Nation Building: Why Some Countries Come Together While Others Fall Apart

Nation Building: Why Some Countries Come Together While Others Fall Apart

by Andreas Wimmer

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A new and comprehensive look at the reasons behind successful or failed nation building

Nation Building presents bold new answers to an age-old question. Why is national integration achieved in some diverse countries, while others are destabilized by political inequality between ethnic groups, contentious politics, or even separatism and ethnic war? Traversing centuries and continents from early nineteenth-century Europe and Asia to Africa from the turn of the twenty-first century to today, Andreas Wimmer delves into the slow-moving forces that encourage political alliances to stretch across ethnic divides and build national unity.

Using datasets that cover the entire world and three pairs of case studies, Wimmer’s theory of nation building focuses on slow-moving, generational processes: the spread of civil society organizations, linguistic assimilation, and the states’ capacity to provide public goods. Wimmer contrasts Switzerland and Belgium to demonstrate how the early development of voluntary organizations enhanced nation building; he examines Botswana and Somalia to illustrate how providing public goods can bring diverse political constituencies together; and he shows that the differences between China and Russia indicate how a shared linguistic space may help build political alliances across ethnic boundaries.

Wimmer then reveals, based on the statistical analysis of large-scale datasets, that these mechanisms are at work around the world and explain nation building better than competing arguments such as democratic governance or colonial legacies. He also shows that when political alliances crosscut ethnic divides and when most ethnic communities are represented at the highest levels of government, the general populace will identify with the nation and its symbols, further deepening national political integration.

Offering a long-term historical perspective and global outlook, Nation Building sheds important new light on the challenges of political integration in diverse countries.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691202945
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 04/28/2020
Series: Princeton Studies in Global and Comparative Sociology , #3
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 376
Sales rank: 751,736
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Andreas Wimmer is the Lieber Professor of Sociology and Political Philosophy at Columbia University. His books include Waves of War and Ethnic Boundary Making.

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A Relational Theory and Nested Methods

Defining Nation Building

As with most other concepts in the social sciences, there is no consensus about the definition of "nation building." Most scholars agree, however, that nation building entails national identification: citizens begin to see themselves as members of a national community and feel loyal to conationals, above and beyond their attachment to an ethnic group, a tribe, a village community, or a religion. But here the consensus ends.

One strand of thinking emerged from Stein Rokkan's influential work (see Flora et al. 1999). In this view, democracy and the welfare state are important tools, but also important consequences, of nation building. This broad understanding can still be found today, for example, among American foreign policymakers who focus on the democratization aspect (Dobbins 2003–2004; Fukuyama 2004) or among political economists who highlight the education, welfare, and infrastructure policies that support nation building (Miguel 2004).

Another strand of thinking sees nation building as a matter of power relations between citizens and the state. This is the perspective I assume in this book. It emerged first in the writings of Reinhard Bendix, for whom "the central fact of nation-building is the orderly exercise of a nationwide, public authority. ... Some subordination of private to public interests and private to public decision," he continues, "is therefore sine qua non of a political community. Implicitly more often than explicitly, the members of a political community consent to that subordination in an exchange for certain public rights" (1964: 18–19) — hence the title of his often cited book, Nation-Building andCitizenship. René Lemarchand pursued this exchange theoretic argument more explicitly. He suggested

new perspectives from which to look at processes of nation-building in Africa: Viewed from the micropolitical perspective of traditional patterns of interaction among groups and individuals, nation-building becomes not so much an architectonic, voluntaristic model divorced from the environmental materials available; it becomes, rather, a matter of how best to extend to the national level the discrete vertical solidarities in existence at the local or regional levels. (1972: 68)

Similar to this book, in other words, Lemarchand understood nation building as a process of political inclusion through establishing encompassing exchange relationships between the state and its citizenry. National identification, in turn, will follow from such relationships as citizens will no longer define themselves primarily as members of a guild, a city, a village, a tribe, or an ethnic group and more as members of the imagined community of the nation, to cite Anderson's (1991) proverbial formula.

