Andreas Wimmer

American Journal of Sociology, January 2008


Primordialist and constructivist authors have debated the nature of ethnicity “as such” and therefore failed to explain why its characteristics vary so dramatically across cases, displaying different degrees of social closure, political salience, cultural distinctiveness, and historical stability. The author introduces a multilevel process theory to understand how these characteristics are generated and transformed over time. 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 a field—the institutional order, distribution of power, and political networks— determine which actors will adopt which strategy of ethnic boundary making. The author then discusses the conditions under which these negotiations will lead to a shared understanding of the location and meaning of boundaries. The nature of this consensus explains the particular characteristics of an ethnic boundary. A final section identifies endogenous and exogenous mechanisms of change.

View the paper here: The Making and Unmaking of Ethnic Boundaries: A Multilevel Process Theory