The Effect of Recent Ethnogenesis and Migration Histories on Perceptions of Ethnic Group Stability

in Journal of Cognition and Culture
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Several researchers have proposed that humans are predisposed to treat ethnic identities as stable and inherent. However, the ethnographic, historical, and genetic records attest to the ubiquity of inter-ethnic migrations across human history. These two claims seem to be at odds. In this article we compare three evolutionary accounts of how people reason about identity stability, and the effect that the cultural evolution of ethnic group boundaries may have on these beliefs. We test our hypotheses among Himba pastoralists in Namibia, whose recent fission from the neighboring Herero makes them ideal for studying the effect of cultural distance on folk beliefs about identity stability. In a vignette experiment, we asked participants whether an individual born in one group who moved to another group would retain their original group membership and cultural characteristics or acquire those of the new group. Across vignette conditions we examine the importance of the direction of migration, parental social influence, and age at migration on perceptions of identity stability. We also compare participant responses to two out-groups, the Herero, and the more distantly related Damara. We find that participants seldom thought of identity as stable or fixed at birth. Furthermore, we show that cultural distance and endogamous preferences are independent of beliefs of identity stability. Himba believed the Damara character was more likely to change identity and cultural traits than was the Herero character, despite their greater cultural distance from the former group, and despite the fact that all participants expressed more anti-Damara than anti-Herero sentiment.

The Effect of Recent Ethnogenesis and Migration Histories on Perceptions of Ethnic Group Stability

in Journal of Cognition and Culture



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  • View in gallery
    Illustrations for Adoption at age 0 vignette. Himba biological parents are shown in the corresponding cultural context on the left, while Herero adoptive parents are shown on the right. Illustrations by Ruby Boyd. This figure is published in colour in the online edition of this journal, which can be accessed via
  • View in gallery
    Study structure. The order of presentation of vignette rounds was randomized across participants. Each participant received the top 3 vignettes. The round regarding migrations at an older age varied slightly across participants. Half the participants received a vignette about the individual migrating at age 10, and half received the vignette regarding migration at marriage. All vignettes were presented using a female focal character except for half of the participants hearing a migration at marriage vignettes for whom the focal individual was male in that scenario. All vignettes included a Himba character. Each participant heard 2 randomly chosen vignettes where the other group was Herero, and 2 vignettes where the other group was Damara.
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    Proportion of “original group” answers to identity questions, by vignette script, and the generation of the character in question (1st generation=focal individual, 2nd generation=her child).
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    Proportion of “original group” answers to (a) picture matching and (b) perception and stereotype questions, by vignette script. Stereotype 1=type of house (Herero condition), whether they eat donkey meat (Damara condition); Stereotype 2=had incisors ritually knocked out (Herero and Damara); Stereotype 3=type of greeting used (Herero), speak with clicks (Damara).
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    Odds ratios and 95% ci from random effects model predicting “origin group” choices from type of question in the adoption age=0 condition. Generation 1 identity questions are the reference category and promote more “origin group” responses than any of the other questions.
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    Reasoning pattern by outgroup. (a) Effect of Herero Group condition on probability of making an origin group ascription, by question. Odds ratios and 95% ci from logistic regression model for each question. The reference group is Damara Group condition. (b) Proportion agreeing with statement. For the last question error bar represents a one-sided 97.5% ci as all respondents answered that Damara exogamy was worst.


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