The Politics Of Ethnicity And Social Class

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Empirical evidence however could not support classical sociological predictions that ethnic affiliation would ultimately obliterate with the forces of industrialization and urbanization. Quite to the contrary, ethnic solidarity in modern society is taking the place of class politics. It is evident from historical experience that the importance of ethnic solidarity has been growing in political action since the middle of the twentieth century while at the same time the organizing capacity of social class has been eroding (Hechter, 2004; Calhoun, 1993). In recent times the popularity of political parties appealing to ethnicity and ethnic solidarity has increased enormously all over the world. Many ethnic groups have been seen organizing themselves into political parties and striving to mobilize their people in the name of religion, language, or any other objective marker of ethnicity. The once powerful Soviet Union has split into over a dozen of ethnic states. With the disappearance of the strong socialist states in the countries of Eastern Europe, issues of minority problems have been flourishing with unprecedented force (Hechter, 2004, 1974). In Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, Ethiopia ventured into ethnic federalism on the demise of a socialist regime, the Sudan republic split into two ethnic based republics, Somalia’s socialist state ruptured into three de facto autonomous ethnic states. In general, the specter of ethnic politics has been haunting the world particularly since the early 1990s.

This paper, thus, contends that the political landscape in the contemporary world is characterized by a shift from class politics to ethnic politics; intends to explore classical and contemporary sociological perspectives on ethnic politics drawing particularly from functionalist, Marxist and Weberian perspectives. In so doing, the paper tries to address questions like: What do classical and contemporary sociologists have to say about ethnicity and social class? What is the relationship between ethnicity and class? Why does ethnicity become a more potent source of politics in the contemporary world? And, in what ways does capitalism instigate ethnic conflict?

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Trends in Ethnicity and Class Politics

Historical evidence suggests that during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries class politics was the major source of social conflict particularly in western countries. Indeed, the period saw a specter of socialist revolutions, as Karl Marx stated, defined by the irreconcilable struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat (Marx and Engels, 1969). Revolutionary socialist parties including the Russian Bolsheviks flourished and threatened the established social order through out the world. That specter of socialist revolution characterized by the antagonistic class struggle divided the world into two opposing camps: the socialist and the capitalist camps. Right until the late 1950s, social class has been a single major cause of social division and principle of party affiliation (Hechter, 1978).

Since the middle of the twentieth century, however, the political landscape has been transformed significantly. Trade unions and left-wing political parties have been declining and class politics has been losing currency. Even if many left wing parties continue to exist to date, they no longer promote a traditional working class ideology. Instead they tend to encourage private investment and promote capitalist development. Since the existing left wing parties tend to stand for different policies than they previously did, a vote for such a party means something different than it did previously. Marxism which used to provide sophisticated ideological justifications for class politics is mostly abandoned. Thus, there have been major shifts in political action away from issues of class interests and towards new appeals stressing on gender, environment and minority groups rights (Hechter, 2004).

The decline of class politics however has not resulted in the end of ideology or political conflict. Instead other forms of political conflict and party ideology have been gaining currency between social groups defined on the basis of ethnicity or cultural identity rather than economic positions. Ethnic politics came to mobilize individuals who have common interest in respecting and preserving cultural and symbolic specificity, attaching with them some degree of social honor (Hechter, 1978; Calhoun, 1993).

In the sphere of social interaction, the social boundary between classes has been fading. The social segregation that used to be high during early capitalism has been vanishing since 1950s. In most industrialized countries, class endogamy is practiced very rarely. Cross-sectional studies in the United States, for instance, reveal that there is no statistically significant relation between the class origins of husbands and wives. Similar studies also reveal that the proportion of interclass friendships is higher than interethnic friendships (Hechter, 2004).

On the contrary, marital statistics indicate that endogamy rates for different ethnic groups are significantly high the world over. In the United States, endogamy rates are 95%, 75%, 65%, and 25% among African Americans, Asian subgroups, Hispanic subgroups, and European subgroups respectively. Similar studies based on statistical estimation conclude that the most impermeable social networks in the industrial countries are race and ethnicity, but not class. Longitudinal studies also confirm that while class based endogamy shows a declining trend, ethnic based endogamy is mounting through time. In general, empirical evidence reveals that while class consciousness has been waning, ethnic consciousness is rising all over the world (Hechter, 2004: 412).

Similarly, political conflicts based on ethnicity have been growing steadily since the second half of the twentieth century. Although classical sociologists expected that the political significance of ethnicity would diminish with the advancement of modernity, empirical observation proves to the opposite. The contemporary world is characterized by the mushrooming of political movements that champion the interests of distinctive ethnic and racial groups. Contrary to the significance weight attached to class politics, non-economic issues have generally been important political agenda in recent years. The new political movements have arisen on the basis of social identities that are symbolic rather than economic (Eriksen, 1993). They focus on cultural issues that are associated with sentiments of belonging to a differentiated cultural rather than economic group. Cross-sectional studies in Britain confirm that people’s voting behavior is determined more by their ethnic origin than by their class background. Similarly longitudinal 


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