Exploring Causes of Ethnic Conflict

Posted: June 15, 2016

Exploring Causes of Ethnic Conflict

Introduction

In the past, ethnic clash has often been an element of international politics. Even in the modern world, wars that are ethnically instigated remain to be the greatest basic form of armed wars in different parts of the world (Brass, 1991). For instance, the recent past has witnessed different instances of ethnic conflict that include Kurdish struggle for autonomy in Turkey, Iraq and Iran (Nguyen, 2010). It has also manifested itself as in ethnic war in Somalia, insurrection in Chechnya, the conflict that led to genocide in Rwanda between the Tutsi and Hutus, guerilla wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador and Palestinian Islamic Jihad among others (Nguyen, 2010). Nevertheless, it is apparent that some countries or regions around the world are more prone to ethnic conflict than others that lead to the question, what causes ethnic conflict?

This issue has become a fundamental concern in the international security affairs. It is evident that ethnic conflict has become the primary source of terrorism. In many nations, ethnic identity has intense consequences since it is the bearer of political status, economic prospects or physical safety of particular groups in the society (Cordell & Wolff, 2009). The most apparent nature of ethnic conflict is violent confrontation along ethnic lines and often claims lives due to the struggle between the groups. For instance, in Kenya, Nigeria, Belgium, and India among other countries, rent seeking in favor of one’s ethnic group often crowds out productive activities and an existence of a constant threat of ethnic violence that is politically initiated discourages investments in physical and human capital (Nguyen, 2010). This paper, therefore, explores the possible causes of ethnic conflict in different countries while relating different theories that explains such conflicts.

To explore more on the issues surrounding ethnic conflict, it is crucial to appreciate the meaning of ethnicity as well as ethnic conflict. At a glance, ethnicity seems a direct concept but it is often subject to diverse interpretations. Some individuals attribute it to lineage while others recognize it as physical traits (Nguyen, 2010). Notably, while ethnic group refers to a social group based on culture, ancestry, and national origin, ethnicity is the identification or affiliation with a particular ethnic group. Ethnic conflict, on the other hand, refers to the existence of any episode of constant violent conflict where ethnic, national, religious and shared minorities challenge the government to seek key changes in status (Ganguly & Macduff, 2003). The religious confirmation of population often determines the probability of ethnic conflict within a region or a nation. Religious has been seen as an issue in the conflict that affects various countries; nevertheless, I agree that religious diversity is an essential element in determining the likelihood of a country experiencing ethnic conflict. In addition, I argue that the nature of the surrounding environment that characterizes a state or a community plays a significant function in determining whether a particular nation will experience ethnic conflict or not (Guibernau & Rex, 2010). The existence of armed conflict in nearby countries surges the chances that there will be conflict along ethnic lines within the borders of the affected country. In addition, any inclination on a particular political power as a source of wealth and prosperity often foster the likelihood of ethnic conflict. This is as a result of competition among the country’s resources due to inequitable distribution of the national cake that makes the oppressed communities fight back.

Overview of the Causes of Ethnic Conflict

Many theories and studies attempt to outline the grounds for the existence of ethnic conflicts. Notably, such conflicts have in the recent past, gained much consideration since the determination of Cold War. Some scholars argue that ethnic conflict is due to globalization that brings multiple cultures in contact with one another which in turn causes a clash of civilization. Such hypothesis was fostered by Huntington (1993) outlines “conflicts of the future will occur along the cultural fault lines separating civilizations” (p. 31). It has been argued that an improved comfort of international communication leads to closer connections between various communities belonging to different cultures and, therefore, intensifies advancement consciousness. The increase in “civilization consciousness”, in turn, makes differences in civilizations more likely to occur and thus stimulate animosities resulting in the creation of conflicts among the groups. Therefore, the existing differences in culture are considered an apparent cause of civilization conflict. Nevertheless, this argument is limited by the fact that there is inadequate evidence that shows that civilization clashes do cause ethnic conflicts.

