Ethnic Conflicts Research Paper

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1. What Is Ethnic?

Ethnicity is ancient and ubiquitous, and commentaries on ethnic differences have been highly variable over time and place. The term has been used variously to signify ‘nation,’ ‘race,’ ‘religion,’ or ‘people,’ but the central generic meaning is that of collective cultural distinctiveness. For the present we shall avoid the popular but awkward and potentially misleading ‘ethnic group’ in favor of the more convenient term ethny. An ethny here is a culturally distinctive collectivity, larger than a kinship unit, whose members claim a common origin or descent. The prototype is a local endogamous population sharing cultural traits that differentiate it from other collectivities. From such groupings, more extended ethnies develop by nepotism, extended endogamy, fictive kinship, descent myths, political enclosures, economic linkages, and territorial expansion. For modern large-scale ethnies the ‘symbolic’ boundaries can be quite vague and elastic but the essential retained qualities are ascribed membership (by birth) and cultural identity (cf. Williams 1994, pp. 52–3, 57–8).

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An elementary but critical distinction, often ignored in scholarly discussions, is that ethnicity can refer either to boundary-markers—an ethny’s distinctive culture or lines of social closure—or to the content of the issues (or ‘stakes’) in ethnic confrontations. Thus, an ‘ethnic conflict’ can mean that two or more distinctive ethnies are fighting to control scarce resources (oil, gold, timber, diamonds, water, land, fishing grounds). The contenders are ethnic but the stakes are not. But in other cases, the objects of rivalry or violent conflict are themselves ethnic: language use, religious practices, marriage customs, domestic law, ceremonies and holidays, and so on. Especially likely to lead to severe conflict are situations in which rigidlybound ethnies are rivals for political control of centralized states. Many so-called ethnic conflicts are struggles over non-ethnic goods, but genuine ‘conflicts of identity’ are those in which boundaries are rigid and salient and the objects of contention are cultural.

Much scholarly disputation has centered upon whether ethnicity is primordial or instrumental. Primordial ethnicity is seen as closely tied to kinship and descent, rigidly bound, enduring, emotionally charged. Instrumental (situational) ethnicity is thought to be ambiguous, changeable, driven by considerations of advantage or disadvantage in the pursuit of immediate interests. Indeed, it has long been recognized that ethnic boundaries are often permeable and changeable—because of territorial intermingling, continuous variations in cultural traits, interethnic interactions, intraethnic diversity, and state interventions (Levine and Campbell 1972, Chap. 7). But the inclusive reality is that ethnies are both primordial and circumstantial—some are fluid, others rigid; some endure over centuries, others are short-lived. Over the long run, much change can be observed. But in the short run, of one lifetime or a few generations, strong ethnic boundaries are often associated with great inequalities of social, economic, and political status, with strongly felt grievances, and with passionate commitments, solidarities, and conflicts. Today’s world of vast migrations and rapid economic and political changes often results in change and merging of ethnies, and individuals frequently have multiple ethnic identities. Nevertheless, there is no prospect that ethnicity will disappear: it might be said, to paraphrase V. Pareto that those who seek to totally abolish ethnicity are engaged in cutting holes in the water. Because membership is an ascribed status, intra-ethnic relations tend to be diffuse and particularistic; for the same reason ethnic politics tends to be exclusivistic. While ethnies thus look backward into origins and history, they also look sidewise to persons who share in communal distinctiveness, and forward into a future of shared fate.

Struggles over definitions in this field have a long and complex history. Because the objects of interest are inherently complex, the search for the One True Definition will obviously fail.

This consideration also applies to definitions of our other key term, conflict, which is loosely used in ordinary discourse. In the present review conflict refers to social behavior, not to psychological processes or cultural contradictions; it consists of a struggle in which an opponent seeks to neutralize, defeat, injure, or eliminate another. It is not synonymous with competition, regulated contestation or rivalry. In particular, the distinctive character of violent conflict must be recognized. Violence is a qualitatively distinct form of conflict (Williams 1994, p. 54, Brubaker and Laitin 1998, p. 426).

