Why Ethnicity, Class, & Ideology? 

Individual humans can be described via many individual features that are useful in predicting what they do. Such features include gender, age, personality, intelligence, ethnicity, income, education, profession, height, geographic location, and so on. Different features are more useful for predicting different kinds of behavior.

One kind of human behavior is coalition politics; we join together into coalitions within political and other larger institutions. People in the same coalition tend to have features in common, though which exact features varies by time and place. But while in principle the features that describe coalitions could vary arbitrarily by time and place, we in actual fact see more consistent patterns.

Now when forming groups based on shared features, it make senses to choose features that matter more in individual lives. The more life decisions a feature influences, the more those who share this feature may plausibly share desired policies, policies that their coalition could advocate. So you might expect political coalitions to be mostly based on individual features that are very useful for predicting individual behavior.

You might be right about small scale coalitions, such as cliques, gangs, and clubs. And you might even be right about larger scale political coalitions in the ancient world. But you’d be wrong about our larger scale political coalitions today. While there are often weak correlations with such features, larger scale political coalitions are not mainly based on the main individual features of gender, age, etc. Instead, they are more often based on ethnicity, class, and “political ideology” preferences. While ideology is famously difficult to characterize, and it does vary by time and place, it is also somewhat consistent across time and space.

In this post, I just want to highlight this puzzle, not solve it: why are these the most common individual features on which large scale political coalitions are based? Yes, in some times and places ethnicity and class matter so much that they strongly predict individual behavior. But even when they don’t matter much for policy preferences, they are still often the basis of coalitions. And why is political ideology so attractive a basis for coalitions, when it matters so little in individual lives?

I see two plausible types of theories here. One is a theory of current functionality; somehow these features actually do capture the individual features that best predict member positions on typical issues. Another is a theory of past functionality; perhaps in long-past forager environments, something like these features were the most relevant. I now lean toward this second type of theory.

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  • Agree on second type of theory. But I’d suggest that political coalitions are built on the willing. That is, you build a coalition with those who you can trust the most. It ultimately doesn’t matter as much if you agree with their values, especially if warfare/murder/death are possible outcomes. You need someone who will sacrafice mutually for you, more than agree on which kind of potato chips you like. And ethnic/family ties are of course blood, especially if you want to argue forager past and EvoPsych.

    From this vantage, it’s not clear to me at all that ethnic ties are outdated in their functionality. They work today as well. It’s ideology as a binding glue that remains a harder puzzle. One could argue that ideology is ultimately a kind of religious signal of kinship. But the tie is not as direct as ethnicity. And it’s also less clear if ideology as binding glue for coalitions is old and goes into the forager past, or is something newer, and is what really needs explaining.

  • What kinds of differences of opinion are displayed by foragers? When they plan or when they argue, is it all kinship interest, or do broader questions of opinion arise? For example, are there schools of thought about hunting technique?

    Any ethnological works that are relevant?

    • Robin’s latest post answers my question about ethnology and argument:

      Our ancestors sat down and argued – at least if present-day small-scale societies are any guide to the past. In most such societies across the globe, when a grave problem threatens the group, people gather, debate, and work out a solution that most find satisfying. ..

      So the prehistoric (and psychological) roots of class, ethnicity, and ideology:

      Class: the struggle for equality against would-be “big men,” discussed by Boehm.

      Ethnicity: An extension of consanguinity interests. (This is the one I most doubt. Some researchers have distinguished cultures by their clannishness, and Germany, one of the less clannish cultures, erect a politics based on ethnicity.)

      Ideology: The innate human tendency to have different opinions about socially important matters. Robin seems to think this tendency serves primarily other interests. But if the author of The Enigma of Reason is correct, it seems there was evolutionary pressure on humans to be good deliberators. Ideology is a distorted expression of this tendency. (Distorted in a world where class and ethnic conflict have been intensified.)

      [It’s important to distinguish here the ability to deliberate effectively and the ability to find truth. Many characteristics of ideology are more readily understandable as making a contribution to rational group behavior than to getting things right individually. Note also this doesn’t assume group selectionism.]

