Identity Based Conflict
Lecture 8

The Politics of Space

Rohee Dasgupta explores the intersection of identity, land and how competing claims over each leads to violence.
Identity is not merely connected to history, belonging or group membership – it is often connected to the land and to competing claims over who has the right to define how it will be inhabited, used or presented.

How do these competing claims impact conflicts, and how can they be addressed?
The lecture begins with two participants giving a presentation on Basic Human Needs theory (BHN), intersectionality and conflict.

BHN was developed by Johan Galtung, one of the major pioneers of peace and conflict studies as a field. Many of his theories responded to a need to expand the conversation on conflict away from traditional, zero-sum models of intervention that emphasized realpolitik and state power.

For example, he developed the idea of positive peace (a peace resulting from the resolution of deep-seated, underlying factors) to contrast what he called negative peace (a peace resulting from the mere absence of violence or threat), thereby directing attention to the unjust or oppressive societal structures that may contribute to ongoing violence. He also coined the term structural violence to describe the harm done to specific groups due to such structures – this is contrasted with the more familiar forms of direct violence.

In keeping with this turn away from the more obvious to the more hidden causes of mass violence, BHN was developed as a way to identity the types of needs that, when left unmet, threaten human security and may cause certain groups to use violence to advocate for their interests. For Galtung, the gradual fulfillment of basic human needs is a "move from a state of ill-being to one of well-being." He defines each element of the theory as follows:
Something necessary for the individual or collective. These should not be confused with wants, wishes, desires or demands, and they are expressed by everyone within what Galtung calls a social time and a social space. They cannot be universally satisfied.
The needs are "located" in an "individual human being." The individual develops its "need consciousness" and take the steps to satisfy the identified needs within a specific social context. It is within that context that the "human being" will use the available "satisfier" to meet its needs.
This term confirms the importance of the need and frames it as a "necessary condition." Galtung believes that if the need is not met (even partially), this will result in what he calls a "fundamental disintegration".
He developed a working typology of four need types, inviting scholars and practitioners to expand it:

Security needs (survival) – objective: avoid violence

Avoiding violence.
Avoiding misery.
Avoiding alienation.
Avoiding repression.
BHN is a theory that tries to locate the motivations for individual or mass violence in the unfulfilled basic requirements that we all have as human beings – the hope, presumably, is that by addressing these needs in democratic/inclusive/participatory ways will lessen the grievances that make large groups vulnerable to polarizing rhetoric, dehumanization or calls to pick up arms. It also connects conflict studies to calls for social justice more generally – peace, in Galtung's paradigm, isn't achieved when a treaty is signed. It continues to develop in societies so long as there are unjust structures that infringe upon people's ability to live and thrive.

Caveat: There are two main criticisms of this paradigm. The first is that we don't always have access to the resources, or even the good faith, necessary to pursue this level of peacebuilding – this sometimes leads BHN to be framed as an idealistic, unpragmatic approach that doesn't deserve to be allotted the resources we do have. The second criticism is that it's based on the liberal democratic paradigm, one that's actively rejected in many parts of the world that value a certain kind of stability over values like inclusiveness or participatoriness. In these contexts, defending one's own power or clamping down on groups 'causing' instability are seen as more appropriate strategies. This line of thinking is discussed in our eleventh lecture, on conflict management.

Supporters of such an approach frame BHN theory as a spectrum that, even if impossible to fully realize, can still lead to creative and sustainable ways of working towards conflict transformation. While there are diverging opinions on what counts as a basic human need (as compared to a desire, wish or privilege), it nevertheless suggests a paradigm that aims to address the entire human person and work against the social disintegration that occurs when people experience various types of physical, political or psychosocial scarcity.

The presenters suggest that this overlaps in compelling ways with theories of intersectionality. Intersectionality was a term coined in the 1990s by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a lawyer and activist focusing on race and gender issues. Many discussions of the day linked unequal social power structures to experiences of privilege and marginalization, but did so in a way that separated classic identity markers like race, class, gender and so on. Crenshaw noticed that these factors intersect, meaning that "women" shouldn't be treated as a group that universally faces specific types of discrimination. Upper-middle class black women may have more privilege than working class white women, for example, and these dynamics may have a great impact over whether individuals or groups are able to meet their basic human needs.

