An Argument about Conflict
The difficulty in understanding ethnic conflict lies in treating it as primarily ethnic in its cause and nature. A first look at ethnic conflict does indeed suggest the self-explanatory formula--that the boundaries of difference are simultaneously boundaries of hostility. Where conflicts with an ethnic profile are historically deep-set and presently acted out with violence, the starkness of the ethnic opposition seems to offer us the explanation of conflict. Here, we would include Serb-Croat, Hutu-Tutsi, American White-Black, and Palestinian-Jew. In truth, however, boundaries of (ethnic) difference are not simultaneously boundaries of (ethnic) conflict. The task of explanation is to understand how and under what conditions do some boundaries of difference become boundaries of serious conflict.
To analyze ethnic conflict effectively requires meeting two further difficulties: to trace out the possibilities of global comparative analysis and to address the problem of "culture." I have said global comparative analysis because, on the one hand, comparative analysis offers such rich rewards to the sociologist of ethnicity. On the other hand, the globalization of the world has meant that comparative analysis must also transcend itself to become global comparative. This is to acknowledge that we are not comparing nation-state systems with each viewed as a sealed unit. Nation states, cities, regions, and transnational institutions are part of a global order. In this global order each sphere of social action (nation-state, individual actor, corporate group) is subject to the action of the global order on itself, finds the global order is an external "condition" of its action, and is itself immersed in at least some of the qualities of globality.
The global comparative analysis of ethnic conflict (i.e. conflict that is conventionally described as "ethnic conflict") entails addressing the problem of culture. We have to recognize that one facet of the globalization of the world has been the culturization of the world. This importance of cultural representations, cultural framings, and cultural messages is grounded in the technologies of travel and transmission. Uyghur Muslims in the Northwest corner of China are aware of news events in New York or the Gaza strip within minutes of them happening. Reflexivity becomes a routine component of social life, and reflexivity is one of the reasons for the high tension quality of global culture. The relevance of this for understanding ethnic conflict (or for framing conflict as "ethnic") is problematic, principally because the equivalence of ethnic groups and cultural boundaries is itself highly problematic. Thus, we must have serious doubts about the capacity of multiculturalism to offer a "solution" to the problem of ethnic or ethnonational conflict, globally or locally. The global and cultural character of the modern world is part of what many describe as postmodernity. This is only satisfactory if postmodernity is viewed as an extension and attenuation of modernity. It is, then, this postmodernity or attenuated modernity which threatens to take the world further into a post-ethnic condition.
Conflict called Ethnic
On the face of it the term "ethnic conflict" is not so problematic a phrase. It could be defined as conflict between ethnic groups that is motivated by ethnic solidarity (looking inward) or ethnic hostility (looking outward). But it is problematic just in the same way that the term ethnic groups is problematic; problematic because "ethnic groups" suggests a concreteness of "membership" in which ethnicity is summative and totalizing, and this is a condition which is rarely met. Michael Banton has critically questioned the phrase "ethnic conflict." "Ethnic conflicts," he writes, "are not a special class of conflicts" (Banton 2000). As Banton shows, the ethnic dimension is one potential line of allegiance in any community small or large. The analytical task is to identify why and how actors choose to act according to the prompts of ethnic allegiance.
There is a further difficulty with the term ethnic conflict and this lies in how the popular, if not scholarly, use of "ethnic" is imbued with ideas of dangerousness, and bitter, insuperable hatred, rather than what is conveyed by the term tribal or tribalism. Thus, it is as if "ethnic conflict" is both descriptor and explanation, giving credence to the idea that the core of the conflict is "ethnicity itself." Any such idea of "ethnicity itself" is problematic. I am using it here to capture the idea that there are certain historical and cultural identities that represent profound social divisions at the level of the nation state, region, and continent, and of the global system. In some respects, Huntington's Clash of Civilizations (1997) approximates such a model of conflict, the portrayal of ethnic groups as culture groups and the grounding of conflict in these ethno-cultural realities.
To sustain this "ethnicity itself" model (in my view, a much mistaken model) some assumptions are necessary. It has to be assumed that cultures are co-terminous with ethnic groups; that there is a great depth of cultural attachment on the part of individuals seen as members of a cultural group; and that there is a bond of loyalty to an ancestral community ("my people") that constitutes a primary bond, that it "trumps" all others. But we cannot assume that ethnic groups and cultures are co-terminous. This is because ethnic groups may be multi-cultural and cultures may be transethnic. And the very problem with understanding the implications of cultural difference lies in discerning where "cultural attachment" provides an emblem to die for, and where cultural difference is no more than the co-existence of cultures in a shared system of action. And finally, the creation and maintenance of ethnic boundaries does not explain ethnic conflict: on the contrary, the problem lies in explaining why sometimes war breaks out along the boundary.
The Conditions of Ethnicity
For an explanation of ethnic conflict, I am suggesting, we need to look beyond "ethnicity itself" toward some recognizable "external" conditions that convert boundaries of difference into boundaries of war. In 2003 I wrote that "ethnic identities and cultural differences may be present in any society but their relevance for action can change quite dramatically for reasons which lie outside the ethnicities themselves" (Fenton 2003b). One of the conditions that I discussed in that book was the de-stabilization of state systems and the breakup of imperial orders. I referred to a number of linked factors that are characteristic of …