether the government of the day reflects his needs and concerns. Unlike internal efficacy that measures perception about one’s ability, external efficacy is an assessment of beliefs that individuals have expressed to an institution through a political process like voting or other form of participation. There is widespread consensus that the relationship between efficacy and participation in political processes goes beyond casting of votes (Bandura, 2006). Low external efficacy is highly associated with political apathy and low voter turnouts. Responsiveness of government should be considered significant because it’s the main tool that the populous can use to assess or demand for accountability from governments.

There are various schools of thought that have made significant contributions to the definition of the concept ethnicity. Key among them are primodialists and constructivists. Primodialists emphasize the static nature of the concept and cite ascription by birth as the fundamental basis of understanding it (Stack, 1986). From this approach, ethnicity is inherent and derives from a shared clan social-structure that is majorly distinguished by its linguistic uniqueness, culture among other things. Ethnicity is therefore an identity that is embedded and transferred through genealogy from one generation to another. Some scholars have alluded to shared blood links among members of an ethnic group.

On the other hand, constructivists posit that ethnicity is a socially constructed phenomenon. One of the proponents of this approach characterizes ethnicity as fluid in nature, dynamic, and even optional. The argument is that ethnicity becomes an anchoring identity constructed from religion, culture, language, appearances, over periods of time (Nagel, 1994). This approach seeks to disassociate genealogical traits as key determinants of ethnicity and instead define it as a legacy of history. Unlike the belief held by primodialists, ethnicity can be deconstructed.

Despite these theoretical differences, both constructivists and primodialists acknowledge the centrality and strength of ethnicity as a defining identity in a political system. Like race, class and religion, ethnicity has been cited as a major cause of conflicts across the globe. Recent events such as the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar (Moshe, 2018) and historical events like the Rwandan genocide or the Balkans war attest to the possible consequences of ethnicity becoming politically salient. In Africa, ethnic confrontations have recently been witnessed in South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and Burundi among others. Political issues such as succession disputes and skewed resource allocation or sharing rank among the key causes of ethnic tension and conflicts.

Previous analyses on political salience of ethnicity and political participation are anchored on several assumptions. One, that the most salient and constant determinant of social identity is ethnicity. Unlike European countries that exhibit a nation-state system of organization, African countries are not nation-states intrinsically. The citizens do not share common languages or culture although they may have some shared national values or history. Scholars adherent to the primodialist approach purport that the salience of ethnicity in human interactions such as politics is something inherent in human nature. This conservative narrative was first projected by Shils (1957) and later advanced by Barth (1969). From this approach, ethnicity becomes politically salient for various reasons; one, an ethnic group perpetuates itself in a fixed genealogy that prevents change in ethnic structures. Two, by nature, members of a group identify themselves and others as an in-group and identify others as ‘outgroups’. Three, members share and are bounded by values, communication and interactions that maintain the coherence of the group Barth (1969). The major problem with this theory is that the proponents assume that ethnic attachments are permanent and individuals have absolutely no choice. Over time, research work has revealed the dynamism and fluidity of ethnic identities (Habyarimana et al, 2009).

Secondly, there is the assumption that in political organization and in pursuit of collective action, individuals drift towards or coalesce around solidarities founded on ethnic relations. Such solidarities may be interest groups, social movements, political parties or similar organizations. Griffiths and Nesdale (2006) conducted a study rating preference of neighbors in Australia between Anglo-Australians, Aboriginals and Pacific Islanders. They find that the “us” versus “them” attitude developed by in-groups against out-groups tends to help aggregate ethnic interests, strengthen bonds and also maintain consistency of solidarities. The study showed each ethnic group preferred relations with ethnic neighbors to non-ethnics (Judith Griffiths and Drew Nesdale, 2006). Social networks tend to revolve around in-group connections. This line of thought has been largely pursued by constructivists.

Thirdly, that mobilization along ethnic lines often becomes a destabilizing factor that negates the gains of democratization. The rise of ethnic solidarities has been traced back to the 1960s. Parties and social movements founded along ethnic lines are responsible for skewed aggregation of interests. While members of an in-group might disagree on modalities of achieving goals and objectives, there is convergence of general interests in the group. Ethnic groups are critical building blocks of parties in most African states. (Horrowitz, 1985; Posner, 2005).

