Ethnic Dissimilation and Its International Diffusion

Timur Kuran

When many countries undergo ethinic dissimilation simultaneously, the reason could be that factors common to all have heightened the significance of ethnicity through mutually independent mechanisms. Without denying the significance of factors operating independently on each of many states, this paper presents a mechanism that captures the interdependencies among ethnic dissimilation processes. These interdependencies build on interpersonal behavioral linkages within the individual countries. In the overall argument, therefore, interdependencies exist at two levels: among individual choices and among national patterns.

The argument unfolds in stages. Concentrating first on a single ethnically heterogeneous state, the paper demonstrates how individuals who had appeared indifferent toward ethnicity may, through reactions and counter-reactions, bring about ethnic dissimilation. The crux of the reasoning is that people's ethnically meaningful behaviors shape the perceptions and incentives that drive the choices of others. Specifically, such behaviors pressure others into making frequent displays of their ethnicity, and they also raise the perceived advantages of ethnic solidarity. The consequent interdependencies may create multiple social equilibria. These equilibria may involve radically different amounts of aggregate ethnic activity, defined as the sum of the ethnically meaningful behaviors generated by the country as a whole.

The second segment of the argument recognizes that motives to perform ethnically meaningful behaviors are determined partly by the ethnic activities of other states. Ethnic strife within one state sensitizes people elsewhere to their own ethnic particularities, possibly raising their expectations of ethnic conflict at home. Accordingly, international interdependencies can give certain countries disproportionate global significance. Under the right circumstances, in fact, a bandwagon that produces ethnic dissimilation within one country might touch off a superbandwagon that heightens the role of ethnicity in successive others. The argument accommodates the existence of conditions that accord ethnic relations within a particular country some immunity to ethnic dissimilation elsewhere; it is consistent with a persistent state of low ethnic activity. Moreover, states may influence one another asymmetrically. Because of the enormous influence of Americal culture, policies aimed at helping American ethnic minorities are likely to have an especially great impact on ethnic relations elsewhere.

In The International Spread of Ethnic Conflict: Fear, Diffusion, and Escalation, ed. David A. Lake and Donald Rothchild (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998): 35-60.