October 7, 2022

Ethnicity and Conflict


  • Does ethnic diversity lead to conflict?
  • Psychological Explanations
    • Social Identity Theory
    • Sambanis and Shayo
  • Structural Explanations
    • Horowitz

Why Ethnic Conflict?

One reason ethnic conflict may be particularly common is:

ethnic identities are particularly well suited to solving collective action problems

  • Ethnic conflict results from (instrumental) use of ethnicity of organize in competition for scarce resources

Why Ethnic Conflict?

But the instrumental explanation for ethnic conflict implies …

  • ethnic conflict more likely when modernization occurs
    • democratization \(\to\) voting coalitions
    • growing states \(\to\) more goodies to win
    • economic growth \(\to\) more goodies

Yet, Horowitz notes that ethnic conflict even occurs in places with least development. How much modernization ‘is enough’?

Psychological Reasons for Conflict


On the essay assignment due tonight, limited bonus points are available.

  • But there is a catch
  • I choose you have to decide how these points are allocated


Two groups in the class:

  • Group 1: people writing about essay option 1 (cultural appropriation)
  • Group 2: writing about essay option 2 (ethnic identification change)

You need to decide how to allocate bonus points to a two people: (other than yourself)

  • one person randomly chosen from those writing on SAME topic
  • one person randomly chosen from those writing on OTHER topic


Head down/eyes closed:

Same Topic Other Topic Hands
3 points 1 points one hand up
4 points 4 points no hands up
5 points 4 points two hands up


Head down/eyes closed:

Same Topic Other Topic Maximize what?
3 points 1 points b/t group difference
4 points 4 points equality
5 points 4 points in group profit

Social Identity Theory

Minimal Group Experiments:

  • Groups randomly assigned
  • Never meet in person
  • Anonymous games allocating money

How do people behave?

  • discriminate against out-group
  • maximize inter-group difference, not in-group profit

Social Identity Theory

From these results, a theory:

  1. people desire positive self-esteem
  2. social groups/categories have positive/negative connotations that reflect a person’s social identity
  3. group status is based on favorable/unfavorable comparison with other groups
  4. people make decisions to increase their group status vis-a-vis other groups

Psychology of Ethnic Conflict

Large body of research (notably, Horowitz 1985) links ethnic conflict to psychological roots in Social Identity Theory.

  • Sambanis and Shayo (2013) ask: is this really the prediction from this theory?
  • To answer this, translate Horowitz’s argument to a formal mathematical model

Why formalize?

What is a formal model?

  • assumptions (informed by prior research) about the relevant actors, the choices they can make, the information and calculations that inform those decisions
  • translate these to a mathematical model
  • solve for how actors behave under different conditions (find “equilibria”)


  • Derive predictions from the model based on different conditions
  • Compare predictions with reality. (but compare with natural sciences)

Sambanis and Shayo

Formalize the logic linking Social Identiy to Ethnic Conflict

  • Individuals choose to identify with their ethnic group \(G\) or with the nation \(N\)

    • set of relevant ethnic categories fixed, membership rules fixed, choice of identification only
    • a function of the relative status of ethnic group \(J\) or \(N\), perceived similarity (‘distance’) to members of \(J\) or \(N\)
  • Groups compete over resources that can allocated to benefit specific groups (could be money, political power, etc.)

  • Informed by these conditions, individuals make decisions on whether and how much to “fight” for these resources

Sambanis and Shayo

Implications of the model:

\(1.\) There are multiple equilibria.

  • even with status differences between ethnic groups, and people are “closer” to ethnic group than nation…
  • history of peaceful relations can lead to stable peace, preference for national identity OR history of conflict can produce conflict

For example: Kenya vs. Tanzania.

  • both highly diverse; but Tanzania has built strong national identity, equitable redistribution. Has less conflict than Kenya.

Sambanis and Shayo

Implications of the model:

\(2\). Lower national status leads to greater ethnic identification and ethnic conflict.


  • Catalan separatism took off as Spain declined as international power (lower national status), regional economic growth increased in Catalonia (higher ethnic status)
  • As Soviet Union declined in political power, ethnic separatist movements took off

Sambanis and Shayo

Implications of the model:

\(3\). Increase in the salience (distance between) of ethnic identities increases ethnic identification, conflict.

  • linguistic differences associated with conflict; but can be reduced with schooling, assimilation

  • short term changes in salience are possible:

    • Hindu nationalist processions, attempt to replace mosque with temple
    • Mexican revolution reduced salience of indigenous/criollo divide in favor of national identity

Sambanis and Shayo

Implications of the model:

\(4\). Increasing the share of resources that can be captured by a group increases ethnic identification.


  • presence of natural resources (e.g. in Congo) permits ethnic armed groups to capture resources, leading to more conflict
  • moments when more political power is up for grabs (e.g. constitution-writing, independence) will be prone to conflict

Sambanis and Shayo

Implications of the model:

\(6\). “Ethnic extremists” with sufficient organizational resources can generate ethnic conflict even if large numbers in their ethnic community prefer national identification.


  • Many Serbs/Croats in Yugoslavia voted against ethnic parties in 1990, some Serbian and Croat nationalists formed ethnic militias. Violence pushed moderates to back ethnic mobilization.

Psychology and Ethnic Conflict

Key insights:

Building on the insights of Social Identity Theory and Horowitz…

  • ethnicity may or may not lead to conflict (multiple equilibria).

  • conflict depends on many other factors:

    • perceived status of national/ethnic identities
    • the perceived salience of ethnic differences
    • whether institutions permit groups to capture more resources/power
    • the organizational/violence capabilities of ethnic entrepreneuers
  • Psychology matters, but its effects depend on structural conditions

Example: Horowitz (1985)

Conflict can be the result of ethnic groups seeking to raise their relative status:

  • the material and cultural status of ethnic groups the result of colonial government policies
  • “backward” (lower status) groups seek to improve status vis-a-vis “advanced” groups
    • seek special protections, separation
    • new status dimensions (legitimacy of groups)
    • fears of “extinction”
  • groups seek political power as a form of status/means to status \(\to\) conflict

Material and ideological dimensions of imperialism structure ethnic conflict