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Ethnic Identities and Boundaries: Anthropological, Psychological, and Sociological Approaches

Summary and Keywords

Ethnicity and identity are largely about boundaries; in fact, there is no way to determine one’s identity—ethnic or otherwise—without reference to some sort of boundary. In approaching the study of ethnicity and identity, sociology, anthropology, and to a lesser extent political science and international relations tend to focus on the group level and define ethnicity and ethnic identity as group phenomena. Psychology, by contrast, focuses on the individual level. These two disciplinary areas represent the opposite ends of a conceptual focus in examining both ethnicity as a group phenomenon and identity as an individual phenomenon, with a “middle ground” outlined by symbolic interactionism focusing on the processes of formation and reformation through the interaction of individuals and groups. The thread that runs through each of these ordinarily disparate disciplines is that, when examining ethnicity or identity, there is a common factor of dialectic between the sameness of the self or in-group and differentiation with the other or out-group. Moreover, an examination of the manner in which the generation of identity at one level has an explicit connection to the germination of identity at other levels of analysis shows that they combine together in a process of identification and categorization, with explicit links between the self and other at each level of analysis.

Keywords: ethnicity, identity, ethnic identities and boundaries, group phenomena, symbolic interactionism, identification, categorization, group-structure interaction, power politics


From Rwanda to Bosnia, Northern Ireland to Sri Lanka – and beyond – a type of persistent violent conflict has arisen since the demise of the Cold War. These conflicts, often described as ethnic or genocidal, are typified by the extremely high value placed on identity and its protection by the participants. That is why ethnic, sectarian, and inter-communal conflicts are all linked as forms of identity-driven conflicts.

In examining the literature on ethnicity and identity, and studying many of the current “ethnic” conflicts, it becomes apparent that there has been some conflation of the terms “ethnicity” and “identity.” In addition, commentators often misuse the term “ethnic conflict” to describe conflicts that are essentially sectarian in nature, such as the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Given this, it would be pertinent to begin our examination of ethnic identities and boundaries by revisiting classic and current definitions of our basic terms.

The term “ethnicity” stems largely from anthropology and sociology, although it has been adopted to a large degree by political scientists and international relations specialists in their quest to understand a priori components of modern nationalist movements. Ethnicity is defined as belonging to a particular ethnic group, or as having an ethnic character, background or affiliation (Abercrombie et al. 1988; Jary and Jary 1991; Marshall 1998). The source term “ethnic” means “having the property of or relating to sizable groups of people with a common, distinctive, racial, national, religious, linguistic, or cultural heritage” (American Heritage 1993:471). This definition stems from the ancient Greek word ethnos, and was often used by Jews as a synonym for gentile, or non-Hebrew others (Hutchinson and Smith 1996). The first modern use of the term “ethnocentrism” was in Sumner’s Folkways, which describes it as a technical name for the view of one’s own group as the center of all things, with all others scaled or rated against the in-group. Within this, Sumner notes the tendency not only to measure others by one’s in-group, but to measure them as less than the in-group, looking upon them in contempt and viewing the folkways of others as necessarily inferior to one’s own folkways (Sumner 1906:13). As an aside, the relationship of the term “ethnicity” to that of race is one that has generated some controversy within academic and political circles, with the more pejorative term largely having been supplanted by the more neutral terms “ethnic” and “ethnicity.” At one extreme the term “race” is viewed as scientifically discredited, only serving to bolster claims of biological difference where none exists (Banton 1998:2). At the other end, scholars such as Jenkins (1986) argue that the use of the term “race” denotes power relationships that allow the powerful to classify or categorize weaker groups, while Wallman (1986) argues that the term “race” only represents a descriptor for phenotypical markers that partly constitute boundaries between ethnic groups.

The key element in our definition of “ethnic” (and by extension “ethnicity” and “ethnocentrism”) is that it describes a type of boundary between the self and the other on a group level. It encompasses the concepts of both sameness – as in belonging to the same group – and differentiation in order to divide one group from another. Likewise, when we examine the definition of “identity” and some of the ways in which it is used in psychology, we discover a parallel between the two terms.

In both psychological and sociological sources, identity has a parallel definition with the term “self” or “self concept.” Both identity and the self are defined as having the quality or condition of being the same as something else and as being a distinct and persisting entity different from everything else (Johnson 1995; Reber 1995; Marshall 1998). Jenkins agrees with this dichotomous definition and notes that identity as an action is something that “must always be established.” This means that an identity (and identification) is only knowable in a certain context or in reference to something. In other words, identity is something we do as well as something we have or are (Jenkins 1996:4).

Approaches to identity and personality from psychological disciplines also stress the dual, inner/outer nature of the identification process. These start with Freud’s definition of the ego by its opposites, the biological id and the sociological masses, and continue with Erikson’s assertion that the self is generated through a dialectical process of sameness and differentiation (Erikson 1980:109). Object Relations Theory assumes that the child goes through a process of self-realization, which concerns identifying him- or herself as the same as others, yet different from them (Winnicott 1965; Mahler et al. 1975; Quintar et al. 1998). Harry Stack Sullivan’s (1953) self-system theory posits an internal–external dialectic of learning through the “good me,” “bad me,” and “not me” concepts. And the balance between the individual and the environment is present in both systemic and humanistic theories of the self, which see individuality and personality as derived from a “balancing” process of internal and external forces (Perls 1973; Gold and Bacigalupe 1998; Watson and Greenberg 1998).

Many psychological examinations of the self and identity start from the premise of the dichotomy between self and other, as posited by the works of Cooley (1902) and Mead (1934), which introduced and expanded on the notion of the reflective “looking glass self.” In his formulation of the looking glass self, Cooley started from the premise that the individual and humanity as a whole were inseparable, with each being dependent upon the other (Cooley 1902). From this, the three principal elements of the looking glass self are (1) the imagination of our appearance to another, (2) the imagination of his or her judgment of us, and (3) some sort of self-feeling in conjunction with this judgment; such as self-respect, pride, mortification or shame (Cooley 1902:184). Mead expanded on this internal dichotomy as having two selves: the I, or the response to the attitudes of others; and the Me, or the organized set of attitudes of others that the self assumes (Mead 1934:175). So, much in the same way that an individual evaluates him- or herself in relation to others, the I evaluates several Me’s – such as the good me or the bad me. In other words, we may view our I as our stream of consciousness, which evaluates the actions and interactions of the rest of ourselves – our Me – as we live and interact with others.

