Academic journal article Geopolitics, History and International Relations

Divided by Memories? Beliefs about the Past, Ethnic Boundaries, and Trust in Northern Iraq

Academic journal article Geopolitics, History and International Relations

Divided by Memories? Beliefs about the Past, Ethnic Boundaries, and Trust in Northern Iraq

Article excerpt

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Different groups in a society often have opposing interpretations of history, which can create conflict, in particular when they are associated with claims about the legitimate distribution of rights, resources, and status, or when outgroups are blamed for negative events. There is an abundance of examples showing how majority groups suppress minorities' collective memories, and a significant part of identity politics is about claiming recognition of groupspecific interpretations of historical events that run counter to the hegemonic version of history. For this reason, beliefs about the past are important for the study of cohesion versus conflict.

The concept of collective memory describes the process of how groups remember together (Halbwachs 1992; see Olick and Robbins 1998 for a discussion about definitions). In its broadest definition, collective memory includes commemorations such as public celebrations and rituals, the production of knowledge about history (through, e.g., school curricula and mass media), the canonization of literature and other cultural artifacts, and informal memory work going on in personal networks. It is generally argued that collective memories operate as a unifying force in human societies (Durkheim 1995), creating solidarity and cohesion within groups. In this paper, we focus on a smaller subset of collective memory: beliefs about past events and how such beliefs are structured by ethnicity and social network compositions. As other beliefs, beliefs about the past are a strong and immediate precondition for action (Rydgren 2007; 2009), and as such they may be highly consequential for intergroup relations.

The case in question involves the two cities Erbil and Kirkuk in Northern Iraq. In this context, ethnicity is the most salient group classification. Party politics and civil society are organized along ethnic lines (e.g., Wimmer 2002; Rydgren & Sofi2011). Ethnic group belonging is an important determinant of the allocation of risks and resources. Historically, different groups have held the upper hand in the area during different periods. The four major ethnic groups in the area are the Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens, and Assyrians, and each has had a Golden Age of their own that only rarely overlaps with that of the others.

In both cities under study here, interethnic relations have been highly conflict-ridden and, in Kirkuk in particular, often violent since the fall of the Baath regime in 2003. Previous studies have revealed that interethnic trust and outgroup tolerance are relatively low in both cities, and especially so in the more violent and polarized Kirkuk (Rydgren et al. 2013). As will be further discussed below, beliefs about the past may be important for understanding trust and tolerance, especially in heterogeneous settings (e.g., Rothstein 2000; Rydgren 2007). Trust is usually based on perceived trustworthiness (e.g., Hardin 2002), which is often assessed through the lens of memories of, or beliefs about, individual or collective behavior in the past. To the extent that ingroups hold negative beliefs about outgroups, blaming them for negative events in the past, intergroup trust may be difficult to achieve. As a consequence, ethnic reconciliation may be more difficult to attain since ethnic conflict in such situations is more likely to be recapitulated and to persist over generations.

Relying on individual-level survey data collected in 2010 and 2011 in Erbil and Kirkuk, we will map differences and similarities in attitudes toward historical events in order to further our understanding of social cohesion in the Northern Iraqi society. In the first half of the paper we will briefly outline why we expect to find group-specific uniformities in beliefs about the past, why ethnicity is a relevant group classification to consider in our area of study, and why we may expect larger differences in the interpretation of history across groups in a more violent and polarized context. …

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