Ethnic identity itself is not a motivator of conflict. Ethnic identity allows for differentiation between ethnic groups and, therefore, the creation of ‘the other.’ The other’s transformation into the enemy due to a real or imagined threat spawns violence. For this reason, ethnic conflict often appears after the exodus of colonial powers as “a common result of cultural movements of assimilation and of differentiation” (Horowitz, D. L 2000, p.73). “Ethnic identities are socially constructed” by individuals, groups, states, and regions (Fearon, J. D. & Latin, D. D. 2000, p.845). Ethnic identity as a term itself is difficult to denote due to the protean nature of ethnic groups and the “changing [political or social] conditions” in which they reside (Horowitz, D. L 2000, p.56). “Ethnic identity is an umbrella concept that includes… religion, sect, language, dialect, tribe, clan, race, physical differences, nationality, region, and caste” (Chandra, K. & Wildinson, S. 2008, p.519). In contrast, an ethnicity is comprised of individuals who gained “voluntary membership” or membership at birth (Horowiz, D. L. 2000, p.55). As for understanding how ethnic identity motivates violence; constructivism provides the most efficient approach to understanding ethnic identity differentiation in the context of exclusion, threat, and perceived threat.

The lens of constructivism is the most useful of the International Relations theories when discussing ethnic conflict. Constructivists purport the understanding that both “social systems” and “individuals” can construct ethnic identity (Fearon, J. D. & Latin, D. D. 2000, p.846). The principle of ethnic identity as a social construction does invalidate its importance to the members of a specific ethnic group and with whom they interact (Fearon, J. D. & Latin, D. D. 2000, p.845). Within ethnic identities, there is an “internal logic of culturally specific ways of thinking, talking and acting” which differentiates ethnic groups (Fearon, J. D. & Latin, D. D. 2000, p.846). Constructivism is the most applicable theory when discussing the Rwandan Genocide, as the Belgian colonial government produced the ethnic identities of Hutu and Tutsi (Roessler, P. 2011, p.313). Stemming from a similar school of thought, “Social Identity Theory, a social-psychological approach identifying the micro-level motivations created by the construction of group categories,” illustrates how ethnic groups become violent in social conditions such as those in postcolonial Rwanda (Liberman, E.S. & Singh, P. 2012, p.2). By creating an “us” vs. “them” dynamic, elites can more easily “mobilize followers to commit acts of violence against ethnic others” (Liberman, E.S. & Singh, P. 2012, p.2).

Other schools of thought are flawed. Primordialism, for instance, advocates that “particular social categories are fixed by human nature rather than by social convention and practice” (Fearon, J. D. & Latin, D. D. 2000, p.848). However, the Rwandan Genocide only became possible after colonial powers formed ethnic identities that did not exist in the pre-colonial era (Roessler, P. 2011, p.313). Thus, it could not have sprung from “human nature,” but was socially constructed instead (Fearon, J. D. & Latin, D. D. 2000, p.848). Instrumentalism suggests that individuals have control over their identities, but not over their emotions, which have historical attachments or are ethnically driven. In Rwanda, an individual’s ethnic identity was controlled by the state. Neorealists conceptualize ethic conflicts as beginning once minority “ethnic groups face a security dilemma when the Leviathan disappears and react with preemptive violence” (Cederman, E; Wimmer, A; & Min, B. 2010, p.88). Again, this theory is easily falsified as the minority, the Tutsis, were put in power in Rwanda by the Belgian colonial government, but only became victims of genocide after the democratic elections (Roessler, P. 2011, p.313). The majority, Hutu, response towards the Tutsi minority was a reaction to the social and ethnic strife during the colonization, which was due to the favoritism in the colonial government.

The creation of a strong sense of identity can breed either a holistic sense of membership within a state or a rift between social and ethnic identity groups, creating conflict. Nationalism is a highly motivating social construct, which “demands that the unit of governance and the nation should be congruent” (Cederman, E; Wimmer, A; & Min, B. 2010, p.92). A “nation is [an] imagined… community of common origin and shared historical destiny” which binds together a group of people (Cederman, E; Wimmer, A; & Min, B. 2010, p.92). Thus, the concept of nationalism comes paired with the ideal that “ethnic likes should rule over ethnic likes” (Cederman, E; Wimmer, A; & Min, B. 2010, p.92). A nation defined by ethnicity that labels “ethnic challengers” as an “enemy that needs to be destroyed before they can destroy us” is unified in the direction of violence (Roessler, P. 2011, p.314). This “enemy” is merely an ethnic ‘other’ before the threat was perceived. In the case of the Rwandan Genocide, two new ethnic communities that were defined by economic status were formed by colonial powers (Roessler, P. 2011, p.313). However, these new ethnic identities became not only indicative of economic prowess, but also of family groups, making it nearly impossible to move between identity groups (Horowitz, D. L. 2000 p.61). This severed the standing ties between the two economic groups and placed them in a hierarchical system that did not previously exist. Furthermore, the Tutsi leaders utilized the “mobilizational potential” of ethnicity as a community to “extract goods and services [from the Hutus]… [and] establish their own power” (Varshney, A. 2003, p.88).

Ethnic institutionalization by governments increases the likelihood that minority groups are excluded. “Exclusion is a short-term strategy designed to strengthen the incumbent’s grip on power and terminate the internal security dilemma” which may arise in highly diverse populations (Roessler, P. 2011, p.314). This is well illustrated in Burundi where the “ruling Tutsi elite went to great lengths to eliminate Hutu from the government” following a “coup attempt by a group of Hutu army and gendarmerie officers” (Roessler, P. 2011, p.313). The Tutsis went on to construct an “ethnocracy” wherein only the Tutsis were welcome in government and the Hutus’ way of life was, and is continually threatened (Roessler, P. 2011, p.313). Therefore, a threat was presented to the Hutu’s culture, livelihood, and future generations, which spawned a unique emotional response inciting aggressive conflict.

