My dissertation, Identity and Agency: Majority and Minority Ethnic Voting in New Democracies, explores the choices political actors make which turn ethnic cleavages into political cleavages. My main argument is that politicizing ethnic cleavages does not have the same usefulness for all groups. Whereas ethnic majority groups may have strong incentives to politicize ethnicity, ethnic minority groups seek to avoid it. Ethnic census voting in the absence of explicit protections for minority communities is most likely to lead to exclusion from power and as such ethnic minority political actors have strong incentives to politicize other, non-ethnic social cleavages.
More than the attachment that any individual may feel to their own ethnic identity or the salience it may hold to day-to-day life, I argue that decision to support an ethnically defined political party should be understood as the product of two separate voter assessments: the potential benefits that could come from electing representatives who promise benefits on the basis of ethnic identities, and the electoral viability of a voting bloc mobilized along ethnic lines. Since these factors change based on demographics and institutional context, we should not expect both ethnic majority groups and ethnic minority groups to exhibit the same willingness to support explicitly ethnic parties.
Empirically, I employ a mixed-methods approach to the study of ethnic voting. Looking at within-country data in two post-communist cases (The former Soviet Republic of Latvia, and the former Yugoslav Bosnia and Herzegovina), I examine how the same group of voters vary in their tendency to support ethnic parties depending on contextual factors. As the project is focused on electoral outcomes which are fundamentally the amalgamation of large numbers of atomized individual actors, I rely on both qualitative and quantitative methods in my analysis. I use automated webscraping tools to access and manage precinct-level voting data yielding a high level of statistical power, combined with hand codings of political party messaging supported by primary source content analysis, elite interviews, and participant observation from fieldwork in the region. This approach combines rigorous and transparent statistical analysis with an ethnographic understanding of actors’ perceptions and motivations, and allows for a thorough exploration the cognitive and strategic processes behind ethnic voting behavior.