A different hypothesis contends that there is a connection between ethnic conflict and the accessibility of natural resources. It shoulders that when a country is mostly dependent on basic possessions such as agricultural food as well as natural resources, such a country is more prone to continuous internal violence than other countries. Such ethnic conflicts are prompted by grievances and greed by one community against another due to the feelings of political or rather ethnic sidelining as one community is underprivileged by another community in regard to access to ordinary resources. Such argument is based on the theory that ethnic clash often stalks from the existence of disparity. According to Davies (1962), “political stability and instability are ultimately dependent on a state of mind, a mood in society” (p. 12). In case, there is a wide gap between what communities get in terms of economic power or goods and what they feel they deserve, such will create dissatisfaction. The dissatisfied individuals or communities will probably come together and revolt. This economic inequality, as a result, will lead to violence (Varshney, 2007). Nevertheless, critics argue that economic fairness and not inequity heralds the escalation of the ethnic conflict. According to this argument, not essentially economic inequality or inequitable resources distribution causes ethnic conflict. Accordingly, both the resource rich, as well as resource-poor societies, have experienced ethnic conflict.

A different argument about the causes of ethnic war emphases on the role that religion play in shaping the behavior of individuals. Religion belief is a fundamental component of political, social and modern spectacles and it is an indispensable groundwork of civilization. Religion is considered to have a critical influence on ethnic as well as tribal conflicts (Fox, 2002). By trying to employ State Failure and Minorities at Risk datasets, the study found that religion is a significant influence on conflict and such conflicts tend to be more violent as compared to other forms of ethnic conflicts. The study further outlines that religious discrimination, religious grievances, legitimacy, and institutions among other factors contribute greatly to ethnic conflict hence the cause of ethnic conflicts in different communities or countries. The aspect of religion that creates conflict is the religious diversity (Wolff, 2006). The diversity in this regard creates a situation where one part of a religious group gets more benefits from the existing political power. Nevertheless, this argument fails to explore how religious diversity causes ethnic conflict in specific terms.

A different set of argument outlines that contagion or spatial dependence fosters a substantial consequence on the existence of ethnic conflicts. In this regard, diffusion and contagion foster the existence of political as well as social conflicts. Such idea is grounded on the hypothesis that persons’ behaviors in geographical units is in a way connected to and become influenced by the behavior of people in bordering areas. The world has increasingly become independent and social marvels that occur in a particular community are not secluded but maybe affected by the events that are domestically instigated from other societies (Lake & Rothchild, 1996).  This type of framework can explain the causes of ethnic conflict in that hostile actions from one community or country can spread out to other communities leading to intrastate conflict. Consequently, groups that reside in largely conflictual states are likely to experience ethnic violence such as intrastate ethnic conflict (Nguyen, 2010). Such conflicts can spread through demonstrations effects or spillover in situations way actors from different areas learn from precedence that the original combatants set. In relation to effects of demonstration, diffusion of revolutionary political ideologies affects the onset as well as the outcome of various ethnic conflicts that occurs (Nguyen, 2010). Practically, this logical argument outlines that contest matters facilitating ethnic conflict. Therefore, this school of thought explains the possible circumstances that cause ethnic conflict in different communities or in various parts of the world. Nevertheless, this argument has not been proven through empirical studies and thus has limitations (Brown, 1993).

Theories of Ethnic Conflict

The Instrumentalist Theory

This theory views ethnicity as a strategic tool or an instrument for gaining resources. According to the theoretical framework fostered herein, individual become ethnic and continuously stay ethnic when their ethnic group yields substantial returns to them (Yang, 2000). This means that ethnicity exist and persist because of its usefulness. Accordingly, the functional benefits of ethnicity according to the theory range from “the moral and material support provided by ethnic networks to political gains made through ethnic bloc voting” (Yang, 2000, p. 46). The pioneers of this theory such as Daniel Moynihan and Nathan Glazer argues that ethnic culture is not just a mix of affective attitudes but is, in addition, a way of ensuring political enlistment for advancing the interests of particular groups that is, ethnic groups (Yang, 2000). The clearest version of the theory on ethnic conflict is the urge by a particular group to acquire and retain ethnic identity or membership solely as a motivation of obtaining a comparative advantage. This means such ethnic groups with the comparative advantage will be better off and as such, conflict will arise. As Orlando Patterson asserts, “the strength, scope, viability, and bases of ethnic identity are determined by and used to serve, the economic and general class interests of individuals” (Yang, 2000, p. 46). Therefore, individuals’ interests are the fundamental determinants of ethnic personality and the cause of ethnic conflicts.