This inner/inner to inner/outer dichotomy described by Mead and Cooley carries through many fields of psychological research examining both the individual and the group as being created in relation to others. Of the many works that stem from this conceptualization of the self as resulting from an inner/outer process, those by John Turner and Henri Tajfel have had a significant impact on the direction of self and identity studies. Tajfel’s major contributions to the study of self and identity have been based upon his conceptualization of social identity and his use of the minimal group paradigm (MGP) to test group formation in experimental conditions. These studies were concerned mainly with understanding the nature of group formation and the creation of prejudice and “ethnocentrism” under the most rudimentary of conditions. Turner, who worked closely with Tajfel on Social Identity Theory, also attempted to explain how groups interact (and act at all) with his Self-Categorization Theory (Turner 1987). The most interesting point here comes from the need in group-oriented social theories for a dichotomous relationship between an in-group and an out-group to clarify the need for the in-group and to establish the symbolism by which the group is maintained (Brewer and Brown 1998).

The clearest example of this inner/outer dichotomy comes from the sub-branch of social psychology known as symbolic interactionism. The core of this sub-discipline is that the interaction between individuals, between individuals and groups, and between groups generates selves, identities, and group identities (Charon and Cahill 1992). According to symbolic interactionism – and largely derived from Mead – the self is a reflexive activity that represents the way one describes one’s self-relationships to others (Stryker and Statham 1985). Symbolic interactionism and, to an extent, role theory are best described as frameworks for understanding and testing the dual internal/external nature of the self and identity.

As we approach our discussion of ethnic identities and boundaries, we realize that ethnicity and identity are largely about boundaries; that in fact there is no way to determine one’s identity – ethnic or otherwise – without reference to some sort of boundary. With that in mind, this essay will first more thoroughly examine classic approaches to the study of ethnic identities before analyzing “modern” approaches to the topic and attempting an integrative approach to enhance our understanding of the phenomenon as it relates to the study of ethnic conflict and international studies.

Classic Approaches

Of the approaches described above, there appears to be a fairly clear breakdown between those that focus on the group level and those that focus on the individual level. Sociology, anthropology, and to a lesser extent political science and international relations tend to focus on the group level and define ethnicity and ethnic identity as group phenomena. These analyses tend to focus on the groups per se rather than on the individual’s connection to the group or how they perceive their “personal” feeling of ethnic affiliation. Psychology, by contrast, focuses on the individual level; in particular, the myriad concepts of the self conceived by psychologists stand out for their focus on individual-oriented action, structures, and relationships as being determinant in the generation of the self and one’s identity. These two disciplinary areas represent the opposite ends of a conceptual focus in examining both ethnicity as a group phenomenon and identity as an individual phenomenon, with a “middle ground” outlined by symbolic interactionism focusing on the processes of formation and reformation through the interaction of individuals and groups.

Primordial versus Constructivist

One of the most basic – and contentious – issues surrounding the study of ethnicity has been the face-off between those who prefer a priori, primordial explanations of group formation, cohesion, and ethnocentrism, and those who believe that these phenomena are socially constructed (Jenkins 1994). Although the primordialists have lost some of their academic clout in recent years, they have not vanished from the scene. Indeed, they have received boosts, of a sort, from those who purport to have biological proof for the existence of phenomena of kinship and ethnocentrism. For example, one can see a slightly less reductionist view of the biological basis for ethnocentrism in the field of evolutionary psychology (Buss 2008), theories of essentialism (Gil-White 2001), and genetic similarity theory (Rushton 2005). One can also see Richardson (2007) for a critique of evolutionary psychology similar to critiques first leveled at sociobiology. Other examinations of primordialism focus on perceptions of kin-relationships and the use of ethnic myths and symbols to show how these are more powerful than other “constructed” categories; this is covered in more detail below.

Regardless of the widespread acceptance – or not – of the primordialists, their message is clear and to the point: ethnic groups form because of either an actual or a perceived kin–blood relationship among members of the group (Connor 1994). While boundaries between groups might be permeable up to a point, this point usually serves to provide an influx of new genes necessary to avoid stagnation and death for the group (van den Berghe 1978).

The key element for primordialists is in the nature of the ethnonational bond as being a special kind of bond that is much stronger and more durable than other kinds of social bonds. In critiquing the social constructivist view of ethnicity, primordialists rely upon the unique nature of the ethnonational bond as opposed to other types of bonds and the purported inability of the social constructivists to explain the difference in bond strength between ethnonational bonds – such as being Hutu or Tutsi – and other types of bonds based on non-kin groups – such as being a doctor or a lawyer.

The main problem with this explanation is its “black box” nature, wherein the strength of presumed blood ties is not questioned or is attributed to biological or psychological drives. As we will see below, some of the disciplines that have attempted to open this black box have had only limited success, leaving us to ponder the ethnonational bond and its strength.

By contrast, the social constructivist school, brought into prominence by Fredrik Barth (1969), believes that the creation of ethnic difference is always contingent upon the context of the situation and that group boundaries serve political and social aims of the groups involved. This thread has been picked up in many fields outside of anthropology – most notably those in political science and international relations – to help explain the emergence of ethnonationalist movements with what seem to be politically driven, but ethnically derived, goals. Often, as in the case of the Pequot tribe of the United States, one could say that the “creation” of an ethnic-national group is in response to social pressures or to take advantage of social goods (Libby 1996). However, the social constructivist school, like the primordialist school, has its detractors who point out that applying a rational-actor model to essentially irrational (or non-rational) actions does little to explain the motivations behind the Serbs’ willingness to fight and die for Kosovo, or why suicide bombers are willing to lay down their lives to promote a cause or “protect” their people.

