Ethnic Conflict Research Paper

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Outline

I. Introduction

II. Ethnic Identity, Ethnicity, and Ethnic Groups

III. The Origin and Nature of Ethnic Conflict

A. Causes of Ethnic Conflict

1. Underlying Causes

a. Structural Factors

b. Political Factors

c. Economic and Social Factors

d. Cultural or Perceptual Factors

2. Proximate Causes

B. Conflict Dynamics

IV. Ethnic Groups and Ethnic Conflict Worldwide

A. Ethnic Groups

B. Ethnic Conflict

V. The Clash of Civilizations

VI. Conclusion

I. Introduction

Ethnic conflict is one of the major threats to international peace and security. The conflicts in the Balkans, Rwanda, Chechnya, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Darfur are only among the best-known and deadliest examples. The destabilization of provinces, states, and in some cases even whole regions are common consequences of ethnic violence. Ethnic conflicts are often accompanied by gross human rights violations such as genocide and crimes against humanity, economic decline, state failure, environmental problems, and refugee flows. Violent ethnic conflict leads to tremendous human suffering.

Despite the fact that the number of conflicts has declined over the past decades, ethnic turmoil remains one of the main sources of warfare and instability in major regions of the world. Between 1945 and 1990, nearly 100 ethnic groups were involved in violent conflicts. During the 1990s, about three quarters of conflicts were disputes between politically organized ethnic groups and governments. More than one third of the world’s states were directly affected by serious internal warfare at some time during the 1990s, and of these states, nearly two thirds experienced armed conflicts for 7 years or longer during the decade. In 2006, all 32 ongoing conflicts were internal, 5 of which were internationalized; most of them were caused by ethnic issues (Harbom & Wallensteen, 2007).

II. Ethnic Identity, Ethnicity, and Ethnic Groups

The terms ethnic and ethnicity have their roots in the Greek word ethnos, which describes a community of common descent. In ethnic conflict research, the terms ethnic group, communal group, ethnic community, peoples, and minority are mostly used interchangeably. Two elements provide the basis to identify ethnic groups: first, the accentuation of cultural traits, and second, the sense that these traits distinguish the group from the members of the society who do not share the differentiating characteristic. These ethnic criteria, which provide the origins of communal identity, may include shared historical experiences and memories, myths of common descent, a common culture and ethnicity (including race), and a link with a historic territory or a homeland (which the group may or may not currently inhabit). Elements of common culture include language, religion, laws, customs, institutions, dress, music, crafts, architecture, and even food. Ethnic communities show signs of solidarity and self-awareness, which are often expressed by the name the group gives itself (Smith, 1986). The definitions of the terms ethnic and ethnicity in ethnic conflict research thus go beyond the general usage in North America, where ethnicity commonly refers to race (skin color and other physical markers) only.

Ethnic identity is formed by both tangible and intangible characteristics. Tangible characteristics such as shared culture or race are important because they contribute to the group’s feeling of identity, solidarity, and uniqueness. As a result, the group considers perceived and real threats to its tangible characteristics as risks to its identity. If the group takes steps to confront the threat, ethnicity becomes politicized, and the group becomes a political actor by virtue of its shared identity. On the other side, ethnicity is just as much based on intangible factors, namely, on what people believe, or are made to believe, to create a sense of solidarity among members of a particular ethnic group and to exclude those who are not (Smith, 1991) members.

Although communal identity provides the foundation for the definition of ethnic groups, disagreement exists over how ethnic identity forms and how it changes over time. A first school of thought, known as the primordial ist approach, explains ethnicity as a fixed characteristic of individuals and communities (Geertz, 1973; Isaacs, 1975; Smith, 1986). According to primordialists, ethnicity is rooted in inherited biological traits and/or a long history of practicing cultural differences. Ethnic identity is seen as unique in intensity and durability and as an existential factor defining individual self-identification and communal distinctiveness. Mobilization of ethnic identity and ethnic nationalism is a powerful tool to engage the group in a political struggle. Ethnic divisions and ethnic conflict are considered inherent to multiethnic societies and a common phenomenon.