This led to a more nuanced discourse that attempted to recognize different points of marginalization that particular groups face, also looking at factors like age, disability, migration status, religion and more. By looking at BHN theory through an intersectional lens, the presenters argue, practitioners and policy makers will be able to identify the subtle ways that certain groups can meet their needs as compared to other groups.

Given that group disparity, also known as horizontal inequality, is highly correlated to conflict onset, these dynamics may prove essential to actors looking to identify potential hot-spots and work to alleviate tensions and address the needs involved. Identity is a major factor here, as traits like gender, race, religion or political affiliation often serve as salient group identity markers that, given the right circumstances, can motivate resistance or even violent action.
This line of thought is also present in a theory developed by researcher John Burton, who's Human Needs Theory (HNT) posits that socio-political structures can be arranged in a way that meet certain groups' needs better than others', leading to institutionalized marginalization and potentially creating a pressure-cooker that can explode in violence against said institutions, and maybe even the state itself. An intersectional lens might better help practitioners understand where these instances of institutionalized structural violence occur and how to address marginalization.

That said, intersectionality has proved a controversial theory. For some, its association with leftist terminology has alienated centrist and right-leaning actors and groups. There have even been accusations that intersectional lenses have been applied more often to marginalized groups privileged by leftist discourse, meaning that paradigms of marginalization brought up by right-leaning groups might be ignored, dismissed or delegitimized. These accusations have threatened intersectionality's ability to be understood as a general paradigm, and have led it to be dismissed by some as a partisan concept associated with left-leaning identity markers.

These dynamics have more to do with how theories like intersectionality are presented, and how speaking about intersectionality may itself become attached to an identity marker, than with the actual content of the theory itself. It is also a conversation more prominent in Western socio-cultural discourses around social justice.

The ways that traits like religion, class or ethnicity impact conflict dynamics and experiences of human need, though, are firmly established in peacebuilding and conflict studies discourses. And we will be spending the rest of today's lecture discussing one important factor that is less addressed in conversations around intersectionality: space.

Contesting Space

"When we speak about politics of space," says Rohee Dasgupta, our instructor at Saint Paul University, "we're talking about how land is connected to, or emerges as a factor in, identity-based conflict. Especially ethnic conflicts."

Examples include contested cities, like Jerusalem or Istanbul, which play very different roles in the mind of, Israelis and Palestinians (not to mention Christians and Muslims), or Greeks and Turks. These spaces have complex histories that figure in important cultural narratives inside and outside their respective states.

There are also narratives that are connected to geography, especially when particular groups claim a land belongs to them. Then there are the discourses of whether a land is seen as divisible or indivisible, and what strategies for sharing contested land have legitimacy among the peoples involved.

Then there's the issue of what's considered the center and what's considered the periphery, and what relationship both have toward the other. Does a state see itself as entirely in control of all its territory, or is there a gradual melding into other states the further one goes from the capital? This is also an issue of borders: which states benefit from strict border demarcation, and which prefer porous boundaries or even undemarcated space?

These are all major questions when it comes to the politics of space – the main question is how territory is divided or administered, and what narratives of legitimization are used to consolidate those divisions or acts of governance. Since we're looking at things in the context of conflict studies, we're focusing in particular on what happens when division, unification, administration or legitimization become contested, either from groups inside the country or from forces outside of it.

Even more – the course this lecture finds itself in is identity-based conflict, and so there's the added dimension of what happens when territorial claims aren't only made in legal terms, but using narratives of identity. To what extent is the use of space connected to who we say we are, and what we claim we are entitled to?

One of the main concepts here is legitimization, or the process by which a given claim is accepted, or tries to be accepted, as a basis for action. The 'action' here could mean governance (who owns the land?), use (who has rights to extract, settle or build?), partition (who has the right to create new borders?), succession (which groups have the right to separate, and under what circumstances?).

Different groups, depending on the circumstances, will back up their different legitimization claims using competing factors. Groups might frame land claims using religion, primacy (who was here first?), development (who put the work in), legal frameworks (local/international law), conquest, history, nationalism or the right of return.

