A Chechen man praying during the battle of Grozny in 1995 (photograph by Mikhail Evstafiev)
A refugee camp for displaced Tutsi in Zaire following the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.

An ethnic conflict or ethnic war is an armed conflict between ethnic groups. It contrasts with civil war on one hand (where a single nation or ethnic group is fighting among itself) and regular warfare on the other, where two or more sovereign states (which may or may not be nation states) are in conflict.

Examples of ethnic wars since the 1990s were typically caused by secessionist movements leading to the breakup of multi-ethnic states along ethnic lines: the Yugoslav Wars, the First Chechen War, the Nagorno-Karabakh War, the Rwandan Civil War and the War in Darfur, among others

Academic explanations of ethnic conflict generally fall into one of three schools of thought: primordialist, instrumentalist or constructivist. Intellectual debate has also focused around the issue of whether ethnic conflict has become more prevalent since the end of the Cold War, and on devising ways of managing conflicts, through instruments such as consociationalism and federalisation.

Theories of ethnic conflict

The causes of ethnic conflict are debated by political scientists and sociologists who generally fall into one of three schools of thought: primordialist, instrumentalist, and constructivist. More recent[year needed][who?] scholarship draws on all three schools.

Primordialist accounts

Proponents of primordialist accounts of ethnic conflict argue that “[e]thnic groups and nationalities exist because there are traditions of belief and action towards primordial objects such as biological features and especially territorial location”.[1] The primordialist account relies on a concept of kinship between members of an ethnic group. Donald L. Horowitz argues that this kinship “makes it possible for ethnic groups to think in terms of family resemblances”.[2]

There are a number of political scientists who refer to the concept of ethnic wars as a myth because they argue that the root causes of ethnic conflict do not involve ethnicity but rather institutional, political, and economic factors. These political scientists argue that the concept of ethnic war is misleading because it leads to an essentialist conclusion that certain groups are doomed to fight each other when in fact the wars between them are the result of political decisions. Opposing groups may substitute ethnicity for the underlying factors to simplify identification of friend and foe.

Instrumentalist accounts

Anthony Smith notes that the instrumentalist account “came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, in the debate about (white) ethnic persistence in what was supposed to have been an effective melting pot”.[3] This new theory sought to explain such persistence as the result of the actions of community leaders, “who used their cultural groups as sites of mass mobilization and as constituencies in their competition for power and resources, because they found them more effective than social classes”.[3] In this account of ethnic identification, “[e]thnicity and race are viewed as instrumental identities, organized as means to particular ends”.[4]

Whether ethnicity is a fixed perception is not crucial in the instrumentalist accounts. Moreover, the scholars of this school do generally not oppose neither that ethnic difference is a part of many conflicts nor that a lot of belligerent human beings believe that they are fighting over such difference. Instrumentalists simply claim that ethnic difference is not sufficient to explain conflicts.[5][6]

Constructivist accounts

Formalization of the theory of constructivism is generally attributed to Jean Piaget, who articulated mechanisms by which knowledge is internalized by learners. He suggested that through processes of accommodation and assimilation, individuals construct new knowledge from their experiences. When individuals assimilate, they incorporate the new experience into an already existing framework without changing that framework. This may occur when individuals' experiences are aligned with their internal representations of the world, but may also occur as a failure to change a faulty understanding; for example, they may not notice events, may misunderstand input from others, or may decide that an event is a fluke and is therefore unimportant as information about the world. In contrast, when individuals' experiences contradict their internal representations, they may change their perceptions of the experiences to fit their internal representations. According to the theory, accommodation is the process of reframing one's mental representation of the external world to fit new experiences. Accommodation can be understood as the mechanism by which failure leads to learning: when we act on the expectation that the world operates in one way and it violates our expectations, we often fail, but by accommodating this new experience and reframing our model of the way the world works, we learn from the experience of failure, or others' failure.

It is important to note that constructivism is not a particular pedagogy. In fact, constructivism is a theory describing how learning happens, regardless of whether learners are using their experiences to understand a lecture or following the instructions for building a model airplane. In both cases, the theory of constructivism suggests that learners construct knowledge out of their experiences. However, Constructivism is often associated with pedagogic approaches that promote active learning, or learning.