On both sides of the coin of nation building — political integration and identification — countries differ considerably from each other. In some places such as France, individuals have ceased paying much attention to their regional, local, guild, or ethnic identities and think of themselves primarily as nationals. Belgians, by contrast, think of themselves foremost as Walloons or Flemish, rather than Belgian. The same goes for the political integration aspect of nation building, as Figure 1.2 will illustrate. In some countries, large ethnic groups remain outside the alliance and support networks stretching from the seats of government down to the villages of the hinterland. In Syria, the Assad clan and their fellow Alawi have held a firm grip on all high-level government and military positions over the past several decades. Alawi are also dramatically overrepresented in lower-level government positions compared to Sunni or Kurds (Mazur 2015). In other societies, more inclusive configurations of power have emerged and most citizens are integrated into the web of alliances and support centered on the national government. Examples include Switzerland, Malaysia, and Burkina Faso — all ethnically heterogeneous countries.

To illustrate, Figure 1.1 shows an inclusionary and an exclusionary configuration of power. Nodes represent political actors (organizations or individuals), lines describe exchange relationships, and actors higher up in the graph wield more political power, with those at the top representing national government. Two clarifications follow from that. First, the same ethnic demographics characterize both countries represented in Figure 1.1: they are composed of an ethnic majority (the gray dots) and a minority (the white dots). This illustrates that ethnic diversity and ethnic inclusion are different concepts. Figure 1.2 shows, with data that will be more fully explained and explored in subsequent chapters, that they also need to be distinguished from each other empirically. The y-axis reports the population share of the ethnic communities not represented at central-level government. It is a rough measurement of the extent to which nation building has succeeded (when the share is low) or failed (if it is high). The x-axis represents the ethnic diversity of a country — measured as the likelihood that two randomly chosen individuals share the same ethnic background: 1 in perfectly homogeneous countries and 0 if every individual belongs to a different ethnic group. As is clear from the figure, nation building and ethnic diversity might be related to each other — as will be argued in detail — but they are conceptually distinct.

Second, political inclusion and nation building also need to be distinguished from democratization, in contrast, for example, to Dobbins (2003–2004) and much of the policymaking literature. Access to state power can also be organized, for example, through ethnic patronage networks within a one-party regime (as in Burkina Faso; Rothchild 1986). Fully democratic countries can be exclusionary (e.g., the United States until the civil rights reforms) and very undemocratic countries more inclusive (such as the Ivory Coast during the presidency of Houphouët-Boigny; see Rothchild 1986). This is shown in Figure 1.3, where the x-axis now depicts the degree to which the state is governed as a democracy. The scale ranges from -10 for total autocracies to +10 for perfect democracies. Countries that are equally democratic (or undemocratic) may have succeeded at nation building to very different degrees, as the figure illustrates. I will empirically analyze the possible relationship between democracy and nation building inChapter 5. Here, I want to make the much simpler point that nation building and democratization need to be treated as distinct phenomena.


How do we explain why societies differ so substantially in the degree to which they have politically integrated a diverse population and in how far that population identifies with the nation? Many political scientists (e.g., Diamond [1995]) believe that democracy or particular democratic institutions, most famously proportional representation and parliamentarianism (Lijphart 1977), offer incentives for politicians to build large, multiethnic coalitions to win elections. Overall, this should lead to a more diverse governing elite that includes representatives of minorities as well. Others have pointed at the legacy of colonialism: colonial governments often recruited, as part of their divide-and-rule strategy, members of ethnic minorities into the bureaucracy, police force, or army. Examples are the Tutsi in Rwanda and the Tamils in Ceylon (Horowitz 1985: chaps. 11–13). These minorities then dominate postcolonial government as well, thus leading to starkly unequal configurations of ethnopolitical power (Chandra and Wilkinson 2008).

Other scholars think that globalization plays an important role. International organizations such as the UN, globally operating advocacy groups such as Survival International, and supranational bodies such as the European Union have set new standards for how to give minorities a political voice (Kymlicka 2007). Governments more exposed to this new global regime come under pressure to reform their house, grant minority representation in parliaments, reserve seats in cabinets for underrepresented populations, and so on. Exposure to the global minority rights regime should over time lead to more equitable representation and to a more inclusionary configuration of power.