These different claims are often the subject of negotiations, and then re-negotiations through time as circumstances change. The most dramatic examples of re-negotiation are when large, multi-ethnic states like the USSR or Yugoslavia collapse. But there are plenty of less-dramatic examples of land, or even the mere political use of land, being re-negotiated – the handover of Hong Kong to Chinese governance (and the establishment of the "one country, two systems" framework), the creation of an open border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the island or negotiations over collective water use in Central Asia or along the Nile are some.
Various dams on the Nile river have been a source of conflict between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.
The Economist
The dynamics of who makes these negotiations, and how they are made and maintained, are of great interest to researchers of politics of space. When are parties able to make concessions, and when do negotiations reach a stalemate? What happens when conflicts over land become intractable and go on unresolved for decades? Why do some conflicts become intractable and others do not?

Looking at identity is one way to try to identify these dynamics. This can mean looking at the ethnic groups involved – is the government an ethnocracy privileging the claims of one group over all others? Are there particular political parties that try to generate support for such a system? Are there groups within the country that are marginalized and may see their use of the land as a symbol of whatever power they are able to hold on to? Are there internationalized identity politics, often spread over a diaspora, that support a certain interpretation of land rights back home?

Identity-based factors aren't only divisive – appealing to a common identity can be a way to try to bridge otherwise polarized sides in a conflict. Religion was used in South Africa as a framework to bring whites and blacks to the table, a strategy that cannot be used in highly specialized conflicts like between ethnic Greeks and Turks on Cyprus, or between Israelis and Palestinians. In cases where obvious unifying identities are not present, some intervenors study the context in order to unearth commonalities that might hold salience. Culture and language united the peoples of the former Yugoslavia, for example, even though they were divided by religion and history. A common colonial history is shared by Pakistanis and Indians.

Identity can also get caught up in geography – in Afghanistan, mountainous regions in the north were controlled by Tajik and Pamiri ethnic groups (as compared to the Pashtuns and other groups to the south), and their ability to use the land throughout decades of war became tied to their identity.

Political factors are also of great importance: which groups, historically and at present, have autonomy? What kind of autonomy – do they have their own state (Iran), are they stateless (the Kurds) or do they share a state with various other groups, with some groups having dominance over others (Iraq)? Some kinds of autonomy seen as more malleable than others – Russia, for example, sees itself as autonomous from the West, but they claim 'special interests' in neighbouring countries that may marginalize local autonomy.

Then there are questions of identity when it comes to alliances. Cold-War ideological identities (democracy vs. communism) led to alliances like NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and some have wondered if NATO makes as much sense as it did in the Cold War era. Turkey, for example, is a NATO member that, in an increasingly multipolar world, is eager to expand its options in terms of linkages with Europe, Russia, China or even none of those options.

There are also issues with resources. Who has resources, how are they transported and how is the land used by both local and international players to sustain a certain industry? In the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts, a pipeline might be better defended than a medium-sized city. When a country is further upstream in a river system, they may claim autonomy to build whatever dams they like on their territory, only to face major tensions from downstream nations who are concerned over their water reserves.
Physical spaces can be altered depending on a given political order – certain parts of the country may become restricted to locals or foreigners. A war in one part of the country can be little felt in other parts. Curfews may be enacted, restricting physical movement or people's ability to interact with a given space. Religious principles may govern who has access, or who should refuse to have access.

These are all factors that sometimes must be taken into account if coexistence is to be promoted. Understanding the grievances involved in a conflict, and addressing them appropriately, may be key to transforming a contested interpretation of land to a collective or collaborative one.

Why is Space Political?

Spaces are seen as political often because they are taken to be markers of territory, identity or control – maintaining a legitimate claim over a space is a sign of broader legitimacy. Challenges to that legitimacy may threaten, or be perceived to threaten, an entire political order and thus are high-stakes and often quite triggering.

In many places in the world, people consider themselves linked to a space. This varies greatly over time, and may not actually coincide with inhabiting that space. Armenians link their identity to Mount Ararat, which is administered by neighbouring Turkey. Various religious groups claim spaces within Jerusalem, leading to a nuanced and sometimes contested pilgrimage industry. Second-generation immigrants may still feel entitled to be politically active in the nation of their parents' origin.

Achieving dominance in a given space may be an act of security, or a response to previous historical traumas – Serb violence in Kosovo or even in Bosnia was often framed as connected to a history of precarity under the Ottoman regime centuries earlier. Activists in Quebec or Scotland have framed secession or greater autonomy as acts establishing recognition for their culture's uniqueness and separate history.