2. Recent Changes In Research And Theories

In the first decades after World War II, as overly simple theories of innate racial differences were discredited, the dominant explanations of ethnic conflict focused upon prejudice and discrimination—first in terms of individual personality and then as features of social location and of institutional norms and practices. Later research emphasized macrosocial factors and conditions, including state structures and policies as well as interstate relations.

For understandable reasons, much research on ethnicity until recently focused upon domestic (national) populations and truly comparative studies were few. Accordingly, many theories have been concerned with intra-societal processes such as economic competition, internal colonialism, labor markets, assimilation, and prejudice and discrimination. Overlapping in time, however, and increasingly prominent have been historical and comparative studies: of ethnic nationalism and conflict, of multiethnic societies, of international linkages and interventions, and of democide and genocide.

As attention has been drawn increasingly to worldwide perspectives, earlier preoccupations with psychological factors and anthropological case studies have receded in favor of systematic comparison and statistical analyses of large data-sets. Frequent and severe ethnic warfare and large-scale immigration and flows of refugees from political repression and civil wars have stimulated both types of research. Since the

1960s, the increasing use of multivariate statistical modeling of large data-sets has produced many substantial empirical generalizations. The worldwide compilation of data by Gurr (1993) indicates that contention among ethnies for control of central states is the most deadly form of communal conflict—even more so than ethnonationalist movements or the struggles of indigenous peoples. Analysis of many protests and violent mass actions in the former Soviet Union during 1965–89, showed that nonviolent protests tended to come from mobilization of well-educated urban populations having substantial organizational resources (Beissinger 1992). Protracted ethnic civil wars cluster in weak but repressive states in the Third World and in the peripheries of industrialized countries. Numerous comparative studies show that ethnic conflicts are more severe in autocratic than democratic states; democracies have more numerous but less deadly protests. An exhaustive compilation and analysis of available records show that genocides and democides are greatest in non-democratic polities (Rummel 1994, see Horowitz 1997, Johassohn and Bjorson 1998).

The most recent research has recognized the severe limitations of case studies and of static correlational analyses, as well as the hazards of simplified ‘onefactor’ theorizing. There is increased emphasis on multivariate studies and upon the timing and sequence of relevant events and conditions. Correspondingly, more studies are using the techniques of event history analysis, qualitative comparative analysis, and ingenious combinations of narrative accounting together with newer statistical techniques. Comparisons are increasingly regarded as essential to reliable generalizations across time and societal contexts. There is renewed emphasis upon the need for disaggregation of data along with the equally urgent specification of concepts to identify the different types of states, of kinds of ethnicity, of opposition and competition and rivalry, of grievances, of the diverse types of conflict and of violence, of processes of mobilization and de-mobilization. Particular attention is now directed to the ways in which ethnic relations are affected by new transnational processes.

3. Characteristics Of Violent Ethnic Conflict

Just as ethnies are diverse, so are the forms of ethnic conflict. The main types are: turmoil, internal war, democide and genocide. Turmoil includes strikes, demonstrations, mutinies, sabotage, rioting, and terrorism. Internal war involves armed collective violence as in coups d’etat, separatist rebellions, civil or guerrilla wars, and revolutions. Democides are state-organized or incited mass killings of political opponents and dissidents; genocides are organized efforts to destroy a whole cultural, religious, or racial population (Rummel 1994). These types represent different combinations of: (a) the extent of mass mobilization; (b) the degree of centralized organization and control; and (c) the amounts and kinds of violence. Usually turmoil is low on all three conditions; revolutions involve maximal levels of all; democides and genocides maximize the slaughter of unarmed civilians. Although ethnic wars may not be more difficult to terminate than other civil wars (Licklider 1993), the ethnic factor tends to create perceptions of total and irreversible threat and thus to encourage extraordinary ferocity and brutality, as attested by the frequent observation of torture and mutilation of victims (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Kosovo, Sri Lanka). In any case, once violent conflicts are under way, they develop their own dynamics—attracting opportunists, creating desires for revenge, shifting alliances and balances of forces, transforming issues. Initial conditions may not predict outcomes, and limited conflicts that are easy to start can escalate into protracted warfare.

