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Language conflict and violence: the straw that strengthens the camel's back

  • David D. Laitin (a1)


Based on the ‘Minorities at risk’ data set, which codes the status and conflicts of 268 politically active groups in 148 different countries, this paper finds: 1) the greater the language difference between the language of the minority and that of the dominant group, the lower the probability of minority rebellion against the state; 2) language grievances held by the minority are weakly but negatively related to rebellion; 3) language grievances are strongly associated with increased levels of political protest, suggesting that the remedy for these grievances is more likely to be sought in the political realm rather than in guerrilla action; 4) language grievances when compounded by religious grievances (which are a reasonable predictor of rebellion) strongly and significantly reduce the magnitude of rebellion. The mechanisms supporting these results are elucidated in a formalized official language game. The equilibrium path of this game is illustrated in case studies of India and Sri Lanka.

Les données viennent du fichier « Minorities at risk » qui recense le statut et les conflits de 268 groupes politiquement actifs dans 148 pays. Voici quatre résultats : I) plus la différence linguistique est forte entre minorite et groupe dominant, plus faible est la probabilité d'une rébellion de la minorité contre I'État; 2) les griefs linguistiques sont lies a la rebellion faiblement et négativement; 3) les griefs linguistiques sont fortement associes a des niveaux élevés de contestation politique ce qui suggére que les solutions aux revendications linguistiques relevent plus du domaine politique que de la guerilla ; 4) les conflits religieux sont un bon predicateur de rebellion mais l'association avec des griefs linguistiques reduit l'importance de la rébellion. Les mecanismes qui soustendent ces resultats sont presentes selon un modele de jeuformalise. Le chemin d'équilibre est illustré par des études de cas en Inde et au Sri Lanka.

Das hier verwandte Datenmaterial »Minorities at risk« erfasst sowohl den Status als auch die Konflikte von 268 politisch aktiven Gruppen in 148 Ländern. Vier Ergebnisse: 1) je gröϐer die linguistischen Unterschiede zwischen Minderheit und Mehrheit sind, desto geringer ist die Möglichkeit einer Rebellion der Minderheit gegen den Staat; 2) linguistische Beschwerden sind schwach und negativ für eine Rebellion; 3) linguistische Klagen wirken sich sehr stark auf den politischen Protest aus, was zu der Annahme fuhrt, dass sprachliche Forderungen mehr dem Bereich der Politik als der Guerilla angehören; 4) religiose Auseinandersetzungen sind von groϐer Bedeutung fur einen Aufstand, sobald sie allerdings mit sprachlichen Forderungen gekoppelt sind, sinkt die Bedeutung der Protestbewegung. Die Mechanismen, die diesen Ergebnissen 2ugrunde liegen, werden mittels eines formalisierten Sprachspiels beschrieben. Der Mittelweg wird anhand zweier Fallstudien, lndien und Sri Lanka, erlautert.



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(1) Harrison, Selig S., ed. (1957), The Most Dangerous Decades: An Introduction to the Comparative Study of Language Policy in Multi-Lingual States (New York: Language and Communication Research Center, Columbia University). The Ocalan quote is from a report in The New York Times June 24, 1999, by Stephen Kinzer. Geertz, Clifford (1973). The Integrative Revolution, in Geertz, C., The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books), quotation from p. 256257.

(2) For a full description of the data base, see Gurr, Ted R. (1993), Minorities at Risk (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace). There are several worrisome methodological pitfalls in the construction and coding of this data base, discussed in James Fearon and David Laitin's proposal to remedy them, funded by the National Science Foundation, Grant no. 9876530: «‘Minorities at Risk’ Database and Explaining Ethnic Violence». The proposed changes will surely have some impact on the relationships discussed in this paper. The findings herein, therefore, can only be considered preliminary.

(3) Gellner, Ernest (1983), Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).

(4) Weber, Max (1968), Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press), 71, 655, 809–38, 1108 for discussions of different forms of rationalization.

(5) Weber, Eugen (1976), Peasants into Frenchmen (Stanford: Stanford University Press); de Swaan, Abram (1988), In Care of the State (New York: Oxford University Press), chap. 3.

