Identity-Based Conflict
Lecture 2

Conflict Theories
and Collective Identity

Rohee Dasgupta describes the diverse theories exploring the roots of identity-based conflict.
What different theories try to explain identity – and how do they intersect with broader theories of conflict?
"If we zero in on the idea of identities in conflict, especially ethnic identities," says Rohee Dasgupta, a professor at St. Paul University, "what we're looking at are different forms of stratification not working well with each other."

In our last class, we looked at how structures can emerge where majority, central or national groups can be resisted, challenged or overthrown by minority, peripheral or subnational groups – either through armed resistance or by more subtle means. This creates what are called security issues, which is when a particular issue is seen as a threat (perhaps to the nation) and thus must be dealt with using security forces such as the army, police or other state infrastructure.

We looked in particular at Benedict Anderson's idea of subnationalism, which basically amounts to a subgroup whose identity does not match up with the larger group that they find themselves surrounded by. These larger national groups, if they feel threatened by subnational groups (be they racial, ideological, ethnic, political or otherwise), may then take drastic action to suppress the subnational group.

This is a top-down approach, where the main actors are the state (or a state-supported group) and a smaller group within the state – but there can also be cases when two subnational groups (known as parallel groups) fight against each other for resources, political supremacy or recognition. An example of the former are state-sanctioned repressions. An example of the latter are inter-group ethnic cleansing or genocide.

These last two have become major security issues in the last three decades, especially with the high-profile disasters in Bosnia and Rwanda. Not only are people dying within these (and other) countries, but the violence can spill over in the form of forced migration, displacement, mass refugee populations (and the anxieties prompted by their arrival in unprepared states) and radicalized diasporas.

Identity played a large role in both Bosnia and Rwanda, and the increasingly large number of identity-based conflicts worldwide has created a need for a new paradigm aiming to study the roots and progression of these deadly new conflicts. As a result, new theories have emerged to address this new reality. We will be discussing those theories today as well as examine how they merge and interact with existing theories of conflict.

Identity Formation and Conflict

Rohee describes four separate ways that identity is formed and membership in a group is consolidated (whether this group is based on citizenship, ethnicity, race or other factor).
In this paradigm, attention is paid to what is happening now. A given set of circumstances can prompt a person to say "I am a so-and-so, and X is happening to members of this group – I am a member of this group and so therefore involved in this struggle." She gives the example of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in 2020 – if a young black person saw the context around themselves, they could very well have said to themselves "I am black and therefore I support BLM."
This paradigm is built around a shared vision of how the world should be and the steps that need to be taken to create that world. This is often true either in proscriptive, value-based identities ("I am a liberal/conservative because I am willing to support or invest in a particular vision of our shared future").
This paradigm looks to history, shared origin, nationalism or even forms of tribalism in order to create a broad sense of solidarity among a population. A great number of ethnic or national grievances based on past repressions (or past glories) lean on the past for support.
Applying Narratives
A fourth paradigm takes narratives of the past and applies them to the state – often in the form of a nation-state that may privilege one particular national group above others. Historical concepts of membership may then affect the way a political system is built or operates. If a state, either officially or unofficial, starts privileging one nationality over another (or demonizing a particular ethnicity or nationality, as is the case with Kurds in Turkey) then conflict can emerge.

[note, our next class explores the relationship between historical narratives and identity at length]
This is one way to look at how conflict-conducive identities can be formed. Another way is to look at whether or not a given group possesses a grievance against the state or another group. These can be local grievances, but can just as well be social, national, regional or international. These can be based in history or in a current set of circumstances that could be viewed as inconvenient (if the relinquishment of privileges is required) to one's group, or even oppressive.

One complicating factor with analyzing identity conflicts through a prism of grievance is the issue of legitimacy – just because a group has a grievance, does that give them the right to engage in protracted or deep-seated conflict? Who has the power to decide whether a given grievance is legitimate? Are we to treat all grievances as equal, or should we be weighing them against each other using scales of justice, historical marginalization or present circumstances? This can create a conflict between peacebuilding practitioners themselves: some may favour looking at the issue from both perspectives, while others may delegitimize one side for moral, political or socio-cultural reasons.

Then comes the issue of narrative. Narratives are a type of story that is used to explain how the world works, and different identity groups can subscribe to different narratives. These stories are often bound up in how we see ourselves, the values we hold to be important, and the visions we strive to build our collective future around. If one group subscribes to a narrative about human nature that the people thrive under increasing conditions of freedom, then there will be a move to generate those freedoms. If a different group, however, believes that thriving comes within a set of structures, mores and collective responsibilities, they may come into conflict with the first group.

