Conceptualizing Ethnicity as a Political Resource – across Disciplines, Regions, and Periods

International Conference               

Cologne, Germany, 2-4 April 2014

While much research has been conducted on the formation of ethnicity  and its impact on political mobilization in different parts of the world, the question of whether it is meaningful to speak of a unified single process has remained unresolved. Whether and how this question is addressed has potential consequences for the conceptualization of ethnicity and the closely related concept of race in pre-modern times and in pre-colonial settings around the globe, as well as for our understanding of contemporary claims to indigeneity across the world. At the same time, it shapes our understanding of contemporary formations of ethnic identities and their use in political negotiation processes.

In this conference, we attempt to conceptualize ethnicity as a political resource by addressing it from three interrelated angles: how it is viewed by scholars from different academic disciplines; the different forms it takes in various regions of the world; and how it can be investigated with specific reference to distinct historical periods. For this endeavor we have invited scholars from diverse disciplines and global regions to interact in three consecutive roundtable discussions, and to jointly develop a comprehensive approach to ethnicity as a political resource.

The poster for the conference can be found here.

You can download the program here.

April 2nd 2014 - Dozenten Café / Neuer Senatssaal

17:00-17:45   Presentation of the UoC Forum and Meet & Greet (Dozenten Café, for speakers only)
17:45-18:00   Registration
18:00-18:30   Welcome address (Neuer Senatssaal)
                         Michaela Pelican, Albert Manke (UoC Forum Ethnicity)

18:30-20:00   Public lecture: Toward a More Global Dialogue on Race and Ethnicity
                         Yasuko Takezawa
(Kyoto University, Japan)

April 3rd 2014 - Neuer Senatssaal

08:00-09:00   Registration

09:00-12:30   Roundtable A: Ethnicity as a political resource viewed by scholars from different academic disciplines

09:00-11:00   Presentations and Discussion
11:00-11:30   Coffee break
11:30-12:30   Discussion

Ethnicity as a political resource is a seminal subject in numerous disciplines. Studies on ethnic formation, indigeneity, autochthony, nationalism, social movements, and transnational mobility often approach these topics from a particular disciplinary point of view. While most researchers agree on the significance of research on ethnic identities and their use as a socio-political resource, the various scopes and disciplinary approaches to conceptualizing these phenomena have not yet been discussed within an interdisciplinary framework.

In this roundtable, we attempt to pinpoint these similarities and differences: Are we all talking about the same thing when we use specific terms? What are the underlying paradigms behind the concept of ethnicity and related notions in different disciplines? Similarly, we intend to highlight the distinct methodological approaches used in specific fields, and to discuss how we can most effectively conceptualize and compare various scales and scopes of research. This roundtable endeavours to start a cross-disciplinary dialogue – to identify gaps, compare results, and plan future orientations. 

Central Questions:

1. What are the main divergences and the main convergences in the study of ethnicity across disciplines?
2. How do you recognize ethnicity – in the field when observing, when transcribing interviews, when analyzing survey data, or when looking at written or other archival records?
3. If we did not have the concept of ethnicity, what other concept(s) could fill the gap? Are Indigeneity, autochtony, nationalism, and ethnicity competing or complementary approaches to understanding the same/different phenomena?

Christoph Antweiler
(University of Bonn, Germany)
Frederik Holst
(Humboldt University Berlin, Germany)
Carola Lentz
(Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany)
Thomas Widlok
(UoC Forum Ethnicity)
Lawrence Hirschfeld (The New School For Social Research N.Y., USA)
Clemens Kroneberg (University of Cologne, Germany)

Anja Becker (UoC Forum Ethnicity)

12:30-14:00   Lunch

14:00-17:30   Roundtable B: Ethnicity as a political resource in different regions of the world 

14:00-16:00   Presentations and Discussion
16:00-16:30   Coffee break
16:30-17:30   Discussion

Much research has been conducted on the use of ethnicity as a political resource in different regions across the globe. All over the world, claims to preferential treatment and/or particular rights reflect classifications of groups as first- or latecomers, claims to historical primacy or primordiality of a certain segment of the population, or experiences of oppression and colonialization. Yet the question of whether these political uses of ethnicity are comparable remains unresolved.