The primordialist focus on fixed identities, however, fails to recognize variation in ethnic group formation, ranging from relatively short-term associations to longstanding, strong, and cohesive groups with biological and historical roots. To account for these differences, a second, so-called instrumentalist, approach developed, which understands ethnicity as a tool used by individuals and groups to unify, organize, and mobilize populations to achieve larger goals (Brass, 1985; Glazer & Moynihan, 1975; Noel, 1968). These goals are mostly of a political nature and include, among others, demands for self-governance, autonomy, access to resources and power, respect for the group’s identity and culture, and minority rights. In this view, ethnicity has little or no independent standing outside the political process and is in its character comparable to other political affiliations such as ideological beliefs or party membership. According to instrumentalists, ethnicity is a result of personal choice and mostly independent from the situational context or the presence of cultural and biological traits. Ethnic conflict arises if ethnic groups compete for the same goal, notably power, access to resources, or territory. Elite interest plays an important role in mobilizing ethnic groups to engage in ethnic conflicts. Ethnic conflict is thus similar to other political interest conflicts.

Critics of instrumentalism argue that ethnicity, in contrast to political affiliations, cannot be decided on by individuals at will but is embedded within and controlled by the society as a whole. Advocates of social constructivism point to the social nature of ethnic identity and argue that ethnicity can only be understood in a relational framework (Anderson, 1991; Brubaker, 1995; Dominguez, 1989; Laitin, 1986). In their view, ethnicity is neither fixed nor completely open. Ethnic identity is created by social interactions between individuals and groups and remains therefore beyond a person’s choice, but it is subject to change if the social conditions change. Individuals and groups cannot escape the fact that ethnic differences exist, but they determine themselves what they make of these differences (Wolff, 2006). Ethnic conflict depends thus to a great extent on the opportunities provided for the group to reach their goals. Violent conflict is caused mainly by social and political systems that lead to inequality and grievances and do not offer options for the peaceful expression of differences (e.g., discriminatory regimes). Changes in social interactions, such as increased tensions or violent conflict, influence the socially constructed nature of ethnicity. Social constructivists explain the tremendous atrocities committed during ethnic conflicts, such as genocide, mass rape, ethnic cleansing, and so forth, by the fact that by virtue of their ethnicity, everyone is part of the struggle (Chipman, 1993).

A fourth view ascribes to ethnicity deep cultural and psychological roots, which make ethnic identity extremely persistent (Ross, 2001; Volkan, 1997). Psychocultural interpretations stress the importance of shared, deeply rooted worldviews that shape group members’ relationships with others, their actions and motives. These worldviews influence members’ perception of origin, the intensity of their identity, and the significance of political action. Ethnic identity cannot be changed, only made more tolerant and open-minded. Ethnic conflict engages central elements of each group’s identity and invokes fears and suspicion about real and potential opponents. Ethnic conflict is thus not simply a political event but a drama that challenges the very existence of the group by contesting its identity. This explains why ethnic conflicts are very difficult to resolve.

In reality, some ethnic groups have identities with deep historical roots whereas others do not, and some groups have static identities, whereas others have dynamic identities. The concrete expression of ethnicity and its propensity to lead to violence and warfare depend on the context. Ethnic identities are adaptable to and activated by unexpected threats and new opportunities. Ethnicity cannot be politicized unless an underlying core of memories, experience, or meaning moves people to collective action. As a result, ethnic identity usually “can be located on a spectrum between primordial historical continuities and (instrumental) opportunistic adaptations” (Esman, 1994, p. 14).

Several factors contribute to the salience and intensity of ethnic identities. Indisputably, the strongest factor is war and violence. First, the history of common efforts, stories of sacrifices for a common goal, and memories of human suffering create strong connections among the members of affected ethnic groups. Similarly, if a group experiences economic, political, and cultural discrimination, group cohesion tends to increase. Second, a group’s ethnic identity is stronger if mass literacy is achieved. Literacy allows elements of identity to be stored in writing, which means that historical and cultural narratives can reach a mass audience and stay the same over time. Even if an ethnic identity lies dormant for some time, it can be revived. Finally, the identities of nonimmigrant groups tend to be more pronounced than the identities of immigrant ethnic groups. While immigrants often assimilate, nonimmigrant minorities generally adhere to their traditions, especially if they are easily distinguished from the rest of the society by tangible traits such as physical markers (Gurr, 1993).

