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From the APA MONITOR (Vol. 29 , No. 8) August 1998

Experts offer theories on the roots of ethnic conflicts

Emotions, when linked with negative group identity, are a cause of much ethnic violence.

By Patrick A. McGuire

Monitor staff

In New Guinea, wars often break out because pigs belonging to one group stray into the garden of another. This, according to psychologist Clark McCauley, PhD, of Bryn Mawr College, was an interesting discovery made by a colleague, but not as interesting as the idea that many times when pigs got into another group’s garden, no war was waged at all.

In the cases where the offended group did not pursue war against its neighbors, members fought bitterly amongst themselves, essentially over the level of 'moral violation' they felt had been caused by the errant pigs.

It highlighted, said McCauley at a conference last month in Londonderry, Northern Ireland on ethnopolitical warfare, a driving force behind such conflict. 'It’s emotion—the willingness to sacrifice personal safety, even life, in the interest of group conflict,' he said.

McCauley’s ideas were presented to a group of about 50 prominent scholars in the fields of psychology, sociology, political science and history. Many elaborated on their life’s work studying ethnopolitical warfare in a specific hostile region of the world. From those experiences they were able to draw conclusions about the psychological underpinnings of such conflict that applied around the world.

For example, Anthony Oberschall, PhD, of the University of North Carolina, in speaking about his experiences in Bosnia, talked of in-group fighting that sounded similar to the in-fighting over pigs in New Guinea.

'In ethnic competition,' he said, 'the conflict within groups is almost as important as between groups.'

Group identity

During the week-long conference, theorists were in much agreement about the link between group identity, emotion and violence.

'By group identification I mean feeling positive and negative outcomes of a group as your own,' said McCauley.

'I don’t mean empathy. We’ve all had the experience of knowing a group where something bad has happened to them. They are angry, we’re sad. There, our emotions don’t match.'

In the context of ethnopolitical warfare, McCauley said, group identification 'means expanding the boundaries of what an individual cares about. It goes past the boundaries of narrow self-interest.'

Ervin Staub, PhD, of the University of Massachusetts, defines ethnopolitical violence as 'violence based on any differentiation by group.' And, he said, such violence tends to evolve toward the ultimate crime of genocide along 'a continuum of destruction' that begins simply enough with what he called 'difficult conditions of life.'

'Fundamental human needs are frustrated,' he said. 'There develops a need for control, of positive identity—a need for connection.'

Out of such needs, he said, come 'the beginning of restlessness and a demand for more.' People begin turning to groups for their identity. 'The psychological and social process turns one group against another,' said Staub. The result, he said, 'is an ideology based on antagonism.' People elevate their own group to gain a better sense of themselves, while at the same time devaluing another group.

'What makes this destructive is that one group is usually identified as an enemy that stands in the way of the fulfillment of their position,' said Staub. 'They view the other group as mortal enemies, it becomes part of their group’s identity. And it has a vision of a better world in which the other is eliminated.'

A conceptual framework

Two dangers of studying ethnopolitical warfare, said Kenneth Jowitt, PhD, of the University of California at Berkeley, are the tendency to either generalize that all ethnic conflicts are the same, or to fall into the trap of deciding that the case you happen to be studying is incredibly unique. Which is why, he said, he developed a conceptual framework for organizing material when looking at conflicts.

In his framework there are three types of conflict and violence, with three types of identity and entity:

• The corporate or 'barricaded' model, which is dogmatic and hysterical about defending the righteousness of its identity. He cited the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages as an example.

• The individual or 'bounded' model. The opposite of the barricaded mentality, it emphasizes resemblance, not differences. 'A bounded role is being a Democrat or a Republican, but you’re both Americans.' Whereas, being identified as 'Orange' or 'Green' in Northern Ireland is built on differences.

• Ego identities, or the 'frontier' model. They are marked by lethal violence, he said 'but the violence is ghetto-like. It doesn’t have much in the way of ideological rationale.' The hallmark of a frontier setting is a weak state such as Russia today, Bosnia, Somalia, Albania and Afghanistan. The danger, he said, is that unchecked frontier models can generate into an extremist, super-ethnic version of the barricaded model, backed by power. That, he said, is how Lenin and Stalin came to power after the Russian Civil War. It is also how Nazi Germany developed.


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