Reviewed by Richard Ned Lebow (King's College London)
Published on H-Nationalism (February, 2017)
Commissioned by Cristian Cercel
In this ambitious, conceptually sophisticated study of ethnic conflict, Stuart J. Kaufman roots his approach in symbolic politics. He contends that emotions as much as reflection are responsible for the perspectives people have on themselves, other people, threats, and appropriate responses to these threats. Emotions are derived or associated with—Kaufman is not entirely clear here—narratives about one’s ethnic group; other ethnic groups; and the extent to which cooperation or conflict across groups is feasible, beneficial, or threatening.
Kaufman’s fundamental claim is that ethnic tensions are rooted in positive self-images and negative and demeaning narratives of other groups. These tensions are a necessary but by no means sufficient condition for ethnic violence. There must also be a high perception of threat, public support for taking action against the other ethnic group, and leaders who encourage these beliefs and coordinate collective action. He elaborates these conditions and the relationship among them.
A follow-on chapter describes symbolic politics, further develops his substantive arguments, and justifies his choice of six case studies. Five of these cases (the Philippines, Sudan, Rwanda, India, and South Africa) involved varying degrees of violence, and one (Tanzania) has avoided violence. The primary difference in these cases is the extent to which politics focuses on distribution and accordingly builds national identities and correspondingly weakens ethnic ones. In most of the cases, prejudice, nationalist mobilization, and uncompromising leaders led to high perceptions of threats and preemptive or retributive violence. The case study chapters are used effectively to explore and document his propositions about ethnic violence and also to say something about its intensity, from a relatively low level in South Africa, but with over twenty thousand killed, to genocide in Rwanda, with estimates of between one and two million dead. The narratives are compelling and the cases offer good to strong support for his multi-step explanation of ethnic violence.
The theoretical chapter in Kaufman’s book is a well-structured and persuasive argument against purely rationalist accounts of ethnic violence. They are, of course, an oxymoron, as highly emotionally charged situations are the least likely in which actors calmly and thoroughly calculate risk and loss. The idea that ethnic violence could be motivated purely by opportunity—another conceit of rationalists—Kaufman rightly dismisses as absurd. The strongest part of the theory chapter is the contention that ethnic violence is path dependent and depends on a confluence of contributing conditions. More thought could have been given to the extent to which these are independent or closely linked, as many of them are likely to be to some degree.
Kaufman’s definition of ethnic group is problematic, but then so are all definitions as ethnicity is based on what Karl W. Deutsch called a “we feeling” (Nationalism and Social Communication ). This in turn can derive from language, territory, culture, or a real or imagined shared past. Kaufman extends ethnicity to religion, even though a religion may include multiple ethnic groups among its adherents. There is an upside to this looseness, which is the relevance of Kaufman’s formulation to all group conflicts. It might make more sense to extend the scope of his generalizations rather than that of ethnicity.
Kaufman distinguishes his approach from constructivists. His depiction of constructivism is superficial and somewhat misleading. Constructivists do indeed emphasize “social facts” but do not exclude agency, and through it recognize the ways in which identities evolve in character and inclusiveness. For many constructivists, but by no means all, identity is a master variable. A more thorough familiarization with key works in this paradigm could have led Kaufman to conclude that his approach is squarely within the constructivist paradigm. Like other constructivists he focuses on the reasons people have for behaving as they do, as does Kaufman. Toward this end, he draws on psychology but also on narratives. He also examines the conditions that transform shared beliefs into collective behavior, and here too, his analysis, which is highly context-dependent, is constructivist in approach.
Overall, this is an excellent book, and one that will be central to the ongoing debate about the causes of ethnic violence. It is one of the most significant contributions on this subject since the 1985 publication of Donald Horowitz’s Ethnic Groups in Conflict.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-nationalism.
Richard Ned Lebow. Review of Kaufman, Stuart J., Nationalist Passions.
H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews.
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