For social constructivists, the content of difference between groups is less important than the construction and maintenance of the boundary between groups. Therefore, the most important function of an ethnic group is to maintain the boundary between that group and other groups, usually within the same society but across societies as well. The reasoning behind boundary maintenance is that all individuals require a sense of positive self-evaluation and that the most effective – and easiest – manner of enhancing positive self-evaluation is to belong to a group. The substance for this claim stems from the work done on Social Identity Theory – described above – which shows that individuals will most often choose to differentiate between their group and out-groups in a manner that promotes the most social distance and positive distinctiveness for their group. In the real world, what this often means is that for those groups that one is born into, and cannot easily move out of, such as ethnic or racial groups, group members view outsiders as inferior and display other ethnocentric attitudes and behaviors. For groups in which there is an exit, those individuals who feel inadequate positive self-evaluation may indeed exit. The conundrum with this explanation is the question of why a priori groups such as ethnic and racial groups lack an exit. Primordialists would claim that if such groups are socially constructed, then they can be socially deconstructed as well.

Clearly, neither school of thought provides a definitive answer, although when combined in a particular manner, they both have something important to contribute to the debate on ethnicity, identity, and ethnic conflict. As we will see below, the combination of these two paradigms – adding to extensive knowledge about the individual self – may shed some light on the nature of ethnic affiliation and the connection between the individual and the group.

Many Ways to be Self

Many psychological theories (at least those with the widest general acceptance) combine some of the elements of a dialectical interaction between the self and other. Erikson’s life cycle describes the adolescent process of aspiring to sameness while seeking differentiation from one’s family, friends, and society throughout each of the cycle’s stages (Erikson 1980:19–25). Following this trend, family systems theories look at identity as the product of interaction between the different actors and role-holders in families (Clemmer 1989). Gestalt theory relies upon the principle of homeostasis, wherein the individual seeks to balance internal and external elements (Perls 1973). The primary mechanism for doing this is the boundary between the self and other, described by Perls as enabling the creation of a sense of self through distinguishing one’s self from others. Homeostasis is seen as a zero point for individuals wherein they experience neither pain nor pleasure. Healthy individuals are aware of the boundaries between themselves and others and – as in existentialist theories – are responsible for the proper maintenance of these boundaries and the meeting of their individual needs and desires, while dysfunctional individuals have difficulty differentiating themselves from their environments and are out of touch with their own inner needs (Watson and Greenberg 1998). While Gestalt theory focuses largely on the internal element of this dialectic of the self, interpersonal systems theories, as espoused by Sullivan, posit that the nature of identity and personality is largely determined by the external element in this dialectic (Sullivan 1953; Gold and Bacigalupe 1998).

Like systems theories, humanistic theories of the self and personality posit that the self is generated by the interaction of internal and external elements. However, humanistic theories place more emphasis on the internal elements of identity formation and change than do systems theories of the self. For instance, Gergen’s works on the self-concept and its interaction with external forces place more weight on the nature of individual agency and action, positing that individuals seek self-knowledge, and that this knowledge is predicated upon understanding others (Lewis and Brooks-Gunn 1981). Gergen (1971) posits that various external factors such as the environment and the appraisal of others largely depend upon how an individual selectively chooses to respond to such appraisals, either internalizing them or dismissing them if they are perceived as too far removed from his or her own self concept.

Another key element of psychological theories of the self that is reflected throughout other disciplines is the individual’s need for positive distinctiveness or self-esteem. It is this requirement for self-esteem that drives an individual to respond to positive or negative appraisals by modifying their behavior to shift their identities towards more socially accepted modes. This individual-level need for self-esteem is congruent with the group-level need for positive self-evaluation. The main point here for our analysis is that the need for self-esteem can be addressed by behavior modification resulting in identity shift, while the need for positive self-evaluation is dependent upon group membership and can be changed only to the extent that individuals can exit from one group and join another.

What we can see in each of these theories is the recognition that individual identities are generated through a dialectic between two elements. Each theory also recognizes that these two elements represent internal and external factors. Interestingly, like sociological and social psychological theories, many of these psychological theories of the self rest in the works of Cooley and Mead, both of whom envisioned the self as a process resulting from interaction with others.

Symbols and Roles

The dialectic between the self and other described in the literatures on both ethnicity and identity provides the conceptual and theoretical connection between the two terms. In our examination of literature on identity, nationalism, ethnicity, and ethnic groups, there has been a clear and consistent admission that the process of identification of the self and categorization of the other are two components of a continual process through which individuals, groups, and nations come to define themselves by what they are and by what they are not.

The dialectic between self and other as the basis for self- and group-identification – as well as being a process that changes and is changed by social structures – is also a major characteristic of symbolic interactionism. As described in the Handbook of Social Psychology, both symbolic interactionism and role theory are rooted in the interaction of individuals, groups, and other social organisms. In symbolic interactionism, social life and society are viewed as an intricate web of social interactions. The values and meanings of those interactions are determined by the symbols used by individuals and groups, and the meanings attached to those symbols by those who use them. Unlike sociology, which emphasizes the group, and psychology, which emphasizes the individual, symbolic interactionism sees neither the group nor the individual as prominent. Rather the group and the individual exist through their interaction with one another (Stryker and Statham 1985).

Works that have their basis in symbolic interactionism, or are the precursors to it, include Mead’s (1934) seminal work, Mind, Self and Society, which defines the self as a composite of I and Me. This was one of the first definitions of self to use reflexive interaction. The I and Me are defined as the organized attitudes of others and the responses of the individual to those attitudes. In this definition, there can be no self without societal interaction.

Continuing along these lines, Jenkins (1996) describes selfhood as embedded within social relationships, while Stryker, Mead, and other symbolic interactionists see individual identities as constructed from social interaction. In this sense, individuals are constructed by social interaction, while the interaction of individuals and groups of individuals constructs societies.

Each of these three basic approaches – from the group, from the individual, or from the interaction of the two – relies upon the existence and maintenance of boundaries as a defining characteristic of identity. It is this boundary between the self and other, whether on the individual existentialist level or the state-national level, which holds the key to our understanding of conflict in general and ethnic conflict in particular. How each of the disciplines examines this boundary, its nature and role, has an impact upon our beliefs about what causes conflict, and what can be done to ameliorate its effects or resolve it altogether.

Dynamics of Disciplines

A comprehensive view of the boundaries that separate the self from the other at all levels, from the individual to the nation, requires that we examine the manner in which the generation of identity at one level has an explicit connection to the germination of identity at other levels of analysis. Starting from the “basics” of organic structures, this section will examine different levels of identity to show that they combine together in a process of identification and categorization, with explicit links between the self and other at each level of analysis.

