Identity-Based Conflict
Lecture 1

Understanding Identity Politics

Rohee Dasgupta shares different perspectives on identity and how it can be be used to generate conflict.
People use the term "identity politics" all the time,
but what does it actually mean?

How does identity affect conflict,
and how does conflict affect identity?
"This will be an interdisciplinary course," says Rohee Dasgupta, our professor. She herself has training in anthropology, conflict studies, European studies and discourses of identity and security. As compared to the courses from last term (theory, history and ethics), this identity-based conflict course doesn't have its own field. It's a thematic subject at the intersection of a bunch of different disciplines and we'll be taking a little bit from everything.

Today will be an introduction to the course as well as a brief glance at how conflicts of identity are framed in terms of sociological thinking – so we'll be looking at the relationship between individual and collective as well as what different perspectives reveal about political violence, power structures, hegemonic structures, identity and society.

Secondly we'll be looking at different theoretical approaches to analyzing and resolving identity conflicts, then move on the following week to historical narratives of religious and ethnic conflicts. We'll be looking in particular at the Israeli-Palestine conflict, Kashmir, Bosnia and Rwanda. There'll be a glance at how political history plays into conflict, why religious conflicts occur and what are some potential triggers.

In our fourth class we'll be looking at ethnonationalism and how it intersects with identity and religion – we'll also be looking at how narratives of identity are promoted in literature, as well as in socio-political and philosophical questions. There'll be a focus on land and ethnicity as well as Canadian contexts with regard to gender and Indigenous issues.

Our fifth week will be dedicated to leadership structures and censorship, and how privilege or education can define (or block) how victims can speak about their experiences. How we might be more used to hearing certain kinds of victim narratives than others. In the sixth week we'll be looking at how religious identity conflicts are handled at the level of law and the state – there'll be a good dose of what's called mimetic theory along with other approaches.

Next we'll be going deeper into issues of gender and conflict, but not only about the more obvious dimensions of how gender is affected. We'll also be looking at queer narratives, gendered assumptions about suicide bombers, what goes into constructing this kind of terrorist among women, what makes a person vulnerable to these kinds of missions. In our eighth class we'll be looking at politics of space (think land and identities connected with the land) as well as genocide.

In week nine we'll be looking at reconciliation and society, how identities are affected by truth-seeking commissions and vice versa. How our idea of the identity of others (especially enemy others) can affect attempts at dialogue and reconciliation. Closely connected to that will be the tenth class on transitional justice, which we will be analyzing through case studies like the processes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. We'll be looking at the legal perspective as well as the less-concrete areas of social dialogue. A big issue here is whose truth are we finding or constructing, and whose reconciliation are we building.

Week eleven will be about conflict management and identity, with a focus on civil society and conflict transformation. What we're talking about here are the ways political violence gets legitimized in society, and what happens to people once they surrendered. We'll be looking at conflicts in the Basque Country (Spain), Sri Lanka and in Northern Ireland in particular, as all three have seen an experience of surrender and, to some degree, transformation. We'll be looking at how their societies have actually been changed and whether lessons learned can be applied to other cases.

Who I Am (Not)

"What does identity mean to you?" she asks us. We suggest words: self-concept, role, narrative, values, morals, family, context, religion. Who I am.

But it's more about who I am and all of these positive definitions – very often our identities are just as defined by what we are not. This can lead to an exclusionary framework, especially in contexts when tensions are high and we may start to feel tribal loyalties coalesce. People who are not us may start to seem threatening.

It's this last part that's key: there are cases when we feel more threatened, and our collective identities may start prompting us to take certain actions that can quickly escalate into subtle or overt conflict. So when we think about identity-based conflict there are a few things to keep in mind.

First, we can look at things from a practical point of view. We are in need of real people to take (or develop) real resources and approaches to thorny issues like security, morals, culture and values and see if we can navigate these questions with less conflict. If there are wrongs, we need to set things right.

But this is dealing with conflict once it already emerges – we need to also look at things on a deeper level, to see how things got to this point. This is where another factor comes in: if we're going to focus on how identity fits in with all this, we need to understand not only individual identity but collective identity. We need to know more about how collective identity can lead to violent action. How it can be mobilized or politicized, either spontaneously or by charismatic leaders.
This is something we studied in our last term during theory class: we looked at Henri Tajfel and John Turner's social identity theory, which breaks down some of these steps and still remains relevant today (I break it down in another post that I had to take down for lame reasons – message me and I can send you a copy, if you're interested). Other theoretical frameworks include Vamik Volkan's, who talked about the psychological factors (like threat or experiences of historical trauma) leading ethnic groups to take violent actions in books like Bloodlines or Killing in the Name of Identity. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt's moral foundations theory also provides insight into how groups form around different clusters of moral values which then can inform their identity – he gets into this in-depth in a book called The Righteous Mind. All worthwhile reads.

