How Ethnic Identities Change

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This chapter uses the distinction between attributes and categories to synthesize several variants of constructivism in a common framework. "Constructivists" disagree on key questions such as the speed and frequency of ethnic identity change. One set of constructivist arguments suggest that ethnic identity change takes the form of a "punctuated equilibrium" with rare moments of change followed by long stretches of stability. Others argue that ethnic identities are in a state of permanent instability. Resolving these disagreements is important, since each leads us in distinct theoretical directions. The distinction between "attributes" and "categories" of membership provides the basis for a resolution. Those variants of constructivism which imply that ethnic identities change slowly and rarely can be read as referring to changes in the underlying repertoire of descent-based attributes. Those variants which suggest that ethnic identities change frequently and quickly usually refer to the categories which can be activated from within the constraints set by our descent-based attributes. These different positions are not contradictory but refer to different components of a common process of change. The chapter builds on this synthesis to introduce a set of general, logically consistent, mechanisms by which ethnic identities change in the short and long term.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationConstructivist Theories of Ethnic Politics
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Electronic)9780199980079
ISBN (Print)9780199893157
StatePublished - Jan 24 2013


  • Category
  • Census
  • Constructivism
  • Hybridity
  • Institutions
  • Modernization
  • Passing
  • Primordialism
  • Reclassification
  • Violence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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