Understanding Conflict Resolution IV: Identity, Ethnicity and Political Entrepreneurs

Groups and leaders

It is a socially accepted idea that groups work better when they have a leader to coordinate them. Schools, businesses, and states have leaders. People get together in groups for different reasons, such as education, hobbies, common values, and in the case of states, sometimes for identity and nationality reasons. Groups can coexist peacefully, or most often have conflicts which can be easily solved. However, in the case of states, sometimes different groups have incompatible goals that are not easy solve through peaceful means, and result into violence. In this post, I am going to look at group formation based on ethnicity, identity, and how conflicts can be polarised by leaders who advance violent conflict for political goals, which in the field we refer to as political entrepreneurs.

The theory of ethnic identity

I generally guide myself by the fact that identity means a social category, such as: woman, Caucasian, Catholic[1].  I believe that in the case of intrastate conflicts one important factor that needs analysed is the role of ethnic identity. Primordialists on one hand believe that ethnic identity is inherited, and given by nature.[2] On the other hand, Alexander Wendt, writes from a constructivist approach, which argues that identity is acquired through social interaction. Contrary to primordialists, the argument emphasises identity as being a social construction rather than given.[3] Instrumentalists argue that ethnicity is by no means inherited but a tool for political elites to achieve political or material goals. As well, ethnicity doesn’t stand outside political process of achieving the specific end goals. [4]

Nowadays, few academics use primordialism to explain conflicts. It has mainly become part of the rhetoric of leaders who try to emphasise issues such as “ancient hatreds”.[5] I also look at identity/ethnicity as being “constructed”.

Charm, rhetoric, and opportunities-> political entrepreneurs->ethnic polarisation->cycle of violence

As I mentioned in my previous post, in the context of state weakness, strategic dilemmas start to occur. In such a setting, political entrepreneurs and ethnic activists find the necessary conditions to advance their political goals, particularly in multi-ethnic societies. Political entrepreneurs then attempt to polarise society. Such individuals take advantage of people’s security dilemmas, and manipulate historical myths, communal memory, and emotions to advance “vicious cycles of fear and violence”.[6] It is a generally accepted idea among conflict theorists that people’s reaction to what could be a cultural thereat is to expose greater hostility towards other groups, and so conflicts can escalate and turn violent. [7]

Who are they?

One of the most classic examples of a political entrepreneur is Slobodan Milosevic, former Serbian President. His main tactic was to take control over the media and present only one side of the story during the Croatian and Bosnian wars.[8]

What about Paisley? Through his rhetoric Ian Paisley gained support from the unionist population in Northern Ireland. He established his own church, the Free Presbyterian Church, and his own political party (DUP) which became the biggest unionist party in Northern Ireland. He mobilised crowds with his anti-Catholic and what I believe to be sectarian speeches. Now the question is, is it wrong or right to think of him as a political entrepreneur? I could not find anyone yet, in the world of academia, to back me up on this one.

“This year will be a crisis year for our province. The British government, in cahoots with Dublin, Washington, the Vatican and the IRA, are intent to destroy the province. The so-called talks process is but a front. Behind it the scene is set and the programme in position to demolish the province as the last bastion of Protestantism in Europe” Paisley writing in the Free Presbyterian church magazine The Revivalist at the start of 1998


[1] Fearon, Laitin, Violence and the Social Construction of Ethnic Identities, International Organization, 54 (2000), pp 845-847

[2] Ozkirimli, Theories of Nationalism, (England and New York, Palgrave, 2000)  p 75

[3] Weber, International Relations Theory-A Critical Introduction, (New York: Routledge, 2010), p 62

[4] Lake, Rothchild, The International Spread of Ethnic Conflict: Fear, Diffusion and Escalation (New Jersey:Princeton University Press, 1998), p 6

[5]   Fearon, Laitin, op. cit. p849

[6]Lake, Rothchild, Containing Fear- The Origins and Management of Ethnic Conflict, International Security, 21 (1996),  pp 41-75  (pp 53-54)

[7] Feigenblatt, The Parable of the Tribes: Identity and Conflict, Journal of Alternative Perspectives in Social Science, 4, (2012), pp 663-675

[8] Lake, Rothchild, op. cit.

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