Complexity and fragmentation frequently characterize ethnic and regional partisans. A clear example is presented by Basque nationalist movements, which were criss-crossed by class, rural-urban, linguistic, religious, and ideological cleavages so that they were both ‘complex and paradoxical’ (Shafir 1995, p. 102); even the small militant underground organization, ETA, itself experienced repeated schisms. In Sri Lanka, the Tamil resistance to the central state repeatedly divided into opposing factions (Tambiah 1986). In the southern rebellion against the Sudanese government, tribal and local allegiances as well as ideological differences have plagued the movement and its armed forces. In Liberia, state collapse resulted from factional civil warfare, and in Somalia a central state splintered into clan fighting.

In the scholarly literature, there is a growing emphasis on the distinctive characteristics of violence over nonviolent forms of opposition and protest (Williams 1994, p. 62, Tambiah 1996, p. 292, Brubaker and Laitin 1998, pp. 426–7). Indeed Brubaker and Laitin contend that the study of violence should be treated as an autonomous phenomenon in its own right (1998, p. 426). Nevertheless, a rich store of case studies provide instructive data, as in the growing literature on Rwanda and Burundi.

4. Sources Of Ethnic Conflict

Around the world at the close of the twentieth century ethnic-related conflicts were frequent and deadly; nearly all wars in the 1990s were intra-state and most of these involved ethnic cleavages. How are these remarkable facts to be explained?

Some popular interpretations are not convincing. Collective ethnic violence is not primarily due to ‘modernization’ (urbanization, commercialization, industrialization): some of the most lethal ethnic-related conflicts have been in less modernized countries such as Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, and Zaire. Nor is the partial end of the Cold War, allegedly ‘unleashing’ suppressed ethnic antagonisms, a satisfactory account; the superpowers actually exacerbated many ethnic confrontations and the upsurge in ethnic conflicts began in the 1950s and 1960s, long before the diminution in superpower rivalries. Furthermore, scepticism is warranted of the notion that the rise of ethnic warfare results from the release of so-called ancient hatreds. Long-ago, wrongs are effective instigators of today’s conflicts only when reactivated and politicized, often as the product of elites’ manipulation (Gagnon 1994, 1995). Of course, the deadly effects would not occur unless there were some ethnic identities and allegiances to which political appeals could be made. But peaceable neighbors do not suddenly attack one another merely because their ancestors once fought. Such ‘general laws’ as that people tend to more often favor others when the others are fellow ethnies than when they are not, tells us little about specific cases in which a wide variety of other conditions may be involved. So generalized propositions about how initial conditions of disadvantage and discrimination can lead to group-level grievances still leave us searching for additional and/or intervening conditions that convert discomfort into collective grievances. Undoubtedly sociobiological characteristics (including propensities for group formation and conformity) constitute a fundamental substratum for ethnic solidarities and conflicts (van den Berghe 1981). Likewise, resource scarcity with the frequent accompaniment of incompatible claims (to water, land, any other resources) must always be taken into account.

But more specific and more proximate conditions and dynamic processes provide the more convincing explanations for the numerous violent ethnic confrontations we now observe. For example, a theoretically significant observation is that severe ethnic conflicts are most common in recently independent states that were formerly colonies of major powers or are successor states resulting from the disintegration of multiethnic polities. These countries typically are multiethnic, relatively poor, with weak but repressive states. Under these conditions, the state is a main source of wealth and prestige and rivalry for political control is likely to be intense while ethnic membership frequently is crucial in political contention. Economic scarcity and social pluralism thus combine with state centrality to encourage communal politics. Because the stakes are high and the outcomes are seen as irreversible, resorting to violence is tempting. In the great majority of such severe conflicts, lack of a common civic culture and of positive inter-ethnic interdependence, combined with struggles for control of the state, create intense threats and countermobilizations. Ethnicity is rendered highly salient and provides an attractive base for political entrepreneurs. A common result is that ethnic rivals come to see each other as rigid groupings and membership as crucial to all life-chances. Every move in that direction escalates and polarizes. Not surprisingly, then, conflicts among communal contenders for power are much more deadly than conflicts involving ethnonationalists or indigenous peoples (Gurr 1993, pp. 98–9). State expansion and impositions upon ethnies are likely in rentier states in which governing elites have sources of income independent of the potential electorate, as in Nigeria and the former Zaire. In collapsed states—as in Lebanon, Somalia, or Liberia—central authorities lose control over contenders for power and multiplearmed struggles result. Partisan external support to states and rebels often has prolonged and intensified ongoing ethnic-related violent conflicts.