The Constructionist Theory

According to constructionist theory, ethnicity is a socially created identity and ethnic boundaries are changeable and flexible. As such, ethnic conflict focuses on the resurgence of the traditional ethnic boundaries (Yang, 2000). More specifically, ethnic identity is constrained on the boundaries and as a result, particular communities recognize themselves to belong within such boundaries. The perspective of the modern social constructionist distinctly emphasizes the social construction of ethnicity as well as race and the dynamic process of racial information (Yang, 2000). In short, the theory brings the criticality of “social construction” in ethnic retention and formation, it outlines structural and historical forces that create as well as withstand ethnicity and thus explains the volatility of ethnicity or rather conflicts that are ethnically instigated. Nonetheless, the constructionist school of thought tends to overlook the ancestral grounds of ethnicity and deemphasize the restrictions of social construction (Yang, 2000). The theory also gives insignificant attention to the role that economic and political interests play in the construction of ethnicity. Therefore, both the instrumentalist theory and the constructionist theory give insights to the causes of ethnic conflict but also have limitations.

The Primordialist Theory

According to the theory, ethnicity is inherited from ancestors. Therefore, individuals can be associates of an ethnic group demarcated by ethnic boundaries and ancestral lineage. Shared ancestry determines ethnicity and therefore, different individuals belong to a particular ethnic group since members of such group share common cultural and biological origins (Yang, 2000, P. 4). The members of such cultural and biological origin may have some practices or social inclinations that they consider better than those individuals of other communities do. This, in turn, creates tension and as such leads to ethnic conflict. Nevertheless, the theory overlooks the larger structural and historical conditions that deconstruct/ construct or may be undermined or reinforce ethnic loyalties that would create ethnic conflicts (Yang, 2000). The theory also neglects political and economic interest associated with ethnic practice and sentiment. The three theories explain the possible causes of ethnic from different angles and therefore, should be given considerable attention.

Different efforts have been fostered to explain the presence of hostility among different ethnic groups that has far been labeled “ancient hatreds” (Carment, 1993). Different studies have refuted this view by showing that ethnic identities and attitudes that are believed to cause ancient hatreds have become varied over time. The modernization theory represents an advance logic surrounding the causes of ethnic conflict. Nevertheless, it failed to give an adequate explanation why issues surrounding modernization often leads to more ethnic conflicts in some regions around the world or during a particular time. The most popular approach to the exploration of the causes of ethnic violence is grounded on rational choice theory. The theory tries to incorporate some pragmatist philosophies of security predicament to an overview that exist on the prudence such as extreme behaviors that includes genocide. It is important to note that the theory as proposed by Rothchild Donald and David Lake outlines the appreciative of the security dilemma to reason that ethnic wars or rather conflicts take place primarily due to failures of information as well as problems of commitments (Lake, 1998).  These variables prevent different groups that compete for anything from reaching a mutually agreed negotiated bargain that either party prefers (LeVine & Campbell, 1972). According to some scholars such as Barry Weingst, greedy elites are the primary cause of genocide or ethnic war.

Notably, the key contender of rational choice theory is the symbolic theory. The symbolic model explains that the essential or main cause of ethnic violence is the existing myths among different groups (Esman, 2004). The myths, in this regard, justify hostility and the figurative politics of chauvinist mobilization. Such myths create ethnic tension by producing emotion symbols that often make aggression possible for the elites to incite and make popular their radical policies (Horowitz, 1985). The rationalist through series of arguments has refuted this theory. Such argument includes the refusal that discourses or myths cannot explain the prevailing outcomes of ethnic politics that would lead to ethnic conflict.

