Daniel Posner, “The political salience of cultural difference: Why Chewas and Tumbukas are allies in Zambia and adversaries in Malawi”, APSR 98 (2004), pp. 529-545.

‘Summary: explores the conditions under which cultural cleavages become politically salient (i.e. why do some cultural differences matter for politics and others do not?). Argues that the size of a cultural group influences whether or not they will serve as a viable basis for political coalition-building, and thus, whether or not it is useful for politicians to mobilize the group as a basis of political support.


Method: takes advantage of the natural experiment afforded by the division of the Chewa and Tumbuka peoples by the border between Zambia and Malawi – while objective cultural differences on both sides of the border are identical, only in Malawi are the cultures politically salient.


Important Insight: The overarching conclusion here is that the political salience of a cultural cleavage depends not on the nature of the cleavage itself (nor on the simple fact that it exists) but on the sizes of the groups it defines and whether or not they will be useful vehicles for political competition. (Group size is not claimed to always be the most relevant factor.) The underlying point here is that innate cultural differences do not necessarily have greater power than noncultural differences to generate political or social division. Administrative boundaries with no cultural basis whatsoever – in the example explore here, a boundary that partitioned an otherwise homogenous cultural community – can under certain conditions, have the power to create salient cleavages. Thus, cultural differences are neither sufficient nor necessary for the emergence of political or social divisions.






*calls into question the use of indices of ethnic fractionalisation to test for the effects of cultural diversity.

*the arbitrariness of Africa’s boundaries do not make them weaker sources of social identity than the ‘authentic’ cultural communities that these boundaries overwrote.

*the key effect of partition is that it altered the salience of the preexisting cultural cleavages within African countries.