In Gurr’s formulation (1993), the main factors favoring conflict include strong identity, inequalities and grievances, political opportunity structures allowing mobilization, provocative state policies, and international contagion and diffusion. Many of the ethnic conflicts reviewed by Esman (1994), Gurr (1993), and Horowitz (1985) develop into protracted warfare because one party believes that another seeks total and irreversible domination: ‘they will enslave our children and our children’s children,’ ‘they intend to kill us all.’ Diverse case studies, from Northern Ireland, to Sri Lanka, to Lebanon, to Rwanda, and others have emphasized that fear of extinction is far more common in protracted ethnic conflicts than previously recognized. In a drastic oversimplification, it can be said that the most dangerous situations cluster in multiethnic societies governed by centralized but weak and repressive states that fail to provide voice or autonomy to aggrieved ethnic and regional dissidents. Thus, strongly-bound and relatively large ethnies seek control in political systems that do not favor compromise and power-sharing. Particularly explosive are: (a) situations of lost autonomy in unstable polities; (b) abrupt impositions of cultural and economic deprivations by a dominant ethnic state, (c) intrastate conflicts attracting partisan external interventions.

5. Why Is There Not More Ethnic Conflict?

At any given time only a small percentage of ethnies are politically mobilized. (cf. Levinson 1991–96, Gurr 1993). Of all ethnic disputes, only a small percentage result in collective violence and even fewer in civil war. Most of the world’s ethnies are not fighting each other or other states within which they reside. Of the some 1600 major cultural groupings, less than 300 have recently mobilized in politicized protest or rebellion and only some 30–40 wars are ongoing in a particular year. To explain the impressive record of peaceful coexistence, of mutual accommodation, and even of active cooperation must be the task of future research and theory-building. Nevertheless some general observations even now seem justified. First, the reverse of the factors here adduced to help account for conflict can aid our understanding of ethnic peace. For example, we should look for relatively ‘open’ political systems with non-ethnic parties, lack of imposed segregation and discrimination, relatively equitable distribution of opportunities and rewards, and the presence of an array of conflict-resolution devices and arrangements.

The most obvious circumstance accounting for the failure of ethnies to mobilize for conflict is their members’ relative satisfaction with or accommodation to the status quo. If ethnic identity carries with it no acute grievances or severe threats, there is little incentive to disturb existing relationships. This is an important but banal and intellectually uninteresting case. A second case is more provocative: ethnies that have deep grievances but do not rise up in conflict. Often their conflict potential is negated by weakness: lack of resources, internal dissension and social fragmentation, lack of a committed elite, small size, and geographic dispersion. (It must be noted, however, that weakness is a relative matter and some apparently weak ethnies do attack much stronger opponents.) A third factor may be labeled simply as fear—fear of the consequences of protest or rebellion. The apprehension may be that other ethnies will respond in oppositional and hostile ways, or that a repressive and ruthless state with abundant resources will severely punish a rebellious ethny. External aid, so often important, may be lacking or perceived as dangerously unreliable. For these and other reasons, even highly aggrieved ethnies may avoid the more violent forms of protest. To more fully understand the necessary and sufficient conditions for ethnic peace and cooperation clearly requires additional fine-grained analyses of the many specific cases that now exist. Meanwhile the evidence and analyses that are rapidly accumulating provide favorable prospects for advances in knowledge in this crucial field of deep human concerns.


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