  • David Pinsof

    One possibility is that ethnicity is particularly useful for solving coordination problems. Attacking (or preparing to attack) a group of people is hard, because everyone needs to agree on who should be attacked and who should not be attacked. If we’re going to form an alliance against an enemy, we not only need to know who the enemy is, we need to know that everyone else knows who the enemy is, that everyone else knows that everyone else knows who the enemy is, and so on. Visible markers, like skin color or dress, create common knowledge of group membership, and therefore solve these kinds of coordination problems. We gravitate toward coalitions with lower coordination costs, either instinctively or as a result of cultural evolutionary processes (i.e. the coalitions that are harder to maintain don’t stick around for very long).

    • People tend to belong to the same political coalition as other family members, and ethnicity is correlated with that.

      • Joe

        As is class. Perhaps this is the answer: a political coalition needs to unite families, not individuals, and ethnicity and class are the two most convenient features on which to do so.

        (And perhaps this even applies to ideology too, given it’s apparently somewhat heritable.)

      • Hanson alludes to the fact that politics is not as divided by gender as one might expect. However, there is a larger (though less discussed) divergence between married & unmarried people. Steve Sailer pointed out that one of the factors which most strongly correlates with the Republican share of the vote in presidential elections is years married among non-Hispanic white women. I’ve heard that in the early days of women’s suffrage it was assumed by some that wives would simply vote the same as their husbands, and the effect would be the amplify the impact of married men (on the other hand, many correctly realized that this would strengthen the forces of Prohibition).

      • ethnicity and class are the two most convenient features on which to do so [unite families]

        But class doesn’t unite families, as I understand there’s as much economic inequality within families as between them. (Class isn’t reducible to income, but I presume the same disparities within families apply.)

    • Michael Vassar

      This seems to me to be obviously correct.

  • Matt

    There’s also the possibility that these signifiers are just easy to observe, and so our pattern-hungry brains latched onto them and ascribed a bunch of spurious meaning. Ideology less so than physical traits, but ideology can reveal itself very quickly in an interaction – even being someone plays their cards close to the chest out of professionalism or polity is still telling you something about their worldview by not shoving it in your face.

  • efalken

    There are several things going on here. First, government encourages group identity for favorable treatment: why not embrace your American Indian heritage if you get special tax treatment (true for my Minnesota taxes)? Secondly, nepotism is common, and as within-group mating is more common than between-group mating for various ethnicities, this creates a network of familial relations that correlate with ethnicity .

    Lastly, we are more prone to ally with those who share our conception of an ultimate good, because we see them as confederates in a righteous and fruitful end. Means are pragmatic, tactical, subject to change, while ends are more stable, because they tend to center on beliefs that are not falsifiable, so more data does not change them. But these ends give our lives purpose and meaning, something we all crave.

    Note most heroes are those who advanced a cause people find morally good (eg, MLK), as opposed to any general tactic or skill they used in this effort, one that could be used just as well for other purposes. Who do you trust more: someone who shares your ultimate good, or someone with your IQ?

    The fact that my purchasing patterns, or work colleagues, align with other dimensions unrelated to my conception of an ultimate good, highlights those are all related to means, not ends.

  • “And why is political ideology so attractive a basis for coalitions, when it matters so little in individual lives?

    I see two plausible types of theories here. One is a theory of current functionality; somehow these features actually do capture the individual features that best predict member positions on typical issues. ”

    I’m not sure I understand the question here. Political ideology defines what political coalitions someone wants to join because that’s what political ideology means. It’s like wondering why there’s a correlation between being a fan of a sports team and watching that team’s games. What else is there here besides a tautology?

    • Political ideology defines what political coalitions someone wants to join because that’s what political ideology means.

      I had the same thought. However, I think it amounts to asking why do we have political ideologies.

