Chapter 22: Economies of Ethnicity
Thomas Hylland Eriksen Ethnicity is often said to be an irreducibly dual phenomenon in that, by definition, it comprises aspects of both symbolic meaning and instrumental utility. Ethnic identity offers the individual a sense of belonging and contributes to group cohesion, while ethnic organisation serves the mundane interests of its members (or at least its leadership). It is therefore uncontroversial to state that ethnicity has an important economic dimension, even if the bulk of recent research in the field has been concerned with processes of identification and identity politics rather than economic processes. The economic aspects of ethnicity are diverse, and range from occupational differentiation in poly-ethnic societies and entrepreneurship in ethnic networks to transnational economies connecting members of the same group living in different countries, indigenous forms of subsistence encapsulated by capitalist economies, and formal as well as informal forms of ethnic hierarchy. Upon encountering economic systems where there is an observable differentiation along ethnic lines, two explanations are typically invoked. First, the ethnic differences may be seen as a result of cultural differences, in that each group possesses certain cultural resources making its members particularly well equipped to undertake particular forms of economic activity by choice, by tradition or both. Second, the differences may also be seen as a result of structural factors, such as systematic power differences, that channel the economic activities of different groups in certain ways, for example by denying members of particular groups access to the higher echelons of business or public administration. Although...
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