Theoretical explanations regarding ethnic conflict primarily focus on specific factors related to nationalism, group identity and a shared collective culture in which language, religion, historical memories and a myth of common ancestry are all directly associated with the overall formation of both ethnic identity and subsequently a larger, ethnic community. It is important to note that the former does stress relational aspects as an influence as opposed to strictly inherent factors, which remain irrespective of cultural origins. As such, relational perspectives regarding the formation of both ethnic and national identities abstain from objective criteria since factors such as language, religion, customs and traditions as well as notions of a common homeland exist between both ethnic and national developments.
As a result, the three primary theories regarding ethnic conflict focus on similar aspects regarding the formation and mobilization of group based collective identity. It is important to be cognizant of the differences between theoretical approaches as one central argument attributes ethnic ties as something given, deep rooted, historical and natural (Primordialism) while opposing theories focus on manipulative rhetoric (Instrumentalism) as a catalyst for conflict or socially and cultural (Constructivism) manufactured elements. Irrespective of theoretical perspective, all three attribute the formation of a collective identity as a prerequisite to mobilizing and sustaining emerging ethnic conflicts.
Primordialism associates ethnic conflict within a historical framework, which attributes fixed characteristics for both individuals and groups. Ethnicity is viewed as a natural occurring phenomenon in nature, enduring and unchanging by contemporary factors related to social or cultural interaction. Extreme variants associate genetic and sociobiological factors to reinforce the historical basis. Regardless, primordialism is often directly associated with ancient hatreds and faith, especially religion that can provide a sense of communal strength especially relevant during periods of upheaval or turmoil. As Barter (2008) notes, The term primordialism often carries connotations of timeless, unchanging sanguine traits; instead, it should be understood as a need for a deeper sense of being and belonging, particularly during times of uncertainty (p.48).
This is especially pertinent since primordialism often attributes being born into a particular religious community as one of the principle underlying factors. Political elites, historically utilize links to the genetic or biological variant, in order to mobilize the masses within a predefined political narrative using selective discourse that sensationalizes ethos as a biological phenomenon. As Chang & Crichlow (2009) indicate, this approach is akin to a political culture argument (p. 11) in which ethnicity and language are endogenous elements under national identity (ibid). Strengths associated with primordialism help clarify aspects regarding the ferocity and confinement of ethnic conflicts, especially in relation to speculation surrounding the reasons for mass mobilization and collective actions which are incentivized by origin, ancestral territory and history. The principle weakness associated with this theory is in respect to its inability to account for variations in frequency and intensity. In addition, its singular approach fails to account for alternative collective organizational structures aside from ethnocentric political entities or identity changes. As such, collective action is ignored as an important and subsequent facet of group identity.
In contrast, as Varshney (n.d.) notes, instrumentalism, rests on the purely instrumental use of ethnic identity for political or economic purposes by the elite, regardless of whether the elite themselves believe in ethnicity (p. 4810). In this sense, ethnicity is an instrument of influence, utilized by the political elite in order to marshal and organize support in order to achieve a specific political or economic agenda of instrumental value. As such, conflict itself is not a factor of ethnicity but effective politicization by elites as a prerequisite to provoking violent conflict. Ethnicity can serve as a focal point, which is defined as set of symbols so obvious, unique and easily comprehensible by the members of a group that it can facilitate convergence of individual expectations, and hence be useful as a mobilization strategy (ibid, p. 4811).
As a result, instrumentalist approaches are dependent on political variables. By its very nature, ethnic mobilization in politics is group action not only in favor of one’s group but also often against some other group (ibid). Criticisms associated with the instrumental approach focus on the avoidance of psychological, cultural and social factors in relation to ethnic conflict intensity. In addition, the role of political institutions as a factor in constricting the actions of a sole individual is overlooked. Since ethno politics is dominated by group leadership structures and dynamics, institutions are downplayed as an inhibiting force. Questions then arise related to why it is so effective in appealing to the group dynamic and why such collective beliefs are shared while aspects of ethnic identity and solidarity are otherwise ignore in some cases.
Constructivism views ethnicity and nationalism as something adaptable and flexible as well as a contemporary phenomenon. As such, ethnicity is something that is socially constructed through social interaction. Historically local interaction, which was limited due to geographic consideration, is supplanted in modern periods due to globalization and technology. Modernity changed the meaning of identities by bringing the masses into a larger, extralocal, framework of consciousness (Varshney, n.d. p. 48110). As such, ethnicity is based on collective experience and historical events. Defined by culturally distinctive characteristics and formulated through social relations as opposed to predefined rigid or inflexible genetic and sociobiological factors. Constructivism and in some respects Instrumentalism are the dominant paradigms reflected in conflict analysis in contemporary times.
As Green (2006) notes, The central idea of constructivism is that ethnic groups are artificial and constructed rather than natural and eternal, and, just as they can be created, they can also be destroyed or, in the postmodernist vocabulary, fragmented and deconstructed (p. 6). In this respect, ethnicity and the dynamics, which shape ethnic groups, is both fluid and influenced by various social, economic and political processes. As a result, like instrumentalism, ethnicity is viewed as malleable in which conflict is the result of various interactions between principal actors, agents, institutions and structures of influence. However, the ambiguity of this approach lends itself to criticism in which difficulty arises in determining what are the independent and dependent variables as well as the overall impact on causality. It would appear that the strength of this approach lies in the application of both metaphysical and knowledge based or epistemological tenets, factors inherent in primordialism and instrumentalism.
It would appear that conflict and the dominant theories associated with crowd identity, serve to reinforce the hive mentality by elite political manipulation. This was a principal component in the Valorian Societies premise regarding historical reference to human culture and the importance of sovereign individuality as a unique and viable contrast. Unfortunately, globalization has accelerated conformity and acquiescence toward familiar class and political structures and hierarchies, resulting in a regressive development of Human culture, irrespective of cultural, social, language or religious traditions.
Barter, S. (2008). Resources, religion, rebellion: The sources and lessons of Acehnese separatism. Small Wars & Insurgencies, 19(1), 39-61.
Chang, T., & Crichlow, Scott R. (2009). National Identity, Political Engagement, and Electoral Political Participation: A Case Study of Taiwan, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.
Green, E. (2006). Redefining Ethnicity. Development Studies Institute London School of Economics.
Varshney, A. (n.d.). Ethnic Conflicts and Ancient Hatreds: Cultural Concerns. In International Encyclopedia of Social & Behavioral Sciences (pp. 4810-4813).