      • But that seems like a very different question, and more to do with group psychology than “why are political coalitions built on this factor”

  • While there are often weak correlations with such features, political coalitions are not mainly based on the main individual features of gender, age, etc. Instead, they are more often based on ethnicity, and on “political ideology”

    Class is strangely absent from the main individual features. The fact that class is strongly related to political coalitions – more so, it is true, in Europe than America and the fact that class is intimately related to one’s daily conditions of life, seem to disprove your whole thesis that coalitions are generally based on irrelevant details (ethnicity and sectarian belief).

    [In Continental Europe you had the mass workers parties of the 2nd and 3rd Internationals. In Britain, the Labor party, expressly built on the workers’ unions.]

    • In America, ethnicity is significantly more predictive than income, and Hanson might be generalizing from that.

    • You are right, to I’ve added class to the post.

  • Wei Dai

    If I try to think of examples of coalitions, what come to mind are political parties, high school cliques, prison gangs, street gangs, professional associations, industry groups, high IQ societies. Many of these are based on IQ, profession, attractiveness, personality, geographical location, etc. Robin seems to be thinking of a specific kind of coalition, but if you narrow your attention to one kind of coalition, it shouldn’t be surprising that it would be based on some specific subset of characteristics?

    • Perhaps the puzzle is more about the basis for our largest scale coalitions, and there is less of a puzzle regarding smaller scale ones. I edited the post at bit to reflect this.

  • Ketil

    One reason ethnicity is probably a stronger group formation factor than gender, is sexuality. All else being equal, many people would prefer having members around that they are sexually interested in. So mixed-gender is in itself a positive trait for a group.

    In creating a group, you probably would want to emphasize factors that distinguish members from non-members and demonize factors that would erase or diminish the group’s boundary. Would it be reasonable to predict that a ethnicity-oriented group would be negative to say, mixed-race marriages, or that gender-oriented group would be negative to sexuality? Does it bear out in practice?

  • Tyrrell_McAllister

    Your political ideology tells us which coalitions you’ve already joined. That makes it informative about which coalitions you might join in the future. (So, political ideology is a little less tautological than Quite Likely said, but not much.)

    • Elegant explanation. But I don’t think it’s correct. The most avid followers of ideologies are the youth, who haven’t yet committed to other coalitions.

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  • Tristan Severs

    Simple: in a sufficiently unstable society, all other policy preferences become subordinate to your preference to not get looted or killed, and this is most easily sorted on the very basic tribal traits. And societies that aren’t unstable are the exception.

  • SquirrelInHell

    One factor is that political coalitions have to be big. The only ones that matter are those that are inclusive enough to allow a significant part of the population in. This is a pressure directly contrary to “use features that are good predictors of individual behaviour”

    • Huh? Large fractions of the population have an age, gender, etc.

  • J.j. Cintia

    Nation is based on race, always has been. Whites have ethnicities based on power and success, more primitive societies have clans or tribes. All groups have an identity. Western Civilization has class structures based on sophistication. More primitive races and groups have castes based on racial purity and genetic ties. The concept of hybrids and mixing never leads to stability. The Balkans and Haiti showed that all to clearly. There can never be a multiracial society. Mixing only dilutes the issue and blurs the lines, but they always exist. Religion is a wild card as Pakistan, Burma and India shows. But laws are not the same as religious beliefs as you are about to learn.

  • Monsoonking

    If you look at any natural social group (families, communities) there are likely features that members of those groups share and features that members don’t. Those differences and similarities may drive the nature of political coalitions.

    Let’s consider my family as an example. I have a male father and female mother. A female wife, and a male son and female daughter. Given that I’m invested in all of their lives, it doesn’t make sense for me to form a coalition that overtly advantages one age group or gender over another (at least relative to social norms). However, my family (and much of my social and work community) do broadly share class, educational attainment, and social attitudes. It’s therefore much more likely that I’d form a coalition over those factors that stand to bind my family, friends, and colleagues than over issues like age and gender which risk pulling them apart. I suspect race is another shared group feature in most families and communities as well, so it’s not surprise that that becomes a factor in coalitions.

  • guest

    One possible thing to consider is Jonathan Haidt theory of social intuitionism, moral discust and moral foundations theory.