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In Profile: Daniel Posner

MIT political scientist looks at the surprising ways ethnicity and politics mesh in southern Africa.
MIT political scientist Daniel Posner
MIT political scientist Daniel Posner
Photo: Dominick Reuter

When Daniel Posner began studying ethnic politics in Zambia, in 1993, he encountered a puzzle. Many residents told him that members of one linguistic group, the Bemba-speaking people, were unfairly controlling the levers of government to further their own self-interest. But when Posner talked to people named in these complaints, they described themselves not in linguistic terms, but by tribe: They were serving not as Bembas, but as members of, for instance, the Bisa, Lunda, Chishunga or Mambwe ethnic groups.

He soon realized he had encountered an important feature of Zambian politics. “People had these nested identities,” says Posner, who has recently joined MIT as the Total Chair on Contemporary Africa and Professor of Political Science. “This seemed to have important implications for ethnic politics and intergroup relations.”

What he discovered, surprisingly, is that the ethnic self-identification of Zambians is highly contingent on the state’s form of government. In the periods when Zambia has featured multiparty rule — from 1964 to 1972, and from 1991 to the present — people have generally identified with one of the country’s four major linguistic groups, such as the Bembas. But when single-party rule existed in Zambia, from 1973 to 1991, people generally defined themselves by one of the country’s roughly 70 tribal affiliations.

Why? Under one-party rule, according to Posner, the country’s presidency was a foregone conclusion, so the only thing at stake in elections was local parliamentary representation — and in these local elections, tribal affiliations are paramount. But under multiparty rule, elections become more national in character, and coalitions are oriented around larger linguistic groups.

“People use their identities to gain membership in ethnically defined political coalitions,” Posner explains. “What they want is a share of power.”

The politicians and voters Posner studied were effectively juggling their linguistic and tribal identities so as to optimally position themselves within coalitions. The transition to multiparty rule in 1991 had simply altered the sizes of those coalitions.

This flexible, tactical self-identification by Zambians runs counter to the popular perception of African political conflicts occurring among groups with immutable ethnic identities. Posner’s findings were published in an award-winning 2005 book, Institutions and Ethnic Politics in Africa (Cambridge University Press), and he has applied his insights to similar issues in other countries: He and three co-authors published a 2007 book, Coethnicity: Diversity and Dilemmas of Collective Action (Russell Sage Foundation Press), about identity and the distribution of economic goods in Uganda. He has also conducted extensive research in Kenya and Tanzania.

From Tenafly to Lusaka

That Posner wound up as a scholar of Africa could hardly have been predicted. He grew up in Tenafly, N.J., just across the Hudson River from New York, with no particular connection to Africa.

As an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, Posner expected to go to law school, but applied to some PhD programs in political science while gearing up to take the LSAT. He was accepted at Harvard University, attended, and in the early 1990s embarked on a PhD thesis that was initially constructed as a comparative study of democratizing countries in Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

When Posner first went to Zambia, his plan was to stay for six months. Instead he found himself captivated by the country.

“I very quickly realized there was no way I could understand what was happening in Zambia within six months,” Posner says now. “And it was just such a fascinating place, I became totally hooked. It was so exciting, and so puzzling. I decided that Africa was what I wanted to work on.”

After finishing his dissertation in 1998, Posner got a job teaching at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he remained before moving to MIT. At UCLA, he conducted research in Uganda explaining why, as many researchers have found, members of the same ethnic group are more successful working together to provide public goods than members of different ethnic groups.

The ‘world center’ for studying development

The range of subjects and methods in Posner’s work has attracted attention from scholars in many fields.

“Dan’s really become the authority, or one of the leading authorities, on ethnic politics in Africa,” says Edward Miguel, a professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley. “What’s unusual is that Dan combines a lot of different skills. He knows a lot about African history, politics and society, but he’s also very good technically, so he does strong statistical work. He’s been a leader in bringing new methods into comparative politics, running field experiments in developing countries.”

To encourage research on Africa, in 2002 Posner and Miguel jointly founded the   Working Group in African Political Economy (WGAPE), an interdisciplinary organization that holds twice-annual workshops on Africa for professors and graduate students from universities on the West Coast. With the backing of MIT and a grant from the National Science Foundation, Posner is aiming to make WGAPE a national organization.

Connecting with additional communities of scholars is one of the reasons Posner moved to MIT. “Cambridge is really the center of the world for studying developing countries,” he says, referring to institutions such as MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL).

Posner says his chair at MIT — a new position funded by Total, the global energy company and chemical manufacturer — will help him pursue additional research. Currently he is finishing a trio of projects. One is a large survey, being conducted with other researchers, about education practices in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Posner is also completing a report for the Kenyan prime minister’s office on the effects of the country’s new constitution. A third project uses satellite imagery and political data to see if the distribution of electricity in Kenya favors certain ethnic groups.

“If there’s one hallmark of what I do, it’s using data, often collected for other purposes, to get at questions of interest in politics,” Posner says. “Even if we claim we already knew these things, we didn’t know them with the kind of certainty we have now.”

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