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. …

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