Geography Of Ethnic Conflict Research Paper

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Ethnic conflict is a worldwide phenomenon. Much of it is territorially based, entailing disputes over the control of space. It occurs over a wide range of spatial scales, from the interstate level to the urban neighborhood. Violence takes place at the extreme, though a significant amount of ethnic conflict is characterized by nonviolent behavior. Causal factors can range from material welfare concerns to identity issues. A range of territorially based solutions or at least attempts at conflict regulation have been put forward.

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1. Spatial Scales

It is possible, from a geographical perspective, to classify ethnic conflicts into three categories—the interstate, the intrastate and the micro-scale or intraurban. However it must be stressed that there are powerful linkages between the various scales. Events at the interstate scale can reverberate down into the individual states and may even have consequences at the level of urban neighborhoods. Likewise, conflicts at the urban micro-scale can impact at the larger spatial scales, even as far as triggering ill-feeling or worse, in the ‘international’ arena.

1.1 Ethnic Conflict At The Interstate Scale

The geographical distributions of many ethnic groups do not conform neatly to existing state boundaries (the Basques and the Kurds provide clear examples of this). The misfit between state and ethnic group boundaries may generate claims. As Donald Horowitz (1985) has put it ‘if irredentism is conceived as a movement to retrieve ethnic kinsmen and their territory across borders, the common disjunction of group boundaries and territorial boundaries offers scope for irredentas aplenty.’ Horowitz further notes that a decision to attempt to forcibly retrieve ethnic group members across a border is, in the main, a government decision. This contrasts with secession, which is an ethnic group decision to break away from the state that the group currently finds itself penned into. Secession may involve an attempt to form a separate state, or it may mean breaking away from one state and joining another.

Stanley Lieberson (1972) has stressed that an ethnic group has the possibility of reducing or eliminating any disadvantage it may suffer, by opting for political separation. As he points, out such a strategy is not available to other disadvantaged groups in a stratified society (for instance those disadvantaged on grounds of gender, age or economic position). Thus, as Lieberson outlines it, the most fundamental difference between ethnic and other forms of stratification lies in the fact that the former is nearly always the basis for the internal disintegration of the existing boundaries of the state. Since the objective is most likely to be the formation of a new state, the best way to describe such secessionist groups is to refer to them as ‘ethnonationalists.’ Such attempts at the disruption of existing states will not be greeted favorably by existing governments. Thus secession is likely to be pursued and to be resisted by the use of violence.

Interstate ethnic conflict also manifests itself through the roles of ‘external national homelands’ (Brubacker 1996) and ethnic diasporas. With the former a state may feel an obligation towards its fellow ethnics in one or more other states. This obligation may translate into attempts to influence those other states’ policies towards the homeland state’s co-ethnics, or to the offering of immigration and citizenship privileges for returning members of the ethnic diaspora. Involvement, however, may extend to irredentist claims. Ethnic diasporas, on the other hand, may express concerns about circumstances in their original (real or mythical) home countries. In this case elements in the diaspora communities will press their ‘own’ government to adopt policies that are perceived to be advantageous to fellow ethnics in the ‘old country’ or ethnic homeland. Irish Americans vis-a-vis Ireland, Jewish Americans vis-a-vis Israel and Arab Americans vis-a-vis Palestine are clear instances of this. Indeed some of these groups may well adopt stances that are more extreme that those taken by their fellow ethnics ‘back home,’ or as Samuel P. Huntington has put it, they may be ‘more Catholic than the Pope’ (Huntington 1997). He also observes that diaspora communities become particularly active in the age of electronic communication: ‘the commitments of diasporas are reinvigorated and sometimes polarized by constant contact with their former homes.’

Ethnic conflict at the interstate level is also evident in what Samuel Huntington labels ‘fault line wars.’ While these wars erupt at the interfaces between ‘civilizations’ (labeled by Huntington ‘Western,’ Islamic,’ African’ etc.), they frequently involve localized ethnic groups, acting, as it were, as the standard bearers of their respective global-scale groupings. Of course, some of these fault-line wars occur at the intrastate level. In either case they are struggles for control of people and of territory.

Population transfers play a significant role in many interstate ethnic conflicts. If borders cannot be adjusted, peoples may be ‘adjusted’ instead. Sometimes the ethnic territories are ‘purified’ by agreement, as with the transfer of Greeks and Turks in the early 1920s. Frequently, however, transfers are achieved by expulsion or—the ultimate savagery—by genocide. Finally, it can be noted that some transfers are associated with what John McGarry (1998) calls ‘demographic engineering’ on the part of states. Here ‘agents’ may be moved in, being populations allotted special roles on behalf of the state concerned; on the other hand some groups perceived as ‘enemies’ may be moved out, enemies being defined as groups whose present locations pose problems for the authorities and an obstacle to their goals (these goals generally being ones of territorial control). As with all types of population transfer, these movements can occur both within and between states.

