Identity-Based Conflict
Lecture 12

The Limits of Identity

Rohee Dasgupta closes the course with reflections on how identity can explain violent acts – and how it cannot.
While identity has emerged as an increasingly relevant topic of study for researchers and policy makers, it cannot explain violence in and of itself.

What are the limits to studying identity and violence, and what other factors are important to take into consideration?
While identity has emerged as an increasingly relevant topic of study for researchers and policy makers, it cannot explain violence in and of itself. What are the limits to studying identity and violence, and what other factors are important to take into consideration?

Rohee Dasgupta, our instructor, begins our final lecture with news from the Ivory Coast, a country in West Africa. A former president of that nation, Laurent Gbagbo, had been brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC) and charged with crimes against humanity but, in early 2021, he was released as the evidence gathered was "insufficient" for conviction.

Gbagbo had been president until 2010 – he was defeated in an election that year by his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, but he declared fraud and held onto power. This drew international condemnation, as the UN, the African Union and other observers had confirmed the results (54% in favour of Ouattara). Both men declared themselves to be the rightful president, and a short period of civil conflict occurred that resulted in 3000 deaths.

Gbagbo's support base came from the Christian south, whereas Ouattara's came from the predominantly-Muslim north. Peacekeeping forces as well as journalists were restricted from the northern regions as Gbagbo's forces went in, and there were rumours of mass graves and death squads involved. Ouattara eventually won out, and Gbagbo was sent to the ICC to face trial. The evidence, as mentioned above, was not enough to convict.

Gbagbo is now free to return to the Ivory Coast, and Rohee expresses her disappointment – she believes that there were indeed grave crimes that were not brought to justice, and that cases that collapse give fuel to those who would challenge the ICC as a mechanism for laying charges against major figures. We spent much of the last few weeks, especially with our lectures on reconciliation and transitional justice, speaking about how the ICC emerged as a mechanism to work towards justice in highly-fraught, often identity-based conflicts that require both healing and justice.

While this lecture concludes our course on identity-based conflict, Rohee mentions that keeping tabs on developments like in the Ivory Coast will be easier now that we'll be looking for particular particular dynamics or patterns.

In our first lecture, we looked at identity politics and how our concept of self and other can give rise to or escalate conflict. Next, we looked at various theories of identity and conflict, in particular Benedict Anderson's imagined communities, Donald Horowitz's group classifications and Jay Rothman's ARIA dialogue tool.

In our third lecture we looked at how memory and historical narratives impact conflicts, which was then followed by lectures on religious and ethnonationalism as well as how leaders can manipulate identities and emotions for political purposes, sometimes cumulating in censorship or genocide.

From there we looked at different attempts to mediate conflicts involving religion in the public sphere, as well as factors like gender or the politics of space. In the final weeks we looked at post-conflict reconstruction with lectures on reconciliation and transitional justice and conflict management.

We've been given a wide range of readings (the main ones have been referenced at the bottom of each page) to follow up on should we be interested in learning more about a particular topic. Rohee also recommends the blog Beyond Intractability, which is famous for gathering huge amounts of information on conflict studies as a field and organizing it in the form of short articles and interviews with the main players in the sphere. The design, admittedly, is not great, and it can be difficult to navigate, but it has proved to be one of the best free resources in the discipline.
Before finishing, however, Rohee has asked us to consider the limits of identity as a framework for understanding conflict. As we've seen in the past eleven weeks, identity dynamics can explain a very great deal when it comes to civil war or even nonviolent cultural struggles – but these only work when the theories are applied to specific, sometimes limited contexts.

Clash of Civilizations

One of the most famous, and famously controversial, identity-based theories is that of a clash of civilizations that was supposed to emerge after the Cold War. This thesis was promoted by Samuel Huntington in his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (1996), where he predicted that the ideological framework of the Cold War (democracy vs. Communism) would give way to a world divided into major civilizations that would irrevocably vie for dominance, either across the world or in their specific sphere of influence.