Not all ethnic groups are politically active or engage in ethnic conflict. According to the Minorities at Risk Project (http://www.cidcm.umd.edu/mar/), which tracks 283 mobilized ethnic groups, at least 17.4% of the world’s population identifies with politically active ethnic groups. Depending on the political structure of the state (democracy vs. authoritarian regimes) and the size and situation of the ethnic minority (large vs. small portion of the society, regionally concentrated vs. dispersed), ethnic groups will have different claims and will use different means to voice their demands. The Minorities at Risk Project distinguishes six different group types: ethnonationalists, indigenous peoples, ethnoclasses, communal contenders, religious sects, and national minorities. Ethnonationalists are large, regionally concentrated ethnic groups with a history of autonomy or separatist struggles. Examples include the Quebecois in Canada, the Kurds in Iraq, and the Tibetans in China.

Indigenous peoples are original inhabitants of a colonized territory. These groups typically have traditional social, economic, and cultural customs that set them apart from the rest of the society (e.g., Native Americans, the Maasai in Africa, and the Aboriginals in Australia). Even though indigenous peoples are often sharply distinct from the dominant group (they usually are set apart, not only by physical markers, but also by language, religion, traditions, etc.), they tend to be badly organized, have weak connections among group members, and, consequently, are usually unable to voice their claims (mostly to land and access to resources) in a successful manner. As a result, indigenous peoples are among the most marginalized ethnic groups in the world.

Ethnoclasses are racially or culturally distinct groups of people who are usually descendants from slaves or immigrants. African Americans in the United States or Muslim minorities in France are good examples of ethnoclasses. In many cases, these groups perform distinctive economic activities, mostly at the bottom of the economic hierarchy. Ethnoclasses generally strive for equal treatment, economic opportunities, and political participation. Mobilization of these groups varies widely. Ethnoclasses have successfully pursued their interests in many Western democracies whereas they remain relatively unorganized in most other places.

Communal contenders are culturally distinct groups that hold or seek a share in state power. Some of them can also be classified as ethnonationalists opting for separatism and seeking independence (e.g., the people of southern Sudan). The Minorities at Risk Project distinguishes between dominant, advantaged, and disadvantaged communal contenders. Dominant groups hold both political and economic power over other groups in their societies (e.g., the Sunni in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Whites in South Africa during the apartheid regime, and the Tutsi in Burundi). Advantaged groups enjoy political benefits but are not in control of governing power (e.g., the Punjabis in Pakistan). Disadvantaged communal contenders are the most common; they often face political or economic discrimination or both (e.g., the Chinese in Malaysia and the Tajiks in Afghanistan). Changes to group relations involving communal contenders are particularly likely if power structures change. Intergroup shifts of relative political influence and economic prosperity can provoke violent actions, which tend to be particularly long lasting and disastrous, as illustrated by the conflicts between north and south Sudan (1956–2005) or different groups in Lebanon (1975–1990). Power-sharing models that take differences and external changes into account are the only way to deal with these issues. However, as history shows, these power-sharing arrangements are often very difficult to achieve.

Religious sects are ethnic groups that differ from the rest of the society, mostly by their religious beliefs and related cultural practices. Religious minorities tend to have high group cohesion because religion is a highly salient trait. In addition, religious groups usually already possess an organizational structure, which makes mobilization of the groups particularly easy and likely. Most groups in this category are Muslims and include both Islamic people in non- Muslim societies (e.g., Algerians in France, Arab citizens of Israel, or Turks in Germany) and different sects within a Muslim society (e.g., Sunni and Shi‘a in Iraq). Non-Islamic groups include, among others, the Catholics in Northern Ireland, Jews in Argentina, the Copts in Egypt, and the Baha’i in Iran. For these politicized religious minorities, their faith is what sets them apart, but their goals are political in nature (e.g., participation in the government, nondiscrimination, or the recognition of the minority).

Finally, national minorities are groups with kinfolk in a neighboring state but who are a minority in the state in which they reside. Most of these groups have a history of political autonomy, which they strive to reinstate. Examples include Greeks in Albania, Russians in the Baltic, Hungarians in parts of Serbia, and Arabs in Iran.

