recent symposium at Penn probed the causes, symptoms
and solutions of ethnic warfare.
By Samuel Hughes
we say, there is no human instinct for intergroup violence, Dr. Melvin
Konner was saying during the opening session of the Merriam Symposium
on ethnopolitical conflict. Maybe notbut here is what there is: Hunger,
greed and lust bring groups into competition with one another. Desire
expands human numbers, intensifying competition. Fear of violence stimulates
violence. Frustration induces rage. Mimesis causes mirror-image negative
emotions. Stereotype dualities dichotomize the social world. Individual
will and consciousness submerge in crowd-psychology emotional contagion.
Obedience to authority takes the place of conscience. Insular groups exhibit
fierce internal cohesion. Positive idealsloyalty, sacrifice, heroismserve
the worst possible ends.
the Samuel Chandler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology and associate professor
of psychiatry and neurology at Emory University, paused for a moment.
If we want to decline to call this instinct, fine, he concluded. Call
it what you will, but recognize that as a partial answer to the question
posed at the outset: If we are not by nature violent creatures, why do
we seem continually to create situations that lead to violence?
hanging over the symposium was: Can the world cope? The answers were complex,
measured and often sobering. It lasted all day and featured six panels,
each made up of leading thinkers on the issue at hand. The opening session
probed the larger questions of ethnopolitical conflict through the perspectives
of anthropology, political science and psychology. Four panels focused
on Jerusalem, Kosovo, Kashmir and Rwanda. The closing one examined ways
to build peace and speed the process of reconciliation.
as the opening panel convened in the safe confines of Houston Hall,
conflicts between peoples of different linguistic, religious and spatial
backgrounds persist, noted Dr. Walter Licht, the professor of history
and associate dean of SAS who chaired the opening panel. Where, he asked
rhetorically, can we find the seeds of this hostility?
can be found in the structures of political institutions. The desire for
a nation-state of ones own ethnic group is, as one panelist noted, at
least as old as the Old Testament. But very few nations are comprised
of just one ethnic group or nationality, and that multiplicity usually
leads to some form of federal political system. For Dr. Brendan OLeary,
the key question is whether the existence of apparently stable, multi-national
and poly-ethnic federal democratic states proves that the strong pressure
for each nation to have its own state is not overwhelming.
and nationalism are not necessarily incompatible in principle, said OLeary,
professor of political science at the London School of Economics and co-author
of The Politics of Antagonism: Understanding Northern Ireland.
The fact that people might be governed by members of other nationalities
does not violate the nationalist principle as long as the institutional
arrangements are a byproduct of genuine consent of some form.
certain brands of nationalism and federalism are indeed incompatible,
especially if there is a struggle for power among different ethnic peoples.
Acknowledging that it will sound Nazi, OLeary laid out his theory:
that a stable, democratic, procedurally majoritarian federation must
have a Staatsvolk: a national or ethnic people who are demographically
and electorally dominant. After showing a slide of democratic federations
around the world in 1998, complete with their relevant Staatsvolk,
OLeary said that all of the democratic federations which have lasted
over 30 years appear to have a Staatsvolk on this definition (though
he acknowledged that, to use a horribly fashionable term, a Staatsvolk
is a social construct). The United States, he noted, was the first national
federation in world history, having been built around a White Anglo-Saxon
Protestant core of former British sectors who had to be a majority in
all states before the federation could expand. Its history, he stressed,
is not one of multinational federalism.
implicit micro-foundations of this theory is that dominant people can
afford to be more generous and they can afford to be relaxed about the
form of territorial government, he added. And where a Staatsvolk
does not exist, things may appear to be more precarious.
to his data, most stable majoritarian federations have fewer than two
effective ethnic groups, meaning that one ethnic group is clearly predominant.
But there are, he pointed out, some stable federations (such as Switzerland
and Canada) which hover close to two and above, meaning that power is
shared by two or more ethnic groups of relatively equal size, and that
those federations thus lack a Staatsvolk. That they are also relatively
stable is owing to their use of consociational (power-sharing) institutions
based upon proportional representation of groups with group autonomy
in culture and veto rights.
all its flaws, OLeary held up the European Union and its consociational
arrangements as a successful model of a federation. It preserves national
autonomy for members; gives national members veto rights; insists on proportional
representation of national citizens in all of the key institutions of
the European Union; and operates with a system of highly slow and painful
consensual executive decision-making.
his Staatsvolk theory is correct, he noted, it has implications
for what we should prescribe to other parts of the world, he warned.