The dispute between the rational choice theory and the symbolic theory is essential for scholars to examine and understand the reason why extreme ethnic violence takes place and, therefore, can formulate the techniques of handling such conflicts (Wolff, 2006). Accordingly, the most practical technique of ending ethnic conflict would be the use of liberal rationalist model of third part monitoring as well as enforcement to ensure that the commitment problem is ameliorated hence the need for leadership change (Horowitz, 1985). Ethnic conflicts have become a serious phenomenon in different parts of the world and there is, therefore, a need to look deep into the different theories that try to explain the basic causes of such conflict to help in conflict resolutions by the would be parties to the resolution agenda. Many theories explaining the causes of ethnic conflicts exist and such theories have conflicting ideas (Horowitz, 2002). To solve the issues of ethnic violence, it is important to understand the framework that should be used based on the existing theories. It important to give an adequate attention to the rational choice theory that explicitly explains the causes of ethnic conflicts.

Rational Choice Theory

The theory is framed on the concept that individuals are self-interest motivated and rational in the day-to-day actions. The idea that human beings try to act as egoistic and rational creatures include the hypothesis that such individuals’ actions are predominantly intentional. It is also based on the assumption that their activities are primarily deliberate and that they have a consistent and relative set of inclinations (Kaufman, 2000). It is often argued that even if such engagements of the actors may at times be limited by their set of social norms and experiences, their behavior can be explained in regards to their goals and beliefs. Rationality is often explained in terms of means and not the end and individuals are rational not because they possess rational ends but because they have the rational ends. Rational Choice Theory entails making a choice while leaving the contents of ends open (Kaufman, 2006). This theory, in addition, is concerned with the aggregate effect of a larger number of people’s decision-making as in political and social phenomena. The relations between rational choice theory and ethnic conflict are thus based on the application of ethnic groups and the relationships between such groups.

According to the theory, ethnic violence or rather an ethnic conflict is related but often not intrinsic to one’s ethnic identification. Building on the paradigm of rational choice theory, the identification of individuals with a particular group with the presence of incentives that make it beneficial or dangerous may make some people wish to or not belong to any group (Kaufman, 2005). From being primordial or natural, ethnic conflicts are primarily contingent and potential on certain conditions that are considered to provide incentives for the conflict. Such conditions foster rational reasoning on the part of those people, who identify with the ethnic groups for material benefits, prosperity, and physical survival.

In most cases, the type of rationalization fostered by many ethnic groups is a kind of implicit knowledge that is acquired by individuals based on their experience on certain issues affecting the society (Olzak, 1987). The knowledge of such issues makes the members of different ethnic groups make rational choices that in many occasions characterize what their desires and needs. The choices such groups make may determine the ethnic group they would be attached to, their demands and grievances (Kaufman, 2005). The difference in the choices of various ethnic groups in any given society would, in turn, lead to ethnic conflict.

Furthermore, rational choice theory outlines that either individual take particular beliefs or they are given the beliefs regardless whether the content of such beliefs are true or false since under many conditions, being part of a group provides security, comfort, and survival. Such groups become supreme and, therefore, outweigh the personal interest of various individuals. What differentiates a particular group from another as such becomes essential for the member of the group since they relate it to the possibility of their survival. Nevertheless, some scholars argue that the identity of different individuals to a particular group is so strong that they appear to forgo their personal interests at the expense of the group interests (Rupesinghe, 1987). This means therefore that most members of the community do attach themselves on the interest of the groups and not on their interest and as such, they do anything possible to ensure that their group’s interests are looked into. So, if all members of different groups fight for the interests of their groups, the consequent of their actions will be violence. The violence may be so intense that it may create genocide or just normal ethnic-based conflicts.

In situations where there is continuous group violence, it becomes difficult to identify with a particular group. The basic internal reason for groups joining violence may be that the group that such people belong to fails to accept such individuals if they refuse to take responsibility or fail to participate in groups deeds (Malešević, 2002). As a result, if a person stays with one’s group, such a person would join the violence against the other. This is also another reason for the causes of ethnic conflicts.

