Ethnicity and Identity Conflict

Authored by: Neal G. Jesse

Routledge Handbook of Civil Wars

Print publication date:  February  2014
Online publication date:  February  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415622585
eBook ISBN: 9780203105962
Adobe ISBN: 9781136255786


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If civil war is a battle among different social groups within a state over control of the state, an exploration of the causes of civil war must surely start with the fundamental factors that influence group behavior. Identity and the expression of group identities through the concept of collective ethnic identity (more commonly referred to as ethnicity) provide a foundation for group behavior. Ethnicity can also provide the basis for a group’s demands upon the state, be they realized or unrealized. Our modern global mosaic of states and ethnicities provides the structure for competing ethnic groups to contest power and authority. When this contestation turns violent, ethnic conflict and civil war may be the outcome. Put quite simply, “Ethnic conflict is the consequence of ethnic pluralism… when two or more ethnic communities are present in the same political space” (Esman, 2004, 1). Given the rich diversity of ethnic communities around the globe, the number of ethnic conflicts and ethnic civil wars across history and geography, even if we limit ourselves to the period since the birth of the modern state system in 1648, is much too vast to be covered sufficiently in this volume. What follows is an overview of the current theories on collective identity formation and ethnic identity. I continue with a discussion of how identity differences translate into violent confrontation. In this analysis I detail how domestic and international factors interact with identity to either push toward conflict or to help ameliorate it. Last, I outline key areas of our understanding with ambiguity or disagreement, and offer some insights into the possible avenues of future research.

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