Building on the above assumptions and theoretical approaches, researchers have delved into inquiries on why ethnicity gains political salience. Empirical studies have yielded mixed findings. One of the major factors attributed to the rise of ethnicity as a key variable in political competition in Africa is conditions of austerity and poverty. The general observation is that African governments tax their citizens excessively and also cut budgets in a way that leaves the bulk of their citizenry impoverished. This argument is majorly advanced by modernization theorists who also share the same view with constructivists -that ethnicity is not a static identity and that change in environment can alter its salience. Their answer to the problem of ethnicity is modernity based on western ideals. They argue that capitalist market forces are bound to de-ethicize societies (Rostow, 1960; de Sousa et al, 2014). For Marxist theorists that emphasize the class concept, capitalism is the embodiment of ethnic divisions. They contend that ethnicity should wither in the face of a socialist revolution and the establishment of a classless society.

Modernization theorists think that the emergence of a homogeneous modern state at the height of material accumulation should eliminate ethnic affinities. There are glaring problems with this narrative. In Europe, modernity and material civilization did not eliminate ethnic affinities or pronouncement of ethnicity -although it’s not a polarizing factor. In 2017, field experiments were conducted in seven European countries in the finance sector. The researchers contacted 1,218 banks using local and Arab names asking for contact details. They report low responses to emails sent using Arab names compared to those sent with local names. Their conclusion informs that ethnic discrimination is still rampant in Europe (Stefan et al, 2018). Others have argued that modernization unleashed a form of capitalism without humanity that has instead exacerbated the problem of ethnicity.

Other than austerity and poverty, a group of researchers have advanced the argument on institutional policies and public goods distribution to account for the salience of ethnicity. This strand of research maintains that the politicization of ethnic cleavages in Africa emanates from the structures of post-independence political institutions. Notably, adherents of this theory sought to establish a new paradigm that wholly rejects the primodialist notion of a “fixed and permanent” attribute of ethnicity in human beings. Drawing from a cognitive approach, they purport that its institutions that amplify the differences and comparisons amongst groups and create an “us” versus “them” mentality.

Miguel (2004) investigated the processes of post-independence nation building in Kenya and Tanzania. Using an experiment, he examined how policies enacted in both countries impacted on cooperation of ethnic groups. He also examines distribution of public goods in both countries as an explanation of the effect of post-independence institutional policies. He reports that unlike Kenya, Tanzania’s institutional policies were oriented towards nation building and that the in-group and out group mentalities observed in Western Kenya were considered dishonorable and absolutely unacceptable in Tanzania. His report indicates that institutional policies in Tanzania facilitated the achievement of better local public goods outcomes in diverse communities than in Kenya (Miguel, 2004).

For decades, Miguel’s work has passed as the gospel truth irrespective of its obvious methodological flaws. To begin with, his experiment focused on a comparison of the distribution of desks among other public goods in public primary schools in Kenya’s Busia district bordering Meatu in Tanzania. In his argument, he does not consider factors like population size or density that determine distribution of public goods in Kenya. Neither does Miguel consider the magnitude of donor funding effect in Tanzania or Kenya. Most public schools in Tanzania thrived for long on donor funding. Thirdly, Miguel ignores the obvious migration between the two border districts. He did not provide evidence that the population in Busia had not risen and caused congestion in public schools or stress on public goods as a result of Tanzanian migrants flowing in through a known porous border from the economically disadvantaged district of Meatu in Tanzania.

The use of ethnolinguistic fractionalization (ELF) as a measure of diversity also raises concerns because it’s based on the assumption that children can only walk five kilometers to school. The population density and number of ethnic groups would have to be relatively close for the study to qualify as an experiment. His work can only pass as a mere descriptive study but the empirical results obtained do not clearly support his thesis. While we should acknowledge that skewed distribution of public goods and marginalization of groups may cause grievances that may lead to ethnic- based collective action, putting blame wholly on institutions is absolving individual actors from the negative consequences of their own choices and preferences.