(6) This is a summary of Laitin, David D. et al. (1994), Language and the Construction of States: The Case of Catalonia in Spain, Politics and Society 22, 1 (03), 330.

(7) Linz, Juan (1974), Politics in a Multilingual Society with a Dominant World Language, in Savard, J. G. and Vegneault, R., eds, Les états multilingues: problèmes et solutions (Québec: Presses de l'Université Laval), 367444.

(8) The Habsburg case is an archetype for the foundational figures in contemporary theories of nationalism, especially those who lived in it at the time of its dissolution: Hans Kohn, Karl Deutsch, Eric Hobsbawm, and Ernest Gellner.

(9) Rebellion, unless otherwise specified, is the variable ‘rebel90x’ in the MAR, reflecting a value of the group's rebellion against the state for the years 1990–1995.

(10) See Laitin, David D. (2000), What is a Language Community?, American Journal of Political Science 44 (1): 142155.

(11) Grimes, Barbara F., ed. (1996), Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 13th ed. (Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics).

(12) For a discussion on the methodological problems in using a measure of language distance, see Laitin (2000).

(13) Gurr (1993), p. 18.

(14) Given the limitations of the data set, where language grievances are coded only for the 1990s and the latest scores for rebellion are also in the 1990s, I cannot now rule out the interpretation of the forthcoming results as rebellion causing a reduction in language grievances. This is rather implausible, and subsequent updating of the data base will allow me to assure myself that the causal arrows as 1 interpret them are correct.

(15) Fearon, James D. and Laitin, David D. (1999), Weak States, Rough Terrain, and Large-Scale Ethnic Violence Since 1945,paper prepared for the 1999 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association,Atlanta, Georgia.

(16) Users of the MAR data base will want to know: there is no rural base for rebellion (RURBASE=0) if the group is primarily urban (REG5=1), or if the group is widely dispersed (REC6=1), if the group did not migrate to the country until the 20th century (TRADITN=4 or 5), or if the group members (even if it was primarily rural) were the descendants of slaves or are travelers (Romani). Meanwhile, the group was considered to have a rural base (RURBASE=1) if the minority could trace its origins in the country to the period before state formation (TRADITN=1) or if the group had at least a majority concentrated in one region of the state (GROUPCON=2 or 3).

(17) Other interaction terms—with race and class in particular—would be feasible elaborations of this analysis. Getting an objective measure of race prevents an exploration of its dynamic. I lack data on the class composition of the ethnic groups and cannot explore its impact here.

(18) The mirror is also true: religious grievances reduce the rebellious potential of language grievances, but this effect is far less strong statistically than the one being reported in the text.

(19) See Laitin, David (1989), Language policy and political strategy in India, Policy Sciences 22:426.

(20) Under such conditions violence is more likely as Fearon, James D. argues in (1994), Ethnic War as a Commitment Problem,paper presented at the 1994 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association,New York.

(21) This is the source of the humor in Woody Allen's ‘Bananas’, when the leader of a Latin American guerrilla army, at the moment of victory, with cigar in mouth, announces that from that point on, Swedish would be the sole language of all communication in the island nation.

(22) My research career has been devoted to this dilemma. I focus on the identity aspects of language in Laitin, David D. (1977), Politics, Language and Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). I focus on the strategic rationality of defection in Laitin, David D. (1988), Language Games, Comparative Politics 20: 289302. I focus on the ‘Janus-facedness’ of culture, which has both an identity and a strategic component, in Laitin, David D. (1986), Hegemony and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). In this paper the identity aspect of culture plays only a bit part because the dependent variable is ‘violence’ (where strategic action is more important) rather than ‘assimilation’ (where identity issues play a major role).

(23) David D. Laitin (1986), Hegemony and Culture.

(24) For a compilation of the details for this aspect of corpus planning, see Government of Andhra Pradesh (1968), White Paper on Official Language (Telugu): Preparation of Authoritative Texts (Hyderabad: Government Secretariat Press).

(25) Ravi, K. (1982), Regional Separatist Agitations in Andhra Pradesh, in Kumar, A. Prasanna, Murty, V. Linga and Ravi, K. (eds), Government and Politics in Andhra Pradesh (New Delhi: S. Chand), 5465.