Consider the following situations: the legal distinctions between white settlers and the black colonized population in Apartheid South Africa; violent ethnic mobilizations in former Yugoslavia or Rwanda; nativist right-wing politics in today’s Europe or the US calling for an end to “multiculturalism”; Scotland’s and Catalonia's claims to independence; indigenous mobilisations in Latin America or India; and the resistance of some African, European, and Latin American governments to classifying their national “ethnic minorities” as “indigenous” so as to prevent any questioning of national integrity and the emergence of “plurinational” states. Is it theoretically sound and practically useful to frame the above phenomena – to give just a few examples – as expressions of an “ethnicization of the political”?

Central questions:

1. Is it possible to compare the political uses of collective identifications/classifications that derive from or reflect notions of autochthony, indigeneity, shared culture, kinship or other forms of ‘ethnic’ collectivity across different regions of the world?
2. How can we compare the aforementioned uses of ethnicity as a political resource in different regions? What could be useful dimensions of comparison? What are the main obstacles to a successful comparison? What is to be accomplished with a comparative perspective? Is it worth the effort?

Christian Büschges
(University of Bern, Switzerland)
Dereje Feyissa
(Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia)
Lok Siu
(Berkeley University, USA)
Xi Yuan Li
(Sun Yat-Sen University, China)
Tobias Schwarz (UoC Forum Ethnicity)

Mario Krämer
(UoC Forum Ethnicity)


April 4th 2014 - Neuer Senatssaal

09:00-12:30   Roundtable C: Ethnicity as a political resource across different historical periods

09:00-11:00    Presentations and Discussion
11:00-11:30    Coffe break
11:30-12:30    Discussion

Various scholars have pointed to the importance of colonial encounter(s) for the emergence of ethnic classifications and identifications, and even spoken of the “invention of race” by European expansionary projects. Hence, ethnicity didn’t exist in the Americas and Africa before the European conquest, or in Imperial China, or in the European Middle Ages – or did it? Can the concept of ethnicity primarily be traced back to European colonial expansion – or can we also find indications in the history of other empires or in other cycles of global development? Regarding the latter, some scholars have brought into focus the rise of “Western” dominance in comparison to “the East” (especially China) since the late 18th century. It is thus not surprising that in European historiography the concept of ethnicity has largely been linked to (proto-)national narratives. As we can still observe today, the emergence of the nation state has led to new and stronger ethnic boundaries, and the widespread use of ethnicity as a strategic resource.

It is the aim of this roundtable to explore useful concepts to describe historical processes of negotiation of collective identities between different actors (including the state), and to elaborate a common scientific framework across time and space.

Central Questions:

1. Can we conceive of ethnicity without reference to the European Expansion?
2. Has ethnicity been employed as a political resource in other, especially pre-modern, historical periods? If this was the case, when and where did this apply?


Rachel Sarah O’Toole
(University of California, USA)
Walter Pohl (University of Vienna, Austria)
Antonio Sáez-Arance (UoC Forum Ethnicity)
Evelyn Hu-Dehart (Brown University, USA)
Cassandra Mark (University of Basel, Switzerland)

Sarah Albiez-Wieck
(UoC Forum Ethnicity)

12:30-14:00    Lunch

14:00-16:00 Final Plenary Discussion: Conceptualizing ethnicity as a political resource

Wolfgang Gabbert (Leibniz University of Hannover, Germany)
Tongxue Tan (Sun Yat-Sen University, China)
Michaela Pelican
(UoC Forum Ethnicity)

Albert Manke (UoC Forum Ethnicity)

16:00 Farewell address
            Michaela Pelican (UoC Forum Ethnicity)