Biology and Ethnocentrism

There are a number of interesting and pertinent features in the study of ethnocentrism and group formation on the biological level. The first is the contention that ethnocentric behavior and group formation result from a genetic determinism regarding kin selection and blood ties (Wilson 1975; van den Berghe 1978). The source of this contention is the comparison of human behavior with non-humans, from insects to large mammals. Lorenz’s (1966) examination of aggression across species emphasizes the “bond” between kin or social groups, which implies discrimination in aggression between bond members and outsiders, predicated upon the nature of the bond. Wilson’s (1975) examination of invertebrates led him to speculate that the evolutionary principles underlying Darwin’s “goodness of fit” could be extended to the study of human societies. Wilson posits that group formation and ethnocentric behavior stem from a biologically determined need to control enough space (territory) to ensure survival of the immediate group. He further states that part of humankind’s problem is that its inter-group relationships are inadequate to meet the extraterritorial demands of civilization, leading to the notion of a double standard of morality between the in-group and the out-group, which is the essence of ethnocentrism (Wilson 1975:565).

The works of Wilson and Lorenz lead directly to those of Pierre van den Berghe, whose main assertion is that group formation and ethnocentric aggression against out-groups are based on cost–benefit calculations that each of us performs whenever we need to choose a direction or action that could have negative consequences for ourselves. Since we are genetically oriented to perpetuate ourselves (and, by association, our close kin), we can be expected to behave cooperatively with close kin to ensure our genetic survival and to behave towards out-groups in a manner that promotes our genetic survival (van den Berghe 1978:403).

Although the tenets of sociobiology are largely discredited, attempts are still being made to link ethnocentric attitudes and behaviors to biological or cognitive imperatives. Work done by Gil-White (2001) examines the role of cognitive structures that are conditioned by evolution to “essentialize” concepts such as race through basic recognition of physical markers that serve to partly differentiate groups from one another. His main argument is that the ability to quickly differentiate friend from possible foe was a biologically useful survival skill at one point in humanity’s evolutionary history. However, the ability to immediately differentiate does not link directly to the willingness to denigrate, leaving the question of biological sources of ethnocentrism unanswered.

Another track is taken by proponents of evolutionary psychology, who essentially repeat the arguments of the sociobiologists regarding genetic predispositions of in-group favoritism based largely upon evolutionary pressures to prefer associations with others with similar genetic backgrounds (Rushton 2005). Others argue that there are ultimate evolutionary pressures that guide us to proximate choices in deciding whom we are more likely to cooperate with – in terms of incurring a cost in order to assist another – and whom we are less likely to cooperate with. The difference here between evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists is the recognition that human beings tend to have more prosocial and cooperative behaviors than other species, which then must be accounted for by more than simple biological necessity. Instead Henrich and Henrich posit that a wide range of human behaviors largely thought of as cultural in nature are both 100 percent cultural and 100 percent biological. In other words, “all culturally acquired behaviors […] are also genetic” because they require “brain machinery” that has evolved to favor complex social learning (2006:224).

Underneath the inclusion of culture as a biologically evolved factor, evolutionary psychologists return to elements of kin preference and reciprocity to show that humans have a “naturally evolved” tendency toward ethnocentric behavior. However, underpinning these assertions is evolutionary psychology’s reliance upon an economic rational actor model of continual cost–benefit equations for decisions regarding whom to cooperate with and when. By making the ability to learn complex, culturally based information part of our biological heritage, evolutionary psychology attempts to circumvent the critique of sociobiology based on its inability to parse out innate from learned behaviors. However, evolutionary psychology continues to garner critiques of reductionism in its treatment of culture as deriving solely from genetic pressures and not as a result of a dialectic between internal and external elements of human societies (Lewontin 1981; Richardson 2007).

A different take on the biological argument is put forward by those who insist that there is instead a “biological” need for community, stemming from the fact that humans were social animals before they became humans (Dunbar 1987; Clark 1990). This take on the nature of human groupings comes primarily from human needs theorists associated with the field of conflict resolution, but also has some proponents among those sociobiologists from the less deterministic side of the discipline. Clark’s (1989; 1990; 1998) assertions are quite similar to those of the sociobiologists. However, they lack many of the Hobbesian motivations that underlie the theories of the latter group. Instead Clark offers the idea of meaningful social bonding as a universal human need. The biological basis for this stems from the fact that human beings, from their earliest ages, require social contact for their brains to develop normally. This socialization begins before human babies are born, as evidenced by the fact that they respond differently to their mother’s voice as opposed to their father’s. Clark posits that one of the most important things that a social unit (whether a family or tribe) provided was meaningful social contact and the attention required for individuals to develop into thinking and social human beings (Clark 1990:44–5).

Group formation and ethnocentric attitudes enter into the picture when one combines the tenets of worldview theory with the biological basis for community. In this combination, worldview and frame conflicts are those in which individuals and groups with different cultural references discount the reference of others in order to maintain positive self-esteem. The link to the “biological community” is that the activities that one wishes to protect often involve culturally determined ways of satisfying one’s (or one’s group’s) basic needs. Therefore, even difference – not just opposition – can cause contention and conflict (Nudler 1990:197). Clark, too, seems to support the contention that ethnocentric behavior stems from cultural sources, which are then used to protect unique methods of satisfying basic human needs. In addition, she asserts that culture is based in evolution, in the sense that it provides the learned traditions for satisfying those basic needs. For example, if all Eskimos were transported to a jungle overnight, she asserts that their culture would not survive due to the absolute requirement to transmit culturally determined survival skills (Clark 1989:151).

At the biological level there is a tendency for humans to root themselves in groups and to view other groups less favorably than their own. Like many of the “inner” and “outer” arguments, there is more of a dialectical than a causal connection between biological and cultural determinants of group formation. Through this dialectic, groups form and cultures are created to meet the needs of the groups, leading to the differentiation of groups based on different ways of understanding the world and how to operate in it.

