A social boundary is one of the most important mechanisms that define collective inter-ethnic identity politics and tensions (Horowitz 1975; Barth 1981; Cohen 1985; Kriesberg 2003; Tilly, 2005). Social boundaries are formed and shaped through shared narratives of the boundary within ingroup relations and across the boundary in inter-group relations as a “contiguous zone of contrasting density, rapid transition, or separation between internally connected clusters of population and/or activity for which human participants create shared representations” (Tilly 2005, 132). Identity groups tend to cognitively explain, distinguish, and organize the world through the processes of social categorization, thus, creating an “Us” versus “Them” divide (Tajfel and Turner 1985). This categorization process helps people create order in their social environment, defining, labeling, and classifying social groups, and, thus, “providing a system of orientation for self-reference” (Tajfel and Turner 1979, 40). The principle of metacontrast aids boundary creation by minimizing the intra-group differences and maximizing and exaggerating the inter-groups differences (Tajfel and Turner 1979, 40).
Social groups often use social categories to evaluate themselves in their own standing or in comparison with other groups. The feeling of relative deprivation can involve a number of standards of comparison. One of them is based on the comparison with the past or future: a group believes that its current position is worse then it was before. The expectation of possible loss or decreasing status can also increase the feeling of relative deprivation. The second standard of comparison involves an assessment of difference between the actual status of the ingroup and the groups’ expectations regarding its position (Davis 1959; Runciman 1972; Gurr 1970). The third basis is intergroup comparison based on a perception that the ingroup has less resources or is in a lower position in comparison to other groups. People can compare their ingroup with similar groups or with advantaged outgroups; the outcomes of the latter comparisons are called fraternal deprivation (Runciman 1972). As a result of fraternal deprivation, members of disadvantaged groups perceive more discrimination, have stronger feelings that the other side has more resources, rights, and opportunities, (Crosby 1984) and more strongly desire social change (Kawakami & Dion 1993; Walker & Pettigrew 1984). Relative deprivation is often accompanied by perceptions of inequality, abuses of power by outgroups, and a crisis of legitimacy.
Together with cognitive mechanisms, a social boundary is based on shared moral beliefs and normative prescriptions. This moral dimension, collective axiology, defines the “positive us—negative them” perceptions in intergroup relations. Collective axiology refers to a system of value commitments that offers moral guidance to maintain relations with those within, and outside, a group. It defines boundaries and relations among groups, establishes criteria for in-group/ out-group membership and provides a basis for evaluating group members (Rothbart and Korostelina 2006). It is a set of constructs used to validate, vindicate, rationalize, or legitimize actions, decisions, and policies. Such constructs function as instruments for making sense of episodes of conflict and serve to solidify groups. Two variables characterize the dynamics of collective axiology: the degree of collective generality and the degree of axiological balance.
The degree of collective generality “refers to the ways in which ingroup members categorize the Other, how they simplify, or not, their defining (essential) character” (Rothbart & Korostelina, 2006, 45). Collective generality includes four main attributed characteristics: homogeneity of outgroup members’ perceptions and behaviors; long-term stability of their beliefs, attitudes, and actions; their resistance to change; and the scope or range of the outgroup category. A high level of collective generality is connected with the assessment of an outgroup as constant, homogeneous, revealing static patterns of behavior, and having firm beliefs and values. A low degree of collective generality reflects the view of the outgroup as distinguished, displaying a variety of actions, and open for change.
“Axiological balance refers to a kind of parallelism of virtues and vices attributed to groups. When applied to stories about the Other, a balanced axiology embeds positive and negative characteristics in group identities” (Rothbart & Korostelina 2006, 46). A balanced axiology rests on the acknowledgment of dignity and morality as well as dishonesty and cruelty among both the ingroup and outgroup. A high degree of axiological balance is reflected in a recognition of the ingroup’s moral flaws and deficiencies, while a low degree of axiological balance results in the perception of one’s ingroup as morally superior and of the outgroup as evil and vicious. This imbalance tends to promote a “tunnel consciousness” and a diminished capacity for independent thought. A low axiological balance is correlated with a sense of moral supremacy over the outgroup and justifies a fight against them.
Elites and leaders often use social categories to define “organized differences in advantages by gender, race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, or community” (Tilly 2005, 200) thus creating categorical violence. Categorical violence “is based on the social category (ethnic, religious, regional, national, gender, age, etc) that is ascribed to a particular group. Because of belonging to a specific social category, a particular group can be denied some rights or access to resources and power (economic and political discrimination), to basic needs, including food (famine), territory (deportation), or right to exist (genocide)” (Korostelina 2015, 34). This categorical violence aims to protect and advantage ingroup members and is most evident in structures and systems of resource extraction and distribution among different segments of society (Tilly 2005).
Power and legitimacy
Perceptions of inequality based on institutionalized categories (such as race, ethnicity, gender or religion) often are a result of power asymmetry. The power of an ingroup is based on its capacity to influence the behavior of outgroup members and impact the ability of the outgroup to achieve its goals (Cartwright 1959; Deutsch & Gerard 1955); Festinger 1954; French & Raven 1959; Kelman 1958). This type of power rests on dependence and coercion against people’s will, changing people’s will and beliefs through norms and social consensus (Moscovici 1976). As an ingroup possesses access to recourses and social capital, the outgroup is dependent upon ‘influencing power’ for the satisfaction of their needs and desires or the fulfillments of their goals. The resources of outgroups are contingent on their obedience and cooperation with the ingroup and their contributions to the established system (Sharp 1973).
Boundary creation and preservation also involve issues surrounding legitimacy and, in particular, the contested legitimacy of the outgroup. This is especially the case if the ingroup perceive that the established boundaries are endangered or under threat from the outgroup. An Ingroup’s willingness to accept the legitimacy of specific outgroups or their actions plays an important role in the legitimization process. Legitimacy, as the moral basis of social interaction, is based on certain claims by ingroups that outgroups can accept or reject based on their perceptions of rightfulness or fairness of this ingroup (Kelman 2001) Legitimization involves the redefinition of an action, policy, system, or group, in the way that what was previously illegitimate now becomes legitimate, or what was previously optional now becomes obligatory (Kelman 2001, 67). Delegitimization likewise diminishes these. As “the categorization of a group, or groups, into extremely negative social categories,” delegitimization justifies categorical violence against outgroup (Bar-Tal 2012, 30).