Still other authors have looked at the calculations of government leaders who are interested in their own political survival. If they have good reason to fear that a coalition partner will drive them from the seats of power in a future coup or by calling elections, they may choose to preemptively push their competitors out of government. Exclusion thus emerges in environments where commitment problems within coalitions of ruling elites are endemic (see Roessler 2011; for other elite bargaining arguments, see Slater 2010; North et al. 2009; Acemoglu and Robinson 2006).

With the exception of the colonial legacy approach, these various theories all highlight relatively short-term factors and processes. Autocracies can be transformed into democracies, democracies overthrown in coups. Proportional rules of electing a parliament can replace majoritarian ones or the other way around. Elite bargains come and go. Countries might embrace a global minority rights discourse or, when a new government comes to power, reject it. The globally hegemonic culture itself changes as well, as the recent abandonment of multiculturalism and the rise of neo-assimilationism show (Brubaker 2002; see also Loveman 2015a).

By contrast, this book argues that long-term, slower-moving processes of political development are crucial for explaining ethnopolitical inclusion and national identification. Adopting a relational perspective, it focuses on the conditions under which alliance and support relationships between state elites and citizens are more likely to stretch across a country's entire territory — and thus across ethnic divides. These far-reaching alliances, once institutionalized and taken for granted, will encourage individuals to identify primarily as members of the national community, and nationalist frames of thinking and feeling will sink into popular consciousness. The following pages explain how.

Nation Building and Political Development

I first lay the theoretical foundations of the argument, relying on exchange theoretic principles (cf. Blau 1986 [1964]). We can distinguish three basic and irreducible aspects of an exchange relationship between the state and the citizenry. The political economy aspect refers to the resources that they trade. The organizational aspect describes whether and how their relationship is institutionalized. The exchange of meaning and information between them represents the communication aspect. For each aspect, we can formulate a hypothesis that specifies the conditions under which we expect exchange relationships to cross ethnic divides, thus leading to nation building in the aggregate.

Public Goods Provision. Representatives of national government offer public goods and influence over political decisions, while nonelite individuals and organizations in return can politically support a government (including through voting), offer military services (such as in systems of universal conscription), and lessen their resistance to being taxed. If states are capable to provide public goods, ruling elites represent more attractive exchange partners. More and more nonelite individuals and organizations (from whatever ethnic background) will want to establish ties with state elites, offering military, political, and fiscal support. In other words, nation building is easier in states capable of providing public goods (for a formal model of these exchange relationships, see Kroneberg and Wimmer 2012; for a related analysis, see Levi 1988).

Conversely, the rulers of less capable states will have to limit the circle of citizens whom they can provide with public goods — not every village can get a primary school if the ministry of education lacks the resources to pay teachers. Since in modern nation-states governing elites are supposed to care for "their own people," they will privilege individuals and communities of their own ethnic background. Public goods then become ethnic pork (cf. Fearon 1999; or "excludable club goods" in the terminology of Congleton 1995). Alliance networks will compartmentalize along ethnic divides, and parts of the population will remain disconnected from the exchange networks centered on governing elites.

Other explanations for the association between ethnicity and patronage have been proposed. Fearon (1999) maintains that ethnic markers are more "sticky" than signs of class membership — the color of one's skin or the language one speaks fluently can't be changed as easily as one's dress or car. This allows coalition builders to prevent too many individuals from joining a patronage network and diluting its benefits. Thus patrons and clients rationally choose to build their relationship on an ethnic basis. Similarly, Chandra (2004) has argued that the ethnic background of individuals is more readily discernible from facial features, last names, or modes of speech compared to other types of social categories such as region, profession, or class. This enables voters to form a clientelist alliance when information on politicians' future behavior is limited and a vote based on a political program is therefore problematic.

Both arguments are plausible but cannot easily be generalized. To begin with, many systems of ethnic classification have a segmentally nested structure (a Hmong is a Vietnamese, is an Asian American, is an American; cf. Wimmer 2008; see Figure D.1). This is especially the case in Africa (Scarritt and Mozaffar 1999) where patronage politics is widespread (Bratton and van de Walle 1994). Under these circumstances, ethnicity cannot offer firm boundaries to limit a patronage coalition. Furthermore, in many contexts ethnic membership is not easily read off the faces or the names of politicians, and many ethnic patronage systems are not based on voting (see Rothchild 1986).