(26) R. V. R. Chandrasekhara Rao (1979), Conflicting Roles of Language and Regionalism in an Indian State: A Case Study of Andhra Pradesh ; Dagmar Bernstorff (1979), Region and Nation: The Telengana Movement's Dual Identity, both in Taylor, David and Yapp, Malcolm, Political Identity in South Asia (London: Centre of South Asian Studies, SOAS, University of London), 138150 and 151–169. See also Weiner, Myron (1978), Sons of the Soil (Princeton: Princeton University Press), chap. 5.

(27) Brass, Paul R. (1974), Language, Religion and Politics in North India (London: Cambridge University Press), p. 430.

(28) Gupta, Jyotirindra Das (1970), Language Conflict and National Development (Berkeley: University of California Press), 259, 266, 268 and 270.

(29) Laitin, David (1989), Language Policy and Political Strategy in India, Policy Sciences 22:415436.

(30) Tambiah, Stanley J. (1986), Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 57, and Gannath Obeyesekere in a letter to the New York Times (April 24, 1984) hopefully lay to rest any lingering notion of such a divide in Sri Lanka.

(31) Tambiah (1986), 58–60.

(32) Tambiah, Stanley (1992), Buddhism Betrayed? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 4957.

(33) Tambiah (1986), 20–27; Tambiah, Stanley (1996), Leveling Crowds (Berkeley: University of California Press), p. 100.

(34) Tabiah (1986), 71–8; Tambiah (1996), p. 86.

(35) Swamy, M. R. Narayan (1994), Tigers of Lanka: From Boys to Guerillas (Delhi: Konark Publishers), p. 21.

(36) Samarasinghe, S. G. (1996), Language Policy in Public Administration, 1956–1994, in Gunasekera, R. G. G. Olcott, Samarasinghe, S. G., and Vamadevan, V., National Language Policy in Sri Lanka (Kandy: International Centre for Ethnic Studies), p. 98.

(37) Gunasekera, R. G. G. Olcott (1996), The Implementation of the Official Language Policy, 1956–1970, in Gunasekera (1996), p. 32.

(38) S. G. Samarasinghe (1996), p. 105

(39) Gunasekera (1996), p. 45.

(40) Gunasekera (1996), 58–62

(41) Samarasinghe (1996), 79–91.

(42) The Houdini-like leader of the Liberation Tigers, V. Prabhakaran, became a militant largely because of the ‘standardization’ decrees that were designed to compel all Sri Lankans to take official examinations in Sinhalese. In this way, language laws took young Tamils out of the educational stream and into the guerrilla river. This relationship is incomplete, however. First, Prabhakaran had a fixation for explosives well before he thought about Eelam. Second, recruitment into militant groups was extremetion ly slow until 1983, when the LTTE had fewer than fifty hardcore members. But when rumors spread in 1983 that the Indian government was funding and training Tamil guerrillas, recruitment skyrocketed. At that time, however, standardization was hardly an issue. See Swamy (1994), chap. 4, and p. ix, 96.

(43) Swamy (1994), p. 294.

(44) Tambiah, Stanley, comments at the NAS seminar reviewing an earlier draft of this paper, 10 22, 1998.

(45) James Fearon and I, in the context of our NSF Grant, will include some groups not considered to be ‘at risk’ in future analyses, and doing so may pick up the violence-decreasing aspects of the 3 ± 1 missed in Table D.

(46) B =.475264; SE B =.467966.

(47) B = -.438306; SE B =.449604. This is when the dummy for 3 ± 1 is also in the equation.

(48) There are insufficient number of cases analyze LANGREGIME=4 or LANGREGIME=5 for groups with RURBASE=1 living in countries that entered the world system after 1945 (YRENTRY>1945). Even under these conditions, the bivariate correlation between Rebellion and MAXLANG is weakly negative.

(49) Users of the MAR data set might want to note that the threshold for democracy of high quality is ndem89=8; the threshold for substantial language grievances is MAXLANG > 1; and the critical threshold for REBELLION is rebel 90X>3.

(50) For Lieven's position, see No Russian Spoken Here’, The New York Times July 16, 1999.


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