ETHNOCRACY: Exploring and Extending the Concept

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James Anderson


Ethnocracy means ‘government or rule by a particular ethnic group’ or ethnos, specified by language, religion, ‘race’ and/or other components . It has been developed from a general imprecise label into an analytical concept sometimes contrasted with democracy or rule by the demos, the people in general.  Primarily it was developed as national ethnocracy for regimes in contemporary national states which claim to be ‘democratic’, and it was mainy pioneered by the Israeli geographer Oren Yiftachel to analyse ethnically-biased policies and the asymmetrical power relations of Israeli Jews and Palestinians. However, it can be extended to several other contexts each of which has its own particular dynamics. Yiftachel himself extended it ‘down’ to city level and specifically urban ethnocracy; and we can further explore how cities and city government can moderate state ethnocracy. But going beyond the national and the urban, and the particularities of the Israeli case, the concept can be enriched in other ways, and I suggest three further extensions: firstly, ‘back’ to imperial ethnocracy which often preceded and gave birth to national ethnocracy; secondly, and more speculatively, it can be extended ‘forwards’ to the (usually mis-named) ‘post-conflict’ or power-sharing stages of ‘peace processes’, to what we might call shared or ‘post-conflict’ ethnocracy; and thirdly, it can perhaps be extended to contemporary religious-political conflicts which are at least partly transnational in character, to what could be called religious or ‘post-national’ ethnocracy. The five variants of ethnocracy and their varied inter-relations can help tie together different features of ethno-national conflicts. However questions remain: about, for instance, the variable and relative importance of ethnicity’s different components; about where to draw the boundary between ethnocracy and democracy; and about possibly rival concepts such as ‘ethnic democracy’ on one side and ‘apartheid’ on the other.

Keywords: national, urban, imperial, ‘post-conflict’ and ‘post-national’ ethnocracies; democracy; majoritarianism

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James Anderson, Queen's University, Belfast

James Anderson is Professor Emeritus of Political Geography in Queen’s University Belfast, and Visiting Research Professor in the University’s Senator George Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice.