Ethnic Conflict

What are three factors that can move ethnic groups toward ethnopolitical conflict?

Essay 2009 3 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Topic: Peace and Conflict Studies, Security


Task: A. What are three factors that can move ethnic groups toward ethnopolitical conflict? Please discuss the role of each factor briefly.

Ethnic or ethnopolitical conflicts can be circumscribed as “those political conflicts that occur within states where the antagonistic actors mobilize themselves on the basis of different ethnicities” (Anand 2009, p. 3). Different factors can move ethnic groups towards such a conflict. Subsequently, I am going to outline three of them – political instrumentalization, economic factors plus systemic parameters. At this point it should be mentioned that many of these factors are intertwined with each other and that the existence of one factor might trigger or affect another one.

Political instrumentalization

As Sommer truly points out, “the sense of identity and belonging that ethnicity inspires is highly influential in daily life and can be a powerful resource when mobilised in the pursuit of political goals” (2009). Frequently, political leaders exploit and take advantage of what Kaufman calls “ethnic myths” or “symbolism” (2006, p. 204). Traumatic experiences of the past are uphold in order to gain or to keep power, former defeats and/or successes are mythologized with the result that politics becomes highly symbolic and emotional (Kaufmann 2006, p. 202). An ethnopolitical mobilization is facilitated by an existent high level of frustration within the respective ethnic group1. Political elites consciously emphasize and present ethnic commonalities in an overstated and even manipulated manner for mobilization aims, thus stirring up hostile emotions against other groups (see Schrader 2007). In this case, the Israel-Palestine-conflict can be mentioned as a vivid example for extremist political instrumentalization.

Economic Factors

Horowitz considers “ethnic inequality” in terms of uneven economic competition between different ethnic groups as a potential conflict cause (1998, p. 7f.). Political leaders from a dominant ethnic group might rather favour their own peers by granting economic advantages or unequally distributing scarce resources, which in turn can stir up hostile emotions of the discriminated groups. Moreover, situational vulnerability in terms of poverty, despair and deprivation (e.g. from education and jobs) in combination with negative emotions towards another group might lead to ethnopolitical disputes. Richardson and Shen conclude that “a sense of shared deprivation strengthens identification with their group, providing a basis for political mobilization along ethnic lines” (1996). The fact e.g. that foreign aid was invested in Israel to a large degree, resulting in a stable and growing economy unlike Palestine, further nurtured ethnic and religious tensions (The Library of Congress 1990).

Systemic factors

Colonial legacy or any kind of foreign influence/rule can offer reasons for ethnic tensions and conflicts. The break-up of the Soviet Union lead e.g. to the “disintegration of the states social fabric”, often resulting in insecurity and chaos (FPDL 2009). In this case, people were looking for other “survival units” for perspectives, i.e. providing security including the provision for basic needs. Often, it was ethnic groups that attended to such needs, offering emotional support at the same time. Furthermore, an incomplete process of national reconstruction (e.g. after a war), can facilitate ethnic conflict. Van Houten refers here to political and institutional instability as generic term. Incomplete implementation of reforms, malfunctioning institutions and insufficiently trained government officials might give rise to ethnic groups to take over.

To sum up: the illustrated factors represent only a small number of examples out of various ones that can lead to ethnopolitical conflict. It is important to keep in mind that ethnicity is a not a fixed concept, but rather a contested one, being in a continuous process of change. It is always “fleeting, constructed, relational and contextual” (Sommer 2009), and thus implying that factors leading to ethnopolitical conflicts accordingly change over time, too.


1 i.e. a group of people sharing one or more characteristics like e.g. language, kinship, ancestry, race, culture, religion, history, and/or physical appearance. It can often be compared with an “inverted refrigerator”: “The refrigerator generates inward coldness, but creates outward warmth. Ethnic groups create inward warmth for their members but also outward coldness, in order to be able to do so. (FPDL 2009)


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Free University of Berlin – Center for Global Politics
conflict management Konfliktmanagement Sicherheit security ethnic conflict ethnischer Konflikt ethnicity



Title: Ethnic Conflict