The Reifying Power of States

Bosnia and Myanmar are, I imagine, not two countries ordinarily subject to extensive comparison. But a recent article in The Economist brings to light a surprising commonality of recent experience – censuses. In the fall of 2013 Bosnia conducted its first post-war census; Myanmar is in the process of conducting its first post-dictatorial one. In both places the census is a highly politicized endeavor; information like total population and household income may be relatively technocratic, but information like ethnic identification is not.

Bosnia’s constitution recognizes citizens who do not define themselves as Bosniak, Croat, or Serb (the three “constituent peoples), but it effectively bars them from holding public office (see here or here for a good overview). Though cognizant of the limitations of this approach (depending on what pre-census statistics you use it seems up to 20% of the country’s citizens would be ineligible to ever run for president), the census nevertheless retained Bosniak, Croat, and Serb as the default box tick-able options while allowing space for citizens to write in any other identifier of their choosing.

Myanmar’s census suffers from the same problem:

Among the 41 questions that the 100,000 or so census-takers…have to ask every household in Myanmar is one on race. But respondents can only choose from an anachronistic, inaccurate and divisive list of 135 ethnic groups…

There are 53 Chin subgroups on the list, for instance, many of which the Chin themselves do not acknowledge, raising old suspicions that the census results will be used by the Burmans to keep the Chin politically divided and thus weaker. Moreover, the Chin list includes groups that are not Chin at all, such as the Naga and Meithei. Both of these are separate minorities that live in Chin state in Myanmar, though most of their ethnic kin live over the border in India.

The categories do not acknowledge the millions of mixed-race people or people of South Asian descent. Respondents are free to define their own ethnicity, but people are fearful that if they do enter a category that is not on the list of prescribed “nationalities”, they will be classed as foreigners.

What both cases illustrate is the ability of the state to call into being, destroy, or reinforce the presence of certain social groupings. Myanmar is perhaps slightly more egregious, in that the state appears to be quite literally conjuring ethnic categories out of thin air, but Bosnia is hardly much better; as long as political rights accumulate to only the three delineated groups, incentives to self-identify as a Bosnian citizen (for whom ethnicity retains perhaps only secondary or cultural salience) are minimal. In Myanmar and Bosnia, the categories the state chooses are directly creating political and social realities which are likely to be informed more by the political interests of those with the ability to define the categories than those who are selecting on a census form. It would probably result in messier data, but one suspects it would be more equitable to do away with the predetermined categories altogether.*

*Not only would it give you messier data, it would make it very difficult to run certain government programs. In the United States, for example, how can you run an affirmative action program without counting minorities? The logical outcome of all of this is that we really ought to reconceptualize the way states relate to their citizens, but that is a post for another time