When Voting is Not Black and White: Ethnic Proximity and Voter Preferences in Africa’s New Democracies

Breakfast seminar with Adam Harris,

23 September at the Bergen Resource Centre,


What explains why some voters do not align with their ethnic group when group-based voting norms are strong? For example, across twenty African countries between 30-53% of voters with a co-ethnic party will not vote with their group. Adam Harris uses the concept of ethnic proximity, an exogenous measure and continuous conceptualization of ethnicity, to explain the propensity of a voter to support her group’s party. Adam argues that those who are less ethnically prototypical of their group are more likely to be swing voters in ethnically charged elections because they lack a sense of linked fate with their group. He investigates this relationship in South Africa using a panel survey of 1,170 respondents, which brackets the 2014 elections. The results show that those who are less ethnically proximate to their group are significantly less likely to adopt group norms and more likely to change their preferences due to political campaigns.

Adam Harris Göteborgs universitet

Adam Harris Göteborgs universitet

Adam Harris received his Ph.D. from New York University in August 2015, and is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Governance and Local Development (GLD) program at the University of Gothenburg. He specializes in ethnic and African politics. In his dissertation, he seeks to understand why some voters (up to 52% of African voters) do not support their ethnic group’s party. To answer this question, he develops and measures the concept of ethnic proximity that moves beyond the academic convention of co-ethnicity to more fully consider the complex role ethnicity plays in political preference formation. The dissertation argues that the degree to which ethnic group membership influences political preferences is determined by one’s position in her ethnic group, which is in turn determined by her ethnic attributes (her ethnic proximity). The dissertation uses original panel survey and experimental data to test the effect of ethnic proximity on voter preferences in South Africa. The results are also replicated in the US and Ugandan contexts. In short, his dissertation concludes that those who are less proximate to their own group and more proximate to an out-group are more likely to be swing voters and will have weaker preferences for their ethnic group’s party. Adam has also conducted research on ethnic identifiability (recently published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution), ethnic and immigrant prejudice, the determinants of political protests, ideological ideal point estimation among African legislators, and the effects of foreign aid in recipient countries. His research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, New York University, GLD at the University of Gothenburg, and Columbia University.

Photo: jauretsi / Flickr