1.2 Ethnic Conflict At The Intrastate Scale

Gurr and Harff (1994), in their book on ethnic conflict in world politics place ethnic groups into four categories—ethnonationalists, indigenous peoples, communal contenders and ethnoclasses. Ethnonationalists are relatively large and regionally concentrated ethnic groups, which live within the boundaries of a single state or straddle several adjacent ones. They are likely to be seeking a greater degree of autonomy or even independent statehood. Indigenous peoples may also be seeking some degree of autonomy, but are particularly concerned about the discrimination and exploitation experienced at the hands of the more technologically advanced peoples who, by and large, control them. Communal contenders, unlike ethnonationalists, do not seek separation or secession, rather, they seek to share power in the governance of the state they reside in.

As with communal contenders, ethnoclasses seek equality. Unlike them, however, they are usually spatially dispersed, rarely having a well-defined territorial base (for example, where ethnic entrepreneurs operate in specialized, spatially dispersed economic niches). Consequently, in their case, strategies aimed at secession from the existing state or at seeking some degree of autonomy within it are not relevant.

Thus, while some ethnic group conflicts impinge at the inter-state level, many are contained within the one state and do not spill over ‘international’ boundaries. The roles played by dominant groups in these situations are crucial—they set the context for the other ethnic groups present. What Hennayake (1992) calls majority ethnonationalism can generate a reaction in a situation he refers to as interactive ethnonationalism. In a similar vein Brubacker (1996) writes of ‘nationalizing states’ where dominant elites promote the language, culture, demographic position, economic flourishing or political hegemony of their own group, creating an environment disadvantageous to the cultural aspirations and material interests of the other ethnic groups present within the state. Indeed here issues of inclusion and exclusion are met, seen at their most general in the distinction between ‘civic’ and ‘ethnic’ nationalism. With the former, the nation is ethnically inclusive of all those who subscribe to the nation’s political creed. With the latter the claim is made that an individual’s deepest attachments are inherited, not chosen (Ignatieff 1993). National identity is defined by ethnic identity—ein Volk: ein Staat.

The maintenance of political and social cohesion in multi-ethnic states will be possible under three contrasting circumstances: first, where we find civic nationalism to be dominant, second, where one ethnic group is dominant and third, where an external power exerts hegemony. This latter situation has been particularly prevalent where imperial powers have operated—from the British, French, German, AustroHungarian and the Russian empires of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to what Michael Ignatieff (1993) refers to as the Soviet and American joint imperium after World War II. However with the collapse of all but one of these, the lid of the pressure cooker has been lifted and apparently solid states have fragmented (the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia being the most notable instances). This has led to the (re-) emergence of previously suppressed or slumbering ethnic groups. Such a reawakening has threatened the fabrics of many states, generating movements that call for varying degrees of separation (from secession to regional autonomy).

Ethnic struggles at the intrastate level, from time to time, have been characterized both by what may be called ‘census wars’ and by ‘symbolic strife.’ With reference to the former Donald Horowitz (1985) has coined the phrase ‘winning the census’—here there are concerns about existing (ethnic) demographic balances and future trends. As he puts it ‘numbers are an indicator of whose country it is.’ Census watching becomes an obsession; arguments occur regarding the accuracy of census enumerations, and in some cases ethnic numeral balances are so sensitive that the census is abandoned (as happened, for instance, in Lebanon).

Matters of symbolism also take on a huge importance in states with internal ethnic conflict. Raymond Breton (1984) argues that the symbolic order is a key component in constructing and maintaining a collective entity. A dominant ethnic group will attempt to impose its symbolic order on the state—flags, official language, anthems, etc. Other ethnic groups may resist this process, with the consequence that many symbols become contested and contribute to disunity. Ethnonationally contested spaces, in particular, are notable for their symbolic discensus. Of course symbols may well help create unity within a particular ethnic group, but in terms of inter-ethnic relations they divide.

Within-state ethnic conflict may arise between indigenous or well-rooted populations, on the one hand, and recent, less well-rooted immigrants on the other. If the immigrant flow is overwhelming (numerically or technologically) the indigenous ethnic group(s) will find themselves marginalized (as was the case in North America). However many immigrant flows have to accommodate themselves to the preexisting social and political environment. In this case, conflict will be over equality of treatment—the immigrant will not expect (or presumably wish) to take over the state that receives them.

