Beyond Ethnicity: The Global Comparative Analysis of Ethnic Conflict

By Fenton, Steve | International Journal of Comparative Sociology, July-September 2004 | Go to article overview

Beyond Ethnicity: The Global Comparative Analysis of Ethnic Conflict


Fenton, Steve, International Journal of Comparative Sociology


An Argument about Conflict

The difficulty in understanding ethnic conflict lies in treating it as primarily ethnic in its cause and nature. A first look at ethnic conflict does indeed suggest the self-explanatory formula--that the boundaries of difference are simultaneously boundaries of hostility. Where conflicts with an ethnic profile are historically deep-set and presently acted out with violence, the starkness of the ethnic opposition seems to offer us the explanation of conflict. Here, we would include Serb-Croat, Hutu-Tutsi, American White-Black, and Palestinian-Jew. In truth, however, boundaries of (ethnic) difference are not simultaneously boundaries of (ethnic) conflict. The task of explanation is to understand how and under what conditions do some boundaries of difference become boundaries of serious conflict.

To analyze ethnic conflict effectively requires meeting two further difficulties: to trace out the possibilities of global comparative analysis and to address the problem of "culture." I have said global comparative analysis because, on the one hand, comparative analysis offers such rich rewards to the sociologist of ethnicity. On the other hand, the globalization of the world has meant that comparative analysis must also transcend itself to become global comparative. This is to acknowledge that we are not comparing nation-state systems with each viewed as a sealed unit. Nation states, cities, regions, and transnational institutions are part of a global order. In this global order each sphere of social action (nation-state, individual actor, corporate group) is subject to the action of the global order on itself, finds the global order is an external "condition" of its action, and is itself immersed in at least some of the qualities of globality.

The global comparative analysis of ethnic conflict (i.e. conflict that is conventionally described as "ethnic conflict") entails addressing the problem of culture. We have to recognize that one facet of the globalization of the world has been the culturization of the world. This importance of cultural representations, cultural framings, and cultural messages is grounded in the technologies of travel and transmission. Uyghur Muslims in the Northwest corner of China are aware of news events in New York or the Gaza strip within minutes of them happening. Reflexivity becomes a routine component of social life, and reflexivity is one of the reasons for the high tension quality of global culture. The relevance of this for understanding ethnic conflict (or for framing conflict as "ethnic") is problematic, principally because the equivalence of ethnic groups and cultural boundaries is itself highly problematic. Thus, we must have serious doubts about the capacity of multiculturalism to offer a "solution" to the problem of ethnic or ethnonational conflict, globally or locally. The global and cultural character of the modern world is part of what many describe as postmodernity. This is only satisfactory if postmodernity is viewed as an extension and attenuation of modernity. It is, then, this postmodernity or attenuated modernity which threatens to take the world further into a post-ethnic condition.

Conflict called Ethnic

On the face of it the term "ethnic conflict" is not so problematic a phrase. It could be defined as conflict between ethnic groups that is motivated by ethnic solidarity (looking inward) or ethnic hostility (looking outward). But it is problematic just in the same way that the term ethnic groups is problematic; problematic because "ethnic groups" suggests a concreteness of "membership" in which ethnicity is summative and totalizing, and this is a condition which is rarely met. Michael Banton has critically questioned the phrase "ethnic conflict." "Ethnic conflicts," he writes, "are not a special class of conflicts" (Banton 2000). As Banton shows, the ethnic dimension is one potential line of allegiance in any community small or large. …

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