Article from ROAPE Volume 19 Number 52
Linking the Future to the Past: Ethnicity & Pluralism

Linking the Future to the Past: Ethnicity and Pluralism
Vol.19 No.52 (November 1991), pp53-65
The Concept of ethnicity has a long and controversial history. As political ‘liberalisation’ transforms contemporary African states and their relationship with ‘civil society’ , questions of ethnicity have new urgency and relevance, although some of the ‘questions’ being asked - such as ‘will there be a resurgence of tribalism’ - themselves require analysis. Ethnicity, as a distinctive set of beliefs and practices, does not explain anything; it needs to be explained. It does not exist independently but derives its significance from the complex social reality from which it emerges. A consideration of ethnicity in its social and historical context obliges us to recognise both the relevance of cultural forms, and their trivialisation hitherto, in political theory and practice. Doornbos considers the various social structures and dynamics - both actual and potential - that are likely to encourage, or discourage, ethnic politics in contemporary Africa. A key question now is to what extent ethnicity may provide a basis for future, relevant autonomous socio-political organisation and alternative development strategies. Ethnic identity and ethnic politics are malleable and multivalent. Doornbos contrasts ‘liberation ethnicity’ with fundamentalist or ‘chauvinist’ ethnicity but warns that such distinctions are problematic, given the fluidity of ethnicity. As with nationalism, what may emerge as populist, progressive forces may come to represent narrow, conservative tendencies. Ethnicity provides an attractive but arguably unsafe foundation for progressive politics. Discusses: Ethnicity: the Resilient Paradigm; Current Questions; Problems with Conceptualisation's; The Specificity of the African Case; Ethnicity && the Politics of Pluralism; The Future of Ethnicity; Conclusion.