Understanding “Ethnic Conflict”

Understanding “Ethnic Conflict”
The unburied bones of victims of the Rwandan genocide are gathered and displayed at memorial centres all across Rwanda.DFID – UK Department for International Development

By Marie-Eve Desrosiers and Srdjan Vucetic

“Ethnic conflict” elicits no shortage of strong scholarly opinion and debate. But what exactly is the causal relationship between ethnicity and violence? And what does “causal” mean in this context anyway? Since ethnic conflict scholars very rarely explain how they understand causes and effects, they seem to take definitions of causation to be obvious or taken for granted. This is a problem since those definitions and meanings should be anything but obvious. The causal assumptions we hold influence how we frame the conflicts we study, starting with our decision to use the adjective “ethnic.” They also shape how our research informs policy, and the political and ethical responses to said conflicts. In short, causal assumptions matter at each step of what we do as social scientists.

In our recent paper, “Causal Claims and the Study of Ethnic Conflict,” we sampled a set of qualitatively oriented articles on large-scale violence in Rwanda and Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Our aim was to examine the nature and range of causal claims made by ethnic conflict scholars. We found that explicit causal language is not the rule.

Authors use the words “cause” and “result” as a both noun and verb. They use “likely” and “factor” interchangeably with “variable.” And, metaphorically, they use “lead” (as in “lead to”) or “create.” They decidedly do not use the terms “causation” or “causality,” much less define them. In other words, although the theoretical debates tend to be rich and sophisticated on which specific “causes” and “factors” matter, few authors actually reflect on how they understand and deploy causality. The same is true for “ethnicity,” where conceptual discussion tends to be thin.

At a more fundamental level of what we term “causal understandings,” we found that most studies proceed from a very narrow, Humean stance on causation. The core claim behind this approach — one often associated with (neo)positivist accounts — is that “X generally leads to Y,” given certain “initial” or “scope” conditions. Indeed, some qualitative scholars adopt a “probability association” perspective best suited for large-N correlational research. Others focus on the environment or “conditions” contributing to the occurrence of an outcome. Either way, the main goal is empirical generalization, which suggests that conflict studies is a monoculture from the perspective of the philosophy of causation.

Exceptions do exist, however. One example is Sherrill Stroschein’s study of ethnic violence and partition in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She analyses these events in terms of causal mechanisms that begin and end with the actions of manipulative, self-perpetuating elites.

Another example is Lee Ann Fujii’s analysis of popular participation in the Rwandan genocide. She explains this violence by social ties and the ways in which they became salient in specific contexts.

While neither author commits herself to a post- and non-Humean conception of causation explicitly, their respective research designs — or research sensibilities — reveal a certain indifference towards empirical generalization. Rather than subtracting value from their research, this indifference actually allows them to shed new insights onto the nature and causes of these two conflicts. Thus, while both authors emphasize the significance of social structures, some of which are ethnicized, their focus is on the complex relationship between the processes of mobilization, participation, and organization on the one hand and violence on the other — a relationship that is itself productive of ethnicity.

Another exception is Marsyia Zalewski’s discussion of “the feminist perspective on Bosnia.” Her argument is a classic “post-positivist” attempt to alert us to the underlying intellectual and political structures that condition knowledge production. And these structures, embedded in the broader dynamics of gendered power, are plainly observable around us. Indeed, in addition to challenging the mainstream treatment of ethnicity in ethnic conflict scholarship — either as a unit of analysis or as an outcome of conflict — Zalewski pushes us to acknowledge the changing dynamics of status hierarchies, forms of oppression, and how they intersect with each other.

We believe that scholars working on ethnic conflict should engage more philosophically with causal thinking. In fact, greater awareness of philosophical debates more broadly has real potential to inspire more self-aware, pluralistic research practices. Such an approach would recast and even reinvigorate scholarly knowledge production on the nature of collective violence, ethnic or otherwise.

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