Theories like these are made in hopes that violence (and other forms of conflict) can be predicted, though sometimes nothing is predictable. The rally-turned-violent-storming-of-the-US-Capitol that happened on Jan 6th was not something a lot of experts predicted (although some say that the signs were indeed there if you knew where to look). So, much of all this is trying to learn where to look, and developing theories/frameworks that help us develop our vision.

There can be an impulse in academia, and among the people in our course, to see people like those protesters as an Other (some classmates might not feel this way, but it's hard to discuss those feelings in a class like this), but Rohee says that part of what this kind of analysis means is trying to see things from their perspective. What bound them together as a collective – what shared history, what sense of grievance, what informational networks, what values and communities? These are often bound in a sense of identity: who I am, who they are, what they are trying to do to us, what we need to defend.

Collective actions that are informed by identity in this way, especially when they have consequences in public life, are called identity politics. And identity politics can be found among Trump supporters just as much as among Black Lives Matter advocates and allies. What's makes it hard to work with identity politics is that they aren't static either – they're relational, situational. Dependent on circumstances and all the factors in play at any given time.

Questions of history, time, narrative – these are huge. We ignore them at our peril.


Most people who have been exposed to the social sciences have heard of a theory known as social constructionism. It comes down to the thought that much of our social lives amount to social constructions: major parts of our behaviour, ideas and thoughts are defined by categories (nation, philosophy, politics) that have been constructed over time in different ways. This is often contrasted to essentialism, which suggests that certain behaviours or patterns are innate or biologically determined.

In international relations (IR), there's a riff on social constructionism called constructivism, which focuses on what political scientist Benedict Anderson calls imagined communities. These communities, or imaginaries, are socially constructed ideas that give our lives shape. Think of the way our governments are formed, or the demands made of us by democracy, pluralism or multiculturalism (depending on our country). These aren't innate ideas – they are imaginaries. Not in the sense that they are not real, but in the sense that we developed them over time and they exist entirely in our heads. Borders don't show up in space – they exist in our minds and are made 'real' by being built into our institutions, architecture and documents.

But constructivism is also broader than this – it also refers to the strategies we have for life that we form through shared principles, norms, rules and conduct. These can be expressed through the law, which is one way of shaping our communities. We also have social values communicated through institutions like schools, religious centres and art spaces. Constructivists look at the ways these structures have been built, and the post-WWII era was a fertile period for all sorts of construction. With decolonization, many societies were regaining their freedom for the first time in decades (or even centuries) and the process of constructing a whole state was happening before our very eyes.

While we won't get into it too much right now, deconstructionism took root a bit later. It started in linguistics and later spread to philosophy, critical theory, the arts and political science – in a nutshell it's about radically challenging the way certain things have been constructed. Many challenged status quo constructions because of perceived inequalities and power imbalances, and this led to Marxist (focused on class), feminist, racial and postcolonial theories emerging to challenge what they saw as various histories of oppression or exploitation built into the very construction of society.

Identity is key here, because many of these ways of challenging dominant constructions were tied to various groups a person belonged to: women, colonized peoples, the working class. And identity sometimes became a flag to rally behind in order to work towards a different type of system. This, for obvious reasons, has led to conflict.

For the first part of the 20th century one of the main paradigms in political theory was something called realism, which focuses on how power works on the state level. Think ideological tussle-matches between the USA and USSR and their proxies, or different alliances and deterrents. This was a relevant framework for a long time, but the increasing amount of ethnic conflicts (often motivated by identity, among other factors) leading to civil and transnational wars has led to a need to look at other factors than states. After the horrors that took place in Rwanda and Bosnia in the early-to-mid 1990s, identity was one factor that started being investigated significantly more than before.
"That's not to say," Rohee says, "that realism is not a valid theory anymore. You can be a realist in the 20th century, though it may render you different from your peers."

But even looking at conflicts with a solid lens of identity isn't always enough – identities shift. This was referred to in sociologist Zygmunt Bauman's idea of liquid modernity, which describes a kind of late modernity where individuals can free themselves from the networks they can otherwise be embedded in and change locations, lifestyles, occupations or identities with greater ease. While this does make it more difficult to pin down identity-based motivations lying behind conflicts, though, times of conflict and tension tend to decrease this liquidity and anchor people within certain collective constructions. We'll be talking about this more next week.