Voluntary Organizations. The organizational aspect concerns the different channels through which resources are exchanged. They can be of an informal nature (such as in patronage networks) or formalized into relationships between organizations (such as in coalitions between parties). Exchange relationships are more likely to cut across ethnic divides if they are built on networks of voluntary associations — clubs, trade unions, party youth organizations, choral societies, and so on. Ethnicity will be less politicized and governing elites more diverse. Why should this be the case?

Associational networks contain many horizontal "co-ordination" positions (Hillmann 2008) and many closed triangles (Baldassari and Diani 2007), as illustrated in Figure 1.1. Patronage structures, by contrast, are built on vertical brokerage structures (Gould and Fernandez 1989) and open triangles (the locus classicus is Scott 1972): clients connect with their respective patron, not with each other. Political alliances tend to spread horizontally across an ethnic divide when there are many voluntary organizations because it is easy to link coordinators of different ethnic backgrounds with each other. Conversely, patronage relationships spread from the bottom to the top, rather than connecting individuals of the same political standing. They therefore often form along rather than bridge ethnic divisions, making nation building more difficult.

This represents, quite obviously, a tendency rather than a law. In some cases, other organizational channels are used to build ties across ethnic divides. In Senegal, the religious leaders of Muslim Sufi orders (the marabout) established local patronage networks long before independence. These offered a grid of alliances that transcended the major ethnic divides of the country. The main parties of postindependence Senegal relied upon these grids to mobilize voters and form multiethnic coalitions (Koter 2013). In other cases, clientelism bridges, rather than reinforces, ethnic boundaries. In India, party clientelism sometimes trumps ethnic favoritism and leads to encompassing, transethnic networks of political alliances even though ethnic quota systems provide strong incentives to mobilize followers among particular ethnic constituencies (Dunning and Nilekani 2013; more generally, see Scott 1972).


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Table of Contents

List of Figures ix

List of Tables xi

A Note to the Reader on the Online Appendix xv

Preface xvii

Acknowledgments xxi

Introduction 1

1 A Relational Theory and Nested Methods 23

2 Voluntary Organizations: Switzerland versus Belgium 45

3 Public Goods: Botswana versus Somalia 69

4 Communicative Integration: China versus Russia 113

5 Political Integration: Evidence from Countries around the World 171

6 Identifying with the Nation: Evidence from a Global Survey 209

7 Is Diversity Detrimental? 229

8 Policy Implications with Some Lessons Learned from Afghanistan 249

Appendix A Supplement to Chapter 1 (Online) 267

Appendix B Supplement to Chapter 4 269

Appendix C Supplement to Chapter 5 271

Appendix D Supplement to Chapter 6 285

Appendix E Supplement to Chapter 7 297

Appendix F Supplement to Chapter 8 305

Notes 307

References 319

Index 337

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Nation Building examines a specific puzzle concerning ethnic membership during the making of nationhood. Why, in some countries, do ethno-political hierarchies in play during the making of nationhood wind up having long lives, while in other countries the process of nation building becomes an occasion for dissolving such differences? Wimmer brings great depth to his analysis and makes this book a major contribution to the subject."—Saskia Sassen, author of Expulsions

"Gargantuan question, gigantic scope, rigorous design, fluid writing: vintage Wimmer, which would make Weber proud!"—Loïc Wacquant, University of California, Berkeley

"This fluent and powerful book demonstrates at the deepest level that early state formation rests on ethnic and linguistic homogenization—and this, together with the presence of civil society alliances that crosscut a territory, allows for successful nation building. Wimmer is a great sociologist at the top of his profession, producing a work of immense sophistication that exhibits all his gifts."—John A. Hall, McGill University

"Wimmer stands among the most solid and convincing of macrocomparative researchers, and he is as close to the ideal of an impartial social scientist as one can find. His theories of nation building are a revelation."—Randall Collins, University of Pennsylvania

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