Nationality, Ethnicity, Race, Culture, and the Importance of Citizenship for the Individual

Judging by some of the fruitful dialogues that have gone on here in the distant past and just the other day, I’d say that there is still a lot of work to do regarding a few concepts that seem to have meaning to them but are not really well-defined or well-understood.

I am writing about nationality, ethnicity, race, and culture, of course.

Dr Stocker and myself have taken aim at nationality before, and Michelangelo has taken aim at ethnicity while Jacques has taken a few cracks at race and ethnicity. Mike has some notes on ethnic identity as well. Culture has been discussed here at NOL before, but an effort to systematically define it has not been undertaken. (Update 12/8/14: Matthew has also taken a crack at ethnicity.)

The problem of these concepts can best be illustrated with a hypothetical (with apologies to Matthew!): There is a tribe in the state of Kenya known as the Maasai. In Kenya the Maasai are more than a tribe, though. The Maasai are considered by both the Maasai themselves and their neighbors to be an ethnic group. The Maasai and their neighbors within Kenya also consider themselves to be Kenyans. The Maasai have a distinct culture that sets them apart in some way from other ethnic groups in Kenya. Most Kenyans, including the Maasai, consider themselves to be racially black.

Now suppose that a single Maasai man from Kenya goes to Syria, or Belgium, or Canada, or China for a vacation. The Maasai man is suddenly no longer Maasai, for all intents and purposes. He still has a nationality, and an ethnic, a cultural, and a racial component to him, though. The Maasai man’s ethnicity suddenly becomes Kenyan rather than Maasai abroad. So, too, does his culture become Kenyan or simply African. He is still black racially. Notice, though, that these concepts mean different things in different contexts.

Suppose further that our Maasai man goes to Ghana for a vacation. Ghana is in west Africa, whereas Kenya is on the east coast. Africa is huge, and the gulfs between societies on the west coast and east coast of sub-Saharan Africa are cavernous. Nevertheless, our Maasai man is likely to be able to identify ethnically as a Maasai in Ghana. He is likely to be able to identify as part of the Kenyan nation. Culturally, though, our Maasai man is also going to be identified as Kenyan rather than Maasai.

Confused? Yeah, me too.

Here is another way to confuse you. The Ashanti people of Ghana are considered by others in the region to be a nation, but not an ethnic group. The Ashanti belong, instead, to a pan-regional group of people known as the Akan, and the Akan are considered to be the ethnic group while the smaller Ashanti group is considered to be a nation. This, of course, comes into conflict with what it means to be a Ghanaian. In Europe or Asia or the New World, a member of the Ashanti nation would be considered instead as a member of the Ghanaian nation.

In sub-Saharan Africa everybody who is not black is white. So Persians, Arabs, Eskimos, Armenians, Koreans, Japanese, French, English, Dutch, and Brahmins are all racially white to Africans. Africans base their distinctions between whites on their different behavioral patterns. So a Sudanese man may be working with two groups of white people but he only distinguishes them (suppose one is Chinese and one is English) by how they behave toward each other, toward him and his associates, and in relation to the rules of the game established in Sudan. Race is the most prominent feature of foreigners in Africa, but curiosity about differences between whites abounds.

The combinations for confusion are endless. I have not even broached the topic of what is means to be ‘American’, for example.

This is where the importance of viewing the world as made up of individuals comes into play. This is where the abstract legal notion of individual rights becomes an important component of good governance and internationalism.

I think we could all agree that is does no good to ignore these confusing identities and attempting instead to cram them into a specific framework (“Western individualism”). This is where economists go wrong, but paradoxically it’s also where they are most right.

As I noted a couple of days ago, economics as a discipline tends to be more hierarchical but also more successful than the other social science disciplines. I didn’t have enough space to note there that this hierarchy is limited to a very small segment of society. Is it at all possible to establish a hierarchy of sorts, a unified code of laws that protects the individual but prevent this hierarchy of last resort from becoming the norm in other ways? A hierarchy that leaves plenty of space for independent networks and fragmented communities of choice?

I don’t even know how these question tie in to my title. I simply know that they do. Somehow.

5 thoughts on “Nationality, Ethnicity, Race, Culture, and the Importance of Citizenship for the Individual

  1. Hmm. Do you suppose individuals label themselves for the sake of lowering transaction costs when dealing outside their immediate social circles?

    For example, outside California but inside the US, I emphasize being an Angeleno or Californian. It’s too costly to establish myself as an individual to someone I’m only going to interact with for a few hours, but as a ‘Californian’ I can borrow on the collective reputation of California’s residents.

    Labels are added or dropped as it becomes efficient to do so. Los Angeles is a global city, so its rare to meet someone who doesn’t know about it. If I were from, say, Fresno though I would more quickly label myself as a Californian or American. Both of these labels carry greater weight in the global level than Fresonian (?).

    Labels get dropped as we interact with an individual through repeated times and we can establish ourselves as individuals. This is why inter-group conflict decreases at the micro level. e.g. Pakistanis and Indians might hate one another at the aggregate, but two individuals of Pakistani/Indian origin meet up regularly they’ll establish themselves as individuals and won’t necessarily be in conflict.

    The more I think about it, the more I think economics needs to find a systemic way of thinking about nations/ethnicities/cultures. I’ve often found individuals (and to a good degree I fall prey to this) who believe that these labels are irrational and simply cause unneeded conflict. That can’t be though, can it? Surely there must be a rational reason to explain why social groups exist, are created, and cease to exist.

    • Do you suppose individuals label themselves for the sake of lowering transaction costs when dealing outside their immediate social circles?

      Oh absolutely, but the tricky part is asking whether or not the labels they give to themselves actually lower transaction costs. For example, a 2012 paper by four economists titled “Borders, Ethnicity, and Trade” (pdf) argues that the ethnic “borders” within a country have transaction costs that are almost as high as cross-border transaction costs.

      To me this suggests that there should be more states in Africa, but also that there should be some kind of universal standard that individuals and organizations can use to navigate through barriers like ethnicity or culture without destroying them.

      I can’t put my finger on it though.

    • They certainly lower costs within the social group, which is partly why I argue in favor of a ‘Libertario’ ethnicity.

      One possible solution might be the rise of trans-border social groups. As I noted in my past article on the issue, few social groups have a basis in reality. If I’m correct that means that ethnic, and other social, groups rise and fall in relation to their usefulness. In an increasingly global world people might prefer to emphasize their membership in a larger transborder group. Such groups need not necessarily be perfect substitutes for more traditional social groups, and could complement existing social groups.

      I’m just throwing ideas out there to see if they might lead anywhere. I encourage others to offer counter arguments.

    • An interesting perspective, Gabriel, thanks for sharing.

      My guess is that you can tell the differences between a Chinese citizen and an Englishman because you represent the elite of Sudanese society. You have access to the internet, you can read and write in English, and – to top it all off – you read pop-scholarly blogs like NOL. Just curious: Do you still live in Sudan?

      I am very comfortable in claiming that the vast majority of Sudanese (to use your example) just see white people when they look at non-black non-Africans. Provincial Sudanese probably perceive other black-skinned peoples – in Africa, India, and Melanesia – in the same manner that a provincial Italian perceives an Arab, a Korean, or a Swede: he can easily see slight differences in appearance, but cannot easily tell the slight differences in appearance of black peoples (“They’re all black, so what’s to see?”). I realize this is speculation but I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is.

      There just are not a lot of studies on this. One reason for the lack of studies may be that such a topic is too politically sensitive to be able to get grant money. A broader point to make here is that non-elites learn to tell differences in “white” or “black” people by observing their behavior over time, which show how culture trumps biology.

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