Photo by Pierre-Yves Beaudouin on Wikimedia Commons

How Ethnic Conflict Happens

Pascal Boyer

Nations are often based on ethnicity, but ethnicity itself is a mystery, or it should be. Ethnicity is the notion that a certain group of people share common interests and should unite toward the realization of common goals, by virtue of shared traditions, often language, and in most cases descent. We should not think of ethnicity as a sign of political immaturity, as a primitive phenomenon characteristic of political order before large nations, democratic institutions, and modern communications. Ethnic conflict can re-emerge in formerly unitary republics, populist nationalistic politicians often work their way to prominence through democratic channels, and mass communication has made xenophobia much easier to transmit. Far from being a transient phase in human history, ethnic strife seems to be a baseline to which social groups often revert. The mystery here is (or should be) that so many people, around the world, find this notion of an ethnic group natural and compelling.

When considering, say, the violent dislocation of Yugoslavia or the atrocities of Rwanda, we tend to see them as a combination of very specific historical accidents with long-lasting suspicion or grievances between groups. The historical accident is, in many cases, the disappearance or weakening of the legitimate state. That was the case, for instance, in most of central Africa in the 1980s, in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, in Somalia more recently. People in Rwanda or the Balkans had for many generations been nurturing deep grievances and a hatred of neighboring groups that was only ready to burst once constraints on people’s expression were relaxed. In the case of the Balkans, it would seem, authoritarian regimes (of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires) followed by totalitarian socialism were only temporary blocks on the slope leading to open confrontation.

This description is suggestive but also misleading, because descriptions of ethnic conflict often assume what ought to be explained, namely, that people already see themselves as members of groups with common goals and interests, and that they feel the motivation to support their own group against rivals. So ethnic strife occurs between collections of individuals that share interests and goals, know that they share those interests and goals, and are ready to commit themselves to some collective action in pursuance of these objectives. But social processes are not that simple, as conflicts between European groups illustrate.

For instance, there are and were clear ethnic categories in the Balkans, a place where people have identified themselves, for a long time, as, for example, Croat, Serb, Romanian, and so on. But that does not mean that such identities always and everywhere denote groups. Specialists of ethnic conflicts like Rogers Brubaker emphasize this distinction between ethnic categories and ethnic groups. People routinely use categories, the world over, as a way of partitioning the social world into different classes of people—you are a Serb and I am a Croat, these people are Londoners or Glaswegians, and so on. The existence of categories does not always mean that people in these different categories form groups, that is, a collection of people that act in concert toward common goals. In most circumstances, often for a very long time, people can maintain ethnic categories without ethnic groups.

In some specific historical contexts, actual groups do coalesce—for example, when the Serbs think that the Croats are threatening and must be contained (or vice versa). And the emergence of groups out of categories is precisely what we should explain. In specific circumstances, people who belonged to different categories but lived in smooth coexistence, and could peacefully interact everyday, become staunch enemies and may engage in extremely violent behavior. As many outsiders comment in cases of ethnic conflicts, this development often comes as a surprise, even to many of the participants, who rightly saw their situation so far as an example of what Brubaker calls “ethnicity without groups.” A standard explanation for this change is to assume that the hostility was dormant, that people secretly harbored hostile feelings toward other groups, until someone or some event broached the ancient quarrel, as between the Capulets and Montagues. But this is all entirely ad hoc, and it ignores (or takes as self-evident) the very mechanism we should explain, that of recruitment for collective action.

As Brubaker points out, ethnicity is not a fact, it is a process that turns social categories, momentarily, into cohesive groups. And it is a cognitive process, whereby a mass of external information is interpreted in ethnicized terms, and the costs and benefits of participation are tweaked in a way that previous attitudes did not always predict. How and why this happens should therefore be understood in terms of cognitive capacities and motivations. I think it can be explained only by abandoning the narrow domain of ethnicity for a while and considering the processes of group formation in much more general, evolutionary terms.

From Minds Make Societies by Pascal Boyer. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

Pascal Boyer is the Henry Luce Professor of Collective and Individual Memory and professor of anthropology and psychology at Washington University in St. Louis.

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