Interventions, Identities and Escalation

Peacebuilding practitioners and policy makers often use varying strategies and paradigms when intervening in conflicts motivated to varying degrees by identity. In the conflict cessation paradigm, conflicts are seen as negative and in need of resolution/elimination. These paradigms, say Rohee (and echoed by other professors in the program), are often framed as outdated and replaced by paradigms claiming that conflict can be a source of creativity and transformation – should they be handled in creative and transformative ways.

Another dichotomy impacting the style of intervention is whether the peacebuilders involve see a deep-seated conflict as inherent to the groups involved (which would require management and constant monitoring against repeated outbreaks of violence, sometimes in the form of extended peacekeeping – this is often promoted by theorists of the plural society, who claim that multi-ethnic states will need constant pressure, often external, in order not to fall apart) or whether the incompatibilities are constructed (which would imply the need to reframe the narratives that support the perception of various needs as incompatible). This paradigm has generated great interest, especially in the paradigm of conflict transformation, but peacebuilders ascribing to this view are still faced with the enormity of a socio-cultural-political construction that has created vast systems that may resist change.
Guinnog | wikicommons
Another dichotomy involves whether transformation is seen as something in the hands of local or external actors. A narrative that is often presented in circles promoting conflict transformation is the need to assist and empower local actors – but grave situations involving genocide and ethnic cleansing often prompt international humanitarian interventions that disempower local actors and invest international (and often hegemonic) powers with the ability to make decisions. In fact, sometimes genocide and ethnic cleansing are initiated by the local actors themselves, which generates conversations about which local actors would be given the mandate of socio-cultural transformation. When the different actors involved have different identities, grievances, values and visions of the future, they may have varying ideas of who is a legitimate authority that can make decisions in times of crisis.

In cases where great violence has taken place, either due to an authoritarian state or competing ethnic groups, one intervention that has grown popular is the truth and reconciliation commission (TRC). Each TRC is different and has a different balance of power (some are driven by local actors, others by international stakeholders), but all are motivated to some extent by theories promoting the ability of truth-seeking as a means of bringing healing to divided societies and making conflict recurrence a less-likely scenario.

The restoration of a social fabric in the wake of vicious identity-based conflicts is a key focal point for various other theories of intervention. This has to take place on a number of levels, from the institutional (restoring trust in the state and its ability to bring justice and order) to the social (restoring trust in the ability to build a common future with other groups) to the cultural (creating narratives that legitimize all groups involved and delegitimize violence as a means to meet a group's collective needs).

One factor making these restorative interventions difficult is that identities are slippery – you may have been a Marxist revolutionary during the war, but regional discrimination in the post-war reality may change the battle-lines from ideological to geographical and plunge the state into violence once more. A given group identity may become suddenly less relevant as another one is consolidated. Dormant grievances, given the right circumstances, can become inflamed and the basis of mass mobilization.

This is not even taking into account what happens when a previously marginalized group is empowered by international actors – a traumatized ethnic group may suddenly have the ability and resources to take revenge and tip the balance of power. Hegemonic patrons may support their proxies on ideological, geopolitical or identarian grounds. Even well-intentioned but uninformed interventions may create a whole new conflict to deal with, or create a vacuum of power where new groups can seize control.

All of these dynamics can, given the right (or, depending on where you stand, the wrong) circumstances, can empower a conflict and complicate interventions. Identities are slippery forces that can be triggered and coalesced around stories, deprivation, shared histories or perceptions.

This is all rather broad, however. We will spend the rest of the class looking at a couple of identity-focused theorists and discuss their contributions to our understanding of conflict before positioning them alongside broader theories in the field.

What Makes Identity-Based Conflict Unique?

Researchers, practitioners and policy makers have long tried to organize their insights into structured theories that, the hope goes, may make certain conflicts easier to predict. These theories will always have limits, of course, but a number have been developed that have proved of enduring value over the decades. Johan Galtung's theories of structural violence or positive and negative peace, for example. Or John Paul Lederach's theory of conflict transformation.

Some theories, like Henri Tajfel and John Turner's social identity theory, explores how collective belonging and behaviour can prompt individuals to make decisions as a group (often against other groups). Ralf Dahrendorf's Marxist-inflected class conflict theory reflects on how authority and marginalization can prompt resistance and rebellion. Paradigms like rational choice theory frame conflicts as the result of individual choices made through cost-benefit analysis. Jonathan Haidt's moral foundation's theory posits that conflicts can arise out of unstated group preferences for some moral values over others.

Within the framework of international relations, armed conflict and mass violence, two frameworks that have received much attention are resource-based and interest-based conflicts, with some theorists claiming a great deal of overlap between the two. These conflicts are often framed as a real or perceived incompatibility between two or more actors who seek to a) gain, use or maintain a given set of resources or b) further their own interests (status, power, legitimacy, etc), perhaps at the cost of the other.

