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Ethnic identify and ethnic conflict as a rational choice

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2195 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Traditionally war has been viewed as an irrational act, brought about by misunderstanding and coordination failure. It has also been seen as something that occurs between nations. Today most armed conflicts occur between groups within the same nation state. And as a consequence, many of the conflicts or mass violence of recent decades have been characterised by the adjective "ethnic". This means that the leading players were groups opposing one another on the basis of (or so it is assumed) identitarian, religious, linguistic or more generally cultural assertions. Since most armed conflicts occur between groups within the same nation state, once the interests of belligerents are taken into account, conflict may be the product of rational decisions (Boudon, 2003). For individuals, viewing from the outside, the costs of violence often appear to outweigh the benefits; and for society as a whole, violence, though costly, merely redistributes rather than creates resources (Bates, 1997). Violence / conflict is therefore destructive, and ethnic violence particularly so. For these and other reasons, ethnic conflict poses fundamental challenges to any theory based on the premise of rationality (Boudon, 2003). Thus, the recent reassertion of ethnic claims stands as a challenge to the recent rise of rational choice theory in the comparative study of politics.

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What are conflicts? Conflicts are disputes about political, economic, social, cultural or territorial issues and they can occur at all levels of social interaction: between/within structures (alliances, states) or between/within agents (groups, individuals) (Avruch, 2004.) Ethnic conflicts are one particular kind of such disputes about political, economic, social, cultural or territorial issues between two or more actors in which at least one of them is an ethnic group that defines causes, consequences and potential solutions of the conflict along an actual or perceived discriminating or otherwise distinctive ethnic divide. Furthermore, ethnic conflicts are situations in which organised ethnic groups take recourse to the systematic use of violence for strategic purposes. There are many ways of classifying theories of ethnic conflict. One such classification entails the rational choice theory, which allows the costs of action to enter into the reckoning and further suggests that ethnic conflict is a product of rational insecurity, -opportunity, or -greed based on rational choice.

The term ethnicity is a relatively recent acquisition in the English language. The origins of the term ethnicity go back to the Greek word for nation-ethnos. In ancient Greek, the term was used to describe a community of common descent. In more contemporary times, according to Glazer and Moynihan, its first sociological use dates back to David Riesman's work in 1953. Ethnic cognition can be explained and will be examined through the instrumentalist model, which is that individuals shift their identity-consciousness according to the situation. The shift involves employing differing aspects of their particular race/homeland territory; religious beliefs et cetera relevant to their situation. Contrary to instrumentalism is the primordial's view which entails ethnocentric ways (the favouring of those who appear of similar religion, language, race or lifestyle).

Perceiving the world through an ethnic lens creates reality for many people. This reality is not a false reality; it is the reality on which people base their actions, thus creating patterns of understanding and corresponding institutions (Gil-White, 2008). The question that arises than, is ethnic conflict (in context) which follows from a particular ethnic identity based on an understanding of rational choice or is the concept of relational choice a fallacy in terms of the perceived ethnic identity and ethnic conflict? In other words, are ethnic groups' rational associations of self-interested actors, or are they irrational 'primordial' groupings governed by emotional attachments? (Gil-White, 2008). If ethnic actors are instrumentalists, then new ethnic groups should follow shifting interests, arising and disappearing as suddenly as do purely political or territorial alliances; people should spontaneously switch ethnic identity when it becomes convenient; and it should be more common for new ethnicities to spring forth around changing material interests and concerns, than for ethnicities to persist in spite of costs to their members' interests.

In order to answer this question it would be momentous to first establish exactly what ethnicity truly encompasses. The concept of identity has been employed to analyze non-instrumental, expressive modes of action that assumedly aid us in understanding participation in social movements (Melucci, 1994). Theorists have been aware for some time of the difficulty of coordinating individual incentives with group incentives. Scholars previously believed ethnic groups or 'cultures' to be 'peoples' in a unitary sense along various dimensions: 'ascriptive' (labelling) 'moral' (normative) and 'cultural' (linguistic and arti-factual) (Gil-White, 2008). An ethnic group therefore understood itself as such; it was defined by its boundaries (Avruch, 2004). And was labelled by 'others' in like fashion, had a particular and distinctive culture (including a dialect), and whose members preferred each other to non-members, in other words; endogamy, discrimination, in-group solidarity, et cetera (Gil-White, 2008). This over simplifies but still captures the more common 'culture area' view of ethnic groups.