As discussed above, various accounts for the possible bases of ethnic conflict range from rational to non-rational choice theories. Ethnicity is often considered constructed and hence subjective (Ganguly, 2009). The critics of rational choice theory such as Kaufman argue that the explanations given by the rationalist do not go well with other models such as security dilemma. For instance, in Rwanda, the failure of information among the different groups did play an insignificant role and there was a clear cut of the predatory aims of the Rwandan Hutus elites. From this, there was a little effort to carry out bargain negotiations with their adversaries.

According to the critic’s argument, the Rwandan case was an emotion of fear and not the rationality of fear and therefore, rationality choice theory cannot explicitly outline the causes of such ethnic conflicts. Therefore, the rational choice theory has faced several critics from different theories trying to explore and give other possible grounds for ethnic conflict in various areas of the world. Despite the critics fostered by Kaufman, he concurs with the rational choice theory and concedes that the theory is correct in pointing out the significance of a “leader self-interest as motivation” (Kaufman, 2000).  Accordingly, in cases of  Rwanda and Sudan, the timing of the ethnic violence that took place in the countries was driven mainly by the economic downturns that led to discrediting of the then existing regimes that promised economic development but instead failed to deliver such promises. As such, the failure by the ruling governments to make true their economic promises of resource allocations in turn leads to escalation of ethnic conflicts as different groups of opposing ethnic communities tend to blame one group for their predicament (Kaufman, 2000). Therefore, even the critics of rational choice theory such as Kaufman agrees that ethnic conflict self-interests play a vital role in instigating ethnic conflicts.

Conclusion

Ethnic conflict has often been an element of international politics. Even in the modern world, wars that are ethnically instigated endure to be the most basic form of armed wars in different parts of the world. For instance, the recent past has witnessed different instances of ethnic conflict that include Kurdish struggle for autonomy in Turkey, Iraq and Iran as well as ethnic war in Somalia, insurrection in Chechnya, the conflict that led to genocide in Rwanda between the Tutsi and Hutus, guerilla wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador and Palestinian Islamic Jihad among others. Many theories and studies attempt to outline the grounds for ethnic conflicts. Notably, ethnic war has in the recent past, gained much consideration since the determination of Cold War. Furthermore, in Kenya, Nigeria, Belgium, and India among other countries, rent seeking in favor of one’s ethnic group often crowds out productive activities and the existence of a constant threat of ethnic violence that is politically initiated discourages investments in physical and human capital.

Some premise argues that there is a connection amid ethnic conflict and the accessibility of natural resources. It shoulders, when a country is mostly reliant on basic supplies such as agricultural harvests as well as natural resources, such a country is much more prone to continuous internal violence (Malešević, 2002). Different arguments about the causes of ethnic conflicts concentrate on the role that religion play in shaping the behavior of individuals. Among these arguments, there are different theories that explain the causes of ethnic conflicts. Such theories include instrumentalist theory, constructionist theory, primordialist theory and rational choice theory.

The instrumentalist theory views ethnicity as a strategic tool or an instrument for gaining resources. According to the theoretical framework fostered herein, individual become tribal and continuously remain ethnic when their ethnic group yields noteworthy yields to them. According to constructionist theory, ethnicity is a socially created identity and ethnic boundaries are changeable and flexible (Varshney, 2003). As such, ethnic conflict focuses on the resurgence of the traditional ethnic boundaries. Primordialist theory, on the other hand, outlines that ethnicity is inherited from ancestors. Therefore, individuals become followers of an ethnic group demarcated by ethnic boundaries and ancestral lineage. Furthermore, the rational choice theory argues that ethnic violence or rather an ethnic conflict is related but often not intrinsic to one’s ethnic identification (Snitwongse et al., 2005).

Given the current factors affecting different societies in various parts of the world, people make choices that often affect their behavior (Weber, 1978). Therefore, the explanations and arguments given in the rational choice theory gives clear causes of ethnic conflicts and hence would be preferred in empirical discussions.

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