Further, colonial history and legacy have been at the center of ethnic politicization debates. The argument is that ethnic stereotypes mostly created by British and French colonialists are to blame for the birth of ethnic politics. Elkins (2005) narrates how the pre-colonial ethnic balance and conscience (or lack of) was brought to life by the divide and rule policy that the British used in Kenya. Tribes were turned into administrative entities and the British used them to play each other through stereotypes. It is recorded that stereotypes created by the French in Rwanda played a key role in escalating the horrific genocide that occurred.

Taylor (2001) argues that the fabrication of propaganda in Rwanda followed along lines established during colonialism. Mamdani (2001) has gone to great lengths to illustrate how legal and political structures set up by colonialist entrenched identities. In Kenya, other communities like the Luo were turned against the Kikuyu using gifts and less oppressive measures. The Kikuyu had lost all their land to British settlers and were pushed to reserves and prisons. Land was their major source of livelihood. In the fight for Independence, it was the Kikuyu who formed the Mau Mau movement that would later force the British to exit the colony. In the immediate post-independence period, the Kikuyu took over power and formed the government and marginalized other communities in distribution of public service jobs and services.

While the above discourse on colonial history and legacy is to an extent credible and quit convincing, it does not explain why more than half a century later colonial stereotypes persist. With higher levels of education, lower economic hindrances, more political freedom and increased observance of human rights, stereotypes are no longer a viable reason for ethnic politicization. If anything, ethnicity in the immediate post-independence Kenya was used by the political class to escape accountability (Wanyande, P. Omosa, M. and Chweya, L., 2007). Besides, multi-partyism in Africa did expand the political space and enhance inclusivity. The role of colonial history and legacy and its effect on salience of ethnicity would be marginal if not insignificant.

The role of social networks created within ethnic groups has also drawn interest from scholars of ethnicity. Proponents of the social network perspective argue that diversity undermines cooperation. Habyarimana et al (2009) used laboratory games to examine how behavior of one person is shaped by the ethnicity of another person during interactions. The simulation games included one of money allocation as well as cooperation in completing assigned tasks. Two key results were obtained from the games. When individuals interacted anonymously, altruistic tendencies override preference of co-ethnics. With removal of anonymity, participants tended to favor co-ethnics in allocation of money and expected the co-ethnics to reciprocate.

While this experiment may show be used to conclude that co-ethnics tend to cooperate and favor each other, it does not explain how cooperation translates to salience of ethnicity in the real world. Dense ethnic based social networks are useful in a number of ways. One, mobilization along ethnic lines becomes easier. Individuals will pass on information to people in their network. Two, such networks facilitate the diffusion of political information targeted at particular segments of a population. In so doing, such networks form the basis of collective political action (Siegel, 2009). Networks may also be used to build influence as well as luring or eliciting interest in individuals to participate in political activities. It is clear that networks play a role in political mobilization. The question left unanswered is whether social networks cause politicization of ethnicity.

The most recent account for the salience of ethnicity in political judgements is that of language. This study marks a break from focus on institutions and other actors to the individual participant. The account does not concern itself with the emergence of ethnic divisions. Instead, the proposition put forth by its adherents is that speaking in a particular language will amplify ethnic cleavages and steer individuals to understand and explicate politics from an ethnic lens (Perez E. and Tavits M., 2018). The researchers used phone surveys in two studies conducted in Estonia. Bilingual participants were randomly assigned to be interviewed in either Estonian or Russian. The findings suggests that language makes ethnic divisions mentally visible and individuals tend to unconsciously incorporate ethnic considerations in responses or reactions about politics.

I find this last account agreeable because it is founded on a cognitive background which in a way takes into account the individual unlike previous studies that focused entirely on factors external to the individual. Secondly, taking such an approach gives the element of choice to the individual. As such, preferences and choices made by that individual are not attributed to external forces. In a similar manner, the proposed study draws from such a background to examine the effect mental constructions and beliefs about one self or government can have on ethnic judgements.

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Political Efficacy, Ethnicity and Political Action. (2022, May 11). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/political-efficacy-ethnicity-and-political-action/

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