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Book Reviews

Ethnic Boundary Making: Institutions, Power, Networks. By Andreas Wim-

mer. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. viii1293. $99.00 (cloth);
$24.95 (paper).

Mara Loveman
University of California, Berkeley

How do ethnic boundaries form? What causes them to change and when
do they dissolve? Why are ethnic boundaries salient in some contexts but
not others? When do ethnic categories become synonymous with solida-
ristic groups? When do ethnic distinctions structure the distribution of re-
sources in society, and when do they not?
In this ambitious book, Andreas Wimmer provides a masterful synthetic
overview of social scientific research on ethnic boundary making. Building
on this synthesis, the book advances a new theory to explain variation in
ethnic boundary processes and outcomes across time and place. Wimmer’s
“comparative analytic” of ethnic boundary formation provides concrete pre-
scriptions for research designs that promise to push the frontiers of knowl-
edge in this field. Offering a rare combination of grand synthesis, theoretical
innovation, and practical advice for producing cutting-edge research, Eth-
nic Boundary Making is necessary reading for those who seek to understand
and explain ethnic phenomena in comparative perspective.
A major contribution of Ethnic Boundary Making is the synthetic sur-
vey of the vast theoretical and empirical literature on comparative race and
ethnicity. Using what he terms a “dragnet” approach, Wimmer reviews re-
search on ethnic boundary formation from around the world to identify
“recurring processual patterns” and mechanisms at work in the making and
unmaking of ethnic boundaries. This technique yields a very useful sche-
matic taxonomy of boundary-making processes and strategies along with
the varied means actors use to carry them out. Surveying the catch from his
worldwide expedition, Wimmer warns scholars of ethnicity away from an
overly radical constructivism that sees ethnic identities and boundaries as
constantly in flux, while also cautioning against the lure of Herderian es-
sentialism, which sees ethnic boundaries and identities as timeless givens.
Wimmer argues instead for a restrained constructivist perspective that rec-
ognizes the durability and rigidity of ethnic boundaries as one configura-

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Book Reviews

tion among others that a theory of ethnic boundary formation must be able
to explain.
Inevitably, the effort to impose coherence on this vast and heterogenous
interdisciplinary field entails some simplification of nuanced positions. The
characterizations of some of these are cursory and certain axes of debate,
though acknowledged, are substantively elided. The notion that all schol-
arship emanating from ethnic studies departments shares a Herderian
ontological commitment (p. 20), for example, would seem to mistake the
groupist political idiom used historically to justify such departments for the
substance of the scholarship produced within them—largely by ardent so-
cial constructionists.
While the systematic identification of general mechanisms and processes
implicated in ethnic boundary-making dynamics across contexts is a sig-
nificant contribution of this book, it is only the starting point for a much
more ambitious theoretical agenda. Wimmer aspires to provide nothing
short of a “genuinely causal and comparative account” of ethnic boundary
formation and dissolution (p. 32). More specifically, Wimmer seeks to de-
velop a general “comparative analytic of ethnic boundary making” that ex-
plains variation in the degree of social closure, political salience, cultural
differentiation, and historical stability of ethnic boundaries across time,
place, and situation (p. 12). As most scholars of ethnicity will immediately
recognize, this is no small agenda.
The core of Wimmer’s theory of ethnic boundary making is the claim
that boundary-making processes are structured by the configuration of
three principal elements: institutional rules that shape incentives for dif-
ferent boundary-making strategies, actors’ differential access to resources
they need to pursue their varied boundary-making interests, and “the reach
of everyday networks of alliances” through which actors’ strategies play out
(p. 32; hence the book’s subtitle, Institutions, Power, Networks). Wimmer’s
theory of ethnic boundary making draws from Fredrik Barth in privileg-
ing boundaries over cultural substance as the unit of analysis in the study of
ethnicity, from Max Weber in focusing on social closure as a fundamental
group-making practice, and perhaps most distinctively, from Pierre Bour-
dieu in theorizing practices of ethnic classification and social closure as the
product of strategic individual actions, constrained by differential positions
and access to resources within historically structured social fields. As Wim-
mer explains: “The task set out for this book is to understand the logic of
these strategic struggles over boundaries, to determine how they are influ-
enced by the nature and structure of the social fields within which they un-
fold, and to analyze how such everyday interactions, in turn, shape these
larger structural forces and lead to a transformation or reproduction of eth-
nic divisions” (pp. 4–5).