These kinds of conflicts are often associated with a school of thought called realism, which often frames international conflict in terms of incompatibilities between states. This often relies on what's known as game theory, which is a more or less mathematical attempt to model the strategies rational decision-makers choose when trying to resolve their incompatibilities with one another in order to come out on top. Think rational choice theory, but on the level of nations.

A lot of early conflict studies research focused on resource-based and interest-based conflicts as they addressed dynamics of realpolitik: think large alliances, proxy wars, superpowers trying to tilt the balance of power in their favour. Even theorists like Galtung, today known for their more subtle analyses of power, dedicated much of their early work to incompatibilities in books like Theories of Conflict.

Hostilities, in this paradigm, escalate until the actors involved either dominate the other or find a way to bargain their way into a compromise which may or may not be sustainable or mutually satisfying. This type of negotiations have often been framed as realpolitik in miniature, though the work of Roger Fisher, William Ury and, later, Bruce Patton in their book Getting To Yes developed a popular paradigm called principled negotiation that encouraged a style of effective negotiation that included all parties and sought to incorporate, if possible, all needs and sides involved.

Applying these paradigms to identity-based conflicts, however, may not be a great idea.

This is the argument made by academic Jay Rothman, who criticized the tendency to see emerging ethnic conflicts as mainly a new kind of resource- or need-based conflict taking place between groups rather than countries. For Rothman, these only address surface-level issues masking a whole iceberg of values, fears and an existential sense of self.
What's at stake in an identity conflict, Rothman writes, is a "struggle for [a group's] basic physical and moral survival." We're not just talking about genocide (although we are all too aware that genocide is an extreme consequence) but about whether or not a group perceives social, cultural or political threats to their "collective need for dignity, recognition, safety, control, purpose and efficacy." Do they feel represented? Do they feel like they have a voice, or control over their destiny? Do they feel marginalized? Are their values perceived in society as less legitimate?

In cases of cultural polarization or oppression, a group's perceived sense of marginalization can escalate to become an existential threat, which unlike incompatibilities of resources or interests cannot be compromised on without potentially betraying one's individual or collective sense of self. In this context, even principled negotiation will only exacerbate a situation – a key factor here is that a group feels secure, visible, legitimized and in possession of dignity. No one wants to bargain these factors away.

Making things more complicated, Rohee says, is that situations of conflict can make it more likely that individuals act more as groups and in the interest of group needs. This can promote tribalism and us-vs-them thinking, which can entrench identity-based conflict factors even further and lead to an escalation in polarization or even violence. People within an ethnic group who do maintain their individuality and try to challenge potentially problematic group narratives may themselves be branded as traitors or otherwise victimized.

That's not to say that identity conflicts are entirely separate from resource- and interest-based conflicts, or from broader rational/realist models. Rothman's pyramid posits that issues of identity, if left unaddressed, can escalate to involve conflicts over territory (Israel-Palestine), political structure (Hutu-Tutsi) or other factors. That, and international interventions, whether motivated by humanitarian or geopolitical reasons, may not understand the identities involved in a given context and may end up empowering some actors to the detriment of others (Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq).

In all these cases, it is now thought that identity is one of the core reasons that a given group mobilizes to protect a given set of interests, sometimes violently. While ethnic identity is not the only relevant identity involved, it has become increasingly securitized since the 1990s and so has come to the fore in conflict studies and research.

Dynamics of Ethnic Identity Conflicts

Donald Horowitz is a political scientist who studies ethnic conflicts in particular. He agrees with Rothman in that conventional, rational-choice-based approaches to identity tend to miss out on key elements that end up sustaining group (and particularly ethnic) strife – for example, we can't ignore motivations like "psychic gratification" or opportunities to damage competing groups.

A number of the dynamics he identified may prove salient for identity conflicts beyond those labelled as ethnic. He first talks about the difference between societies that have ranked and parallel group structures. Ranked structures are when one group is institutionally or structurally recognized as superior, and parallel structures are where various unranked groups may or may not struggle to meet their needs and realize their interests.

Then there's the issue of centralized or dispersed groups. Centralized group structures are made up of a few major groups that are present everywhere and can take part in official institutions – this is the case in countries where fewer, larger ethnic, religious or ideological groups can form a powerful lobby. Dispersed group structures are when groups are so fragmented that the only way one could gain power is through a vast coalition that may not be achievable in the wake of major differences. This is particularly true in multicultural ethnic contexts like North America, or states with vast amounts of local ethnic groups (Tanzania, India). Whether or not a group is centralized or dispersed may impact whether they will have enough leverage to use violence to address their needs.

Other factors that theorists have paid attention to is how conflict, particularly ethnic conflict, may have emerged as a result of modernization. One approach to this question is to see ethnic conflict as a holdover from tradition that is being challenged by modernizing forces. Another sees ethnic strife as a natural result of modernization and all the changes it brings to local contexts.

