The Nature of Ethnic Conflict

ethnic conflictWhy does ethnicity figure so centrally in political conflict? One explanation is primordial in nature and suggests that ethnicity is an enduring propensity to gather and support those like us and this is the wellspring of solidarity and mistrust of those not like us. This explanation remains popular among many and seems to explain violence between ethnic groups. It resonates with immigration biases and racist attitudes invoked by certain organizations and groups of people. If ethnic differences are so fundamental, then violence and separation become obvious solutions. But antipathies toward outgroups and preference for ingroups might not be a sufficient explanation for much political behavior marked by ethnic differences. Some theorists posit two alternatives one of which claims that group members work together not because of primordial preferences but because of the efficiency: language and access to information in an environment of scarce resources produces political coalitions along ethnic lines because it’s easier to reap rewards and accomplish necessary tasks. A second explanation is that favorability norms have developed and even if there are no efficiency gains by working with members of your own kind there is a form of reciprocity that advantages your group and protects it from various harms. It is important to distinguish among plausible explanations because each suggests strategies for managing conflict. If the conflict is primordial then separating groups is probably a good idea. But if it is that one group is at an advantage because of efficiencies such as language and information then discovering new ways for cooperation and communication might be more successful. And finally if relying on your own group is the only way to reap the advantages then perhaps investment in institutions and government organizations that will level the playing field and prevent cheating will be most helpful.

But these competing perspectives can be reconciled by noting the results of the study that put people in communicative situations with members of their own and other ethnic groups. The authors did not find evidence that there was a preference for the welfare of one’s own ethnic group. They found that individuals were equally as generous with outgroup members as they were their own group members. Moreover, participants in a study of success rates in accomplishing a task where equally as successful with outgroup members as their own group members. They concluded, therefore, that efficiency gains from regular contact with members of your own group did not account for the results. It was reciprocity that enabled ethnic groups to cooperate for gain. When individuals have to rely on group membership more than legitimate institutions of a government, such norms of reciprocity are important. Conflict resolution, then, would benefit from creating credible institutions that promote cooperation between groups. The importance of these reciprocity norms are particularly activated when individuals have few institutions to rely on. When opportunities to solve problems along with institutions are in place then cooperation across ethnopolitical lines is increased. This is consistent with ideas that emphasize processes for making ethnicity salient rather than the existence of ethnicity itself as a group category. Maintaining reciprocity norms, including boundaries that define who can participate and who cannot, results in defined groups that share advantages.

Others draw some similar insights by pointing out that ethnicity can be used as a marker to recognize group boundaries including enforcing membership and identifying infiltrators. When an ethnic group is large and strong it can compete successfully for resources with another group primarily on the basis of reciprocity norms that advantage one group. Reciprocity norms depend on clear recognition of who is in the group and who is out. When two ethnopolitical groups compete with one another (Blacks and Whites, Israelis and Palestinians, Catholics and Protestants), there is always some bid for resources, and the group that is more clearly defined will be better able to compete partially because of the efficiencies that accompany well understood group boundaries rather than porous ones. It is also the case that predicting the emergence of ethnic conflict is dependent on the distance between contenders. Distance is the degree of differences between group members. Thus, when group membership is dependent on physical differences such as skin color group boundaries are clear and it is impossible to infiltrate the group. It is easy to detect a stranger. But group differences marked by history, psychological identity, or religion give rise to fairly porous boundaries because it is easier to “pass.” This leads to the logic of intergroup conflict which is that smaller minority groups have more to gain by conflict, but larger groups engage in repression against minority groups in order to prevent them from attempting such things.

The model of exploitation identifies resources that groups compete for and concludes that the stronger group will compete successfully even though minorities can mobilize resources (protests, terrorism). Groups maintain and intensify their own identities because switching to another group identity is difficult and costly. The psychic costs are some of the most expensive. If a Palestinian decided to politically and culturally identify with a Zionist Jew then this would mean a serious loss in location-specific capital as well as a host of other identity issues. This results in the typical asymmetrical conflict situation where one group is more powerful with respect to political systems, military, and access to resources. And, interestingly, contemporary ethnopolitical conflicts are characterized by weak groups finding strategies of success. The weak actor strategy that best explains success in asymmetrical conflict is resolve. Regardless of material resources the actor with the most resolve often succeeds. Large and strong groups become more vulnerable politically because they are less resolute because of frustrated publics and required democratic processes.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on June 1, 2015, in Communication and Conflict Resolution. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Nature of Ethnic Conflict.

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