Identity, Culture and Historicity: The Social Construction of Ethnicity in the Balkans

Article excerpt

The topic of ethnic conflict has moved to center stage in the field of international relations within the past five years or so (Ryan 1990; deSilva and May 1991; Midlarsky 1992; Slann and Schechterman 1993; Moynihan 1993; Gurr 1993; Gurr and Harff 1994; James and Carment, forthcoming).(1) It has given added relevance to interdisciplinary work, drawing sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists into a common enterprise. In spite of the widespread perception that ethnic conflict is on the increase, recent studies suggest that states are actually more inclined to negotiate with aggrieved ethnic groups. At the same time, many ethnic movements are increasingly inclined to seek nonviolent means of achieving their aims.

Along with the growing attention paid to ethnic conflict,(2) international relations theory has witnessed what Lapid and Kratochwil call The Return of Culture and Identity in M Theory (Lapid and Kratochwil 1996; Connolly 1991; Zalewski and Enloe 1995; Peterson 1993) in an effort to locate the problem of ethnic conflict within the theoretical domain of international relations. One consequence of this move is that the state as a unit of analysis no longer occupies a privileged position. The state appears to be more movable, malleable, and contestable than ever. The state consists of a set of institutions that are authoritative only because other sets of institutions recognize them; it has been socially constructed within historical and interpretive social processes and practices. The relationships among people and groups within the state, and the relationship between states and the people on whose behalf they claim to act authoritatively, remain problematic, conflictual, and unstable.

The most problematic tensions between governments and those over whom (or on whose behalf) they assert authority run the gamut from deprivation of the basic necessities of life to widespread and routine abuses of human rights and finally to brutality, including the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and Burundi (Kuper 1981, 1992). Thus, there is a third current propelling international relations scholars in new directions--an inquiry into the construction, deconstruction, transformation, and adaptation of civil society (Colas 1996; Cohen and Arato 1992; Kumar 1993). The concept of civil society is applicable to both the conditions of civility within multiethnic states (which includes nearly all states) and the prospects for an emerging, multicultural, global civic society and culture (Colas 1996; Boulding 1988).

The boundaries of the state are not always coterminous with the boundaries of a civil society, and they are almost never coterminous with ethnically homogeneous populations. Michael Ignatieff has suggested that the problem is one of transferring the basis of loyalties from national forms of identity to a loyalty grounded in civic obligation (1993). This may be only part of the answer, since multiethnic states like the United States seem quite capable of mobilizing national passions for projection on external (the Soviet Union) as well as internal (during the "Red Scare" era) enemies. Questions about the conditions leading to uncivil society lurk in the shadows of discussions about civil society. Civil strife and overt brutality point to the breakdown or failure of civil society both in domestic and in global terms. It is in these instances that the broader framework of a global civil society becomes most salient, when foreign policies can be brought to bear on the conduct of human rights abuses and war crimes tribunals can attempt to hold individuals responsible for uncivilized transgressions, even if global civil society as yet seems unable to stop brutalities when doing so would save lives.

The questions most often asked regarding the Balkans war of 1990-95--How did it happen? and Why did it happen in Europe?--bear directly on these interrelated inquiries in contemporary international relations, leading us to ask: How do civil relations within a state (Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Burundi) descend into the furthest depths of brutality in the name of conflicts over identity. …