Working Paper
Horizontal inequality, status optimization, and interethnic marriage in a conflict-affected society

Although several theories of interethnic conflict emphasize ties across group boundaries as conducive to ethnic coexistence, little is known about how such ties are formed. Given their integrative potential, I examine the establishment of cross-ethnic marital ties in a deeply divided society and ask what drives individuals to defy powerful social norms and sanctions and to choose life-partners from across the divide. I theorize such choices as the outcome of a struggle between social forces and individual autonomy in society.

I identify two channels through which social forces weaken and individual autonomy increases to allow ethnic group members to establish ties independently of group pressures: elite autonomy and status equalization. I find, first, that as an individual’s educational status increases, and second, as between-group inequality declines, individuals enjoy greater freedom in the choice of their social ties. However, I also find that in an ethnically ranked society this enhanced autonomy is exercised by members of high-ranked and low-ranked groups differently. Members from high-ranked groups become more likely to inmarry; low-ranked group members to outmarry.

I suggest a status-optimization logic lies behind this divergent behaviour. Ethnic elites from high-ranked groups cannot improve their status through outmarriage and their coethnics, threatened by the rising status of the lower-ranked group, seek to maintain the distinctiveness of their status superiority through inmarriage. In contrast, as their own individual status or their group’s relative status improves, members of low-ranked groups take advantage of the opportunity to upmarry into the higher-ranked group.

I establish these findings in the context of Mindanao, a conflict-affected society in the Philippines, using a combination of census micro-data on over two million marriages and in-depth interview data with inmarried and outmarried couples.