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date: 19 April 2018

Ethnicity in Africa

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. Please check back later for the full article.

Among today’s Africanist scholars, the common understanding is that pre-colonial African ethnic identities were relatively fluid, permeable, overlapping, and complex; and that the more bounded and politically pertinent ethnic identities of today are (at least to a certain extent) the product of a colonial order of delineated control and dual processes of ethnic invention and imagination. Nevertheless, although ethnic identities became more bounded during the colonial period, they did not become fixed or unchanging. Instead, community members still debate and reinterpret ethnic brands, content, allies, and cousins through four distinct but potentially interrelated avenues of ethnic negotiation and renegotiation: namely ethnic migration, assertions of difference, ethnic amalgamation, and ethnic branding or positioning. This reality ensures that ethnic narratives can adapt and respond to an ever-changing world, and, as a result, that ethnic identities remain relevant to ordinary people and useful to political elites. Evolving narratives regarding shared pasts and intertwined futures help legitimize political claims based on past injustice or desert and/or historically informed fears or hopes regarding future socio-economic and political dynamics.