Unwritten Rules: Informal Institutions, Ethnic Politicization, and Democratic Breakdown in Sub-Saharan Africa

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University Club, Room 212
@ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

This is a map of Africa with different sections of the map represented in different colors.
“People’s Atlas of Africa,” ed. Marc Leo Felix. Center for Geographic Analysis at Harvard University.

Shan Sappleton

UW-System Fellow (2022-2023)

Associate Professor of Political Science, Criminal Justice and Social Sciences, University of Wisconsin–Platteville


When, why, and under what conditions is ethnicity likely to become politicized in multi-ethnic societies? Why does ethnic politicization occur in some ethnically diverse societies but not in others? What can the variations in ethnic politicization tell us about the circumstances under which ethnic identities are more (or less) likely to become the chief mobilizational tool within heterogeneous societies, both at the elite and non-elite levels? Considering the cases of Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, I examine the crucial role of informal institutional rules in attenuating or accentuating ethnic differences and make a case for greater attention to unwritten rules as determinants of political outcomes. I maintain that focusing on the role of informal rules is important not only in the context of African and other Third-Wave democracies, but also in established democracies such as the United States.


Shan J. Sappleton is an Associate Professor of Political Science at UW–Platteville and also serves as the coordinator of the Social Sciences Department and the International Studies Program. Her research interests include democratic transitions and consolidation, ethnic politics, religion and politics, and colonialism.

*Events currently open only to 2022-23 fellows due to space concerns; please contact IRH at info@irh.wisc.edu to be added to a cancellation list for in-person events.*