Scots to Chechens: How "Ethnic" Is Ethnic Conflict?

By King, Charles | Harvard International Review, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Scots to Chechens: How "Ethnic" Is Ethnic Conflict?


King, Charles, Harvard International Review


Every autumn in local parks throughout the United States, thousands of Scots come together to have an ethnic conflict. Kilted chieftains from all the major clans--the MacGregors and Campbells, the McDonalds and Wallaces--march along with tartan banners held high. Bagpipers parade back and forth, drones erect and chanters skirling. Clansmen and clanswomen let out war whoops as they descend onto the soccer field or baseball diamond. Occasionally, someone denounces the English. Eventually, one of the clans receives a trophy for being the fiercest, and then everyone decamps to the beer tent.

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These are the peculiar rituals of Scottish Highland games, a large and growing form of weekend entertainment for people of Celtic heritage. But the eager participants, standing in line for a sample of Scotch whisky or a lunch of meat pie and shortbread, are centuries away from a time when the Scots were less quaint: when thousands of people were killed in inter-clan feuding, when Highlanders staged bloody rebellions against English rule, and when the English crown and feudal lords responded with what would now be considered ethnic cleansing--forcibly removing Highland farmers in a sweeping campaign known as the Clearances.

That was the eighteenth century, when northern Scotland was a land of social conflict, violence, and danger. "Till the Highlanders lost their ferocity, with their arms, they suffered from each other all that malignity could dictate, or precipitance could act ... Every provocation was revenged with blood, and no man that ventured into a numerous company ... was sure of returning without a wound," wrote Samuel Johnson during a tour of the region in 1773. His depiction stands in stark contrast to the conditions in modern Scotland, which has been devoid of mobilized violence since the eighteenth century.

But the Scottish example raises an intriguing question: why do some disputes that we now label "ethnic conflicts" seem to endure across the centuries, while others become the purview of suburbanites who happen to spend their weekends puffing on bagpipes? Judging from the Scottish experience, it does not seem unreasonable to believe that being a Chechen, Serb, or Hutu could one day become the same thing as being a Highland Scot. But even posing the question in this way raises important issues about the nature of civil wars and the "ethnic" component of ethnic conflicts.

The Nature of Civil Wars

The 1990s seemed to be the age of ethnic conflict. Around the world, the end of superpower competition heralded a sudden upsurge in age-old animosities. Federations collapsed and genocidal wars broke out, each one over basic differences of religion, language, and history. This is one common reading of the last two decades, but it is in large measure inaccurate.

In the first place, the very label "ethnic conflict" is largely a product of perception and representation, not an analytical tag that describes a unique kind of social violence. No violent conflict ever involves all, or even most, members of one ethnic group suddenly rising up and deciding to kill all the members of another group. This is the cartoon version of ethnic war, but it is seriously out of step with reality.

Rather than an entire ethnic group universally declaring war on another, it is generally small factions of committed militants that execute wars. Governments can also adopt the causes of ethnic, religious, clan, or regional factions, casting themselves as either defenders or avengers of a certain group. However, their determination and brutality can often create the social dividing lines that they claim to be defending. This, in turn, leads to new injustices, which the next generation may seek to avenge.

Mobilized ethnic groups certainly can and do have an effect on politics, but the opposite can also be true: politics can help create mobilized ethnicity in the first place. …

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