Changes in how space is politically organized can also alter identity dynamics in a given spot – if a group suddenly goes from being a majority to a minority, or vice versa, then the framework in which they see their lives may be irrevocably changed. Hindu communities that stayed on land that became Pakistan may have had to renegotiate their role in local governance. Many Russians found themselves, rather quickly, in new states in the post-Soviet sphere in which their cultural dominance was shaken. White nationalist groups in North America may be threatened, or in some ways even empowered, by rising rates of immigrations.

In many of these cases, the same space has different meanings to different groups of people. An Israeli settlement will appear to some as a normal urban right and to others as an act of cultural hegemony in defiance of international law. When the different 'sides' involved connect their claims to their ethnic, religious or cultural identities, any form of compromise can seem like a betrayal of your group or your core values.

Spaces can also be used to justify contested political action. Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević claimed that Kosovo Polje, a site of an ancient Serbian battle in modern-day Kosovo, was central to Serb identity and thus an indivisible part of the Serbian state. China re-conquered Tibet and Xinjiang in the middle of the 20th century, claiming that both areas belonged to China in the past and so could be integrated into the new Communist government – this is an argument used about Taiwan today. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have used competing claims over the Karabakh region (and the territories surrounding it) to support military operations or even long-term occupations.
An ethnic group's historical attachment to the land is often given as a reason for certain violent actions, but some of these claims are legitimized by the wider community and some are not. When Croatia broke away from Yugoslavia, for example, it claimed all territory that it had as a Yugoslav region – self-determination and ethnic autonomy were given as reasons. There were some regions of Croatia, collectively called Krajina, that had a Serb Majority and decided to separate from Croatia at the same time. Serbia recognized Krajina's claim, but Germany and the Vatican, and later more members of the international community, immediately recognized Croatia's claim.

In both cases, ethnic autonomy was used as a reason, and both sides delegitimized the other. Yugoslav Serbs framed Western support of the breakaway states as an attempt to undermine Yugoslavia, an unaligned nation with a large army in Europe. Croats framed Krajina as a Serb puppet state that was used in order to steal Croatian land.

Disputed or historical claims can continue to manifest themselves in language. When speaking Russian, the phrase "in Ukraine" differs depending on whether it's spoken inside or outside of Ukraine. Inside Ukraine, a preposition is used that implies a separate state, but inside Russia a preposition is used that implies a specific region within a state.

Stable borders are also seen as a major sign of national sovereignty, and so breakaway states may utilize border points as a way to assert their political status. In cases like these, the use of thin strips of land are connected to the very existence of a government trying to convince the world to accept its claims to sovereignty. There are, however, proto- or semi-state groups that reject the idea of stable borders – ISIS is the most famous recent example.

But while space is certainly used to shape politics, politics is also used to shape space – and not only on a level of borders or regions or armed conflict. Theorist Henri Lefevre became famous for the idea that space is not just an empty canvas on which political struggles happen to occur: space itself can be organized or even "created" by a political order.

The way that cities are built reflect a state's priorities – does everyone have access to basic needs? How much space is allocated by class, religion or ethnicity? How are spaces shaped differently depending on what side of a border it falls on? Looking at satellite photos of North and South Korea at night offer a stark contrast of a formerly united space that has been shaped in two very different ways. Even should the opportunity for reintegration become possible, it would be difficult because neither roads, power grids or water lines reach across the divide – each has become a separate world because of a very recent political shift.

The Power of Space

"When speaking about historical or cultural claims," Rohee says, "these continue to remain relevant because people continue to have emotion about them." These attachments can be had towards the land itself, as when an ethnic group claims a space as their homeland and therefore inseparable from their identity. Land can also give symbolic power, like when a state refuses to compromise over border demarcation because concessions may involve losing face or legitimacy.

Plenty of other factors complicate these dynamics. As mentioned above, one such factor are disputes over what criteria different groups put forward to assert legitimate use or control over space. These arguments can include primacy (being there first), international norms (decisions reached by, say, the International Court of Justice (ICJ)), rule of law (particularly international law), how long a group has occupied the land and so on.

While many of the above factors derive legitimacy from prolonged use or occupation of space, sometimes even long-term absence can only consolidate a group's sense of entitlement to a given land. For example, the Jewish people remained connected to Israel throughout an extended diaspora period – some groups have also framed Jewish control of the current state of Israel as especially important because of the long 'exile.' Mass deportations of local populations during the Soviet Union, for example of Chechens, Ingushetians or Crimean Tatars, have also been framed as reasons for greater degrees of nationalism within each people.

