Explaining the great continuity: Ethnic institutions, colonialism, and social development in Spanish America

James Mahoney*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


This paper seeks to explain the "great continuity" in Spanish American development: The fact that territories in the region have maintained their relative levels of social development since precolonial times. It tests competing explanations associated with neo-modernization theory, geographic perspectives, and institutional approaches emphasizing property rights versus ethnicity. The paper uses comparative-historical methods to evaluate competing explanations. These methods include cross-case matching and within-case process tracing. The paper finds that patrimonial institutions of ethnic stratification are a fundamental cause of social development and the great continuity in Spanish America. These institutions help explain why areas with a dense indigenous population tend to have low levels of social development, whereas areas with a sparseindigenous population tend to have high levels of social development. This paper suggests that the institutions of ethnic stratification may be more important than the institutions of private property as a cause of development. Scholars of development need to focus more attention on the ways in which ethnic institutions shape identities and create collective groups.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)43-62
Number of pages20
JournalPolitical Power and Social Theory
StatePublished - 2015


  • Development
  • Ethnicity
  • Historical sociology
  • Institutions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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