Theoretical Concepts

Dynamics of identity-based conflicts

Starting with the pioneering works of Burton (1987, 1990) and Azar (1990), respectively, who both described protracted social conflicts as deeply rooted in the deprivation of underlying individual human needs and values, further studies highlight the importance of communal content in the dynamics of conflict. Identity-based conflicts differ significantly from interest-based conflicts: people who share the same identity exhibit a profound sense of loyalty to the group and a deep belief in their common fate, interests, and experiences of deprivation and stress. Mobilized by leaders, groups ascertain communal goals of changing  existing social situation and confronting outgroups in the fight for power and resources (Kriesberg 2003).

Social identities are based on a strong sense of membership in a specific group (ethnic, national, religious, regional), an emotional connection and feelings of loyalty to this group, and on perceptions of difference with other groups. Identities do not develop during intergroup conflict, but rather, they become more salient and mobilized, which serves to significantly change the dynamic and structure of the conflict. The dynamics of identity-based conflict are presented in the following 4- C model (Korostelina 2007). This model comprises four stages: Comparison, Competition, Confrontation, and Counteraction. 

1. Comparison

Members of interactive communities have multiple identities that lead to stereotypes, biases, and prejudices formation even in peaceful and cooperative societies. Unfavorable outgroups perceptions rest on several psychological processes. First, people have a need to be both different from others but also included in a group (Brewer 2001). This results in the development of loyalties to smaller groups such as regions, cities, or ethnic minority groups, and an emphasis on distinctions with other groups. People who display a more salient ingroup identity feel threatened by the potential for a loss in group distinctiveness and, thus, tend to establish and maintain a distinctive group identity (Jetten, Spears, Postmes 2004).  Second, people acquire a high sense of social status and self-esteem through group membership. To increase the group’s social prestige, they favorably compare their group to other social groups, creating negative evaluations of the Other and forming intergroup prejudice (Brown 2000; Tajfel & Turner 1979; Hornsey 2008; Hewstone, Rubin, Willis 2002). However, in societies with prevailing norms of tolerance, most of the population show less bias and prejudice (Crandall, Eshleman & O’Brien 2002; Dovidio & Gaertner 2000).

Third, groups tend to see their current position in society and access to resources in comparison with others. This comparison often leads to the perception of relative deprivation- disadvantage or discrimination targeted toward the ingroup and negative attitudes toward the outgroup (Davis 1959; Runciman 1966). This perception increases a desire for social change (Kawakami and Dian 1993; Walker and Pettigrew 1984). Fourth, groups’ differences in values and beliefs raises the possibility of protracted conflict (Schwartz, Struch & Bilsky 1990) and the value priorities of cultural groups can determine intergroup hostility (Schwartz 1994. 1996, 2005). Fifth, people tend to attribute negative, rather than positive, attitudes and goals to other groups, diminishing the role of economic and political influences on their behavior (Heider 1958; Jones & Harris 1967; Ross 1977). Finally, injustice and a history of conflictual relations contribute to these unfavorable images. Economic and political inequality results in a stronger collective sense of self and homogeneity among minority groups and groups with low status (Doosie, Ellemers, Spears 1995; Simon & Hamilton 1994). To compensate for perceived insecurity, these groups display a stronger sense of ingroup bias (Sachdev & Bourhis 1984).

2. Competition

Groups that coexist within a shared territory or in a common community often compete for access to resources or power. Such conflicts involve clashes over contested territory or uneven social status (minority and majority, advantaged and disadvantaged, etc). Intergroup prejudice becomes stronger when groups have opposing goals and interests (Bobo & Hutchings 1996). Contact and proximity increase, rather than decrease, intergroup hostility (LeVine & Campbell 1972). In situations of uncertainty, mutual suspicion and fear regarding the other's intentions increase, which can lead to violent actions (Herz 1950; Lake and Rothchild 1998).

3. Confrontation

In conflicts of interests, negative intergroup perceptions and ingroup favoritism can be easily transformed into active hostility toward the outgroup (Smith & Postmes 2009). This collective angst can rest on a perceived threat even among people that did not directly experienced violence: the memory of violence committed by the outgroup can provoke strong reactions among ingroup members (Wohl & Branscombe 2009).  This phenomenon- ‘chosen trauma’ (Volkan 2004) - is based on strong emotions and beliefs that violence experienced in the past could be repeated in the future and the ingroup is vulnerable to possible extinction (Eidelson & Eidelson 2003; Kelman 1992).  Both realistic threats ( threats to the existence, power, and well-being of the ingroup) (Bobo 1999; Esses, et al 2001; Quillian 1995) and symbolic threats (reflecting differences between groups in terms of values, morals, and standards as challenging the ingroup’s worldview) (Stephen et al 2002) reshape pre-existing prejudice toward the outgroup and contribute to significant intergroup hostility. (Johnson, Terry & Louis 2005; Louis et al 2007).

Leaders of the groups fighting over power and resources employ these threats to mobilize group members to the struggle. One salient identity can replace the entire complex system of multiple identities, become mobilized, and influence the perception of outgroups as opponents or enemies with aggressive intentions (Korostelina 2007). The resulting emotion-driven high level of identification increases ingroup support and overall belief in the efficacy of this group, and as a result, empowers ingroup members to engage in collective actions (van Zomeren, Postmes & Spears 2012) .

4. Counteraction

Once a society has become separated into antagonistic groups, social identities become front and center in the conflict, highlighting the security fears, beliefs, values, and worldviews of each group. Ingroup members increase their willingness to put their own interests and safety at risk in order to contribute to the realization of ingroup goals, and to oppose outgroup goals (Hagendoorn & Linssen 1996). Together with negative perceptions of the other, morality becomes the motivational force behind conflict. Based on shared moral beliefs and normative prescriptions, collective axiology not only defines the “positive us—negative them” perceptions but offers value commitments that provide moral guidance for dealing with outgroups (Rothbart and Korostelina 2006). Based on collective axiology, ingroup members create moral boundaries that outcast outgroup members, dehumanizing and demonizing them, making the moral norms and rules of humanity non-applicable to them. Thus, it becomes moral and honorable to destroy the economic and political structures that support the Others completely and even to kill them all. The aggressive actions of ingroups threaten the very existence of the outgroup and cause them to react violently. Identity-based conflicts, as such, are characterized by vicious cycles of violence.

These complex dynamics of identity-based conflicts are closely connected with the power relations within a given society. A group in power can create the conditions for the superordinate group to feel inadequate to deal with a current situation or to satisfy their needs (Cartwright 1959; Deutsch & Gerard 1955; Festinger 1953, 1954; French & Raven 1959; Kelman 1958)

A group in power can also influence others based on the obedience and cooperation of the subjects and their contributions to the established system (Cartwright 1959; Deutsch & Gerard 1955; Festinger 1953, 1954; French & Raven 1959; Kelman 1958). Thus, intergroup relations are affected by both coercion, as power over others against their will, and legitimacy, as an acceptance of the right of the ruler to prescribe specific beliefs, attitudes, or actions. Based on their own perceptions and forms of expression, people accept existing forms of power as legitimate even when they are positioned as disadvantaged within this system (Foucault 1978; Bourdieu 1977. Thus, the legitimization of power in contested intergroup relations is based on the employment, modification, and creation of specific norms and social identity manifestation that justify a particular order. To increase or stabilize their power, representatives of dominant groups utilize the prevailing meaning of social identity while superordinate groups challenge it and shape it, thus, contributing to the dynamics of identity-based conflict (Korostelina 2013a).