Culture and ethnicity in Africa

, , , ,

This article was originally published on my LinkedIn.

Africa has an enormous wealth of thousands different cultures and peoples, spread out over 54 different countries. Now the question rises whether the ethnic groups that have lived in the same country over the past century or so, are actually drawing nearer in terms of culture. In other words, is there a process of nation building taking place? These are very relevant questions for the whole continent; they are important for African governments and politicians, and also for companies and business people, attracting and managing a diverse workforce. It is through the interesting work of Bert van Pinxteren that we may start to get some answers, in an article that was published this month in Sage Publications (van Pinxteren, 2019).

In 1870 a mere 10% of the African territory was occupied by foreign, European powers, and only 35 years later this huge continent was almost completely occupied, divided and colonized. It’s called the scramble for Africa and the Berlin conference of 1884-1885 stands symbol, depicting European powerholders holding rulers and pencils above the map. At the same time there had been local bilateral agreements at certain of these borders, while brutal wars were raging at others. No matter what the circumstances, there was little notion of or interest in the ethnolinguistic groups on the ground and we all know that some ethnic groups have been divided, while others were mashed into the same country.

It is the question what 100 years of shared history has done to their cultural differences. In order to create a possible answer Van Pinxteren resorts to a data reduction technique: cluster analysis in the way Hofstede and Minkov have done on several occasions. Van Pinxteren uses the database of the Afrobarometer, based on a pan-African series of national public attitude surveys on democracy, governance and society. This database allows him to have a sample of 35 African countries, including 198 ethnolinguistic groups.

He selects the questions of the survey which are related to three cultural dimensions, developed by Beugelsdijk and Wenzel: collectivism – individualism; duty – joy and trust – mistrust. His next step is to find which ethnolinguistic groups within one country cluster together and which groups stand apart? As a result, three separate groups of countries emerge:

a.      A group of countries with most internal homogeneity. Not surprisingly the Arab countries are part of this group: Algeria and Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Sudan. But there’s also 10 countries in Sub Sahara Africa where all the ethnolinguistic groups that were measured fall within one (sub)cluster: Botswana, Madagascar, Lesotho, Mauritius, Burkina Faso, Liberia, Namibia, Niger, Senegal and even Cameroon.

b.     Five countries in which the majority falls within one (sub) cluster, with only one or two ethnolinguistic group(s) that seem to be the exception: Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Malawi, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe.

c.      This leaves 11 countries, with considerable diversity within their countries: Nigeria’s six groups measured fall into three different clusters; Benin, Togo and Mali also with three different clusters each; Mozambique’s 10 groups fall into four different clusters; South Africa’s 13 groups fall into three clusters; Zambia’s four groups are all in separate clusters; Uganda’s 14 groups measured are spread out over nine different clusters; Kenya’s 11 groups are spread out over four clusters and Tanzania’s 14 groups fall into 5 different clusters.

Within Sub Sahara Africa, Van Pinxteren states that 67,4% of the different ethnolinguistic groups cluster together with other ethnolinguistic groups from their own countries, forming homogeneous national clusters. This shows more analogy than expected and may point towards more nation building than foreseen.

We do need to make some remarks though. First of all, even if ethnic groups do fall within the same culture cluster, we still need to be very careful to talk about nation building. Diverse groups like the Bamiléké, Beti, Mafa, and Peule of Cameroon may fall within the same cluster in the present calculation, but that doesn’t mean that either other differences or disparity won’t create tensions. Secondly, it should be said that it would need measurement at different moments in time in case we would like to map out the process of nation building. Thirdly, there are quite a number of countries with a large variety within their cultural make up and we can’t even distinguish regional patterns here. And finally, this form of cluster analysis reduces data enormously, it doesn’t say much yet about the content of the differences.

Van Pinxteren concludes: “For many countries there is support in this study for the conclusion by Hofstede and Minkov that national culture is a relevant concept and worth studying. However, the present study also shows that there are a significant number of countries in which ethnolinguistic groups do not cluster at national level.” In those cases we do need extra information, apart from the national scores.


Beugelsdijk, S., & van Wezel, C. (2018). Dimensions and dynamics of national culture: Synthesizing Hofstede with Inglehart. Journal of Cross-cultural Psychology, 49, 1469-1505.

Minkov,M. & Hofstede, G (2012). Is national culture a meaningful concept? Cultural values delineate homogeneous national clusters of in-country regions. Cross-Cultural Research, 46, 133-159.

Van Pinxteren, B. (2019). National culture and Africa revisited: ethnolinguistic group data from 35 countries. Cross- Cultural Research, p 1-19

Please find the original article here.