A third, constructivist, set of accounts stress the importance of the socially constructed nature of ethnic groups, drawing on Benedict Anderson's concept of the imagined community. Proponents of this account point to Rwanda as an example since the Tutsi/Hutu distinction was codified by the Belgian colonial power in the 1930s on the basis of cattle ownership, physical measurements and church records. Identity cards were issued on this basis, and these documents played a key role in the genocide of 1994.[7]

Scholars of ethnic conflict and civil wars have introduced theories that draw insights from all three traditional schools of thought. In The Geography of Ethnic Violence, for example, Monica Duffy Toft shows how ethnic group settlement patterns, socially constructed identities, charismatic leaders, issue indivisibility, and state concern with precedent setting can lead rational actors to escalate a dispute to violence, even when doing so is likely to leave contending groups much worse off.[8] Such research addresses empirical puzzles that are difficult to explain using primordialist, instrumentalist, or constructivist approaches alone.

Ethnic conflict in the post–Cold War world

The term "ethnicity" as it is used today arose in the mid 20th century, replacing the terminology of "races" or "nations" used for the concept in the 19th century. Regular warfare was formerly conceived as conflicts between nations, and only with the rise of multi-ethnic societies and the shift to asymmetric warfare did the concept of "ethnic conflict" arise as separate from generic "war". This has been the case especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the 1990s, both of which were followed by ethnic conflicts that escalated to violence and civil war.

The end of the Cold War thus sparked interest in two important questions about ethnic conflict: was ethnic conflict on the rise; and given that some ethnic conflicts had escalated into serious violence, what, if anything, could scholars of large-scale violence (security studies, strategic studies, interstate politics) offer by way of explanation?

One of the most debated issues relating to ethnic conflict is whether it has become more or less prevalent in the post–Cold War period. At the end of the Cold War, academics including Samuel P. Huntington and Robert D. Kaplan predicted a proliferation of conflicts fuelled by civilisational clashes, tribalism, resource scarcity and overpopulation.[9][10]

The post–Cold War period has witnessed a number of ethnically-informed secessionist movements, predominantly within the former communist states. Conflicts have involved secessionist movements in the former Yugoslavia, Transnistria in Moldova, Armenians in Azerbaijan, Abkhaz and Ossetians in Georgia.

However, some theorists contend that this does not represent a rise in the incidence of ethnic conflict, since many of the proxy wars fought during the Cold War were in fact ethnic conflicts masked as hot spots of the Cold War. Research shows that the fall of Communism and the increase in the number of capitalist states were accompanied by a decline in total warfare, interstate wars, ethnic wars, revolutionary wars, and the number of refugees and displaced persons.[11][12][13] Indeed, some scholars have questioned whether the concept of ethnic conflict is useful at all.[14] Others have attempted to test the clash of civilisations thesis, finding it to be difficult to operationalise and that civilisational conflicts have not risen in intensity in relation to other ethnic conflicts since the end of the Cold War.[15][16]

On the question of whether scholars deeply invested in theories of interstate violence could adapt their theories to explain or predict large-scale ethnic violence, a key issue proved to be whether ethnic groups could be considered "rational" actors.[17] Prior to the end of the Cold War, the consensus among students of large-scale violence was that ethnic groups should be considered irrational actors, or semi-rational at best. If true, general explanations of ethnic violence would be impossible. In the years since, however, scholarly consensus has shifted to consider that ethnic groups may in fact be counted as rational actors, and the puzzle of their apparently irrational actions (for example, fighting over territory of little or no intrinsic worth) must therefore be explained some other way.[8][17] As a result, the possibility of a general explanation of ethnic violence has grown, and collaboration between comparativist and international relations subfields has resulted in increasingly useful theories of ethnic conflict.

The book World on Fire by Amy Chua argues that democratization may give political power to an ethnic majority that is poor compared to an ethnic minority that more economically successful. This may cause conflict, persecution, and even genocide of the minority.

Ethnic conflict regulation

A number of scholars have attempted to synthesize the methods available for the resolution, management or transformation of ethnic conflict. John Coakley, for example, has developed a typology of the methods of conflict resolution that have been employed by states, which he lists as: indigenization, accommodation, assimilation, acculturation, population transfer, boundary alteration, genocide and ethnic suicide.[18] Greg Meyjes suggests that the degree to which ethnic tensions stem from inter-group disparity, dominance, discrimination, and repression has been critically unaccounted -- and proposes a cultural rights approach to understanding and managing ethnic conflicts.[19][20]

John McGarry and Brendan O'Leary have developed a taxonomy of eight macro-political ethnic conflict regulation methods, which they note are often employed by states in combination with each other.[21] They include a number of methods that they note are clearly morally unacceptable.