Then there's the issue of class – while class conflict paradigms have been dismissed as a fix-all approach that ignores the non-materialist goals at the heart of identity conflict, there are still some legitimate intersections between the two. If a religious or ethnic group dominates a business field, for example, then economic, class or business-related crises can activate identity dynamics and initiate existential panic.

The ever-shifting lines within conflicts is also an important feature to pay attention to – in India, for example, ethnic conflicts may not escalate past the regional level since the country is not dominated by one ethnicity in particular. However, if certain ethnic groups ally with each other on the basis of religion (Hindu-Muslim) or ideology (nationalist-cosmopolitan, secular-religious) then the battle lines can change rapidly and previously effective interventions may lose their relevance.


Rothman, Horowitz and their colleagues affirm that identity-based conflicts are an entirely different beast and require unique approaches. But just what should such an approach look like?

While he has not been the only one to do so, Rothman developed his own methodology to address the unique feature of identity conflicts. At its core is a familiar concept: dialogue. For him, since what makes identity conflicts unique are the presence of existential crises that threaten a group's sense of self, dignity, voice and purpose, the first step to address these must involve attempts to make the different actors and groups involved feel safe, heard, visible and legitimized. Once these existential triggers are addressed, then groups will be able to start thinking about finding solutions to their perceived incompatibilities.
[note: Dialogue-forward approaches have been developed by a number of different practitioners in various contexts. The Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue developed their own methodology, as has psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan with his Tree Model and the Deep Democracy Institute with their Worldwork format. It seems like a lot of differences between dialogue approaches lie mainly in small specialties and branding]
Rothman calls his model ARIA after its four components, Antagonism, Resonance, Invention and Action.
Jay Rothman | The Systems Thinker
The first stage involves focusing on the what of a conflict. These are often the issues, the incompatibilities, the resources or the interests. Rothman says that these conversations create us-vs-them language, opposing solutions and negative framing that end up leading towards antagonism. Rather than avoid this, however, this is the first stage to addressing the issues at hand.

The second stage involves reframing the issues discussed at the first stage and reframing them to draw focus away from the why and towards the who and the how. The point here is to help participants focus on the human needs of the other and to recognize them as such. This, if all goes well, generates a resonance that leads to solidarity, goodwill and the desire to find mutually satisfying solutions. This is the 'magic' that some dialogue facilitators will describe in the best-case scenarios.

The third stage brings the resonant groups' attention to bear on the how of the issue. Cooperative ways forward are invented and creative solutions are incentivized. This can only happen in contexts where the actors feel that their needs and identities have been already recognized, legitimized and respected.

The last stage is combining all of the above into concrete action plans that take the goodwill generated by the dialogue and use it to initiate or continue concrete projects aimed at addressing the issues that brought the actors to the table in the first place. The ARIA cycle repeats as other antagonisms are discovered and, with hope, are transformed into collective action.

In class, however, less attention is paid to how cycles like this can get derailed. Identity conflicts between parallel groups may be transformed through sustained dialogue, but if the groups are manipulated by powerful actors supplying each with propaganda, then mutual understanding may not be enough to bring about lasting change. And in cases where groups are ranked into oppressors and oppressed, the oppressed group may be loathe to treat their current or former oppressors as moral partners (on the other hand, oppressors may not accept the legitimacy of the oppressed group's needs). Differing issues of justice can also interfere – human rights advocates may desire that one group be convicted in court rather than engaged within dialogue (which is often a requirement of transitional justice). There may also be issues of lingering trauma, which may make it difficult for participants to engage in this sort of activity.

There are too many other theoretical frameworks to discuss in one class. We can talk about how historical narratives impact identities, and how post-conflict transition or memorializing requires a collective reframing from conflict-conducive narratives and relationships to conflict-resilient ones. We can talk about the need for safe spaces, as well as how certain identities are resistant to the very concept. We can talk about the limits of humility and mutual understanding and just how difficult it is to facilitate dialogue 'magic.' We can talk about how media and information networks shore up identities with propaganda or fake news. We can talk about the huge process involved in restoring dignity to victims of mass violence – and the different approaches taken to what should be done with perpetrators or bystanders. Not to mention how roles like 'victim' and 'perpetrator' often become fluid.

But there's plenty of time to talk about all of that. We still have ten weeks left.
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.

Banner photo: Arakan Army from VOA
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Further Reading
Resolving Identity-Based Conflict in Nations, Organizations, and
Rothman, Jay.
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997
Ethnic Groups in Conflict
Horowitz, Donald L.
Berkeley: University of California Press,
Between Vengeance and Forgiveness
Minow, Martha.
Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.
Ethnic Conflict and International Relations
Ryan, Stephen.
Aldeshot, Hants, England:
Dartmouth, 2000.