“All conflicts are identity conflicts…” — John Paul Lederach, Conflict Transformation Class, 2005
The definition of the word identity varies according to who is using it and why they are using it. In many fields, identity differences are seen to be a root cause of conflict. Psychological, especially social psychological explanations of conflict draw upon social identity theory as one of the primary explanations for conflict. In sociology, identity is related to self-awareness and self-consciousness which lead to cultural norms and group identities. Within politics, Identity Politics is seen as a search to reconcile concepts of nation and communal identities. Studies of religion attribute a large part of one’s identity to one’s beliefs. Anthropology, history, literature, medicine, philosophy and other disciplines each have something to add to the discussion on identity and how it relates to conflict.
As the concept is so prevalent, this user guide draws upon a wide-range of essays from BeyondIntractability, written from a variety of perspectives and addressing a selection of issues. The guide is just a door into a greater understanding and will enable the reader only to begin to explore the concept of identity conflicts.
In this user guide you will find:
- Important introductory essays on Identity
- Essays to situate identity theories in a wider context
- Essays concerning elements of Identity Conflicts
- Essays on culture
- Essays on dealing with Identity Conflicts
- Essays concerning the post-conflict period
Important introductory essays on Identity
Identity Issues — This essay by Lous Kriesberg sets out the fundamental principles of studying conflict from the perspective of identity issues. He looks at the nature, sources and effects of identity, as well as those things that shape it. He also considers how identities are changed in the context of transforming intractable conflicts.
Identity Frames – Robert Gardner discusses how identity affects the way we perceive the world, especially what happens in conflicts when people are looking though “identity frames”. The way we see conflict differs according to what “frames” we choose to see it through. Click here for list of framing-related essays.
Culture and Conflict – Michelle LeBaron explains the nature of culture, how it is connected to conflict and how we should respond to this knowledge. This essay is important because culture is one of the primary dimensions by which people often define their identities, along with ethnicity, religion, language, tribe and clan. These cleavages are those along which wars are most often fought, although every person has a multitude of overlapping identities which include family background, education, peers, clothes etc. She also writes about how Cultural and Worldview Frames affect conflict and conflict transformation and there are a selection of related interviews that can be found at Audio on Culture and Conflict. For more on culture see below.
Stereotyping — There are a number of mechanisms by which identity conflicts affect people’s relationships with one another, but stereotyping is perhaps one of the most well-known and misunderstood. Heidi Burgess explains what they are, why they matter and what we can do with both positive and negative stereotypes. An extension of this idea is found in the essay forming enemy images where she goes on to explain the phenomenon of “in-groups” and “ou-tgroups” and how people can avoid and reverse enemy images
Essays situating identity theories in a wider context
Underlying causes — This essay by Michelle Maiese documents a number of underlying causes of intractable conflicts including moral conflicts, justice issues, rights violations, unmet human needs and distributional issues, as well as identity issues. This is helpful to understand how identity fits within a wider analysis of conflict.
Theory of change — How people view conflict and change will affect intervention techniques and underlying assumptions, which are described in this essay in a very thorough manner. It is very important to think about these issues this whilst addressing identity conflicts, because it stimulates discussion and challenges assumptions we might have. There is also specific mention of how psychological studies of identity have led to certain theories of change.
Unmet human needs — This essay lists a sense of identity as one of a number of basic human needs that, if unmet, may be a cause for conflict. Sandra Marker argues for and against this human needs approach, and allows us to make up our own minds.
Essays concerning elements of Identity Conflicts
Of course, in any conflict there will be negative effects of the type listed here. However, some of these effects, for example prejudice, polarization and genocide, are specifically related to how people relate to one another’s identities. There is an essay on each of the following elements of identity conflicts and they are listed (approximately) in order of specific relevance to identity.