Hunter divided the world into the following "civilizations": Western (North America, Western Europe, Australia & New Zealand), Orthodox (most of the former Soviet Union and East Europe), Islamic (the MENA region, Central Asia, Indonesia & Malaysia), Hindu (India and Nepal), African (sub-Saharan Africa), Latin American, Sinic (China, the Koreas and Vietnam) and Buddhist (most of Southeast Asia, Tibet and Mongolia).
Huntington declared his thesis to be a prediction for the future, but looked to conflicts like in Chechnya, the former Yugoslavia and between India and Pakistan as evidence. The book has gained a high degree of popularity among certain policy makers or government figures, especially in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in New York City, but many academics have criticized it for a number of reasons.

Most criticisms have been aimed at what's thought of as a too-arbitrarily sorting of diverse cultures into monolithic "civilizations." The West, for example, has seen major divisions along Catholic and Protestant lines, and some may argue that these may also constitute separate "civilizations" – the decision to unite these Christian denominations but separate Orthodoxy has gained negative attention. The same can be said about Islamic "civilizations" – there are huge divisions between Sunni and Shia believers, and regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Iran have more dividing than uniting them. That, and most Islamist violence is not directed against members of other "civilizations," but against other Muslims.

Criticisms were also aimed at how Huntington's thesis has been used to promote a "Western" identity that is opposed to many parts of the world, which may be used to create an "us versus them" mentality that can be used to support foreign interventions, discriminate against immigrants or justify certain negative consequences of globalization. Instead of a broadly-painted theory of global identities, critics say, we should be paying more attention to local and context-specific dynamics that give rise to conflicts.

One of these dynamics was explored in this week's readings. In "Identity and Conflict: Ties that Bind and Differences that Divide," Erik Gartzke and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch looked at the "clash of civilizations" thesis and, comparing it to data collected in the first decade after the end of the Cold War, found that a far greater prediction of conflict wasn't so much the mix of different "civilizational" groups in one country so much as minority and majority dynamics.

Huntington's civilization thesis used cases like that in Bosnia to illustrate the dangers of having such different groups in a single state, but Gartzke and Gleditsch contend that the real danger is when there are minority groups in a country that are associated with a "mother country" next-door. In this reading, Bosnia was particularly volatile because Serb and Croat groups were supported by neighbouring Croatia and Serbia, which both intervened in the country to protect their interests.

Other major cases have shown similar dynamics: Kosovo possesses a Serb minority, Ukraine has a Russian or Russian-speaking minority, Palestinian Arabs have been supported by Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, Kashmiri Muslims have been used as a pretext by Pakistan to support interventions, and so on. While these cases certainly involve identity, their volatility may be less dependent on "civilizations" than on other factors.

Beyond Ethnicity

Richard Jenkins, author of the book Rethinking Ethnicity, claims in his article "The Limits of Identity" that identity is given an explanatory power that it does not always deserve. This is particularly true about ethnicity, which has been increasingly promoted as a "reason" for conflict since the end of the Cold War. He says that identity, which includes ethnicity, is better understood as a process by which individuals and groups frame their place in the world rather than as a fixed thing that people can possess and that motivates them to act in certain ways and not others.

For him, the main question researchers need to understand is why does ethnicity, and ethnic belonging, matter more in some contexts than others? What is it that makes Hutu and Tutsi particularly volatile identity markers, but not, say, Kazakh and Kyrgyz?

