October 21, 2022

Ethnic Structure and Conflict


  • Linking strategic, psychological, and structural explanations
  • British Census in India
  • Census enumeration and conflict: evidence

Structural Questions

Where does structure come in?

Instrumental theories of conflict:

  • which ethnic groups become operative to mobilize around?

    • to create ethnic parties
    • to appeal to through ethnic out-bidding?

Psychological theories of conflict:

  • which ethnic categories become operative (how salient is ethnicity)?
  • what is the basis of status comparisons?
  • what determines the relative status of groups?

Where does structure come in?

Instrumental theories emphasize rational calculations of ethnic entrepreneurs…

Psychological theories emphasize individual psychological responses…

But these calculations, cognitive processes take place against a structural background.

Where does structure come in?

What features of ethnic boundary (structures) do you think might …

  • amplify/intensify instrumental logic of ethnic conflict?
  • amplify/intensify psychological logic of ethnic conflict?

An Example

South Asia: Communal Violence

Partition: 1947

South Asia: Communal Violence

Hindu-Muslim divide a continuing source of conflict, violence

  • Major political parties divided on the issue
  • Major riots in Delhi, 2020.
  • Conflict over Citizenship Amendment Act, National Register of Citizens

South Asia: Before Colonization


  • no unifying label was in widespread use
  • texts, rituals, traditions highly varied
  • disputes within “Hindus”


  • often labeled by their geographic origin, not by religion


  • Hindus and Muslims shared saints, holy men, shrines, gods, festivals
  • religious practices/taboos spread across the divide
  • cross-cultural hybrid identities

South Asia: Before Colonization

In this period…

  • Muslim rulers broadly tolerant of different religious practices
  • Hindu-Muslim violence rare; often not understood as about religion at the time

How did the Hindu-Muslim cleavage emerge?

South Asia: Colonization

One part of the story is the British Colonial Census of India

  • First Census in 1871
  • Recognized only the religious categories of: “Hindu”, “Muslim”, “Sikh”, and “Christian” (later more added).
  • Defined rules for applying these labels to colonial subjects

  • What kind of boundary change is use of census categories?
  • Why might this lead to conflict?

South Asia: Colonization

Census and Structure:

British colonial imagination imposed on diverse population:

“‘Hindu’ means a non-Musalman native of India.”

“a quarter of the persons classed as Hindus denied the supremacy of the brahmans and the authority of the Vedas; more than half did not receive the mantras from a recognised Hindu guru, a quarter did not worship the great Hindu gods, and were not served by good Brahmans priests; a third were denied access to temple; a quarter caused pollution by touch, a seventh always buried their dead, while a half did not regard cremation as obligatory and two-fifths ate beef.”

Lieberman and Singh (2017), p. 41

South Asia: Colonization

Census and Structure:

Census categories…

  • are institutional use
  • basis of institutional separation
  • produced reports on size, geography, economic/political status of “groups” (groupness)
  • created new knowledge about power disparity

South Asia: Colonization

Census and Psychology:

  • Social Identity Theory: people seek to maintain or promote their group status
  • fear of reduced majority/permanent minority status \(\to\) ethnic mobilization

When census showed smaller Hindu majority\(^*\)

  • Hindu elites used census data to argue Hindus “a dying race” in their homeland

  • Hindu political organizations: reassert Hindu “traditions”, purge hybrid religion, enforce “purity”

  • Muslim elites feared status compared to new “Hindu” majority: lobbied to split up Hindu census category

South Asia: Colonization

Census and Strategy

Ethnic “entrepreneurs” exploit the census to make political gains

  • Muslim elites used Census data to lobby for special protections, institutions (separate electorates)
  • BJP (Hindu political party) used 2011 census data to attack rival secular parties for ignoring growth rate of Muslims vs. Hindus

Ethnic parties use census figures/labels to make out-bidding/more extreme ethnic appeals to voters.

Census and Conflict

Lieberman and Singh (2017)

Building on these insights:

Does including more ethnic dimensions on the census induce greater ethnic conflict?

Recognition and definition of identity categories by the state

  • structurally: possible to imagine groups, see economic/political disparities, be recognized by the state
  • psychologically: facilitates inter-group comparison, efforts to maintain/change relative group status
  • strategically: creates opportunities for ethnic entrepreneuers

Lieberman and Singh (2017)



  • tracked down 1333 census questionnaires for 156 countries between 1800 and 2005, nearly all of modern censuses

Lieberman and Singh (2017)


  • “Politically Relevant Ethnic Groups”: expert coding of ethnic groups that are politically “activated” (from Ethnic Power Relations database)
  • Ethnic Violence: ranging from riots to armed conflict
  • Ethnic Civil War: armed conflicts coded as “Ethnic” (from Cederman et al)

Lieberman and Singh (2017)

Research Design


Comparing countries that differ in ethnic census but similar\(^*\) in:

  • ethnic fractionalization, GDP per capita, population, colonial ruler, regime type, political exclusion of ethnic groups, oil production, terrain, year, time since independence

\(^*\) using mathematical approximation

Countries with more ethnic cleavages enumerated in the census, compared to (otherwise similar) countries with fewer, have…

  • more politically relevant ethnic groups

Countries with more ethnic cleavages enumerated in the census have…

  • more ethnic armed conflicts

  • Are you convinced that census enumeration of ethnicity causes ethnic conflict? Why or why not?

Lieberman and Singh (2017)


If prior ethnic conflict \(\to\) enumerating more ethnic groups, then cannot conclude census \(\xrightarrow{causes}\) conflict.

Does census enumeration of ethnic groups predict earlier ethnic conflict?