1.3 Ethnic Conflict At The Micro-Scale

Ethnic conflict gains its greatest intensity at the small scale—here individuals and small groups interface with each other as part of the daily round. Rural, relatively low population density environments can experience intense conflict (as well as day-to-day coexistence), but it is usually in the urban, big city environments that ethnic antagonisms can achieve a peculiarly focused, ‘molecular’ nastiness.

In the urban context, foreign origin migrants attempt to establish themselves as do those from within the state, some of which may also have their origins in ethnically differentiated regions. While conflict is not necessarily an inevitable outcome, it is of frequent occurrence, as the migrants compete with each other and with the receiving society for scarce resources of housing, employment, educational opportunities and so on. In these circumstances many ethnic newcomers experience a degree of residential segregation, part based on the wishes of the immigrant and migrant ethnics themselves, part based on the somewhat hostile response of those who see themselves as the ‘hosts.’

From a bottom-up perspective, ethnic groups may be seen to cluster together residentially for reasons of physical defense, from a wish to distance themselves from the embarrassment of contact with ethnocentric others, and, indeed from a wish to have a base for organizing politically and thereby gaining a say in the decision making in the wider society through judicious use of the electoral system. In the more extreme conflict environments, the segregated residential cluster can provide a base for organizing physical attack against a wider society that is seen to be oppressive. This is where the urban guerrilla is most likely to thrive. Finally segregation can provide a context for cultural preservation, one where the ethnic culture can be tended and, indeed, transmitted to future generations. Some of this clustering is for very positive reasons, but conflict can also be a key generating factor (Boal 1987).

From the viewpoint of the encompassing society, segregation also has its merits—it provides a means of containing ‘alien’ populations, it insulates host culture from what may be perceived as undesirable influences, it provides a means of manipulating and minimizing the electoral impact of the immigrant ethnics and, at the extreme, it sets up the ethnic clusters as readily definable targets for attack. Beyond the urban scale, Nurit Kliot (1986) refers to intermingled ethnic clusters in Lebanon as ‘hostage situations.’ The same situation can apply at the urban scale.

Much ethnic conflict at the urban scale is relatively low key, entailing competition for access to the resources of everyday life and frictions over cultural matters. However, some cities become cockpits of ethnonational strife. In this situation, local conflicts and competition become embroiled in issues of sovereignty, and are thereby greatly intensified. Meron Benvenisti (see Bollens 2000) has labeled such cities ‘polarized,’ while Joel Kotek (1999) has applied the term ‘frontier’. According to him, frontier cities are above all disputed places because they are subject to contradictory and opposing sovereignty claims. For Kotek, a frontier city is ‘a territory for two dreams.’

The urban encapsulation of ethnonational conflict may be seen as the city merely mirroring wider conflicts over sovereignty, secession, irredentist claims and desires for regional autonomy. More accurately, cities displaying ethnonational encapsulation are, in reality, actually key players in the conflicts in their own right. Examples, such as Jerusalem, Belfast, Brussels, Montreal, Nicosia and Sarajevo make the point. Indeed some of these cities are the epicenters of the wider conflict and are the focus of particularly intense ethnonational disputation. Jerusalem stands out in this regard.

2. Conflict Regulation And Resolution

Solutions to ethnic conflicts can take a number of forms—territorial approaches, dominance approaches and mutuality approaches. Territorial solutions entail actions that increase the ethnic homogeneity of specified territorial spaces. The most extreme approaches involve the removal—by genocide or by forced population transfer—of one or more ethnic groups, producing what might be called ‘purified’ spaces. More acceptably, territorial approaches can involve the creation of separate states for each ethnonational group (partition or secession), or for cantonal or federal arrangements within the one state. Of course processes of integration/assimilation can also remove difference within a given state. If these occur by consent, then inter-ethnic relations are likely to be positive; if they occur in a coercive manner the consequences will be alienation and the consequent storing up of future conflict.

Dominance is where hegemonic control is exerted by the most powerful group present in a multi-ethnic environment. It is unlikely to provide a long term solution to inter-ethnic conflict—rather it suppresses it, leading to a situation where one is likely to find reluctantly acquiescent ethnic minorities at best, considerable alienation at worst.

Mutuality is where ethnic groups in conflict reach a point where they are prepared to enter into a process of mutual recognition and acceptance. Consociational/power sharing arrangements within the state will be the outcome. In this situation we would find what has earlier been referred to as civic nationalism. Space is shared in a process of mutual accommodation (see discussions in O’Leary and McGarry 1995 and in Boal 1999).


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