What this means for boundary creation and maintenance is that the process of group formation is a natural one, and tends to take place in increasingly complex societies, responding to the perceptions of threats to satisfiers, meaning, needs or resources. Group formation results from a complex interaction between adaptive (biological) imperatives and cultural (meaning-making) processes. The linkage between self-identification and other-categorization, therefore, has elements that are rooted in the human biological system, as it has evolved over millennia in response to social and environmental pressures. This distinction that groups make between in-group and out-group members should also be present in our psychological associations between others and ourselves on the individual level.

Psychology and Self/Other

The link between the biological basis for differentiation and individual psychology of the self can be traced back to Clark’s assertions that humans evolved from biological communities of pre-humans and that contact between the infant and mother, wherein her larger breast size and their position allowed eye-to-eye contact with a feeding infant, was the basis for belonging; and to Jaynes’s (1976) position that consciousness itself was a learned, social activity. Each of these posits that human beings, both collectively as a species and individually as growing and maturing beings, require groups to develop both consciousness and their sense of self.

As pointed out above, psychological definitions of the self and of identity required a contrast between that self and some other, whether on the individual or group level. This can be seen in cognitive and behavioral psychology, which requires outside stimulus to create and measure the pathways of examination within the brain (Staats 1996), and in developmental psychology, which points to the need for anxiety reduction as a primary reason for affirmative responses to outside socialization pressures (Erikson 1980). Social psychology, whether the more sociological or the more psychological branch, is based on the premise that individual identification and group formation are processes requiring interaction with others, without whom the self or in-group cannot be formed or known (Mead 1934; Tajfel 1981; Turner and Giles 1981; Brewer and Brown 1998).

These theories (and several others) draw a parallel track when they assert that an individual’s sense of self is generated through interactions between internal – possibly biological – desires and external social constraints. That the process of identification and differentiation, and our need to balance the two, stems from biological as well as psychological sources comes as no surprise. That these processes should not be seen as deterministic (at least not overtly) is also no surprise given that their “evolution” is the result of the interaction between biological drives and existent social structures and environmental conditions. It is clear that, at least to some extent, these two elements have been created, and re-created, by each other over the millennia, becoming inextricably interwoven (Jaynes 1976:126–34; Watson and Greenberg 1998:92; Clark 1990:40–1; Cohen 1994:169).

Groups and Boundaries

Anthropological and sociological examinations of group boundaries and interactions primarily concentrate on how the creation and maintenance of cultural norms assist in defining boundaries between different ethnic groups. In this sense the differences maintained between self and other, or in-group and out-group, are a part of a process of continual, dialectical interaction, wherein different markers are used in order to define and maintain boundaries between groups. As Barth explains, it is “the ethnic boundary that defines the group, not the cultural stuff that it encloses” (Barth 1969:15, emphasis in original). This is because the boundaries of ethnic or ascriptive and exclusive groups may change and their cultural characteristics may transform over time, but these groups are generally long lived, if not permanent, exhibiting a great deal of continuity over time (Barth 1969:14).

Jenkins (1994; 1996; 1997) expands on the notions of ethnic group affiliation and boundary maintenance in two directions. In the first he examines the manner in which ethnic groups maintain their boundaries through the inclusion of power as a variable. He posits that it is not enough to say that groups manipulate the symbols and cultural content of their societies in order to maintain boundaries between themselves and others, but that one must examine the role that power plays in the definition of the self as well as the categorization of the other. Jenkins differentiates what he calls internal group identification from external group categorization processes. In the former, the group is a self-aware collectivity which defines itself as such; while in the latter, the group is defined externally by others who have either the power or the authority to do so (Jenkins 1997:54–5). As with many of the other internal/external processes examined here, Jenkins admits that his distinction between the two is “primarily analytical” and that in everyday life there is an “ongoing dialectic” between processes of identification and categorization (1997:53).

The expansion of anthropological studies of ethnicity into the realm of power is important not only because it provides links to social and political institutions, but also because it shows how the production and reproduction of ethnicity take place. According to Jenkins, the categorization of a group by powerful or authoritative others can contribute to the internal creation of a group identity (Jenkins 1994:202–3). One possible example of this process could be the categorization of American Blacks by the much more powerful white society leading to the creation of “African Americans” as an ethnic group with its own sets of boundary markers designed to achieve a sense of positive self-valuation vis-à-vis the larger, white, society. That these boundaries, or at least their markers, are not static can be seen in the adoption of many cultural markers – such as music or dress – by the larger society, necessitating a continual change to maintain the boundary and the sense of positive self-valuation.

The second area of expansion for Jenkins addresses the process by which ethnic, racial, and other ostensibly a priori identities are propagated and attain the drive and power that sets them apart from identities constructed around social class, profession or other groups that provide easy “exits.” Jenkins holds to the Barthesque notion that all identities are the product of social construction, but within this he posits that ethnic, or kin-based, identities are primary, or primarily socialized in a manner that gives them more weight than identities acquired later in life.

Overall, Jenkins speaks of three types of primary, or primarily socialized, identities that individuals gain through birth and childhood. The first of these is humanness, the second is gender, and the third is based on kin relationships. Following the logic of the internal–external dialectic of identity formation and maintenance, one of the first things that a child learns from its parents is the nature and importance of kin relationships, extending from individual membership in a family through to larger memberships in ethnic and national communities (Jenkins 1996:64–5). Depending on the social and historical context, this identity may be vested in an ethnic group, a religious sect, and/or a nation-state. In this manner, the power of the primarily socialized group identity – the only one of the three without a universal character – is deeply embedded into the child’s sense of self as he or she grows up and establishes both place and relationships within the larger society. The power of these primarily socialized identities stems from their role in early socialization and can be compared to work outlined above on culturally transmitted means for addressing basic needs as well as the initial conceptualization – and creation of the self – through the interaction of the individual with family members and with their larger, ethnic or national, grouping.