See also



  1. ^ Grosby, Steven (1994). "The verdict of history: The inexpungeable tie of primordiality – a response to Eller and Coughlan". Ethnic and Racial Studies. 17 (1): 164–171 [p. 168]. doi:10.1080/01419870.1994.9993817.
  2. ^ Horowitz, Donald L. (1985). Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. p. 57. ISBN 0520053850.
  3. ^ a b Smith, Anthony (2001). "Nationalism: Theory, Ideology, History". Cambridge: Polity: 54–55. ISBN 0745626580. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. ^ Cornell, Stephen; Hartmann, Douglas (1998). Ethnicity and Race: Making Identities in a Changing World. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge. p. 59. ISBN 0761985018.
  5. ^ Schlichting, Ursel (1997). "Conflict Between Different Nationalities: Chances for and Limits to Their Settlement". In Klinke, Andreas; Renn, Ortwin; Lehners, Jean Paul (eds.). Ethnic Conflicts and Civil Society. Aldershot: Ashgate. ISBN 1840144556.
  6. ^ Smith, Dan (2003). "Trends and Causes of Armed Conflicts". In Austin, Alexander; Fischer, Martina; Ropers, Norbert (eds.). Berghof Handbook for Conflict Transformation (PDF). Berlin: Berghof Research Centre for Constructive Conflict Management.
  7. ^ Mamdani, Mahmood (2001). When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691058210.
  8. ^ a b Toft, Monica Duffy (2003). The Geography of Ethnic Violence: Identity, Interests, and the Indivisibility of Territory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691113548.
  9. ^ Huntington, Samuel P. (1993). "The clash of civilizations?". Foreign Affairs. 72 (3): 22–49. doi:10.2307/20045621.
  10. ^ Kaplan, Robert D. (1994). "The coming anarchy". The Atlantic Monthly. 273 (2): 44–76.
  11. ^ Wallensteen, Peter; Sollenberg, Margareta (1995). "After the Cold War: Emerging patterns of armed conflict 1989–94". Journal of Peace Research. 32 (3): 345–360. doi:10.1177/0022343395032003007.
  12. ^ Harbom, Lotta; Wallensteen, Peter (2005). "Armed conflict and its international dimensions, 1946–2004" (PDF). Journal of Peace Research. 42 (5): 623–635. doi:10.1177/0022343305056238.
  13. ^ "Measuring systemic peace". Center for Systemic Peace. 30 October 2006. Retrieved 18 February 2007.
  14. ^ Gilley, Bruce (2004). "Against the concept of ethnic conflict". Third World Quarterly. 25 (6): 1155–1166. doi:10.1080/0143659042000256959.
  15. ^ Fox, Jonathan (2002). "Ethnic minorities and the Clash of Civilizations: A quantitative analysis of Huntington's thesis". British Journal of Political Science. 32 (3): 415–434. doi:10.1017/S0007123402000170.
  16. ^ Chiozza, Giacomo (2002). "Is there a Clash of Civilizations? Evidence from patterns of international conflict involvement, 1946–97". Journal of Peace Research. 39 (6): 711–734. doi:10.1177/0022343302039006004. JSTOR 1555255.
  17. ^ a b Kalyvas, Stathis N. (2006). The Logic of Violence in Civil War. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521854091.
  18. ^ Coakley, John (1992). The resolution of ethnic conflict: Towards a typology. Vol. 13. pp. 343–358. doi:10.1177/019251219201300401. ((cite book)): |journal= ignored (help)
  19. ^ Meyjes, Gregory Paul P. (2012). "Multi-Ethnic Conflicts in U.S. Military Theatres Overseas: Intercultural Imperatives". In Franke, Volker; Dorff, Robert H. (eds.). Conflict Management and ‘Whole of Government’: Useful Tools for U.S. National Security Strategy. Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. pp. 381–438. ISBN 1584875240.
  20. ^ Meyjes, Gregory Paul P. (2007). "'Plan "C" is for Culture: out of Iraq – Opportunity'". Landpower Essay 07-4. Arlington, VA: Association of the United States Army. ((cite journal)): Unknown parameter |month= ignored (help)
  21. ^ McGarry, John; O’Leary, Brendan (1993). "Introduction: The macro-political regulation of ethnic conflict". The Politics of Ethnic Conflict Regulation: Case Studies of Protracted Ethnic Conflicts. London: Routledge. pp. 1–40. ISBN 041507522X.