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A month of ideas.
Giancarlo Bosetti Editor-in-chief
Association for dialogue and intercultural understanding
Intercultural Lexicon
IT Tuesday, 7 November 2006

Ethnic Violence

Fabio Dei

Many of the conflicts or mass violence of recent decades have been characterised by the adjective “ethnic”. This means that the leading players were groups opposing one another on the basis of identitarian, religious, linguistic or more generally cultural assertions.

Rwanda and the Balkans are only the most famous and tragic examples of clashes with identity at their centre, destroying optimistic plans for multiethnic citizenship. It has been said that these are the general characteristic at the basis of “new wars”, conflicts marking the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st Centuries. The media and international political bodies have often identified the ethnic element as the cause of these conflicts. In this perspective violence originates in very ancient ethnic or (as said for Africa) tribal hatred; kept under control by strong political regimes, such as colonial ones or socialism in Yugoslavia, with the fall of these regimes the primordial hatred exploded again with all its power.

These would be considered as pre-political causes and basically irrational ones, rooted in irreducible anthropological peculiarities that prevent the full use of political-economic rationality in the contemporary world. This point of view however appears in many ways naïve and misleading. First of all it is based on an existentialist concept of ethic identity. It therefore presumes the existence of extremely ancient or primordial ethnic identities, which come before and are independent of all historical and political change: a concept that anthropology and contemporary social science have questioned radically, believing rather in identity’s process-like characteristic. Identity is constantly produced and even invented by political subjects for the political objectives of the present.

Ethnic sentiment, with the elements of closure and reciprocal aversion that may be present, then appears rather as a consequence rather than the cause of conflicts. Or, better still, it is often an ideological instrument used by competing political subjects so as to obtain consensus. Here too Rwanda and the Balkans are very clear examples. It has been widely proved how the Hutus and the Tutsis, far from representing primordial ethic groups, are the result of colonial domination in Rwanda and Burundi; and how there current “atavistic hatred” is the result of specific political choices and cleverly orchestrated propaganda campaigns.

As far as Yugoslavia is concerned, there was an obvious instrumental use of ethnic categories and historical memory by Serb and Croatian nationalisms, as ideological support and moral justification for their own aggressive policies and even their genocide practices. In both cases this ideological strategy influenced in a negative manner the very international bodies, who allowed themselves to be misled, considering as pre-political the causes of the violence and choosing non-intervention strategies, legitimising as possible mediators the very powers at the origin of the conflicts.

The concept of ethnic violence is therefore ambiguous per se. The adjective “ethnic” is misleading if it refers to primordial belongings that almost naturally and necessarily would result in conflict if not kept under control by a strong central power. Anthropology, which is not without responsibility for the existentialist vision of ethnicity, is now committed to “de-constructing” its public use, attempting to reveal the political-economic interests underlying identity related ideologies. Although necessary, this criticism does not totally address the problem. Ethnic sentiment cannot in fact be dismissed as pure ideology imposed from above. Its spreading and its extraordinary capability to influence social players must be fully understood.

Studies (sadly for the moment rather rare) that have investigated the subjectivity of the leading players in the violence have proved a deep-rooted sense of belonging, its “incorporation” capable of profoundly moulding the physical and emotional experiences of these subjects, and not only their “opinions”. One the other hand the forms that so-called ethnic violence has assumed - its capillarity, its weaving its way into daily social life, the systematic tendency to atrocities and symbolic practices involving the mutilation and humiliations of enemies – would not otherwise be understandable. Identities and the hostilities linked to them may well have been invented and promoted by states, by nationalist or autonomist movements, by political or religious power groups: one must however understand in what way they become constituting characteristics of social subjects, producing that “incarnate fury” (as the anthropologist A. Appadurai describes it) that makes possible the massacres and various forms of ethnic cleansing.

Hence, to understand ethnic violence in today’s world, the theses referring to primordial belongings and hostilities of irrational and pre-political origin are not sufficient, nor is the thesis reducing the ethnic factor to pure ideological support for strategies moved by a number of structural economic-political interests. In the space available between these two opposed reductionisms, one finds the most recent anthropological research, which has attempted to follow the difficult (and almost paradoxical) path of the ethnography of the practices of violence and a microanalysis of their symbolic syntax. Those that seem to be blind explosions of homicidal fury can instead turn out to be culturally moulded practices and filled with social meanings. In reading scholars such as L. Malkki or the aforementioned Appadurai, such practices seem linked to the complex relationship that binds together the state, the body and culture in the era of globalization and the crisis experienced by nation-states.

The massacres carried out using machetes or the ethnic rapes appear to be a particularly monstrous deformation of “disciplines”, that in the sense Foucault used it, merge relations between the individual and the power of modernity; it appears to be the modern state’s final reaction, in contexts in which its political-cultural foundations are disintegrating. As controversial as they may be, theses of this kind have the merit of showing us ethnic violence not as a residual or unpleasant pre-modern residue, deeply-rooted in obstinately local contexts, but rather as a product of late modernity and of the dynamics we usually describe as global.


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