Ethnic Norms and Their Transformation through Reputational Cascades

Timur Kuran

Ethnic norms are the behavioral codes that individuals must follow to retain the acceptance of their ethnic groups. They are sustained partly by sanctions that individuals impose on each other in trying to establish personally advantageous ethnic credentials. This essay analyzes the process of "ethnification" through which a society's ethnic norms become more demanding. The key to the argument lies in interdependencies among individual behaviors. These interdependencies allow changes in one person's choices to trigger vast numbers of additional adjustments through a reputational cascade—a self-reinforcing process by which people concerned about their reputations induce each other to step up their ethnically symbolic activities. According to the analysis, a society exhibiting low ethnic activity generates social forces tending to preserve that condition; but if these forces are somehow overcome, the result may be massive ethnification. One implication is that societies only slightly different in terms of age distribution, economic development, or culture may vary greatly in terms of aggregate ethnic activity. Another is that ethnically based fears and hatreds constitute by-products of ethnification rather than its fundamental source.

Journal of Legal Studies, 27 (Summer 1998, pt. 2): 623-659.