Psychology’s own Peace Corps – global ethnic conflict

Annie Murphy Paul


Half a millennium after Columbus realized the world was around, his discovery is just now sinking in. That we’re perched on a small piece of an enormous globe is a fact that only people living now have really known–known with the steadiness of pictures beamed to us from satellites, with the clarity of a voice on a cell phone, calling from the other side of the earth.

That awareness can be heady–and for some, unbearably frightening. The great irony of our time is that just as the horizons of globalization are opening wide, so many people are retreating to the dim, close caves of ethnic identity.

They have been “re-tribalized,” in the phrase of Daniel Chirot, Ph.D., a sociologist at the University of Washington. He believes that the staggering size and unnerving fluidity of a globalized culture are causing some societies to run for cover, to seek safety and familiarity in the extended family of an ethnic group.

But a distance, these ethnopolitical conflicts seem to be one frantic, chaotic blur. But is there order to this apparent anarchy? Chirot believes that such conflicts have a logic of their own. He has identified five stages of social organization–from a peaceful, integrated society, to all-out civil war–and has described the conditions that catapult a nation from how these conflicts begin–and how they might end.


Chirot look first to history, noting that some of the fiercest ethnic conflicts have occurred in nations that were until recently under the sway of Soviet domination or European colonialism. The withdrawal of these foreign powers left persistent problems, as well as an often-frightening freedom, in its wake.

In some cases, such as the former Yugoslavia, one country split into hostile minority groups. In others, such as Armenia and Azerbaija, long-standing national enmities re-emerged in the absence of a shared they are now played out on a much larger scale, and involved far more people than in the past,” says Chirot.

Many of these repressive regimes imposed a uniform national identity on those they ruled. Russians told members of their republics that they were Soviets first, Latvians or Chechens second. European conquerors in Africa ignored tribal distinctions, seeing only skin color.

Now that these imperialists have packed their bags, their former subjects are asserting their distinctiveness–with a vengeance. The exaggeration and valorization of differences can reach absurd heights: though the language differences between Croats and Slovenes are slighter than those between Sicilians and Venetians in Italy, for example, the former Yugoslavs believe that they speak different tongues–and each group is convinced that theirs is far superior.

It’s no surprise that these long-dominated peoples should choose ethnicity as the vehicle for their newly-liberated identities, says Chirot. Their former, often resented, personas were imposed from without, while ethnicity spring from our very genes.

But the emergence of distinct ethnic groups isn’t enough to set off ethnic war, he says. That happens only when people feel that their ethnic group is competing with another one for limited resources–jobs, food, cultural clout. When people feel threatened by radical change, they seek safety in numbers, and any attack on the group is perceived as a personal affront.

Once people are looking through this lens, a crisis is all that is needed to inflame ethnic war. Sometimes the emergency is economic: Chirot observes that a severe recession in Germany in the 1930s propelled the Nazis into power. Fifty years later, economic hard times helped turn Yugoslavia into an ethnic battleground.

But Chirot also notes that other Eastern European countries had rocky economies during the same period, yet did not erupt in civil war. “Economics are a precipitating event, but not a long-run cause,” he says. Financial distress simply touches a match to an already brittle political situation.

More often, the crisis is political, a shift in the balance of power between groups that makes both sides nervous. A study that attempted to tie outbreaks of violence in Northern Ireland to the ups and downs of its economy, for example, found no connection between the two. Rather, bloodshed invariably followed changes in the power relationship between Protestants and Catholics.

Ethnic conflict is most likely to occur, Chirot concludes, “when people believe that the other group is going to take power away from them, and that they’ll be the long-term losers, in every way: culturally, politically, economically.”


As Chirot’s investigation of ethnopolitical war moves from such historical and structural conditions into the realms of the mind, certainties are harder to capture. How people think and feel about their ethnicity, about their leaders, about opposing groups, are questions that remain at large.

Psychology would seem to be a natural place to look for answers. But they are surprisingly scarce. Few psychologists have studied either the causes or consequences of ethnic war.

What psychology does have is experience tending to those wounded in the wars within families or within the individual psyche–and that expertise may be directly applicable to ethnic conflict. Knowing what aggravates or tensions in marriage, for example, might prove useful in negotiating between warring factions. Understanding how we project our own fears and hatreds onto other individuals might help us see how that happens on a nationwide scale.


One of the most basic–and most vexing–questions psychology must answer is how ethnicity becomes such a crucial and closely-held part of people’s identities. Ethnicity seems to carry much more weight than other broad groupings, like class or even religion.