III. The Origin and Nature of Ethnic Conflict

Conflict describes a situation in which two or more actors pursue incompatible goals. It is not necessarily violent, but the use of tension, dispute, or unease is more common in a nonviolent context. A violent internal conflict is generally called a civil war or armed conflict if casualties and destruction are substantial, the conflict had a certain duration, the protagonists are organized, and military operations are used to achieve political goals (Brown, 2001b).

Ethnic conflict is a form of conflict in which the goals of at least one party are defined in ethnic terms, and the conflict, its causes, and potential remedies are perceived along ethnic lines (Horowitz, 1985). The conflict is usually not about ethnic differences themselves but over political, economic, social, cultural, or territorial matters. The conflicts in Northern Ireland or Israel/Palestine, for example, are not religious conflicts, but political conflicts, because the goals at stake are political, not religious in nature.

If the political goal of ethnic mobilization is self-determination, the movement is called nationalism. A nation in this context is a politicized ethnic group with the desire for self-government, ranging from participation in public affairs to local segmental autonomy to territorial claims, including independence (Van Evera, 1994). The use of the word nation is problematic. On the one side, nation can mean the state as a whole (the way the term is used in international or United Nations). If nation refers to people in this context, it can be understood as the aggregate, permanent population of the state, based on citizenship. On the other side, nation is also widely used to refer to a politicized ethnic group, in which case the link among people is based on ethnicity rather than citizenship.

Ethnic disputes are common in every multicultural society. Intergroup problems arise in periods of substantial political, economic, and social change and lead to uncertainty, emerging opportunities for action, and particularistic interests. Grievances and polarizing leadership lead to mobilization, ranging from political action (conventional politics, strikes, demonstrations, and other nonviolent means) to violent acts such as terrorism, armed uprisings, and guerrilla and civil wars (Horowitz, 2001).

A. Causes of Ethnic Conflict

Michael Brown (2001a, 2001b) distinguishes between underlying and proximate causes for ethnic conflict. Underlying causes include structural factors, political factors, economic and social factors, and cultural and perceptual factors. Proximate causes embrace four levels of conflict triggers: internal, mass-level factors (bad domestic problems); external, mass-level factors (bad neighborhoods); external, elite-level factors (bad neighbors); and internal, elite-level factors (bad leaders). Both underlying and proximate causes have to be present for ethnic conflict to evolve.

1. Underlying Causes

a. Structural Factors

Weak states or failed states are often a starting point for ethnic conflict. Most of these states are artificial products (e.g., former colonies) and lack political legitimacy, ethnically sensible borders, and effective political and legal institutions. Violent conflicts are likely if changes in the economic situation of a state (e.g., cuts in foreign aid, corruption, administrative incompetence, and the inability to promote economic stability) are associated with the deterioration of the political situation in the country and the mobilization of ethnic groups. Group rivalry can lead to military mobilization, which leads to general armament of all ethnic groups within the state. This causes a security dilemma; by taking steps to defend themselves, ethnic groups often threaten the security of others (Posen, 1993). The ethnic security dilemma involves aspects of physical security (threats to the existence of the group), political security (oppressive regimes, exclusion from political participation), economic and social security (no equal opportunities for economic and social advancement of the group), cultural security (forced assimilation), and environmental security (destruction of a minority’s land and resources; Wolff, 2006). Violent conflicts and internal security dilemmas lead to massive human rights violations, refugee flows, and spillover effects with the potential to destabilize whole regions.

Ethnic geography, namely, the geographic distribution and territorial concentration of ethnic groups in pluralistic states, is a second factor that contributes to the likelihood of violent ethnic conflict. Ethnic conflict is particularly common in states with territorially concentrated ethnic groups located near a border or with ethnic kin in an adjacent state (Fearon & Laitin, 2003). These groups show high levels of organization and increased group cohesion and are able to use shared homelands as a territorial base for their political struggle.

