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Back | Programme Area: The Social Effects of Globalization

The Search for Identity: Ethnicity, Religion and Political Violence



This paper seeks to explain how ethnicity and religion shape social identity and social conflict, and how people are mobilized in support of movements based on such cleavages. It also looks at the role of violence in social conflicts, at why some movements use violence to pursue their objectives, and at how such violence, in turn, structures the identities of social actors and the dynamics of the conflicts. Finally, it examines policy issues relating to the resolution of ethnic and religious conflicts and political violence.

The subject of identity is very complex as it encompasses the totality of social experience, much of which is influenced by history. What constitutes the identity of a group is not always easy to determine given differences in the way individuals are socialized during the course of their lives: as members of different families, clans, neighbourhoods, villages, municipalities, professions, social interest groups or transnational organizations. Thus, although the concept may convey a picture of social uniformity, identity is always a contested issue as individuals who are assumed to share common values may be structured in hierarchical or functional ways. This may not correspond to what is held up as a group's identity. When people evoke identity, they are less concerned with the totality of social values than with a primary or core set of values that are assumed to transcend social divisions. Such core values are often based on religion, language, race, colour or an assumed common culture. It is not surprising, therefore, that identity issues are all too often embedded in emotions.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Dec 1994
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-2285
    From: UNRISD