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The Political Salience of Cultural Difference: Why Chewas and Tumbukas are Allies in Zambia and Adversaries in Malawi

By Daniel Posner



Cultural differences are claimed to be at the root of many of the world’s conflicts, both within states (Horowitz 1985; Lake and Rothchild 1998; Gurr 2000) and among them (Huntington 1996). Yet the mere presence of cultural differences cannot possibly be a sufficient condition for the emergence of political or social strife, for there are far more cultural cleavages in the world than there are conflicts. When and why are some cultural differences perceived as politically and socially salient and others not? When does a cultural difference matter and when is it ignored? This paper seeks to shed light on this question by drawing on a natural experiment afforded by the division of the Chewa and Tumbuka peoples by the border between the African countries of Zambia and Malawi. Originally demarcated by the British South Africa Company in 1891, this boundary was drawn with little attention to the distribution of groups on the ground.

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