A bird’s eye perspective of ethnicity and conflict

Most of the contemporary literature on civil war regards explanations rooted in political and economic grievances with considerable suspicion. Applying statistical tools to the problem, some of the most influential research, including studies by Paul Collier and his team at Oxford University, and James Fearon and David Laitin at Stanford University, draws the conclusion that ethnic groups’ frustrations do not drive patterns of political violence. This research has had a strong impact well beyond academic circles.

In a nutshell, these researchers argue that ethnic frustrations are too widespread to be linked to internal conflict. While violence is a rare event, ethnic or other grievances are ubiquitous. In his recent book Nations, States and Violence, David Laitin claims that

ethnic grievances are commonly felt and latent; the factors that make these grievances vital and manifest differentiate the violent from the nonviolent cases. Ex ante measures of grievance levels are not good predictors of the transformation or latent grievances into manifest ones. And it is the factor that turns latent grievances into violent action that should be considered as explanatory for that violence.

Going even further, John Mueller suggests in an article in International Security that ethnic conflict is so banal that it could potentially take place in any society, as illustrated by British soccer hooligans and motorcycle gangs in Denmark: “Under the right conditions, thugs can rise to a dominant role, others can lend a hand or withdraw into terrified isolation or studied indifference, and any place can degenerate into a Bosnia or a Rwanda” (p. 68).

However, this ubiquity-of-grievances argument remains an untested assumption. The problem is that grievances, including political exclusion and economic inequality of ethnic groups, are notoriously difficult to measure directly. The indicators used in the current literature, such as the Ethno-Linguistic Fractionalization index and the Gini coefficient of inequality capture interactions among individuals and therefore lose sight of group-level conflict processes.

Fortunately, it is possible to construct structural, group-based measures of both political access and inequality. The International Conflict Research (ICR) group in Zurich has spent the last few years collecting data on ethnicity and conflict, partly in collaboration with colleagues at UCLA. Our most recent dataset GeoEPR, which was published earlier this spring, offers a “bird’s eye view of ethnic settlements” around the world during the last half century that builds on the Ethnic Power Relations dataset. Improving on a predecessor project called GREG (Geo-Referencing Ethnic Groups), the new dataset offers geo-coded information about ethnic groups’ settlement areas around the world from 1945 through 2005. The groups shape files as well as relevant non-spatial group data can be downloaded here.

Based on this information, we show that excluded and downgraded groups are much more likely to experience civil-war violence. Furthermore, our most recent research, conducted by Lars-Erik Cederman, Kristian Gleditsch at University of Essex, and Nils Weidmann at Princeton University, uses GeoEPR data suggesting that ethnic groups that are either considerably less or more wealthy than the country average are also exposed to higher conflict risks. Such “horizontal inequality” has previously been associated with conflict, but our research is the first to do so globally with the help of geographic information systems (GIS).

Thus we conclude that the jury is still out as regards grievances’ role in conflict processes. Rejecting “messy” factors, such as grievances and inequalities, may lead to more elegant models that can be more easily tested, but the fact remains that some of the most intractable and damaging conflict processes in the current world, such as the Israeli-Palestinian civil war, are to a large extent about political and economic injustice. It is very unlikely that such conflicts can ever be solved without taking seriously the claims of marginalized populations. While power sharing is often unstable and associated with considerable risks on its own, it is hard to see how persistent exclusion of major groups could ever produce long-term stability. Researchers should leave the attempts to trivialize, or even criminalize, grievances to ruthless state and rebel leaders.


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