Ethnic Conflict

Kigali Memorial Centre 5, Fanny Schertzer, CC BY-SA 3.0

Kigali Memorial Centre 5, Fanny Schertzer, CC BY-SA 3.0

Ethnic Conflict

Ethnic conflict has been a major issue in international relations. Despite the decrease of ethnic conflicts in the world (Gurr, 2000, in Payne, 2013), there are still many cases of them existing. This article will discuss ethnic conflict in international relations. It will define ethnic conflict, as well as discussing the factors that cause ethnic conflict. There are also links to books on ethnic conflict near the end of the peg that individuals can follow to further their studies on ethnic conflict.

What Factors Cause Ethnic Conflict?

One of the most asked questions in the field of ethnic conflict in international relations is the question: “what causes ethnic conflict”? This article attempts to address this question of what causes ethnic conflict, namely since there has been a perception that ethnic conflict has increased rapidly since the end of the Cold War, even though, as mentioned, there has actually be a reduction in ethnic conflicts in the world (Gurr, 2000, in Payne, 2013).

What is important to note is that ethnic conflicts often have underlying causes that are not related to genuine historical tensions between different groups, nor should we generalize ethnic behavior when studying ethnic conflict (Asal & Wilkenfeld, 2013).  There are a number of factors that scholars have found to cause ethnic conflict.  Gurr (1994) begins by laying out various possible theoretical reasons for ethnic conflict in the literature. Such reasons that some have believed ethnic conflict exists include the primordial argument that suggests an almost “innate” hatred between identities. A second possible argument alone suggests that ethnic conflict arises due to ethnicity being used by political leaders for “material and political benefits” (348). Since Gurr argues that neither of these arguments can explain variations in patterns of conflict during different time-periods, he explores ethnic conflict causes by using the Minorities at Risk dataset for 233 ethnic groups, and finds that the emergence of ethnic conflict (through either protest or rebellion) depends on a number of factors including political and economic conditions, along with more systematic variables such as whether a state has had a power transition, since power shifts allow groups to “more openly pursue their objectives” (364) (For more information on Gurr’s work as it relates to Minorities at Risk, see his work entitled Minorities at Risk: A Global View of Ethnopolitics Conflicts). Gurr also finds that contrary to many expectations, we have not seen a sharp rise in ethnic conflict following the end of the Cold War. This finding is similar to that of Fearon and Laitin (2003) who also find that ethnic conflict has already been increasing since World War II, and that current levels of ethnic conflict had been reached decades earlier. In fact, “[t]he 1999 level of 25 ongoing wars had already been reached by the mid 1980s” (77).

Related to the overall question of what causes ethnic conflict, Fearon and Laitin (2003) suggest that instead of the belief that conflicts arise primarily out of large ethnic or religious “diversity” in a state as well as ethnic grievances, they argue instead that it is important to look at overall conditions that may make insurgency more or less likely. They argue that overall ethnic identity is not important since only a small group can maintain a conflict against a government, pending the rights conditions for insurgency. In their statistical analysis, they use 127 civil conflicts from 1945-1999, and find that diversity in a country is not significant when including income measurements in the country. Specifically, they find that “1000 [dollars] less in per capita income is associated with 41 % greater annual odds of civil war onset, on average” (83). Furthermore, they find that fractionalization measures are not significant, and instead, that we are more likely to see insurgencies rise in areas where poverty and a weak government exist (88). This is similar to previous arguments in the literature that are focused more on “opportunity” than on grievances (76). This is important to their argument, since they explain that a small group of fighters can successfully challenge a government, and that ethnic or religious reasons are not necessary. Having said this, as Sambanis (2001) mentions, they do not control for the exact issue that is being fought about, namely whether the conflict issue itself is directly related to ethnic or non-ethnic issues. Sambanis (2001) addresses this by differentiating between the types of civil conflict, and finds that differences exist between ethnic and non identity conflicts, namely that ethnic heterogeneity is “positively correlated with the onset of ethnic war” (280).

