Studies in Comparative International Development

, Volume 35, Issue 3, pp 56–91 | Cite as

Categorically wrong? Nominal versus graded measures of ethnic identity

  • Henry E. Brady
  • Cynthia S. Kaplan
Research Forum: Substantive Entailments of Graded Versus Categorical Measures


Ethnic identity is a fundamental concept for understanding the dynamics of contemporary political change, but there has been very little exploration of how to measure ethnic identity and even less discussion of the implications of these measurements for understanding ethnic conflict. Through an analysis of Estonians and Slavs (Russians, Byelorussians, and Ukranians) in Estonia, we show that the ethnic identity of different groups is “salient” to different degrees and that this has significant implications for within-group agreement about political issues and for between-group differences. We show that nominal ethnic identity fully predicts political attitudes when ethnicity is highly salient because a highly salient ethnic identity sets in motion forces that cause individuals within a group to form similar attitudes based upon their ethnic identity. These forces were fully active for Estonians in Estonia in the early 1990s. In this case, nominal ethnic identity was sufficient to explain the attitudes of Estonians. But ethnicity must be treated as graded when it is not highly salient, as with Slavs in Estonia, because only degrees of ethnicity can explain the within-group differences in political attitudes that arise because of a lack of salient identity. Researchers, therefore, should typically treat ethnicity as if it were graded, and they should devise graded measures of it. Although nominal measures are sometimes appropriate (i.e., when ethnicity is highly salient), they will cause the researcher to miss something important in other situations. For example, our work suggests that if events discrupt the social processes that maintain a group’s sense of itself, then a graded measure of ethnicity is useful for predicting attitudes concerning ethnic identity and survival. In short, it is not categorically wrong to treat ethnicity as nominal, but it is best to begin by treating it as graded.


Ethnic Identity Comparative International Development Political Attitude Social Identity Theory Citizenship Status 
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© Springer 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Henry E. Brady
  • Cynthia S. Kaplan

There are no affiliations available

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