b. Political Factors

Ethnic conflict is particularly likely in states in which ethnic groups are inadequately represented in the government, the courts, the police, the military, political parties, and other public and political institutions. Authoritarian one-party regimes with discriminatory legislation and lack of opportunities for ethnic groups to participate in state decision-making processes are particularly prone to ethnic conflict. Liberal democracies that focus on the ideals of inclusion, political debate, and the attempt to reach consensus among all participants in the political process facilitate nonviolent ethnopolitical action and are thus less likely to experience rebellion or uprisings (Gurr & Harff, 2003). A second cause of conflict is exclusionary national ideologies. Nationalism and, in an increased form, citizenship based on ethnic distinctions are especially dangerous because such ideologies tend to flourish in situations of political uncertainty and economic collapse. Other forms of exclusionary national ideologies include religious fundamentalism and supremacist, fascist expressions. Third, the occurrence of violent ethnic conflict depends on stable domestic intergroup relations. Violent conflict is especially likely if the claims are incompatible, groups are strong and organized, action is possible, success is achievable, and the fear of suppression and discrimination is tangible (Brown, 2001b). Tactics employed by leaders and elites during political turmoil are crucial: Scapegoating, hate speech, and instrumentalization of the mass media are means that have the potential to aggravate ethnic tensions.

c. Economic and Social Factors

Economic slowdowns, stagnation, deterioration, and collapse are sources of destabilization of the state and can lead to increased tensions and competition among ethnic groups. Competition for limited natural resources is one of the major factors leading to ethnic conflict. In addition, discriminatory economic systems with unequal economic opportunities, access to land and resources, and vast differences in standards of living generate resentment and contribute to tensions and destabilization. Fast economic transitions (e.g., from centrally planned to market economies) and development can aggravate instability by creating favorable conditions for domestic migration, urbanization, and other societal changes. These changes also raise hopes for economic and political gains that can provoke frustration if these expectations are not met.

d. Cultural or Perceptual Factors

Cultural factors such as problematic group histories, stereotypical perceptions, and grievances over cultural discrimination, including restricted educational opportunities, legal and political limitations on the use of the minority language, and constraints on religious and cultural practices, are common causes of ethnic conflict. In addition, a weakening of traditional forms of dispute settlement (such as a council of elders) changes the environment for conflict resolution of ethnic disputes (Brown, 2001a).

2. Proximate Causes

Proximate causes can be categorized according to (a) whether they are triggered by elite-level or mass-level factors and (b) whether they are triggered by internal or external developments. Brown (2001a, 2001b) identifies four main types of proximate causes of internal conflict:

  1. Bad domestic problems (internal, mass level factor)
  2. Bad neighborhoods (external, mass level factor)
  3. Bad leaders (internal, elite level factor)
  4. Bad neighbors (external, elite level factor)

First, internal mass-level factors create bad domestic problems such as rapid economic development, modernization, patterns of political or economic discrimination, and internal migration (urbanization). Refugees or fighters from neighboring countries who cross the border often bring violence and turmoil with them.

Second, radicalized politics can lead to contagion, diffusion, and spillover effects and create “bad neighborhoods” (external mass-level causes). For instance, the Hutu refugee camps in Zaire became prime recruitment zones for rebel forces.

Third, internal elite-level aspects include power struggles by leaders of different groups, ideological contests over the way a country should be organized, and criminal assaults. Leaders have the ability to “play the ethnic card,” which can lead to increased tensions between ethnic groups. Milosevic’s policies in the former Yugoslavia are a good example. By using the national media, Milosevic fueled nationalist movements and hate toward non-Serbian groups, which led to ethnic cleansing and gross human rights violations committed during the wars in the 1990s.

And finally, external, elite-level factors are the results of decisions by governments to trigger conflicts in weak neighboring states for political, economic, security, or ideological reasons; an example is Russian involvement in Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia). In addition, ethnic minorities in some cases decide to wage a violent struggle in the hope of political gains and international support. Ethnic groups assume the willingness of the international community to react and to provide a political forum to support negotiation, arbitration, and the settlement of disputes. The assumption of intervention by the international community can, in the worst case, cause the very tragedies international engagement in ethnic conflict tries to prevent. This happened, for example, in Kosovo in the late 1990s. The Kosovar Albanian rebel forces were convinced that if they could provoke the Serbs to attack ethnic Albanians, the international community would intervene on their behalf and thus facilitate their goal of independence. The plan seemed to work out: The rebels began shooting large numbers of Serbian police and civilians in 1997, the Serbs responded by bloody counterinsurgency in 1998, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombed the Serbs in 1999, occupying the province and thereby establishing Kosovo’s de facto independence. However, both the Serb counterinsurgency and the Albanian attacks on Serbs after Serbia’s defeat caused the death and displacement of thousands of people on both sides, thereby leading to a tragedy that could have been prevented. These deaths were a direct consequence of the promise of humanitarian intervention (Kuperman, 2004).

