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Violence and the Social Construction of Ethnic Identity

  • James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin


We examine the theoretical implications of the observation that ethnic identities are socially constructed for explaining ethnic violence, distinguishing between two classes of mechanisms. If individuals are viewed as the agents who construct identities, then constructivist explanations for ethnic violence tend to merge with analyses that stress strategic action by both elites and mass publics. In contrast, if discursive formations are the agents that construct ethnic identities, then constructivist explanations tend to merge with accounts that stress internal logics of specific cultures. Using the books under review as a “sample,” we find considerable evidence linking strategic aspects of ethnic identity construction to violence and more limited evidence implicating discursive systems. The most common narrative in these texts has largescale ethnic violence provoked by elites, often motivated by intra-ethnic conflicts. Followers follow, despite the costs, out of increased fear of thugs and armies “let go” by elites (both the other side's and their “own”) and often in pursuit of local grievances that may have little ethnic component. Several other mechanisms are also discussed, including the role of discursive systems in conditioning publics for violence and the role of violent efforts to enforce “everyday primordialism” by policing supposedly primordial ethnic boundaries.



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