- Gerard Vanderhaar
Identity (Inter-Group) Conflicts
Research Assistant, Conflict Research Consortium
University of Colorado
Based on a longer essay on Identity Issues, written by Louis Kriesberg for the Intractable Conflict Knowledge Base Project
Definition:For an "identity" or inter-group conflict to occur, the opponents must assign an identity to themselves and their adversaries, each side believing the fight is between "us" and "them." Conflicts where the antagonists seem to be fighting about their identities are called identity-based conflicts or inter-group conflicts.
Examples:Examples of such conflicts include conflicts between blacks and whites about race-related issues; conflicts between different ethnic groups, religious groups, conflicts about sexual-orientation, even gender conflicts. However, it should be noted that not all conflicts between a black person and a white person are racial conflicts, just as all conflicts between a Catholic and a Protestant are not religious conflicts, nor all conflicts between a man and a woman gender conflicts. The conflict might be about some other problem entirely, or (more problematic) one person may see the conflict as based on race, religion, or gender, while the other does not.
Description:Developing a sense of self is essential to become a mature person. Everyone's self-conception is a unique combination of many identities (i.e. gender, religion, and family). Identities apply to individuals, but can also be collective, extending to countries and ethnic communities. People feel injured when other persons sharing their identity are injured.
Sources of Identity
Identities are constructed from various traits and experiences, many of which are subject to interpretation. For example, race is an important identity in some societies, but not others. Some analysts speak of ethnicity as an ancient and unchanging phenomenon. Others stress that ethnicity is socially constructed, with people choosing a history and ancestry and creating, as much as discovering, differences from others.
Many identities are based on shared values, beliefs, or concerns. This includes religion, political ideologies, nationality, or culture. Since everyone has multiple identities, their relative importance and compatibility differs in various times and circumstances.
Certain aspects of identities can create intense, destructive conflicts. If an identity has been heavily reinforced or is highly significant to someone, such as ethnicity or nationality, then threats to that identity can be hard to ignore. Cultural patterns in a group can create conflict. These patterns include a tendency to mistrust other groups or to belittle them. Ideologies also create conflict. Thus, a group with a racist identity would tend to regard others as inherently inferior. Sometimes, if a group feels they have been victims of another group, they can feel threatened. Fearing attacks, they may act to prevent them, but in ways that threaten the other side. The result can be self-perpetuating destructive struggles. Also, leaders may benefit from the construction of exclusive identities, gaining power by arousing emotions against other groups. Identity is often created by past interactions. If a group is used to violent, coercive interactions, their identity will tend to celebrate group members who act tough while simultaneously seeing enemies as cruel and hateful. Finally, identities are rarely symmetrical. Powerful groups will try to define other groups. The Nazis' violent imposition of their characterization of who and what Jews were stands as a grotesque example of that tendency.
Being peaceful and loving is also an identity. Parents, religious leaders, artists, etc. can nurture those qualities in others. Mass media can convey the humanity and positive perspectives of the "enemy." There are also some powerful methods of deconstructing negative identities. For example, one side can reach out to the other to try to alleviate their suffering or to return a peaceful gesture. In addition, rival leaders or grassroots organizations can rebel against an uncompromising leader by organizing a peace movement. One approach is to change the ideologies sustain the conflict. For example, the Dutch Reformed Church, the church of the Afrikaners of South Africa, ended their support for apartheid, contributing greatly to apartheid's end. If one side admits the truth about past injustices and atrocities it can alter their self-identity. Finally some members of opposing sides usually interact positively. For example, profitable businesses or collaborations in cultural or research activities can counter the destructiveness of conflict.