For Jenkins, there are a number of possible reasons for this kind of variation:
Different groups socialize their young people differently, and a key difference may lie in whether a person's primary socialization (ie, their defining first identity markers) is dominated by identities locked in a given conflict with other identities or not.
How "Others" are coded in a society – how much weight is given to differences between us and them in a given culture? Are there flexible boundaries, or are they fixed and conducive to more rigid judgements of other groups?
The meaning and "content" of a given identity, including religious significances or historical narratives, may make some ethnic groups more prone to conflict with others;.
There may be context-specific benefits or costs associated with particular identity markers – this is particularly true in societies with caste systems or where certain ethnic groups have historically been perceived as inferior or servile;.
Instead of just looking at identity differences, Jenkins opts for seeing how ethnicity (or religion, etc) intersects with these other factors. The job, here, is seeing what makes ethnicity salient, and what makes it volatile. And we cannot forget that attachments to such identities can be both emotionally authentic (people really feel a deep connection) as well as strategically manipulative (leaders and other interested parties can use identity markers to mobilize groups to pursue a given cause).
"In order to understand these courses of action, we must always look at the political and economic contests and ask about what the consequences are and for whom."
-Richard Jenkins, "The Limits of Identity"
He also points to three other factors:
Identity is a complicated thing – as mentioned above with the "clash of civilizations" thesis, each identity group may have internal fault lines that are key to understanding the context but are ignored because a group is considered unified or monolithic.
Identity often is justified as a source of conflict due to claims for self-determination. While this seems like a morally justified approach, some groups use terms like self-determination as a weapon to keep other groups "in their place." Jenkins uses the example of North Irish Protestants, whose yearly parades are an important cultural practice but were structurally designed to assert primacy over local Catholics.
Jenkins writes that "ethnic differences, even when combined with clear-cut differences, do not necessarily lead to conflict." This, again, is the question of why certain identity groups fight and others do not – it takes more than just a sense of difference to initiate violence.
In the peace research literature, identity-based grievances have been juxtaposed to other potential reasons for conflict onset. Researchers have identified a number of other major factors, like greed (is there something to gain by fighting?) opportunity (are there weapons easily available? Is the state too weak to suppress violence?) and horizontal inequality (are there measurable differences among groups in a given society?).
These are not to say that identity is not an important factor – just that it is one factor among many.

Identity and Dialogue

Over the course of these lectures, we have spoken quite a bit about dialogue as a way to generate mutual understanding, understand how historical narratives work and promote reconciliation between divided groups. Many dialogue initiators and facilitators, including those from the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue, which was explored in another section on this site, often recruit participants according to their ethnic identity (in cases where ethnicity is salient).

This primacy of identity as a criteria for participation has come under fire from Erik Cleven, a former Nansen facilitator and a proponent of what he calls transformational dialogue. Transformational dialogue differs from regular dialogue, according to Cleven, by its emphasis on participant agency over the vision of facilitators and outside parties. While it is typical for third parties to coax or convince participants to enter into dialogue, transformational facilitators acknowledge that there are reasons why people don't want to talk, and they honour these reasons over the desire of facilitators to initiate contact.

Another element of transformational dialogue is its reduced attention to identity. Whereas more conventional dialogue processes may try to make sure there are even numbers of participants from both groups, transformational facilitators try to deconstruct the idea of these groups in the first place. Unequal numbers are welcome, and participants are free to realign themselves along different lines depending on how the process develops.

In such cases, a dialogue that was initiated between members of different racial groups may then re-divide along urban-rural, class-based or religious lines, which may throw numbers and balance completely off and take the discussion away from what facilitators may have thought "needs" to be discussed. In situations like these, Cleven says that facilitators and donors need to step back from an identity-based framework, because perhaps the identities that outsiders think are salient might not actually be the real source of a given conflict. And, even if one identity framework really is the main source, there may be other identities that need to be explored as well.
Each factor studied in fields like peace and conflict studies, like economics, history, psychology and especially identity, has its part to play in understanding why people fight, what brings violence to a close and how to help communities become more resilient against destructive conflict. As this course itself comes to an end, it's hoped that we're left with a greater understanding of how identity interacts with these factors and to what extent it impacts the mechanisms individuals and groups use to resolve their disputes and build their futures.
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 by Kurdishstruggle on flickr
Be the first to hear about new content!
Peace research, activism, facilitation - it's all coming.
Sign up to receive an email whenever new Summerpax content becomes available.
Further Reading
Identity and Conflict: Ties that Bind and Differences that Divide
Erik Gartzke and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch (2006)
European Journal of International Relations 12 (1)
The Limits of Identity: Ethnicity, Conflict, and Politics
Richard Jenkins (2000)
Sheffield Online Papers
in Social Research
, no. 2
Realizing the Promise of Dialogue: Transformative Dialogue in Divided
Erik Cleven and Judith Saul (2021)
Conflict Resolution Quarterly 38
pp. 111–125.