Other recent research: Nation-state formation | Ethnic exclusion and wars | Boundaries in social networks

Ethnic boundary making: A processual theory

Primordialist and constructivist authors have debated the nature of ethnicity for decades but failed to explain why its characteristics vary so dramatically across cases, displaying different degrees of social closure, political salience, cultural distinctiveness, and historical stability. A series of papers aims to address this question by developing a comparative model of ethnic boundary making that would be able to explain such divergent outcomes. The first article prepares the ground for a comparative model by outlining a taxonomy of strategies of ethnic boundary-making: the different ways in which individual and corporate actors may try to shift boundaries to exclude or include new individuals and groups, invert or stabilize ethnic hierarchies, seal a boundary against assimilation and crossing by ethnic others, or to the contrary blur a boundary and reduce its salience. The article reviews a wide range of empirical literature on contemporary and historical cases from across the globe. It has been published by Ethnic and Racial Studies.

A second paper introduces a processual, multi-level theory of boundary making, based on the review of the comparative literature of the past three decades. The theory assumes that ethnic boundaries are the outcome of the classificatory struggles and negotiations between actors situated in a social field. Three characteristics of this field—the institutional order, distribution of power, and political networks— determine which actors will adopt which of the above strategies of ethnic boundary making. The model then specifies the conditions under which a shared understanding of the location and meaning of these boundaries will emerge from these ongoing negotiations. The nature of this consensus explains the particular characteristics of an ethnic boundary. A final section identifies endogenous and exogenous mechanisms of change. This paper has appeared in the February 2008 issue of American Journal of Sociology. It has won the 2009 best article prize of the Theory Section of the American Sociological Association and received a honorable mention for the Clifford Geertz Award for Best Article from ASA's cultural sociology section of the same year.

A third paper invites scholars of immigration to think of ethnicity as the variable outcome of a boundary making process instead of taking for granted that dividing society into ethnic groups is analytically and empirically meaningful because each of these groups is characterized by a specific culture, dense networks of solidarity, and shared identity. A critique of existing approaches (including assimilation theories, multiculturalism and ethnic studies) prepares the ground for suggestions on how to bring the boundary making paradigm to fruition. First, major mechanisms and factors influencing the dynamics of ethnic boundaries in labor markets making are specified (drawing on the AJS article) and the need to disentangle them from non-ethnic processes emphasized. I then discuss a series of promising research designs, most based on non-ethnic units of observation and analysis, which allow for a better understanding of these mechanisms and factors. A short version has appeared in spring 2008 in the Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie in German, while the full English version has appeared in Sociological Theory.

The fourth paper, co-authored with graduate student Thomas Soehl, uses the boundary making approach to show that cultural difference is the consequence of social closure along ethnic lines, rather than a given feature of ethnic diversity per se. We use the European Social Survey conducted in 24 countries and code new variables for 380 ethnic communities. With the help of multi-level statistical models and controlling for a range of other factors, we find that ethnic group level differences account for only a small portion of variance in the cultural values held by Europeans. These group differences are associated with political exclusion rather than linguistic or religious distance between majorities and minorities. More specific analysis of immigrant groups reveals that exclusion produces new value orientations, rather than maintaining home-country value patterns through a blocked assimilation mechanism. This paper is currently under review.