The issue of the Crimean Tatars also leads to another issue: which groups are considered indigenous, and under what circumstances? Historically, the coast of the Crimean peninsula had been settled by Greeks, Romans and Byzantines, while the interior had been inhabited by various nomadic tribes or by the Kievan Rus, which was a precursor state to Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. Kievan Rus collapsed with the arrival of the Mongol invasions, and various Turkic peoples consolidated in Crimea under a local Tatar ethnicity. They are now considered an indigenous people of the peninsula.

The Crimean Tatars were later subsumed first into the Ottoman and then the Russian Empire. After the second world war, Stalin deported most of them to Central Asia, with perhaps up to 46% of the population dying along the way. They were only allowed to fully return decades later with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and only after the peninsula had been settled by ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. The peninsula was transferred to Ukrainian control before it emerged as a full state in 1990, and in 2014 Crimea was annexed by Russia.

Each group, Russians, Ukrainians and Tatars, all have different claims to the peninsula, and its status has caused an ongoing war and a crisis in East Europe. Russia derives its claims from the 200 years of Russian control as well as connections with Kievan Rus. Ukraine also claims descent from Kievan Rus (its capital, Kyiv, was the ancient capital of Rus) and it appeals to international norms. Crimean Tatars have been promoted as an indigenous people, often as a way to resist Russian claims to the peninsula, though there are too few Tatars to form a majority. That, and many Russians, due to living on the peninsula for generations, have developed attachments of their own, many of which were consolidated in Soviet culture.

Another issue of indigenousness related to racial politics in the United States. While Native Americans are recognized as the primary indigenous group of the region, white Americans of European descent have lived in the region long enough that many narratives of 'indigenousness' have developed, some of which have been used by white supremacists who promote the creation of a white ethnostate in North America.

The idea of "who was here first" is complicated by notions of "who has been here long enough." These narratives are often promoted with sincerity by the groups involved but, as we mentioned in our fifth lecture, they can also be manipulated by leaders or other elites in order to mobilize or manipulate whole populations for political ends.

International law is an attempt to standardize attempts to claim or administer land, though various groups may feel marginalized by certain legal practices. The majority population in Crimea before the 2014 annexation was ethnically Russian, and they may have supported the act even though it was not legal. As we will look at in our eleventh lecture on conflict management, the Nigerian-aligned Bakassi people disagreed with a decision by the ICJ to uphold the claim of neighbouring Cameroon to the peninsula.
2014-present conflict in Ukraine (Crimea and Donbas)
Niele | wikicommons
Contested claims, and the offended ethnic feelings that often result from them, are widespread. Cases involving Nagorno-Karabakh, Taiwan, Cyprus, Western Sahara, Kurdistan, Gibraltar, Israel-Palestine, Kashmir, Somaliland are all complex and deserve close attention. Most also evoke identity dynamics, which means that compromise or defeat can feel like an existential threat.

This does not mean, however, that different groups cannot use spaces collaboratively. Though Jerusalem is hotly contested, its old city is still used by Jews, Muslims and Christians for religious regions. Even though Afghanistan is rife with religious and ethnic divisions, the Kyrgyz and Wakhi people of the Afghan Pamirs, though respectively Sunni and Shia, use the same religious spaces for different services and rituals.

How people respond to space, and the depth of contested interpretations of sites or land, will depend on a wide variety of factors. Identity is very often involved and can impact political demarcation, delay the construction of infrastructure or even incite violence. Understanding and responding to these linkages is of utmost importance for those looking to prevent, de-escalate or respond to conflicts brought about by politics of space.
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 Israel Police on wikicommons
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
Henri Lefebvre and the Production of Space
Stuart Elden (2007)
Radical Philosophy Review,
10.2 01–116
Gibraltar, Jerusalem, Kaliningrad: Peripherality, Marginality, Hybridity
Christopher S. Browning & Pertti Joenniemi (2007)
Report: Åland Islands Peace Institute
The Kashmir Conflict: Multiple Fault Lines
Navnita Chadha Behera (2016)
Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs, 3.1: 41–63
Conquests and the Politics of Normalization: The Case of the Golan Heights
and Northern Cyprus
Moriel Ram (2015)
Political Geography, 47, 21-32
Northern Ireland and Cyprus: Towards a Typology of Conflict in the European Periphery
Allan Zink (2008)
Nationalism and Ethnic Politics