So we have constructions of identity that can be deconstructed given the right contexts. We have a liquid modernity that makes individuals able to slip in and out of different identities. But even with this greater flexibility we still have a lot of imaginaries that bind us together. Land can be one, whether we're talking about a territory we see as our home or the land implied by concepts like west, east, north or south (and all their social, political and cultural connotations).

As mentioned before, personal and collective senses of security have a major impact on how we related to our own imaginaries. We're not only talking about security in military terms (although that can also be relevant): we're also speaking about sociological security, human security, economic security, health, belonging, all of that. We can define security as something that allows us to live together in a sense of pluralism or coexistence, or we can opt for a construction of security that sets us apart from others in what can quickly escalate into a zero-sum game. These are concepts dominating the study of identity politics.

Anderson, when describing his imaginary communities, talks quite a bit about nationalism. Nationalism is a very sophisticated imaginary: it allows people in Toronto to feel more connection to people in Vancouver as compared to New York, which is significantly closer. It can facilitate cooperation among certain tribes and clans while ruling it out among others. Often times a state will try to shape its own sense of nationalism, and this can form a dominant set of impressions or stereotypes of a country. That Canadians are polite is a cliche example of this kind of nationalism. That India is secular, however, is far more charged. Especially in the face of a competing nationalism that may try to define India as Hindu – which then implies that Indian Muslims may not entirely be Indian.
(Note, secular nationalisms are not necessarily more inclusive – they may marginalized deeply religious believers in the same way that a religious nationalism may marginalize believers of a different tradition)
Anderson argues that within each nationalism are many, sometimes competing subnationalisms. These can be relatively peaceful subcultures that exist within an overarching nationalism, and they may or may not experience marginalization. Certain kinds of subnationalisms, however, may try to reach out from the periphery and try to change the centre. This can lead to massive (and predominantly peaceful) movements like Black Lives Matter, but it can also lead to the outbreak of civil war given the right (or, depending on your point of view, wrong) conditions. Many subnationalisms, Anderson says, dream of shedding their subnationalism one day.

While Anderson often speaks from a Marxist angle focusing on class, different layers produce their own subnationalisms: race, ethnicity, religion, region, shared history. In frameworks of extreme domination, a subnationalism can frame its identity in disempowered ways that reinforce its inferiority. But in certain times of tension, change or empowerment, these subnationalisms can develop or construct identities (intentionally or no) that can motivate large numbers of people to rise up and change the status quo. This may or may not include mass violence. What makes a given case tend towards mass violence is a major field of study.

Cultural theorists like Stuart Hall go further in the direction of looking at power structures, intersectionality and how historically marginalized populations, in his case black people, can mobilize identity and challenge what he perceives, with many others, to be hegemonic power structures that have been constructed over centuries of empire and domination. This can lead to the identity politics described by intersectional theories, but it also can contribute to civil war in states that are vulnerable to violence.

These, however, are all different narratives that are in play. As we will see later when looking at truth and reconciliation commissions, everyone has their own side of the story. This is not only limited to the victim, but also includes perpetrators and bystanders. This is a field full of subjectivities, subjectivities that can lead to violence, trauma and the destruction of a nation's social fabric. Acts of resistance can be seen as terrorism or freedom fighting. The application of law can be seen as maintaining peace or promoting hegemony.

We all have our biases. Part of looking at identity politics involves taking a look in the mirror and asking what identities, constructions and values inform our interpretations of the world, especially when it comes to conflict. If we interrogate other constructions while leaving our own untouched, many crucial factors may remain obscure, mysterious or just plain unnoticed. But that's what we're here for: to ask the uncomfortable questions.
Rohee Dasgupta teaches conflict studies at St. Paul University; her research interests include identity, cosmopolitanism, security and anthropology.

Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and dialogue practitioner.
He studied identity-based conflict at St. Paul University in 2021.

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Further Reading
Imagined Communities
Anderson, B., (1991)
London: Verso, pp. 1-25.
Introduction: Who needs Identity?"
Stuart Hall (1996)
Questions of Cultural Identity
What Is Identity? (As We Now Use the Word)
James Fearon (2001)
California: Stanford University
The State and the Shaping of Identity.
Appiah, KA (2001)
The Tanner Lectures on Human

Identity-Based Conflict: Rethinking Security in a Post–Cold War World
Kenneth D. Bush and E. Fuat Keyman
Global Governance, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Sept.–Dec. 1997), pp. 311-328