B. Conflict Dynamics

Once ethnic conflict breaks out, it is difficult to stop. Massive human rights violations and physical attacks on civilians such as rape, torture, mass killings, ethnic cleansing, and genocide lead to tremendous human suffering. Systematic discrimination and exclusion from national and local political decision making, the appropriation of ethnic minorities’ traditional homelands, and policies that marginalize ethnic minorities are common practices accompanying ethnic conflict.

Even if fought at a low level of intensity, protracted ethnic conflicts have a great impact on the affected society. The lack of functioning or legitimate political institutions, weak economic performance, nonexistent or polarized structure of civil society, and antagonized elites lead to polarization and separation, eroding crosscutting cleavages and leaving societies deeply divided and prone to further ethnic strife. In addition, ethnic conflicts have very direct effects far beyond their epicenters. These involve refugee flows, internal displacement, regional instability, economic failures, environmental disasters, diffusion and spillover effects, and conditions for organized crime and terrorism. Ethnic conflicts spread in two ways. Diffusion occurs when an ethnic conflict in one state stimulates conflict in another state with similar conditions. Successful movements provide images and moral incentives resulting in the motivation and mobilization of other ethnic movements in similar economic and political conditions. Escalation or contagion effects occur when a conflict in one country spreads across borders into neighboring countries in which an ethnic minority has its kinfolk. This usually involves the engagement of new foreign fighters who are employed by local elites. Ethnic conflicts may start out as intrastate disputes, but become regional or international crises when foreign powers get involved.

Neighboring states, regional powers, and international powers are often overwhelmed and unable to deal with international consequences of ethnic conflicts. However, in many cases, these external actors are not passive victims of ethnic crises but actively pursue their own agendas and interests. Foreign sympathizers and diasporas can contribute substantially to a group’s cohesion and mobilization by providing financial, military, political, and moral support. External actors in some cases play important roles in inflaming conflicts or prolonging violent struggles. Opportunistic interventions to gain military, economic, or political benefits take advantage of conflict-affected states and contribute to the conflict. At the same time, international involvement can be crucial in preventing and settling ethnic conflict. The international community plays a role in negotiating, organizing, and supervising ceasefires and peace agreements; investigating past human rights violations; implementing the provisions of peace settlements; conducting peace operations including humanitarian, military, and economic assistance; imposing arms embargos and economic sanctions; and providing mechanisms of confidence and capacity building and of solving future disputes with peaceful means. Neighboring states and the international community can thus be victims of the troubles in the region or active contributors—sometimes deliberately, in other cases unintentionally—by providing military, economic, or political support of ethnic groups or engaging in negotiation and peace implementation. Regional instability is as much a source of ethnic conflict as it is a consequence.

IV. Ethnic Groups and Ethnic Conflict Worldwide

A. Ethnic Groups

Given the aforementioned vague definition of ethnic groups, no one really knows how many ethnic groups exist in the world. Estimations range from a few hundred to a few thousand. The reasons for these discrepancies are manifold. Each state has different methods of determining group affiliation. While one state labels a group White, another distinguishes among different heritages. In addition, the fact that self-identification with an ethnic minority often comes with disadvantages leads to unreliable censuses. In other cases, ethnic minorities tend to overestimate their numbers to get benefits from the government or to put themselves in a stronger position (see, e.g., the entry for Albania in the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook (U.S. CIA, n.d.), which notes that as of 1989, estimates of the Greek population ranged from 1% in official Albanian statistics to 12% in statistics from a Greek organization). A further complication is that one ethnic group can have many different names. The group might have a name for itself, the state might have second one, ethnic kinfolk in a neighboring state might label themselves in a third way, and scholars might use a fourth name to refer to parts or the entire group. Finally, numbers fluctuate due to migration and other factors, such as fertility and mortality rates. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, for example, the growth of the U.S. Hispanic population from 9.6 million in 1970 to 102.6 million (projected) in 2050 will lead to major changes in the composition of the U.S. population, with the current majority (White) losing its majority status.