Later sociological studies of ethnic groups and boundaries shifted their focus somewhat from the definition of the boundary itself through the maintenance process to the use of social networks and social capital. These studies are largely limited to the context of immigrant communities in pluralistic societies, focusing on employment and other ethnic networks that raise the social capital of ethnic entrepreneurs (Sanders 2002). Like social networks scholars, others are attempting to address the perceived shortcomings of the social constructivist school by shifting the focus from a strong emphasis on processes of boundary maintenance to either the effects of cultural content or the nature of the boundaries themselves. In the former realm, Cornell (1996) proposes categorizing the content of ethnic affiliation along the lines of interests, institutions, and culture, with variations in strength from low to high in each area. In this manner he differentiates between communities of interest, institutional communities, and communities of culture, with a fourth type, symbolic communities, who have low strength in each area. Cornell differs from strict constructivists in that, while he recognizes the impact of situations on the variation in each of his areas of interest, he also posits that established identities may impact a group’s perception of its interests, thus reversing what he depicts as a one-way interaction between situation and identity creation and maintenance (Cornell 1996:278).

Brubaker (2004; 2005) follows network theory by addressing our attention to the processes of “variable groupness” in an attempt to combat what he sees as an excessive reification of ethnic groups. His main argument is that ethnic groups are “folk categories,” often more felt than actual, and that ethnicity is more of a process while groupness is an event (2005:475). While not specified, the processes of ethnicity largely center around political, social, cultural, and psychological perceptions of belonging, and are, to some extent, analogous to work examining individual and group identity formation in the psychological sciences (Brubaker et al. 2004; Brubaker 2005:482). The question remains, however, as to the relative balance of internal versus external factors in the formulation of groupness. Does the concept’s measurement of group cohesion result primarily from situational or perceptual factors and what effect do increased or decreased levels of group cohesion have on group boundaries, including levels of inclusion and exclusion, and boundary permeability? However, Brubaker’s main caution is to differentiate between groups and organizations – that is, between the Tamil nation and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or between Catholics in Northern Ireland and the IRA – instead of conflating the two in studies of ethnicity, nationalism, and ethnic conflict. In doing so he indicates that scholars should pay more attention to the variability and contingency of groupness, the impact of framing and how it can mask “non-ethnic” elements of putative ethnic conflicts, the centrality of organizations in articulating and framing ethnic group concerns, and possible disconnects between ethnic elites and the interests of their constituents (Brubaker 2005:482–4).

In the realm of the nature of the boundaries themselves, Lamont and Molnár (2002) argue that the functions of boundary maintenance can be differentiated into notions of symbolic boundaries and social boundaries. Symbolic boundaries are viewed as “conceptual distinctions made by social actors to categorize objects, people, practices and even time and space,” while social boundaries are “objectified forms of social differences manifested in unequal access to and distribution of resources” (Lamont and Molnár 2002:168). While this author is unsure of the strength or necessity of such a distinction, Lamont and Molnár propose that such a distinction is useful as a first step in studying the characteristics of boundaries themselves, from their permeability to their stability to their salience. In doing so, one should be able to focus in on key mechanisms for boundary activation through the use of symbolic resources in the boundary maintenance process.

The anthro-sociological interactions between groups, whether seen from the primordialist school or the social contructivist school, primarily concentrate upon how the creation and maintenance of cultural norms assist in defining boundaries between different “ethnic” groups. In this sense, we can see the self–other linkage between anthropological and sociological definitions of the self and need for biological community posited by Clark. The need for community requires that individuals gather in groups, both for social survival and for psychological and biological growth into human beings. As a matter of course, they choose certain methods of living life and interacting with the world, Sumner’s folkways, which then become enshrined in custom and tradition. Not only do these ways define the boundaries between groups, but they also provide the basis for ethnocentric sentiment and the feeling that one should value the in-group more than out-groups. This runs parallel to Clark’s argument that cultural differences, in the service of satisfying needs, can provide the impetus to ethnocentric sentiments and serve as points for conflict. When others, with different folkways, enter into contact with a group, then their ways may be seen as a threat to meaning generated by the adherence to traditional ways, customs, and culture.

Group-Structure Interaction

Social psychology has provided a wealth of empirical information regarding the nature and process of self-identification and other-categorization. Theories ranging from Tajfel’s (1981) social identity theory to Turner’s (1987) self-categorization theory and Allport’s (1954) contact hypothesis all discuss the processes by which group formation, racism, ethnocentrism, and prejudice take place. If we think about these processes, detailed above, as mechanisms for boundary maintenance, then the strength of social psychological analyses is that they show us how boundary maintenance operates and some of the cognitive and psychological underpinnings for how and why individuals affiliate with and operate within larger groups.

In addition to the processes of ethnocentrism described above, a number of authors build upon cognitive processes such as cognitive dissonance, efficient misperception, and cognitive economy stereotyping as methods by which ethnocentrism is generated or maintained, often in the face of contradictory evidence. Using these thinking “shortcuts,” individuals fit new information into existing categories and, often, disregard disconfirming information (Fiske 1998:362). This notion of “complexity-induced” stereotyping and ethnocentrism dovetails with the biological basis for community-induced ethnocentrism and LeVine and Campbell’s findings that more complex social groups tend to have stronger ethnocentric tendencies than smaller groups (LeVine and Campbell 1972:213). The reasoning behind this is that the larger the group, the more complex the social “culture” must be in order to sustain it and, conversely, the easier it is for outside influences to enter and possibly threaten its legitimacy. This, too, provides a link, and a reason, for the rise and strength of ethnic-nationalism as an orchestrated, planned response to perceived threats to social identities.

If we take as our starting point the creation of complexity-induced stereotyping and other cognitive shortcuts as individuals are raised in their families and communities, we can see the parallel between social psychology’s processes of ethnocentrism, processes of boundary maintenance based upon primary identities, and the cultural satisfaction of the biologically based need for community. Each of these models provides a part of the puzzle as to why ethnic or a priori identities have a stronger affective component and bind one tighter than other types of associations or affiliations.

Power Politics and Institutions

When we look at ethnicity and nationalism (or ethnonationalism, as Walker Connor puts it), we are essentially examining the confluence of ethnic identity, ethnocentrism, and group mobilization in political movements. Depending on orientation, scholars of nationalism – and of ethnic conflict – approach the subject with the assumption that ethnicity is primordial, socially constructed or somewhere in between. Regardless of initial approach, most authors make use of dialectical observations regarding the creation and maintenance of national sentiments. From Smith’s discussion of uniqueness and exclusion to Wolff’s analysis of “national projects,” one can see the recognition that the creation of nations, particularly ethnic nations, requires the presence of an other to which the in-group can be favorably compared, and, furthermore, who can be excluded (Smith 1986:47–8; Wolff 2006:35).