Reactions against this view of over simplification began with Edmund Leach's Political Systems of Highland Burma (1954), trailed later by Moerman's work among the Lue in Thailand (Moerman 1965, 1968) and Fredick Barth's 1969 introduction to Ethnic Groups and Boundaries (Gil-White, 2008). These studies counter argued that ethnic identities did not map neatly to the distribution of cultural material, and proposed a shift from 'objective' indicators of togetherness (group), such as measurable discontinuities in the distribution of arti-factual or ideational culture, towards a more 'subjective' focus that relied heavily on the labelling processes of ethnic actors themselves (Gil-White, 2008). The argument entails; in order to have a social identity one must meet 'the conditions for being referred to by the linguistic expression [the label] that names the identity' (Goodenough 1965, in Gil-White, 2008). That is to say, the labelling processes are determined by the actors themselves and the [cultural] features that are taken into account are not the sum of "objective" differences, but only those which the actors themselves regard as significant' (Barth 1969, in Gil-White, 2008). In order to provide evidence for this statement; it was reported that people in the Burma Kachin Hills sometimes switched ethnic identity, this illustrates that the view of 'a society' as a 'thing' (that is, a bounded whole) was wrong (Gil-White, 2008). Similarly was noted by Barth (1969) in Swat, Pakistan. Some individuals born into the Pathan ethnic group were, later in life, labelling themselves 'Baluch' as circumstances made this advantageous. Correspondingly, some Fur in Darfur, Sudan, were taking up nomadism and calling themselves 'Baggara'(Gil-White, 2008).The evidence suggests that ethnic identity is self imposed and are coordinated with others 'of a kind' for reciprocal positive gain. Thus, if I am an A, but it is better for me to interface and network with B's, I shall acquire a B identity together with B ways of being so as to tap into the B network (Gil-White, 2008).

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The Rational Choice methodology consists of systematic evaluation of options through an analysis of the various consequences of the judgments made such as validity, rationality, value assessment and risk aversion (Masri, 2003). Rational Choice Theory provides a methodology for assessing decision-making by using empirical evidence to understand revision and choice, and thus rationalize the inferences and conclusions made (Masri, 2003). In other words, for a choice to be made, an individual must face a set of possible options (her feasible set). It is assumed that given her feasible set, the individual will choose the option that leads to - or she believes leads to- the best outcome. If she has full information about the outcome of her decisions, she will find herself in a situation of certainty and be able to maximize her utility (Masri, 2003). On the other hand, if the information is incomplete, however, she will only be able to maximize the expected utility in a context of risk and uncertainty. In this situation she will attribute an objective or subjective probability to the outcome of her action. This probability is the belief she has about the results of her action (Aguiar, 2002). In other words, If a person chooses X instead of Y it is because she believes that X best satisfies her desires. These internal beliefs and desires, which are subjective, prompt her action. As Boudon formulates it: "any action is caused by reasons in the mind of individuals (rationality)" (Boudon, 2003, emphasis added).Relaying the concept of Rational Choice Theory to ethnic identify or even ethnic conflict, Rational Choice amounts to saying that people who do not really believe themselves to share common descent will nevertheless participate in collective self-delusion because pretending to share such descent is conducive to their common mobilization, which is desirable as it serves common, objective interests, rationally identified. In other words, the rational choice theory perceives ethnic conflict as the result of individuals' rational pursuit of universal interests such as wealth, power, and security (Mirzayev, 2007). Overall, Rational Choice considers identity as a key concept in explaining social action (Aguiar, 2002).

The basic distinctions between different schools of thought on ethnicity is brought forth by the primordialist school and the instrumentalist view. The primordialist school holds that ethnicity is so deeply ingrained in human history and experience that it cannot be denied that it exists, objectively and subjectively, and that it should therefore be considered a fact of life in the relations between individuals and groups who all have an ethnic identity. In other words, the primordialist view sees Ethnicity and race as deep-seated and relatively fixed. In contrast to this view, the instrumentalist school argues that ethnicity is by no means an undisputable historical fact. Rather, they suggest that ethnicity is influence by rational choice and is first and foremost a resource in the hands of leaders to mobilise and organise followers in the pursuit of other interests, such as physical security, economic gain or political power. In other words, Ethnicity is seen as a resource to be used in times of competition.

In conclusion, the debate between primordialists and instrumentalists are one of stale-mate, so to speak. Both provide truths to some degree. Since ethnicity can be viewed as a group's culture, traditions, and historic experiences. However, the instrumentalist view validates the concept of rational theory that ethnicities is also dependent upon contemporary opportunities which can be a useful instrument for social, political or economic purposes that may or may not be related directly to their ethnic origins. Individuals identify with a group for many reasons (as was noted above), but one overarching key factor is that the members of a group are by definition participating in a positive-sum game (Basuchoudhary, 2007). Cooperation yields benefits in excess of costs which are shared according to some rule. In interacting with other groups, however, the game frequently is zero-sum - one group's gains are secured at another groups' expense. (Basuchoudhary,2007). Participation in positive-sum game is not accidental but a rational choice. Ethnies are collections of individuals sharing a common self-ascription, that common self-aspiration is by choice. Furthermore, Hardin (1995) makes the case that it is possible to align an individual's interest with a group's interest, but that such alignment usually is detrimental to the interests of the members of other groups. In other words, successful alignment of self-interest and group interest weakens incentives to cooperate with other groups, which may come to be seen as adversaries. Hardin's view is consistent with that of a long line of rational choice theorists who have looked at the issue of group identity. Ethnicity follows from rational choice it is only partly based on culture, myths of descent, historical memories, religion, customs, traditions, language, a specific homeland or institutions, it is just as much based on what people believe, or are made to believe, or yearn to have in order to create a sense of solidarity among those who are members of a particular ethnic group, excluding, and at times directed against, those who are not.


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