Around 80% of states are multiethnic societies, meaning that no ethnic group dominates the society. The remaining 20% are either states that are truly ethnically homogeneous (e.g., Japan and Korea) or states with overwhelming majorities (such as China, France, and Germany, which are home to many different ethnic groups). China, for example, has 57 official ethnic groups, but 91.5% of the people are Han (U.S. CIA, n.d.). In contrast, ethnically heterogeneous states comprise two or more ethnic groups, none of which is completely dominant. These groups can be regionally concentrated, as for example in Canada, Switzerland, or Belgium, or dispersed, as in the United States.

B. Ethnic Conflict

Ethnic conflict has been the world’s most common source of warfare, insecurity, and loss of life. According to the Minorities at Risk database, 121 ethnic conflicts occurred between 1945 and 2003. Some 60% of conflicts started before 1990, and the other 40% started after 1990, thereby making the last decade of the 20th century the decade with the most ethnic conflicts. Since 1955, nearly 50 ethnic groups have been targeted in campaigns of genocides and ethnic cleansings that killed between 13 million and 20 million civilians (Marshall & Gurr, 2005). These civil wars, mass murders, and violent campaigns led to more than 14 million internationally recognized refugees and about 17 million internally displaced people (U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, 2008). Today, most ethnic conflicts occur in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

Many of these conflicts are protracted conflicts, meaning that they have lasted 10 years or more. The Sudanese civil war between the Arab-Muslim north and the Christian-Animist-African south, for example, is the longest and deadliest civil war in the second half of the 20th century. Most ethnic conflicts do not meet the threshold of wars (1,000 or more battle-related deaths in a year). Low-level rebellions, minor armed conflicts (at least 25 battle-related deaths per year), terror campaigns, and large-scale protest movements with occasional violence are more common. Patterns of escalation and de-escalation are typical scenarios. The Sri Lankan civil war, for instance, started in the early 1980s between the Sinhalese government and Tamil rebel groups and ended in 2009 with the defeat of the Tamils. During the conflict, high and low levels of intensity alternated; the conflicting parties negotiated various ceasefires and peace agreements, followed by insurgencies and high levels of violence and death.

V. The Clash of Civilizations

The idea that cultural differences lead to violent behavior of political actors is also the foundation of Samuel Huntington’s famous Foreign Affairs article “The Clash of Civilizations?” (1993) and his subsequent book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). From the premise that sameness leads to peaceful relations whereas difference produces disorder and conflict, Huntington argues that cultural and ethnic differences between “civilizations,” namely, states or groups of states that distinguish themselves by cultural traits, will lead to conflict. These cultural differences are first and foremost religious in nature, although linguistic and geographic proximity also play a role. He identifies the following as major civilizations:

  • Western civilization (western and central Europe, North America, and Australia)
  • Latin American civilization (Central and South America)
  • Slavic Orthodox civilization (former Soviet Union states [excluding Central Asia], former Yugoslavia [excluding Slovenia and Croatia], and eastern Europe)
  • Buddhist civilization (Asian states, including Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia, Mongolia, and Myanmar/Burma)
  • Confucian civilization (China and the Chinese diaspora, North and South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Vietnam)
  • Hindu civilization (India and the Indian diaspora, Nepal)
  • Japanese civilization
  • Islamic civilization (Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei)
  • (Sub Saharan) African civilization (southern, central, and eastern Africa)

Some civilizations overlap or are categorized into subcivilizations (e.g., Western civilization is divided into the European and North American categories; Islamic civilization into Arab, Persian, Turkish, and Indonesian subdivisions). Turkey, Ethiopia, Haiti, and Israel are excluded from this classification of civilizations and designated as so-called lone countries.

The idea of classifying the world into civilizations is not entirely new. The British historian Arnold J. Toynbee (1960) concluded, in his book A Study of History, that the world consists of 21 civilizations. The German historian and philosopher Oswald Spengler (1918/1991) divides the world into eight cultures in his book The Decline of the West and follows a pattern very similar to Huntington’s divisions (excluding most of Africa). The term clash of civilizations was crafted by British scholar Bernard Lewis (1990) in his article titled “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” in which he describes the rivalry between Islam and the Judeo-Christian heritage. Huntington’s work endorses Lewis’s hypothesis of the clash of civilizations and expands the theory to the global scale.