A new line of thought in psychology may help explain the strength of ethnicity’s grip. Terror management theory, as it’s known, tries to understand how we deal with the awareness of our own mortality. It seems that when people are made to think about their own death as they emphatically are when living in an ethnic war zone–they respond by cleaving more closely to some pans of their identity, especially ethnicity. That’s because, unlike nationality or religion, ethnicity is passed on biologically to offspring, promising a kind of immortality.

A more unsettling mystery of ethnic conflict is why, once people have embraced their own ethnic group, they so often feel moved to demean and dehumanize the members of other clans. From research on the relations between social groups, psychology offers some clues: excluding and disparaging others may be a way of consolidating one’s identity, boosting self-esteem, and bonding more closely with one’s own group. But how can these mild-sounding motives account for the slaughter of children in front of their mothers? For women raped and defiled so they will not be able to return to their families?

Perhaps the most puzzling and unpredictable phenomenon psychologists are called upon to explain is panic. Although a real crisis is often the catalyst for ethnic war, that emergency may remain manageable–if it is not accompanied by irrational fear. “If the crisis doesn’t provoke a sense of general panic, then reason may remain uppermost and moderates may prevail,” says Chirot. “In South Africa, for example, the moderates on both sides seem to have won out.”

But sometimes a frenzy of fear and dread will overtake a population, though there may seem to be slight evidence for alarm. The conviction on the part of the various ethnic groups in Yugoslavia that each was out to exterminate the other, for example, was founded on little more than overblown propaganda and outsized suspicions, observes Chirot. Indeed, psychological studies of lynch mobs, urban riots, and cult movements show that people in groups act in ways they never would on their own.


They may also be urged on by a charismatic or commanding leader, like Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire or Radovan Karadzic of Serbia. Here again, psychology can provide some insight. It has produced studies of relatively benign leaders–presidents, principals, CEOs–and psychohistories of more infamous ones like Hitler and Stalin. They may help us understand which qualities persuade people to identify with a leader and what motives drive the leader himself.

Though Chirot concedes that leaders are important, he insists that panic is first aroused in the rank and file. “Leaders can make a panic worse, but there has to be a predisposition to panic,” he says. “There has to be something that has gone wrong in people’s lives. There has to be a perception of threat.”

Leaders can play on that perception, as Adolf Hitler did in his rise to power, or they can debunk it, as Franklin Roosevelt did when he told Americans that they had “nothing to fear but fear itself.” More recently, Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic cynically capitalized on the fears of his people of a repeat of World War II, while members of India’s government worked hard to dispel tensions between its ethnic factions. Psychology may be able to tell us why leaders go down one path rather than another, and why their supporters follow them there.


These are the barest beginnings of a psychology of ethnic conflict, a slight scaffold upon which, it is hoped, a new discipline will be built. Construction will begin this summer at the first international conference on the subject, to be held in Derry, Northern Ireland. Experts from sociology to history to political science will gather to discuss what psychology can do, in both theory and practice, to understand and to avert the rise of ethnic war.

For some psychologists, that will mean a trip back to the lab, where they will perform much-needed research on the roots of ethnic conflict. For others, it’s back to school, to design an academic curriculum that will be given to a new generation of relief workers. The program, to be offered at the University of Pennsylvania, will train psychologists to work in the world’s ethnic hot spots: a sort of psychological shock troops, a peace corps for the psyche.

“Psychologists have been taught how to help people after the event–for example, to treat post-traumatic stress syndrome,” says Chirot. “But they haven’t been trained in prevention.” These shrinks on the brink will be alert to the earliest signs of ethnic conflict. “They’ll be on the lookout for the exaggerations that form in people’s minds, the polarizations that create a predisposition to accept the notion that `it’s us or them,'” says Chirot.

Psychology holds out hope for the resolution of ethnic conflict because it’s a science of the subjective, a systematic approach to all that is irrational and unpredictable. If it can tame the beast of ethnic conflict, says Chirot, “it will be a great blessing for the world.”

It would also be a boon for psychology. Hemmed in by managed care, battered by the inroads of biology, diluted by the popular press, psychology needs an opportunity to confirm its continuing relevance. It has here the chance to grapple with a great theme, to wrest life and light from the darkness of the human heart.


1 Multi-ethnic societies without serious conflict Example: Switzerland.

2 Multi-ethnic societies with conflicts that remain under control and far short of war. Example: United States.

3 Societies where ethnic violence has broken out but has been resolved. Example: South Africa.

4 Societies with serious conflicts that have led to chronic warfare but not genocide. Example: Sri Lanka.

5 Genocidal ethnic conflict, including violent ethnic cleansing. Example: Yugoslavia.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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