The dialectical nature of the national, or ethnonational, boundary is clearly delineated by John Armstrong, who draws directly from Barth’s work on boundary maintenance for his work on nationalism. Rather than focusing on the essence of national character, Armstrong asserts that ethnic and national characteristics are only defined by their opposites. In addition, he states that the “primary characteristic of ethnic boundaries is attitudinal,” that they, in fact, reside mainly in “the minds of their subjects rather than as lines on a map or norms in a rule book” (Armstrong 1982:7–8). Young (1976) also holds to the need for a dialectic between self and other for identity definition and development, paying particular attention to the subjective aspects of identification. Like symbolic interactionists, Young holds that identity is often derived from social roles and that the activation of a particular identity is based upon the salience of the threat to it (1976:38–9). Manzo concurs with this view, indicating that nationalisms are akin to “political religions that create boundaries” separating kin from outsiders (Manzo 1996:3).

A more prominent view of the relationship between ethnic groups and the state is that groups vie for power over the state in order to distribute the benefits of state patronage to members of their constituencies. This is typically found in many of the elite-oriented views of ethnicity–state relationships, such as those proposed by Brass (1991), Lake and Rothchild (Rothchild 1991; Lake and Rothchild 1996a; 1996b), and Toland, who indicates that processes of ethnic manipulation by both dominant and subordinate groups take place at all levels of state building, with the social, political, and economic boundaries of the state being largely determined by the dominant group in order to define the in-group as good and the out-group as bad; presumably leading to an unequal distribution of resources among “good” and “bad” elements (Toland 1993:3–4). Triandafyllidou (1998) takes this examination a step further by looking at the conscious use of symbols and culture to define the self and other at the national level with her analysis of Greece’s use of Macedonian symbols to thwart what was perceived as an usurpation of Greek identity by the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. Indicating that the “notion of the ‘other’ is inextricably linked to the concept of national identity,” Triandafyllidou shows how the Greek state and its intellectuals engaged in a two-pronged strategy that simultaneously redefined Greek identity to include references to Alexander the Great – previously viewed as non-Greek – and vociferously claimed that the former Yugoslav republic was claiming to use symbols – and a name – that rightly belonged to the Greek nation (Triandafyllidou 1998:596, 604, 607).

The perceived permanence or permeability of boundaries is evident in the main activity undertaken by researchers of ethnic conflict in the modern world: namely, the methods of regulation and/or settlement proposed to address such conflicts. Many, if not most, scholars of international relations tend to focus on institutional approaches to the resolution of these conflicts. These approaches typically range from power-sharing coalitions – including simple power sharing, consociational arrangements or hegemonic exchange regimes – to federations, confederations or, at the extreme end, secession or other forms of separation.

At one end are those who propose that institutional arrangements are necessary because of the immutability of ethnic boundaries: in other words, because ethnocentrism is natural and frustration always leads to aggression – a Hobbesian worldview that requires strong institutions to manage what would otherwise be violent anarchy among competing ethnic groups. One offshoot of this premise is that these management devices are best left in the hands of ethnic elites, who will do their best to manage these tensions peaceably in return for the enhanced power and prestige such positions give them. Models that fit this view of the relationship between ethnic groups and the state include works by Lijphart (1969; 1981), Horowitz (1985), Brass (1991), Lake and Rothchild (1996a), O’Leary and McGarry (McGarry and O’Leary 2005; O’Leary 2005), and a host of others who – either through theory proposals or case examinations – propose institutional forms of conflict management that recognize the boundaries between ethnic groups and seek ways to co-opt local elites to manage these relationships in a peaceful manner.

At the other end of the spectrum there are some who indicate that, given the dialectical nature of individuals and institutions, not only can individuals change institutions, but changes in institutions can change individuals. It is here that we can find some thoughtful work on how overarching identities – such as those supplied by the EU – could have some impact on national, regional, and perhaps even ethnic identities (McCall 1999). In addition, work on institutions can also focus on how they can address the identity needs of groups nominally – or actually – in conflict by reframing debates and articulating policies and procedures that reduce the perceived threat to ethnic or primary identities and lessen their salience vis-à-vis other levels of identities at the more personal or, perhaps, international level. In this manner, the boundaries are not so much redrawn as they are redefined in a manner that is less confrontational; less based on being in opposition than on some form of positive distinctiveness. More recent work in this vein stems from Kaufman’s (2001) extension of symbolic politics theory to the study of ethnic conflict. Following on work that, like evolutionary psychology, posits that cultural tendencies toward group formation are evolutionarily favored, Kaufman argues that the core of ethnic identity is a “myth-symbol” complex that defines both the boundaries and the content of ethnic groups (2001:24–5). It is the power of these symbols, whether driven from above or below, that provides the grist for ethnic conflict and, presumably, avenues for resolving it as well. Other works that focus on this aspect of conflict resolution include those by Dane (1997), McCall (1998; 1999), Trew (1998), Jeong and Vayrnen (1999), and Hancock (2005), who generally propose that shifts in symbols or meanings of identity boundaries can lead to the de-escalation or peaceful resolution of conflict at a level that may address some of the sources of difference more fully than simply using institutions to regulate relations with “others,” who are still seen as threatening in some way.

Regardless of the manner in which theorists posit that ethnic conflicts can be managed or resolved, all of these forms of ethnic regulation rest, implicitly or explicitly, upon the recognition of the boundary between the self and other that is common to all forms of ethnicity or nationalism. This makes the understanding of the ethnic and national boundary and how it operates an issue of paramount importance for those who wish to understand these forms of conflict and how to manage, resolve or regulate them successfully.

