Taking Sides and Constructing Identities: Reflections on Conflict Theory

By Schlee, Guenther | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Taking Sides and Constructing Identities: Reflections on Conflict Theory


Schlee, Guenther, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


Many social scientists offer theories of conflict which focus on that which is contested, in other words the resources that contending parties fight about. Without denying the importance of these resource-orientated, economically or ecologically inspired theories, I wish to shift the focus from the objects to the subjects of violent conflict. My concern is 'who fights whom?' This question may sound very basic, even too simple to be of much scholarly interest. But as anthropologists we come across many violent conflicts in which it is not at all easy to describe the criteria by which friend and foe are distinguished and in which participants offer different explanations about who they are, what unites them, and what distinguishes them from their enemies. So, empirically, this is not at all an easy question to answer. Furthermore, we lack the theoretical tools to address this issue. Despite the extensive work of anthropologists both recently and in the past on questions of alliance, faction, and political boundary-making, there are still critical deficiencies in our understanding of the ways in which people in specific conflict situations may make and break alliances and which patterns of identification they follow. To put the matter more simply, in the contemporary world's innumerable trouble spots any observer's predictions about who is likely to gang up with whom and against whom can be highly inexact or inaccurate. So the question of how such identifications work and what the reasons behind them might be is far from trivial.

One might ask why these important issues are so rarely addressed. There seem to be only two possible approaches at hand for those who are concerned with the issue of group identification in conflict situations: either a form of cost-benefit analysis as favoured by economists, or an approach focusing on social structures and their cognitive representations. Those involved are generally very different kinds of thinkers. What I seek to show in this article is that much clarity can be gained by combining these two perspectives systematically.

When one asks how and why people take sides in violent conflicts one can expect two types of reason. The first has to do with concepts and categories. The way in which people classify themselves and others tends to be systematic in nature; a certain logic and plausibility structure will prevail. Wishing to be or not to be something is not enough; one also needs a plausible claim to an identity or a plausible reason for rejecting it. If plausible alternatives are lacking, one might be forced by one's own logic and the expectations of others to join the fight on a given side. The other type of reason concerns the advantages and disadvantages that may arise from such identifications and such decisions to take sides, in other words, from the costs and benefits of taking sides. It is to be expected that the two types of reason will overlap and interpenetrate. Where there is room for identity work--that is, room for people reasoning about their identities and changing them--categories can be expected to be replaced or stretched to fit the needs of actors. These needs often have to do with the size of a group or alliance: one either seeks a wider alliance or tries to keep others out, in order to exclude them from sharing in certain benefits.

Alternatively, one may look at consequences rather than reasons. Decisions to take sides have consequences for those who make the decision as well as those who do not. In the case of the latter, others make the decision for them or the decisions of others affect them. Unintended consequences may, of course, affect later decisions.

In exploring the issue of how group size relates to exclusivist or inclusionist identification strategies, I begin with an overview of my basic theory of group size. I then consider the rhetorical strategies deployed in the recruitment of allies in a perspective which is inspired by action theory. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Taking Sides and Constructing Identities: Reflections on Conflict Theory
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.