"Root Causes": The Inversion of Causes and Consequences in Civil War

Article excerpt


It appears as something of a paradox in the social sciences of culture, such as anthropology which is the discipline I represent in these pages, when scholars refuse vehemently to consider the role of culture in causing and sustaining organised, violent conflict2. One major reason for disclaiming culture as a causal mechanism in the outbreak and course of armed conflicts resides in the fact that anthropologists and others take pains to dissociate their approach to culture from the so-called culturalist explanations of the many small, new wars in the post-Cold War era. A number of political scientists and some journalists writing for a larger audience have thus become interested in the impact of culture on political life, including in particular organised, armed conflict (e.g. Chabal and Daloz 1999, Ellis 1999, Huntington 1993, Kaldor 2004, Kaplan 1994). On the other hand, anthropologists are in general wary of providing explanations of cultural and social phenomena and conceive instead of their science as semiotics, preoccupied with questions of meaning and sense-making. Among those few who actually address the issue of causal mechanisms in connection with social violence, the untenable idea that the epiphenomenon of culture can be seen as causal is replaced by notions of rational choice among individual actors (pursuing maximal interests, sometimes through the deliberate "use. of culture) and the role of social institutions, including intergenerational tensions and class conflict.

I sympathize with the view of those scholars who discard culturalist explanations of human behaviour as long as the critical issue of culture's motivational force and implications for human behaviour remains unaddressed in terms of underlying cognitive and psychological processes (Højbjerg 2007). However, the argument of this article is based on the idea that the refusal to consider the impact of "culture. on collective violence and war contains the risk of throwing out the baby with the bathing water. Causes of war are very often blurred. War is profitable to many actors who may have different interests. Take, for instance, the constantly reoccurring rebel insurgency in eastern DR Congo. To the people involved and many commentators alike it is not always clear what is at stake. Is it a competition for resources and gains, ethnic tensions, or a proxy war waged by one or more neighbours of the DR Congo? Not only are causes of war blurred. It is also difficult to disentangle the causes and effects of war. Thus, the ethnic enmity that many commentators depict as the reason of armed confrontations may just as well be seen as a product of the conflicts. As shown by Kalyvas, it is also worth recalling that actions and motivations of combatants in civil war rarely resonate unambiguously with a general ideological program orchestrated by supralocal elites. Top-down run group goals that make use of social violence always intersect with local feuds, personal revenge and sheer opportunism (Kalyvas 2003, cf. Hoffman 2007:647-648).

The apparent confusion of causes and consequences of conflict, especially in connection to the so-called "new wars., has not prevented contemporary analysts of war to craft a number of broad brush explanations of the proliferation and nature of violent conflicts at the end of the Cold War and beyond into the twenty-first century. Such general explanations of the new, small wars privilege either one or a combination of factors that relate to resource scarcity and population pressure, clash of cultures, and global political economy. General insight into the nature of new wars is, however, often gained at the expense of adequate attention for their social and cultural context. I here apply the term context both in the sociological sense as reference to the actors planning and carrying out war (Richards 2005a) and in the sense of cultural ideas and practices associated with violence, identity construction and notions of belonging. …


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