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There is great concern today about interethnic divisions signaling the end of the Arab Spring. Trepidation that hopes for national democratic unity in the Middle East and North Africa are giving way to ethnic, religious, and sectarian tribalism rooted in ancient hostilities and newfound struggles for power, which could lead to protracted bloodshed, chaos and continued instability in the region.

Is this inevitable?
It’s true that humans are tribal. Not just Sunni and Shia or Coptic Christians and Muslims, but Pro-Life and Pro-Choice supporters, Republicans and Democrats, Red Sox and Yankee fans. We, each of us, identify by clan, borough, school, profession, religion, ideology, skin color, disease, sexual preference, nationality, etc.

But group identification is a mixed-bag. It can bestow great benefits — an enhanced sense of esteem, efficacy, belongingness, harmony and security — and it can lead to great harms — outgroup intolerance, exclusion, contempt, violence and annihilation. The central question is what determines the mix — whether our ethnic identities unite us or divide us? Decades of social-psychological research has shed light on this.

First, ethnic identity is not a stable or innate thing. It is our sense of who we are in the social world, which unfolds through a life-long process of discovery (assimilation) and creation (accommodation) that occurs through countless interactions with members of various groups in a cultural and political context. So context is key. For instance, researchers studying minority identity development in the US have stressed the profound influence a context of majority privilege, dominance and exclusion has in shaping the oppositional identities of many minority youth.

Our collective identities are also typically complex; composed of multiple group associations each with different aspects and sub-identities. Scholars have mapped roughly 22 different elements that distinguish identities, including their level of relative importance, certainty, salience, positivity, active involvement, emotional attachment, choice or imposition, and so on. They are like those beautiful Calder Mobiles — with their many components spinning and moving off in various directions — which ultimately combine to compose a whole — I/we. But it is how these different components come together to constitute us vs. them that’s critical to understand.

Scholars believe that humans are hard-wired to categorize the world and that children begin to see group differences as early as three-to-five years old (they favor their ingroup around 3, then around 5 years start to connect this to outgroup negativity). Early research found that simply placing people in arbitrary groups (bean-quantity over and under-estimators) was enough to elicit a sense of identification with an ingroup. But it’s important to note that these “minimal groups” only led to ingroup bias when people assumed that members of their own group were more likely to help them than members of other groups. And they were more likely to spark outgroup discrimination when people started to suspect unfair treatment from the outgroup. So interdependence and injustice is where intergroup strife begins.

Conflict between groups can stem from many sources, but typically involves three universal elements: ethnocentrism (our group is best), stereotyping and an uneven distribution of goods. Most of these conflicts are fleeting or negotiable. However, research indicates that the longer a conflict goes unresolved, the more likely identity-based concerns for group dignity, security, efficacy, and justice will be evoked as the conflict becomes more and more integral to an understanding of self and others in the situation.

Under conditions of long-term stress and threat (economic hardship, oppression, violence, etc.) ethnic identities can converge toward monoliths where all dimensions of a group’s identity — such as ethnicity, religion and language — collapse and become viewed as aligned. This is very common in war. Ingroups develop strong group loyalties and negatively sanction contact with outgroups, eventually viewing their identities as zero-sum such that a negation of the other becomes a fundamental aspect of their identity. This can be reinforced by negative, homogeneous, abstract, and stereotypical outgroup images which are self-perpetuating. Over time, these identities are passed onto future generations through parenting, the media, and the teaching of history, resulting in new generations with rigid intergroup beliefs and simplistic views of the other. At this point, the ongoing processes of adaptation through social interaction associated with normal identity development cease to function, resulting in a frozen sense of us vs. them, which seems impossible to change under conditions of high threat. This is a recipe for protracted interethnic violence.

So what can be done to mitigate the collapse and ossification of ethnic identities to prevent such disaster?

• First, check assumptions.
• Violent groups. It is a common error to assume that other groups are inherently more tribal and violent than our own. But the social-political conditions in which groups operate largely determine this. Just recall the actions of good Americans at Abu Ghraib, My Lai, Hiroshima and Wounded Knee. Good groups can do horrible things under the right conditions.
• Outgroup homogeneity. It is also an error to assume that members of outgroups, even extremist groups, are all alike. Although groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic Brotherhood are often viewed by Westerners as monolithic threats, it is important to recognize that they often evidence internal divisions within their groups; individual members or subgroups who differ in their motives and in their willingness to negotiate. Assuming only the worst usually guarantees the worst.
• Ethnic conflict. It is also important to recognize that destructive ethnic conflict is relatively rare; most ethnic groups tolerate other groups or live together in harmony and are able to resolve their differences constructively. The more problematic ones simply get more attention and thus seem pervasive. In most societies, functional intergroup relations provide a safety net of civility and a model for ethnic tolerance.
• Second, increase complexity. A wide-body of research suggests that increasing the level of complexity within societies goes a long way in mitigating intergroup polarization and violence.

For instance:

• Societal complexity. Anthropological research has shown that some societies are organized in nested groups (low complexity), where members of distinct ethnic groups tend to work, play, study, and socialize with members of their own group; they have little collaborative contact with members of other groups. Other societies are organized through crosscutting structures (high complexity), including ethnically integrated business associations, trade unions, professional groups, political parties, and sports clubs. This has been identified as one of the most effective ways of making interethnic conflict manageable and nonviolent.
• Social network complexity. People with more diversified, complex social networks have been found to be more tolerant of out-groups and more supportive of policies helpful to them. They tend to have more positive out-group experiences, share more interests with people outside their own groups, and learn more about the contributions of outgroup members and the problems they face.
• Social identity complexity. People also differ in the degree to which they see themselves as members of different identity groups that are aligned and coherent versus groups that are contradictory and do not overlap. A liberal, pro-choice, pro-gay rights antiwar individual would therefore have much lower social identity complexity (more coherence) than a gay, Republican, antiwar NRA supporter (higher internal contradiction). Research shows that people with higher social identity complexity are more tolerant of out-groups and more open in general.
• Integrative complexity. This refers to the level of complexity of the cognitive rules people use to process and analyze incoming information. Research spanning decades shows that people who have higher levels of integrative complexity tend to be more conciliatory in conflict; and also that as conflicts escalate, peoples’ level of cognitive complexity diminishes. These findings point to the critical importance of building or bolstering more complex and integrated social institutions and networks, educational experiences, history curriculum, and media representations to establish the infrastructure for peaceful ethnic relations to emerge. Ultimately, the problem of ethnic conflict is less the severity of the actions of the parties and more so the closed, fixed, and intolerant nature of intergroup attitudes and their subsequent imperviousness to change.

© 2011 Peter T. Coleman, author of The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts

Peter T. Coleman, author of The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts, is associate professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, and on the faculty of Teachers College and The Earth Institute at Columbia. In 2003, he received the Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association, Division 48: Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence. He lives in New York.