Politics and ethnicity in Africa


Published 17.03.21
Photo credit:
UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran

The spread of export agriculture and print technologies across Africa transformed ethnicity via their effects on politicisation and boundary-making

Read "Cash Crops, Print Technologies and the Politicization of Ethnicity in Africa" by Yannick Pengl, Philip Roessler and Valeria Rueda here.

What are the origins of the ethnic landscapes in contemporary states? Valeria Rueda discusses her work with Yannick Pengl and Philip Roessler examining how two socioeconomic revolutions that spread across Africa from the 19th century onwards – export agriculture and print technologies – transformed ethnicity via their effects on politicisation and boundary-making. Print technologies strengthened imagined communities, leading to more salient – yet porous – ethnic identities. Cash crop endowments increased groups’ mobilisational potential, but with more exclusionary boundaries to control agricultural rents. Historical data on cash crops and African language publications reveal that groups exposed to these historical forces are more likely to be politically relevant after independence, and their members report stronger ethnic identities. The authors observe heterogenous effects on boundary-making as measured by inter-ethnic marriage; relative to cash crops, printing fostered greater openness to assimilate linguistically related outsiders. The findings shed light on the historical sources of ethnic politicisation and the mechanisms shaping boundary formation.

Editors' note: This interview first appeared on VoxEU.