Also related to ethnic conflict, Walter (2006) extends the discussion by specifically examining the conditions for which ethnic minority groups are more/less likely to attempt to gain political concessions from the government. Walter (2006) finds that ethnic groups within a state are very strategic in their actions, and that combinations of opportunity and motivation variables are significant in the decision for ethnic groups to challenge the government. For example, Walter (2006) finds that some variables from previous findings still hold such as ethnic conflicts being more likely to take place when group cohesion exists, when a group’s relative rights to other groups are lower, when a group is discriminated against more relative to other ethnic groups, along with more strategic factors like whether other ethnic groups have successfully challenged the state, as well as the number of ethnic groups in a state. While Walter’s research is innovative and useful in helping to understand ethnic group actions related to their government, one issue with Walter’s research design that may have strong implications for the findings is how she codes for past concessions. Walter uses a dichotomous “0,1” variable as to whether the government has previously granted a political concession to an ethnic group. If a government granted a concession that year, along with every year after, Walter codes the event as “1” for a concession. The potential problem with this is that it assumes that an ethnic group will view a government’s concession 40 years ago as the same as a concession a year or two ago, for example. Her measure does not capture the timing of the concession as it relates to the ethnic minority groups. It does not seem accurate to assume that a government’s concession many years ago will show clear information about its current actions, compared to a concession much nearer to the present date. Future research should address this by using a measurement that reflects this difference, namely coding the variable related to differences in time. Walter also finds that ethnic groups are more likely to attempt to gain concessions from the government after another ethnic group in the state has been successful. Future research should also attempt to examine any potential coordination between ethnic groups related to government concessions. It is possible to think that at minimum different ethnic groups can work off of one another in terms of strategies if it benefits both more than individually working against the government.

Saxton & Benson (2006) expand the discussion for the causal process of ethnic conflict by arguing for a multi-staged process of how ethnicity impacts violent and non-violent actions. They suggest that socio-demographic, economic, and political factors all impact group action (138). For their analysis, they conduct a three least squares method, using four dependent variables to explain the relationship between the different variables as it relates to the overall picture of the emergence of ethnic conflict. Looking at 130 “national peoples” and not “ethnic groups” from 1990-1998, they examine the different dependent variables mentioned. For the beginning of the process, they find that cultural repressions, economic and political differences, as well as the loss of autonomy are all important factors in laying the foundation for political mobilization. However, they explain that this itself is not the entire cause of conflict, but is important as it sets the stage for potential increased ethnic activity. From this, they next find that the type of regime is related to whether the government uses repression tactics. From repression, they find that groups who are repressed and have available resources are more likely to respond to the government. Finally, groups will/will not act depending on the “opportunity” to act. Overall, Saxton and Benson (2006) find that a complex pattern of action exists, explaining that “a shared ethno-linguistic identity gives groups of people the basis for organizational mobilization; mobilizational resources give them the means for such mobilization…; grievances provide the reason to mobilize; and a series of political factors structure the opportunities of the groups to contend in a conventional, violent and non-violent manner” (160-161).

UN peacekeepers at Sarajevo airport in 1993, during the siege of Sarajevo. Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev, CC 3.0

UN peacekeepers at Sarajevo airport in 1993, during the siege of Sarajevo. Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev, CC 3.0

Others have found similar patterns, that ethnic conflicts are usually comprised of a number of issues combined. For example, Bojana Blagojevic, in her work entitled “Causes  of Ethnic Conflict: A Conceptual Framework,” looks at ethnic conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She finds that “ethnic conflict occurs when a particular set of factors and conditions converge: a major structural crisis; presence of historical memories of inter-ethnic grievances; institutional factors that promote ethnic intolerance; manipulation of historical memories by political entrepreneurs to evoke emotions such as fear, resentment and hate toward the “other”; and an interethnic competition over resources and rights ” (1).

But along with the discussion of what causes ethnic conflict, we have to be careful as to what classifies as an “ethnic conflict,” and more specifically, how and why different ethnicities act during the war. For example, Mueller (2000) argues that the use of “ethnic conflict” is misleading since many within such conflicts do not take sides against the “other.” For example, in the cases of Bosnia and Rwanda, he argues that the main reason for the conflict was due to “thugs” or “hooligans” acting as opposed to the entire citizen population. In fact, he suggests that most citizens were not aware of what was taking place, or were not committing atrocities during the war. While giving more weight to ethnicity than Mueller (Andreas, 2004: 32), Andreas (2004) similarly looks at the conflict in Bosnia and argues that while the role of ethnicity was prevalent, a host of other “criminal” factors were very significant in the development and end of the conflict. Both of these pieces show that “ethnic” conflicts are much more complicated in that groups often do not act primary because of ethnic differences. Evidence suggests that individuals act for economic reasons, often selling weapons to those who will use the weapons against them. While these works were insightful, a critique of these pieces is that little can be generalized from these works, as also admitted by Andreas. Furthermore, it is difficult to show just how influential criminal motives and actions were in terms of the conflict as a whole. Future research should attempt to better quantify specific individual motivations for actions. Finding that many actions were due to non-ethnic factors can thus help better identify true causes of conflict.