According to Huntington (1996), future conflicts or “clashes” will happen between these civilizations, either on the local and regional level (what he calls “fault line conflicts”) or on the global level between major states of different civilizations (“core state conflicts”). He points out that these conflicts will be mostly between the Western civilization, which currently enjoys hegemonic status, and major challengers, namely the Confucian and Islamic civilizations. East Asia, and above all China, threatens the West mostly because of rapid economic growth, and the rise of fundamentalism in the Islamic world challenges Western values such as liberal democracy and human rights. Huntington sees a potential alignment of these two “challenger civilizations” as both have a history of conflict with the West. In addition, so-called swing civilizations, namely Russia, India, and Japan, who might favor either the West or the challengers, further destabilize the world because their affiliations are unclear, but their power is extensive enough to bring about major changes.

Huntington’s (1993, 1996) main prediction is that future conflicts will be fought between Muslims and non- Muslims. Conflicts along boundaries between Muslims and non-Muslims, as in the Philippines, Kashmir, Chechnya, Kosovo, Bosnia, Sudan, Nigeria, and Palestine, are seen as proof that “Islam has bloody borders” (Huntington, 1993, p. 35). Historical clashes of Christians and Muslims dating back to the Middle Ages and the fact that both Islam and Christianity are absolute, universalist religions with a mission to spread their faith are portrayed as the reasons for current and future problems between the Christian (Western) and Islamic civilizations. The attacks of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent events in Afghanistan and Iraq have been interpreted as proof of Huntington’s predictions.

Critics, however, point out that empirical evidence does not support Huntington’s thesis. Empirical studies find no increase in the frequency of intercivilizational conflicts and show that state interactions across civilizational divides are not more prone to conflict. Similarly, Huntington’s (1996) “kin-country syndrome” (p. 272), namely, the idea that in case of a war, people from the same civilization will support others with the same cultural identity, cannot be empirically established. Scholars have thus disproved major aspects of the theory of the clash of civilizations (Chiozza, 2002; Fox, 2002; Tusicisny, 2004).

Others point to the fact that clear cultural boundaries do not exist in reality. Why separate Japan from China? Why not separate Vietnam from China? Why not distinguish between Catholic and Protestant states in the West? Ideological and philosophical differences, paired with political and economic discrepancies, are the most important factors influencing the likelihood of conflict (Berman, 2003). In turn, ideological and political values such as democratic governance and the rule of law are more easily transmitted than Huntington suggests (Ajami, 1993). Many non-Western states have become democratic over the past decades, and the European Union has expanded beyond Western Europe. Cultural perceptions play a secondary role. In addition, many argue that nation-states will remain the major players in international politics. Most conflicts will be fought between states of the same civilization or, more likely, within states (Gray, 1998; Hunter, 1998; Walt, 1997).

Although Huntington’s thesis has its merits and has led to considerable scholarly debate, it cannot be empirically proven and has major flaws. Huntington’s classification of civilizations is difficult to apply to reality. For example, although all states or groups in the Islamic civilization are mainly Muslim, they express very different worldviews (e.g., Bosnians, Indonesians, and Arabs face completely different economic, social, and political circumstances). In addition, most conflicts today are not conflicts between civilizations but rather conflicts within civilizations and within states. The major causes for conflict today are not cultural differences but economic and political problems, ideological disagreements, and discrimination. It is safe to say that most political scientists today have serious doubts about major elements of Huntington’s thesis.

VI. Conclusion

Cultural differences and ethnic conflicts are important issues shaping international politics. Because cultural affiliations and ethnic identity are particularly strong factors shaping group relations, these conflicts have led to tremendous human suffering and are a significant threat to international security. Instability, refugee flows, spillover effects, and other international consequences guarantee that ethnic conflict remains an issue on the international political agenda. However, it is not the cultural differences per se that lead to conflict but political, ideological, and economic goals of international actors, regardless of whether these actors are states, ethnic groups, or “civilizations.” Given the complexity of ethnic and cultural conflicts, there is no “silver bullet solution” to solving related issues.

See also:

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