IG’s Peace Blog

Peace and its many aspects

Ethnic Conflict

I am sure everybody has heard of this.  However, there are many ways of understanding this unfortunately all too common phenomenon.  First, for background checkout old reliable (ie Wikipedia); and if you want to learn more, check out the great sources on the CRInfo page .  Though this is probably not necessary, here is the definition and explanation of significance from the Wikipedia article:  “An ethnic conflict or ethnic war is a war between ethnic groups often as a result of ethnic nationalism. They are of interest because of the apparent prevalence since the Cold War and because they frequently result in war crimes such as genocide”.

OK…my main concern today is with the “primordialist” explanation of ethnic conflict, and why it is limited, if not to say misleading.  The idea is that certain groups have deep-seated, long standing hostility toward each other, and that explains why there is so much violence associated with contention among ethic groups.  The news media have been full of this for decades; whether currently in Afghanistan, or among tribes in Africa; or some years ago in the Balkans.

At first glance, this makes sense.  Consider the Balkans again.  The standard explanation here was the “pressure cooker analogy”, which portrayed the tensions as always being there, but they were contained (as in a pressure cooker) during the Cold war and more or less inevitably exploded when that constraining pressure was removed.  The horrors of genocide and ethnic cleansing seem irrefutable proof of this argument.   However, what I never understood is:  if there was such hate among these groups, why was ethnic cleansing necessary?  Why were they intermixed, intermarried and routinely living and working together?  That doesn’t really make sense does it?  They should already have been separated.  

As far as I’m concerned it’s time to  throw out that old pressure cooker and look elsewhere for understanding.  In fact, it seems that there are two other factors which explain ethnic conflict more convincingly.  One is simply change, particularly, rapid change.  In a multi-ethnic society, stability is established through understandings and communication among the various groups.  When change happens, the understandings are called into question because there is a new context and communication to re-establish them becomes difficult.  No group wants to be taken advantage of, so all have an incentive to act first to maintain or improve their situation in a fluid environment.  Since valued resources (political, economic, security, etc…) are scarce and since communication channels for mediation are limited to non-existent, conflict, often violent, ensues in many cases.  It takes time and effort for communication to be re-established. 

The second factor, and this I have read applies in particular to Africa (where “tribalism” is thought to be endemic), is simply economic scarcity.  The reasoning here is not complex at all.  When times are hard we tend to fall back on those who are closest to us:  people from our home, who speak our language, who share our religion.   In a plural society, this may create a perceived “zero sum” game of competition among the various groups, which as we have seen can become quite desperate and violent.  There is much more to the African context, but what I want to emphasize is that there also diverse groups coexisted, traded and even lived in close proximity for very long periods of time without violence; which tends to undermine the primordialist argument.

So, while ethnocentrism certainly plays a role, it needs a “trigger” to become violent, and I am suggesting that the most common trigger is the fear and uncertainty produced by rapid social and political change and economic deprivation.


December 13, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , ,


  1. Tous les ethnocentrismes ne deviennent pas violent. Certes, la peur et l’incertitude provoquées par un changement politique et social rapide et par un manque de moyens économiques peuvent expliquer la genèse de la violence.
    Mais à la bas, il y a le problème de l’ethnocentrisme. Comment le phénomène ethnocentrique peut-il être expliqué ? Comment expliquer que ce phénomène soit omni-présent dans une société planétaire ?

    Comment by Simon | December 14, 2008 | Reply

  2. Merci pour votre commentaire. A mon avis l’ethnocentrisme persiste pour plusieurs raisons. Principalement parce que nos identites sont formes par l’histoire et la tradition. Et, dans une incertitude croissante, on a la tendance a s’accrocher encore plus a tout qui est familier.

    Comment by igbarb19 | December 14, 2008 | Reply

  3. […] Conflict redux I wrote a relatively long post on ethnic conflict in December .  However, there are other issues connected with ethnic conflict that I have not […]

    Pingback by Ethnic Conflict redux « IG’s Peace Blog | February 21, 2009 | Reply

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