The Current State of the Literature

What is the current state of the study of ethnicity and identity within international relations? This task is at once harder and easier to undertake than one might think. While it is clear that there is some cross-fertilization between international relations and other disciplines in the arena of ethnicity studies (cf. Young 1976; Horowitz 1985; Kaufman 2001), the syntheses represented by many works are often less than complete. The problem with past attempts to synthesize different perspectives on identity and boundaries is not the use of anthropological or psychological approaches to illuminate the study of ethnicity and conflict, but that political approaches are most often combined with cultural or psychological approaches instead of attempting to integrate both. One example of this is work by Mercer (1995) incorporating social identity theory into the study of international relations. His application of SIT to international relations does look at culture, but only to the extent that he differentiates collectivist from individualist cultures and implies that the former may exhibit more ethnocentric attitudes than the latter (Mercer 1995:244). However, in his analysis the cultural element is left to this high level of abstraction between the notion of social identity and the agency of the state, leaving out the mid-level construction of ethnic, sectarian or other identities that often represent the “building blocks” upon which conflict is founded. Kaufman’s (2001) use of symbolic politics represents an innovative extension of cultural analysis into political science to the study of the outbreak and conduct of ethnic conflict. The emphasis on symbolism – also found in MacGinty (2001) and Mach (1993) – shifts our focus to the potency of symbols and the opportunity that they present for mobilization along ethnic lines (Kaufman 2001:30–3). Although this shift has much greater explanatory power than the rational actor thesis as to why groups support ethnic conflicts, it is incomplete in the sense that the focus does not include psychological explanations of group dynamics to explain why groups are willing to mobilize at some times and not at others.

Other directions for the study of ethnicity and boundaries include problematizing constructivist theories in order to determine processes for group formation and the extent to which these processes are determined by internal elements versus external circumstances. In some senses, these theories extend our knowledge in useful directions regarding different elements such as social networks – mostly directed at the function of immigrant communities and diasporas – and the intersection of ethnicity with gender, colonialism, and religion. Each of these extensions illuminates a small part of the puzzle, although this part is often limited to one type of analysis or to a single location, which can – if pieced together underneath a more complete synthesis of the nature of ethnic identities and boundaries – assist scholars to understand more of what drives ethnic groups and when external circumstances and internal dynamics might lead to ethnic strife or conflict. It is in this vein that this essay will offer another possible synthesis of the concepts of ethnicity and identity in an attempt to capture as many elements as possible; from the affective components posited by primordialists to psychological processes and encompassed by dialectic inherent in the dominant constructivist view.

An Integrative Approach

The thread that runs through each of these ordinarily disparate disciplines is that, when examining ethnicity or identity, there is a common factor of dialectic between the sameness of the self or in-group and differentiation with the other or out-group. This section will synthesize what we know about these processes of sameness and differentiation throughout the disciplines we have examined and the pivotal role that boundaries play in in-group solidarity and out-group discrimination.

If one were to imagine a spiral or vortex beginning at the individual level and spiraling upwards and outwards through family, community, ethnic or tribal groups, and national or state-oriented groups, one can see how the creation of identity at each level is predicated upon some “other” to differentiate from, as well as some group to belong to, and requires a boundary to delineate that difference. In addition, our survey of the literature on ethnicity and identity shows that these linkages are not just horizontal in terms of the “other,” but also vertical in terms of the nesting of identities in larger social contexts.

Looking back at the various theories of ethnicity and identity we have examined, we can highlight a few that help to illuminate the conundrum that is the role of ethnic or sectarian identities in the midst of violent conflict. Using a combination of Clark’s biological basis for community and Jenkins’ idea of primarily socialized identities, we can understand not only why certain identities have more of an affective component to them, but also the process by which these identities are formed and how they react to threats. Work by Northrup (1989) on identity dynamics dovetails with the idea of threats reifying boundaries and increasing what she calls the “polarization” of identities into powerful camps of “us” and “them.” For some primarily socialized groups, such as Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks, the boundary between “us” and “them” is based on ethnicity; for Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland this boundary is sectarian; and for others it may be based on some combination of race, ethnicity, and religion. When a conflict begins to escalate, the definition of such groups – largely managed through the boundary maintenance mechanism – shifts to the point where being a member of one group means adopting an attitude of hating the other group: for example, when being a Hutu meant hating and killing Tutsis and moderates who refused to kill.

The key for our analyses of ethnic identities and boundaries is the recognition of these primary identities and the role that they play within our larger “spiral” of identification from the individual to the nation-state. When threats are made to these identities, whether real, imagined or created, as in the cases of the Yugoslav wars or the Rwandan genocide, then the response of many in these communities will be to “retreat” to these identities and to polarize around them. Therefore, in order to prevent such violence we need to understand that these primary identities are unlikely to “go away” and that, rather than appealing to an overarching identity – such as Rwandan or Yugoslav – we need to respect their power and to address the perceived existential threats to these identities by reinforcing their positive aspects rather than their perceived vulnerability to the “other.”

Many threats to primary identities may be historically derived and based upon past abuses or occurrences of conflict between the groups in conflict or, as in the case of Israeli Jews, between many groups with historic enmities towards the in-group. One way to address these issues is in the arena of post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation, if not immediately following the conflict then as soon as viably possible.

The addressing of past threats to primary identities can take many forms and should be included in some form within any peace agreement between warring parties. In the case of South Africa, the main form was the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to tell the stories of the abused and the abusers. In Northern Ireland, one key element was the inclusion of protection for Nationalists/Catholics and Unionist/Protestants in the Good Friday Agreement, explicitly stating the right of each group to hold opposing views about the future of the province and protecting their political, social, and cultural identities in doing so (Hancock 2005:83).

Whether the basis for the strength of ethnic affiliation lies in a biological need for community or is derived from our primarily socialized identities, the fact remains that these identities, rooted in ethnic, sectarian, or national structures, reach deep into our psyches and into our collective pasts, paying tribute to the strength and durability of these affiliations. However, the fact that at all levels, these processes are characterized by social interactions means that they are not immune from our influence, however minute that influence might be in a particular case. As with Allport’s (1954) contact hypothesis, self-knowledge about these processes and the recognition of the generally positive nature of individual and group self-images can be used to justify peace as well as conflict and can provide powerful tools for conflict analysis and intervention.

Reducing the threat felt at the level of primary identities will allow individuals to “de-polarize” and shift the structure and symbolism of the boundaries that separate ethnic, racial, and sectarian groups. By recognizing both the evolutionary power of these primary identities and the fact that they are largely socially constructed, researchers and policy-makers can begin to take steps to address identities and the boundaries that maintain them as part and parcel of conflict prevention, conflict management, and even conflict resolution.


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