The primary debate over identity issues (specifically ethnicity) is between primordialists, those who believe it has ancient roots and is impossible to change, and constructivists. Social constructivists like Sarah Cobb believe that we are the narratives we create. Fortunately, the debate has progressed beyond a simplistic either/or question and the two views have become both more integrated and nuanced. Kriesberg’s essay on identity, for example, considers ethnicity to be largely socially constructed, while recognizing that some traits of ethnicity are not easily modified by social processes. Finally constructivists differ in emphasis. Instrumentalists believe that it is primarily leaders who are responsible for emphasizing identity cleavages, often through use of the media. Institutionalists believe that it is political institutions which are responsible for creating and maintaining ethnic cleavages. How people act and live is shaped in large part by the social structures in which they find themselves, and might be seen through the lens of complex adaptive systems theory
Essays on culture
As I described above, culture is one of the main cleavages along which identity conflicts are fought, and its definition is debatable. For a number of discussions of dealing with differences in culture both in order to enable conflicting parties to understand one another and for intervenors to understand the culture they are going in to, browse by topic or read the following essays:
Essays on dealing with Identity Conflicts
There are an infinite number of methods of intervention in a conflict, depending upon one’s assumptions and beliefs. Although most disciplines would agree that identity issues can be responsible for conflict between groups, there is also general consensus that there are many other factors that contribute to conflict. Many of these other factors are particularly responsible for turning underlying conflict into open violence or war. These factors, including identity issues, are discussed in the essays underlying causes and factors shaping the course of intractable conflict. I shall name here a few methods by which those hoping to bring peace may do so in any conflict, then name some of the approaches specific to identity issues:
Democratization — Discusses the concept that democracies tend not to go to war with each other and other reasons that democratization is proposed in order to bring about peace.
Economic development – Conflict is more likely and often worse in underdeveloped countries. This essay links to a number of others detailing how we can go about addressing this problem
Prevention — Discusses a range of strategies used both to intervene short-term immediately before a conflict and longer-term solutions for bringing about lasting peace.
Non-violence — This essay explores the philosophy behind some effective non-violent methods for bringing about change or resisting violent regimes.
Peacekeeping — Examines ways in which, at a minimum, groups in conflict can be kept from fighting with each other.
Peacebuilding – Contains links and information on methods and ideas for building a lasting peace between groups in conflict, especially conflict transformation. This includes a hierarchical analysis of intervention on three levels, 1) the top elite, 2) the middle-range, and 3) the grassroots.
For more on interventions click here.
Dealing with extremists — When people identify with a specific group in an extreme way it may lead to some specific behaviours that this essay helps us to understand and tackle.
Power Sharing – Details different methods of power-sharing between groups
Coexistence — Discusses issues involved when two or more groups live together in varying degrees of peace
Self-determination — When one group no longer wants to be part of the other groups system they may opt for self-determination, from semi-autonomy to complete secession.
Development of civil society — Varshney and others have found that civil society is a major determinant of whether identity differences lead to violence. This essay describes civil society and why it is important.
Social Structural Change — This essay discusses mechanisms of social structural change, why it is important and how it can affect people’s identities.
Focusing on Commonalities — Along with a number of other mediation techniques, this specifically addresses the fact that identities are often over-lapping. For example although two individuals may differ along racial lines, they might both be women, mothers, teachers, farmers etc. [For more information on this from a psychological point of view, see Brewer, Marilynn B. “Reducing prejudice through cross-categorization: Effects of multiple social identities” in Reducing prejudice and discrimination Oskamp, Stuart (Ed),. (pp.165-183). Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers. ix, 353 pp. (2000)]
Identity issues as a root cause should inform our approach to conflict and lead to a range of strategies. Among these are: Dialogue, mediation, empathic listening, establishment of personal relationships, cross-cultural communication, Communication Tools for Understanding Cultural Differences, tolerance, and joint projects.
Understanding the role of identity is part of understanding the complexity of a conflict. We must make identity issues part of our analysis in order to envision a better future. The way we deal with identity conflicts depends upon our theory of change.
Essays on the post-conflict period
In addition to essays, the site contains:
- audio interviews (and searchable transcripts) with leading peacebuilders and peace scholars. Amongst the many available, the following are the most relevant to identity issues:
- Mohammed Abu-Nimer – Professor of Peace and Conflict Resolution at the School of International Service, American University
- S. Y. Bowland – Director of The Practitioners Research and Scholarship Institute (PRASI) and mediator, based in Atlanta, Georgia
- Helen Chauncy – The Coexistence Initiative
- Sarah Cobb – Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University
- Roy Lewicki – Professor of Management and Human Resources at Ohio State University
- Indira Kajosevic – Co-director and project coordinator of the Reconciliation and Culture Cooperative Network, Inc., New York
- Jay Rothman – President of the ARIA Group, Inc
On top of all this, Beyond Intractability contains many more resources. I would recommend:
- Taking a look at the partner project Principles of Practice for Transforming Race Relations
- Using the glossary to look up terms