LaTasha T. Johnson

Prof. Melson

Political Science 543 Honors

24 April 1998

“Some writers have argued that ethnicity or ethnic identity is a ‘given’ of social life, with the implication that it is an inherent and fixed aspect of group membership.  Other writers have argued that ethnicity is changeable and malleable.” –Prof. Melson (introduction to essay question)


            In this particular political science essay, examples to validate the points made will be taken from my own perspective of the African-American experience, and often the political in political science will be stressed.  This essay will briefly discuss ethnic conflict; then, it will discuss the concept of ethnic identity or ethnicity.  The malleability of this concept will be discussed along with ethnic group formation.  The significance of the malleability of ethnic identity or ethnicity and its group formation to ethnic conflict will be given.  The essay will conclude with a brief summary.

Ethnic Conflict

            There are three main views of ethnic conflict.  The first is ethnic conflict as a continuation of historical situations.  The second is ethnic conflict as a modern phenomena with historical roots, i. e., history is invoked for the present situation.  The third view is ethnic conflict as a result of modernization.  The focus of this essay is not on the nature of ethnic conflict but on the ethnic in ethnic conflict, i. e., ethnicity or ethnic identity and its significance to ethnic conflict in terms of its malleability.  The malleability of ethnic identity and the direction of ethnicity is often dependant upon circumstances.  While the malleability of ethnicities seem to be pre-determinations, these pre-determinations are actually social constructions which seem to have petrified over time.


            Ethnicity or ethnic identity are ways in which people organize, stereotype, and categorize themselves.  In cases where groups have been organized, stereotyped, and categorized by other non-group members, there is a struggle for self-definition, re-organization, reshaping and denying stereotypes, and de-categorizing.  In some cases, ethnic consciousness developed in dealing with the colonial state.  This has been the case in many African nations.  There are many indicators of ethnic identity. Among them are ranked and unranked social systems, differences of skin tone and color, religion, and language.  There is a continuum of these indicators or cues ranging from visible to non-visible.  Visible cues are largely by birth, bodily, or behavioral.  Non-visible cues are largely from language and culture.  Some aspects of ethnic identity are a myth of common origin and recruitment by birth or kinship or common experience.  Disparity, or consisting of fundamentally different elements, shows that individual group membership is not based on birth criteria alone.  In the United States of America, blackness or African American-ness began with the denial of African heritage, language, and culture.  The one common denominator in the African-American experience is not skin tone or color.  It is not religion or language or culture.  It is the experience of some form of discrimination, racism, or prejudice based on the association of being “African-American”.


                        “In the course of violence, members of a victim-group often attempt to                   pass as members of an attacker-group or bystander-group.”

“Ethnic identity is relatively difficult to change, but change sometimes                   occurs.”    (Horowitz, 1985)

Horowitz gives many examples of the first quote.  Another example is in American history.  In the era before the civil war , Africans in America as well as  former African slaves in America often passed themselves as Europeans or Cubans or Puerto Ricans or South Americans or any group which they could be visibly and linguistically associated with in order to avoid the association with the “victim-group”.  Still today, people who would visibly or otherwise fit into the African-American group are careful to make a distinction between themselves and African-Americans.  Ethnic groups do not spontaneously come into existence.  There is a process of ethnic group formation.  Horowitz has an excellent table showing the processes of group formation.  [See attachment.]  Groups are assimilated through amalgamation or coalition forming, or through the incorporation of one group into another.  Groups become differentiated by one group dividing itself or by one group producing an additional group.  Ethnic groups are not historically consistent.  An example of this are the Hutu in the refugee camps where the basis of Hutu-ness was formed.  In the African-American experience, it is the experience of being in America cut off from historical ties.  As the Hutu and many other groups reach back in history to define their ethnic identity, African-Americans look to their history as well.


            The severity of ethnic group conflict may depend on the malleability of ethnicity or ethnic identity.  The significance of this controversy (over whether ethnicity or ethnic identity is fixed or malleable) to a better understanding of ethnic group conflict is that it can often indicate the resolvability of the conflict and it often affects coalition forming which in turn affects the severity and duration of the conflict.  The significance of fixed or malleable ethnicity becomes readily apparent when considering socially constructed cleavages.  [See attachment.]  Uneven development can often reinforce ethnic conflict.  For example, in Nigeria, colonial divisions are credited with creating the arena for ethnic conflict and ethnic competition.  Historical divisions can create cross-cuts in ethnic divisions.  People do not exist in strictly ethnic divisions.  They are multi-dimensional.  For example, as an African-American woman, I can not distinguish between my blackness and my femaleness.  Often phrases are used in scholarly research such as “blacks and women” or “minorities and women” or “African-Americans and women”.  These phrases deny my existence; they have the connotation that all blacks, minorities, and African-Americans are men and that women are not black, minority, or African-American.  They should read “black men and all women” or “minority men and all women” or “African-American”.


            In summary, this essay has briefly discussed ethnic group conflict. It addresses the multi-dimensions of  ethnicity or ethnic identity in terms of its malleability and direction being dependant upon circumstances based on group formation.  Examples were given from my perspective of the African-American experience.  The significance or main point of the essay is that the malleability of ethnic identity or ethnicity can often indicate the resolvability of ethnic group conflict, and it often affects coalition forming which in turn affects the severity and duration of the conflict.

essay 3 charts


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