By and large, when Americans go abroad to prescribe how to manage national
and ethnic questions, they say you should integrate peoples; you should
let them voluntarily assimilate if you respect our best historic practice;
but you should also think of federal forms. And my argument is that the
export of federalism, without careful attention to the nature of the demographic
and electoral balance between ethnic groups, may well lead to erroneous
Dr. Clark McCauley Gr67, professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College
and co-director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical
Conflict at Penn, the horrific big killing that sometimes characterizes
ethnic violence is seldom the result of impulse or hate suddenly boiling
over at a despised ethnic group. It requires something more chilling:
organization and government support.
organization, big killing does not require large numbers of killers,
he said. Nor are the killers abnormal personalities: Big killing depends
on recruiting normal people to kill and kill indiscriminately.
McCauley said, the psychology of killing involves individual-level mechanisms
of desensitization, dehumanization of the enemy, and intense group dynamics
among the killers that creates a social reality in which killing is morally
acceptable and necessary.
considerably more mysterious phenomenon, he added, is the psychology
of the pyramid, in that the apex of the killers in ethnic conflict requires
the sympathy and support of a much larger number. The psychology of the
pyramid is, I think, the psychology of group identification, which I understand
to be caring about the outcomes of a group.
nationalism is positive identification with an ethnic group combined
with the idea that ethnic groups should have a state for other political
rights, McCauley explained. And the five political characteristics of
ethnic conflict that a psychology of ethnic identification should examine
are willing to sacrifice their lives, money and almost everything else
for something as faceless as an ethnic or national group.
is directed not just at members of other ethnic groups but at deviants
within ethnic groups when there is conflict.
threat to the ethnic group may well be the big mobilizer of ethnic identification,
which is why the conflict is the most intractable in places that have
double minorities such as Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland and Israelwhere
both sides can realistically see themselves as an endangered minority.
In his opinion, fear rather than hate is the dominant emotion in ethnic
ethnicity seems to be especially powerful, and one of the great surprises
of the 20th century is that its easier to mobilize people with ethnicity
than other kinds of identities.
is somehow crucial to people involved in mobilizing for ethnic conflict.
Nations care about their history, however mythical the history might be.
who care about their ethnic group for economic or material gain may be
less likely to sacrifice for the group than individuals who care about
their group for its social-reality value, for the moral culture that
makes sense of the world and the individuals place in it, McCauley noted.
And recent research has shown that shared threat is a particularly potent
source of group cohesion in face-to-face groups.
researchers have suggested that human brains have a module for descent-based
categories of people that interprets people in terms of categories defined
by essence, race, said McCauley. Ethnicityor even culturemay thus be
essentialized in such a way that even members of a group who do not
show group-typical characteristics are assumed to have, nevertheless,
the hidden essence, the tendencies of their descent group. And once a
group is seen as descent-based, then the perception of common essence
can facilitate both positive identification with the in-group and negative
identification with an out-group of a different essence. The out-group
is not, after all, quite human in the way the in-group is.
offered another observation from what is known as terror-management theory.
Given that humans are the only animals that know theyre going to die,
he said, our defense against existential terror is our membership in
and contribution to a group that will go on after our individual death.
Challenge of Ethnopolitical Conflict:
Can the World Cope?
sponsored by the School of Arts and Sciences, funded by the late John
W. Merriam W31 and held in the newly revamped Houston Hall on November
29. In a sense, it had its origins in 1997, when Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman
Gr67, the Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology who was then president
of the American Psychological Association, announced an initiative to
create a profession for psychologists of devoting their lives to the
prediction and understanding of ethnopolitical warfare, as he put it
result of that initiative was the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical
Conflict at Penn, which was founded two years ago to advance understanding
of that conflict and to find ways to treat its effects. And according
to Dr. Walter Licht, the professor of history who served as chair of the
symposiums faculty organizing committee, it was the very creation of
the center that led to the symposium.