When an ethnic group is underrepresented in government, its leaders often perceive that their culture or way of life is being threated. The genocide in Rwanda began as the Tutsi leaders sought to eliminate Hutus from government. The Hutus made up the majority of the population, which should have been indicative of governmental decisions in a democratic state. The Tutsi instigation of conflict “destroy[ed] the ethnic balance that had existed within the regime in the first years after independence” from the power of colonial Belgium (Roessler, P. 2011, p.313). The Hutus’ “loss of power in the recent past” sowed the seeds for further violent conflict (Cederman, E; Wimmer, A; & Min, B. 2010, p.88). In addition, the Hutus had a much higher “mobilization capacity,” as they made up a larger proportion of the population (Cederman, E; Wimmer, A; & Min, B. 2010, p.88). After the Tutsis were displaced from their previous political advantage, the “elites” sought to “maintain… their hold on political power” which motivated them to instigate “large scale ethnic violence” (Fearon. J. D. & Latin, D. D. 2000, p. 846).

“Actors may find themselves trapped in self sustaining cycles of violence” due to personal grievances or historical precedents (Cederman, E; Wimmer, A; & Min, B. 2010, p.97). Actors may include nations, communities, families, or individual members of ethnic identity groups. Personal grievances can be perpetuated by the killing of one’s immediate family or driven by the need to protect one’s offspring from the recent past or ongoing conflict. “Local cleavages and intracommunity dynamics must be incorporated into theories of civil war” as historical precedents are unique with each conflict and greatly change the character of the conflict itself (Kalyvas, S. N. 2003-9, p.487). Civil war is akin to ethnic conflict as the locality is highly relevant to the nature of the conflict. Hence, local or regional conflict cannot be understood with “global… constants,” rather they need independent study (Varshney, A. 2002, p.283). A conflict cannot be resolved until it is resolved ideologically in the minds of those involved on either side. “Ethnopolitical configurations of power” are strongly connected to the prevalence of civil war in previously colonized regions (Roessler, P. 2011, p.301). They drive the source of conflict as they exemplify the differences between identity groups in both an institutionalized and social manner. For example, the colonial government whom did not understand Rwandan societal structure initiated the postcolonial governmental and societal structure in Rwanda (Roessler, P. 2011, p.313). Thus, a new social structure was generated based off the Rwandan economic structure initiating a rift in the traditional “intracommunity dynamics” (Kalyvas, S. N. 2003-9, p.487). Furthermore, some states are more likely to experience civil war, ethnic or otherwise, than others. For example, a state with high diversity, but low on the “income scale” is particularly at risk (Fearson, J. D. & Latin, D. D. 2003, p.82). States that were previously colonized are also more at risk than the colonizer states. Post-colonial Rwanda fit this criteria well, thus, civil war was to be expected.

“Sons-of-the-Soil (SOS) conflict” is defined as a “conflict between members of a minority ethnic group concentrated” in a specific region wherein there is a recent migration of “ethnically distinct migrants… from other parts of the same country” (Fearon, J. D. & Latin, D. D. 2011, p.200). The ethnic minority group “think[s] of their group as indigenous” (Fearon, J. D. & Latin, D. D. 2011, p.200). They believe this justifies their ownership of particular areas “as their group’s ancestral (or at least very long-standing) home” (Fearon, J. D. & Latin, D. D. 2011, p.200). These areas often have religious or cultural significance to minority ethnic groups (Fearon, J. D. & Latin, D. D. 2011, p.200). These conflicts are similar to ethnic civil war in that they often have a “long duration” and great breadth throughout the state (Fearon, J. D. & Latin, D. D. 2011, p.200). Furthermore, Sons-of-the-Soil conflicts “simmer at a low level,” making it impossible for a state to treat as war, but also “impossible to get rid of” from the state’s perspective (Fearon, J. D. & Latin, D. D. 2011, p.200). This is especially the case in developing countries where the conflict is poverty driven due to homelessness, hunger, etc. (Fearon, J. D. & Latin, D. D. 2011, p.200). Many ethnic civil wars have the same characteristics of Sons-of-the-Soil conflicts. These characteristics include the conflict occurring between an indigenous ethnic minority group and an immigrant ethnic majority group, migrants have been lured by the state to the area with “economic incentives,” and the conflicts begin as small skirmishes and escalate to the point where “state forces” are utilized on behalf of the majority (Fearon, J. D. & Latin, D. D. 2011, p.209). This type of conflict is somewhat depicted in Rwanda as the Tutsis were made more prevalent and powerful by the colonial government. The Tutsis were rewarded with economic gain for their services and became even further separated from the Hutu majority. The colonial government protected the Tutsis from being deposed by the majority until their withdrawal (Roessler, P. 2011, p.313).

Ethnic identity as a social construct itself is not a motivator of conflict; however, ethnic identity allows for ethnic differentiation, and the creation of ‘the other.’ This concept of the ‘other’ can be as an ethnic group or otherwise, but does not incite violence until the minority or weaker group is threatened by either a perceived or real threat. Threats can include a renewed sense of nationalism in other parts of the region, underrepresentation of minorities or specific ethnicities in government, the institutionalization of ethnicity by governments, historical precedents and personal grievances, and internal migration. All of the aforementioned threats can either be real or perceived, but they all establish a divide between ethnic identities. Once this divide has been forged, the weak minority group recognizes the ‘other’ as the enemy and relations between identities spiral towards violence.



Works Cited

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