To conclude, a number of variables working together best explain the reasons for increased ethnic conflict/insurgencies, many of which have nothing to do with the “primordial “or “civilizational” argument for deep ethnic hatreds (Lake & Rothchild, 1996). Thus, ethnic conflict tends to happen in economically poorer states with weak political institutions (Easterly, 2001; Payne, 2013), where “…[t]he inabilities of political institutions to effectively regulate change and provide mechanisms through which differences can be managed frequently contribute to ethnic violence” (Payne, 2013: 306). Furthermore, leaders have often used ethnicity to stir up emotions for their own political goals. This is often coupled with the lack of resources; as less jobs and food exists, groups may begin feeling more afraid of their situations, and vein to believe that one group has more resources, or a disproportional amount (Lake & Rothchild, 1996; 1998; Payne, 2013;). And as mentioned, leaders can often provoke or exacerbate these feelings. 

Thus, In terms of the overall explanation of ethnic conflict, there are many factors that cause ethnic conflict. Thus, it is incorrect to dismiss group grievances (and focus on these supposed (yet inaccurate) historical hatreds, since it does seem that political and economic grievances are one factor for increased conflict. But that is only one part of the puzzle. Along with this, scholars should continue to examine the ability of group mobilization as well as the opportunity to act against the government as it relates to violent actions. Along with this, future research should further examine the exact role of how ethnicity is used at the individual and group level, as well as how grievances, mobilization, and opportunity more specifically work together. Future research should also attempt to quantify criminal factors (although the difficulty is great) to help explain the importance of criminal elements and their role related to ethnic variables.

In addition, as we have discussed what causes ethnic conflict, there are many factors that have reduced ethnic conflict in the international system. For example, Payne (2013), cite Gurr (2000), who says that there are four factors that have helped reduce ethnic wars. These are: the promotion of democratic governance, which protects ethnic minorities (and there are studies finding that proportional representation may actually reduce ethnic conflict (Saideman, Lanoue, Campenni, & Stanton, 2002). According to a recent study by Cederman, Gleditsch, & Hug (2013) entitled Elections and Ethnic Civil War, they find that unfair elections may lead to increased ethnic conflict, whereas competitive elections depends on what elections they are, although this “is mediated through the relative size of ethnic groups” (408).  In addition to the role of democratic governance in reducing elections, ethnic conflicts can also be reduced with more action and support by the United Nations, other international organizations, and non-governmental organizations for ethnic minorities,  “[t]he virtual consensus among the foreign policy elite in favor of reestablishing and maintaining global and regional order[,]” and the known costs of ethnic fighting, which leaders of the government and rebel forces are both aware of (303). 


Ethnic Conflict Books

Barbara Huff & Ted Robert Gurr, Ethnic Conflict In World Politics

Ted Robert Gurr, Minorities at Risk: A Global View of Ethnopolitical Conflicts

Neal G Jesse Kristen P Williams, Ethnic Conflict: A Systematic Approach to Cases of Conflict

Karl Cordell & Stefan Wolff, Ethnic Conflict: Causes, Consequences, and Responses



Asal, V. & Wilkenfeld, J. (2013). Ethnic Conflict: An Organizational Perspective. Penn State Journal of Law & International Affairs, Vol. 2, No. 1, pages 91-102.

Blagojevic, B. (2009). Causes of Ethnic Conflict: A Conceptual Framework. Journal of Global Change and Governance, Vol. 3, No. 1, Winter 2009.

Cederman, L-E, Gleditsch, K.S., & Hug, S. (2013). Elections and Ethnic Civil War. Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 46, No. 3, pages 387-417.

Easterly, W. (2001). Can Institutions Resolve Ethnic Conflict? Economic Development and Cultural Change, Vol. 49, No. 4, pages 687-706.

Gurr, T.R. (1993). Minorities at Risk: A Global View of Ethnopolitical Conflicts. Washington, D.C., United States Institute of Peace.

Gurr, T.R. (1994). Peoples Against States: Ethnopolitical Conflict and the Changing World System: 1994 Presidential Address. International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 3, pages 347-377.

Gurr, T.R. (2000). Ethnic Warfare on the Wane, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 79, NO. 3.

Huff, B. & Gurr, T.R. (1994). Ethnic Conflict in World Politics. New York, New York. Westview Press.

Lake, D.A. & Rothchild, D. (1996), Containing Fear: The Origins and Management of Ethnic Conflict, International Security, Vol. 21, No. 2, pages 41-75.

Lake, D.A. & Rothchild, D. (1998). The International Spread of Ethnic Conflict: Fear, Diffusion, and Escalation. Princeton, New Jersey. Princetown University Press.

Payne, R. (2013). Global Issues. New York, New York. Pearson.

Saideman, S.M, Lanoue, D.J., Campenni, M. & Stanton, S. (2002). Democratization, Political Institutions, and Ethnic Conflict: A Pooled Time Series Analysis, 1985-1998. Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 35, No. 1, pages 103-129.

Saxton, G.D. & Benson, M. (2006). Structure, Politics, and Action: An Integrated Model of Nationalist Protest and Rebellion, Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, Vol. 12, No. 2, pages 1-39.

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