October 26, 2022

Ethnic Violence


  • Patterns of violence
    • four attributes
  • Perceptions of violence
  • Defining Ethnic Violence
  • Violence and Ethnic Boundaries


In depth look at 1984 Delhi Riot (pogrom) shows:

  1. Violence not merely the result of increased “intensity” of conflict:
    • who has capacity, motive, opportunity to do it?
    • how are those capacities, motives, opportunities created?
  2. Production of violence is complex:
    • perpetrators, victims, bystanders, audiences
    • these “groups” lack coherent/unified motives and understanding
    • the practice of violence can vary widely


Retaining these insights:

  1. What is ethnic violence?

  2. What are the causes of ethnic violence?

Patterns of Violence

Patterns of Violence

Gutierrez-Sanin and Wood (2017) argue that a pattern of violence employed by a group/organization in some place over a period of time is characterized by its…

  1. repertoire
  2. targeting
  3. frequency
  4. technique

Patterns of Violence


forms of violence in which an organization/individual regularly engages


killing, torture, forced displacement, rape, robbery, kidnapping/imprisonment, vandalism, etc.

Patterns of Violence


which people or social groups are made the targets of specific repertoires of violence (not motive as much as, descriptively, who are the victims)


ethnic groups, genders, political groups, combatants, political rivals, people who fail to comply with rules, etc.

Kinds of Targeting

selective violence:

violence against an individual because of specific allegations about their behavior or actions


assassinations, disappearance of political activists, etc.

Kinds of Targeting

collective or identity-based violence

violence against individuals based on their membership in a social group.

This kind of violence is connected to social boundaries: violence happens along the boundary because it targets people based on the categories they are labelled with


ethnic cleansing; supporters of a political party; shelling cities with ethnic majorities; bombing villages held by insurgents

Kinds of Targeting

indiscriminate violence

violence against individuals without regard to individual behavior or membership in social categories


bombing of entire villages?

Rarely is violence entirely indiscriminate

Patterns of Violence


how a repertoire of violence is performed


murder by firing squad, massacre using knives, bombing, torture to death, disappearance;

  • in public vs in secret
  • with a “trial”?
  • what was said, symbols invoked during/after the killing

Patterns of Violence


the count or rate of victimization among specific groups in the population


fraction of Rwandan genocide victims that were Tutsi, Hutu

proportion of victims of police violence by race

What makes a pattern of violence ethnic?

  • repertoire?
  • targeting?
    • should any violence in which ethnicity of perpetrator/victim differs be “ethnic”?
    • can intra-ethnic violence be “ethnic”?
    • can selective targeting be ethnic? (must targeting be collective to be ethnic?)
    • does targeting need to be intentionally ethnic?
  • frequency?
    • if violence targets one group more than another, is that “ethnic”
  • technique?
    • can a technique be ethnic?

Patterns of Violence

On one hand…

  • Not clear that any attribute of pattern of violence is necessary for ethnic violence. No specific attribute that is by itself sufficient for ethnic violence.

On the other hand…

  • Gutierrez-Sanin and Wood (2017) show that this perspective is helpful to describe and understand causes of violence.


Three examples:

  • “a pair of Hungarian youths were pushed from a train by Slovakian youths after a soccer match. … one of the youths was seriously injured, and … the incident occurred after the Hungarians had been singing Hungarian nationalist songs” (Brubaker and Laitin 2004)
  • Not coded as “ethnic”, coded as “football” violence
  • Estonian-language school in Russian-speaking region of Estonia was burned down. (Brubaker and Laitin 2004)
  • Coded as “mafia” violence
  • Police violence against villagers in Narayanpur, UP in response to complaints about compensation for hit and run killing. (Brass 1997)
  • Coded as ethnic violence against Scheduled Castes

Perception Matters

In addition to the pattern of violence (what was actually done), it matters how violence is perceived:

  • Who is the audience for violence (intended vs actual; local vs national vs global)?
  • How does violence come to be perceived as an ethnic event or not?

Perception Matters

Why does ethnic framing of violence happen?

  • It may be a strategic way to build alliances/coalitions. (Kalyvas 2003)
  • It may be that ethnic frames are cognitively more accessible (Hale 2004)
  • It may be that ethnic frames “make sense” or do not “make sense” in a particular ethnic boundary

Perception Matters

Whether or not violence is seen as ethnic…

  • may determine the consequences of those events
  • changing consequences of violence alters the strategic calculus of perpetrators (cause of events)

And so we observe efforts by perpetrators, victims, others to narrate events and portray violence as ethnic or not.

  • Can you think of any examples where there has been disagreement over whether violence is “ethnic”?

Ethnic Violence

definition (adapted from Brubaker and Laitin 2004)

violence perpetrated across or within ethnic lines, in which at least one party is not a state (or a representative of a state), and in which putative ethnic differences or similarities are coded—by perpetrators, targets, other parties, or analysts—as having been integral rather than incidental to the violence, that is, in which the violence is coded as having been meaningfully oriented in some way to the ethnicity of the target.

Ethnic Violence

Another perspective on ethnic violence is to ask:

How does violence relate to ethnic boundaries?

  1. Violence that transforms ethnic boundaries:
    • altering status, access to resources/power, along ethnic categories
  2. Violence that defends/polices ethnic boundaries:
    • violence that punishes or deters transgressions/changes of an ethnic boundary
  3. Violence that is constitutive of an ethnic boundary:
    • routine violence that disproportionately targets/affects members of specific ethnic categories


  1. Patterns of Violence: explaining violence requires focusing on WHO is doing WHAT to WHOM?
    • explanations need to consider motives of perpetrators, their resources, their constraints. Recognizing perpetrators are NOT a homogenous group.
  2. Perception: how does the process by which violence become coded as ethnic matter?
    • motives: strategic/psychological
    • costs/benefits of engaging in different patterns of violence


\(3.\) Violence and Boundaries: how does violence relate to ethnic boundary structure?

  • causes and consequences may differ when violence is constitutive of boundaries rather than transformative of boundaries

Next class: applying these ideas to police violence in the United States.