Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Colonialism, Boundary Creation, and Rival Groups

In many interpretations of disparate current events, analyses often boil down to the same basic principle: at some point in the recent past, national boundaries were created (whether purposefully or not) that do not align with regional “tribal” or ethnic divisions. One should of course always be troubled when a single explanation can unilaterally describe so many diverse situations, but particularly so when it is based on the assumption of “natural” and enduring social boundaries.

To some extent I have already discussed issues of human identity, the malleability of social groupings, and the discursive use of terms like “tribalism” in my post on (fittingly) tribalism. Some of those arguments apply here as well. In short: human racial/ethnic/tribal groupings are historically contingent, ever-changing, and lack clear boundaries in practice; however, the image of these categories as eternal and “natural” social facts is strategically used to imply the inevitability of violence and poverty in certain regions of the world.

These same arguments apply to the case of national boundary creation and warring ethnic groups. Whether it’s Sudan/South Sudan, Iraq, Rwanda/Burundi or anywhere else for that matter, the following assumptions are incorrect: 1) The rival ethnic groups have always existed; and 2) Violence is inevitable because group loyalties are too strong.

Generally, violence, though fundamentally a matter of social structure, is also tied to distribution of resources, which plays out differently in different regions - though, in the modern world, almost always following the same capitalist principles. Thus, struggles in various parts of the world are based more on differential access to resources and wealth than on enduring group loyalties. Although it is true that social identities are continually evolving and reflect current as well as historical context, at the same time, the idea of timeless and natural group identities often exacerbates such conflict, and determines the particular shape that it might take in a given locale. This identity-based escalation of violence may be incidental or intentional (if identities are fostered by colonial powers for the purpose of engendering conflict). Either way, however, group identity, while playing a role, still cannot be held as the root cause of violence.

There is one additional implication of the “group identity” theory of violence. It obscures any awareness or understanding of actual material reality (especially with regard to distribution of resources) that is vitally important to really addressing these issues and, ultimately, transforming society.

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