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American Journal of Sociology

Not surprising for a book of such broad empirical scope and theoretical
ambition, Ethnic Boundary Making raises some questions that go un-
answered and generates numerous openings for debate. For example, Wim-
mer posits as axiomatic that individuals behave strategically when they
engage in struggles over ethnic classification and boundaries (pp. 4–5). He
notes, of course, that such strategic behavior can be oriented toward ideal
as well as material interests. But deciding a priori that only strategic be-
havior is at play is nonetheless a perplexing analytic move. We know from
research in cognitive psychology and cognitive social psychology that not
all of the distinctions we draw between ourselves and others in daily inter-
actions are drawn deliberately, much less strategically. Why place the non-
strategic domain of human cognition and behavior outside the boundaries
of a general comparative analytic of ethnic boundary making, by definitional
Curiously, Wimmer also seems to treat strategic behavior as synonymous
with self-interested behavior. In explaining the decision to make strategic
individual action central to his theory of ethnic boundary making, Wimmer
notes: “Trivially enough, I have never encountered, during my decades-
long journey across the ethnographic literature from around the world, a
single case in which individuals aim primarily at fostering someone else’s
honor, dignity, or identity” (p. 5). Yet we know from scholarship on col-
lective action and social movements, as well as from the sociology of altru-
ism and religion, that in some contexts people can and do behave strategi-
cally to advance (what they perceive as) the interests of others. Not always,
of course. But other-interested behavior is a clear conceptual and empirical
possibility. Why not admit contextual variability in both the strategicness
of individual behavior and its self- versus other-directedness, as two sepa-
rately defined dimensions?
The sweeping theoretical ambition of Ethnic Boundary Making is inno-
vative and exciting; Wimmer’s analytic framework enables the systema-
tized accumulation of knowledge about ethnic boundary processes from the
most diverse contexts, promising genuine theoretical advancement of this
field. Yet a demonstration of the full promise of Wimmer’s “comparative
analytic” awaits future research. For now, we have a few hints of the lev-
erage to be gained by the theory of ethnic boundary making developed in
the first half of the book. The second half, comprised of three independent
empirical studies (one coauthored with Kevin Lewis, another with Thomas
Soehl), provides suggestive illustrations of the payoff of analytic strategies
and research designs prescribed by Wimmer’s theoretical approach. De-
spite the merits of these chapters as individual contributions, there is a large
gap between the ambition of the theoretical agenda mapped in the first part
of the book and the empirical analyses delivered in the last.


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Book Reviews

Given the tremendous promise of Wimmer’s analytical apparatus, the

most troubling thing about the research designs offered to exemplify its
merits is that none of them touch the fundamental issue of how and when
and why ethnic boundaries change. As Wimmer concedes in the conclu-
sion, “None of the chapters has addressed the last boundary feature that
the comparative theory is supposed to elucidate: the degree of historical
stability over time” (p. 210). The historicity of ethnic boundaries is abso-
lutely crucial to the boundary-making perspective; the absence of a research
design that grapples with the emergence, change, or dissolution of bound-
aries over time is a nontrivial omission. Thankfully, Wimmer’s prominence
as a comparative historical sociologist gives every reason to hope this omis-
sion is temporary. Future research that integrates a historical perspective
is likely to reveal the full explanatory power of Wimmer’s comparative
analytic of ethnic boundary making.

Gender, Violence, and Human Security. Edited by Aili Mari Tripp, Myra
Marx Ferree, and Christina Ewig. New York: New York University Press,
2013. Pp. viii1328. $79.00 (cloth); $25.00 (paper).

Lisa S. Alfredson
University of Pittsburgh

Feminist theory has a renowned history of transforming influential fields

by undermining basic assumptions. Gender, Violence, and Human Secu-
rity, edited by Aili Mari Tripp, Myra Marx Ferree, and Christina Ewig,
has such an effect upon the human security field, at its core undermining
assumptions about gender inclusiveness. This effect may surprise some;
human security has been plagued by debates, but gender inclusivity has not
generally been one of them. Rather, issues such as rape in war made head-
lines when the field emerged in the 1990s, and its people-centered, com-
prehensive, and context-specific aims appear amenable to gender-sensitive
applications. This book shows that the human security field generally ad-
dresses gender through a traditional “add women and stir” approach, which
fails to understand the roots of gendered insecurities, often tanks at im-
plementation, and still ignores critical issues—because “women” are merely
added to a male-world experience used to predefine issues and approaches;
this is human security in a man’s world. The authors endeavor instead to
view human security in a gendered world, bringing feminist perspectives
to the forefront. More than studying a collection of gender issues, this book
critiques the field and contributes to its development through gender the-
ory and analysis. This is long overdue and a valuable contribution by fem-


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