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In societies that have been dislocated by neo-liberalist issues or by rapid social or political change, people often reach for some set of anchoring values based on religion, perhaps, or race or ethnic identity.

A strong identification with a particular group can offer solace and support, but it also raises the prospect of inter-group confrontation. Claims of ethnic identity in particular have led to outbreaks of violence in recent years. The levels of carnage might suggest that the world is now heading for some dark and ultimately intractable form of struggle based on primordial differences between human groups.

If ethnic identity really were a predetermined and destructive legacy, there would be little hope for global peace. Fortunately it is not. Though it may be difficult to see at present, ethnic identity is neither absolute nor immutable nor inherently destructive.

Why does the world suddenly seem stricken by ethnic conflict? Actual alienation is hardly a new process even if it has accelerated in recent years. One obvious factor is the collapse of communism. In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, as well as in a number of developing countries, this overarching ideology had served to inhibit potential conflicts between different ethnic groups. But developing countries have also been fragmenting for other reasons. Years of economic crisis have undermined the capacity of many States to provide for their citizens; people have had to turn elsewhere, and sometimes they have turned on each other.

One should not assume, however, that ethnic or other forms of identity are necessarily divisive. They can also promote national cohesion: when people feel free to express their own culture and beliefs, they are more likely to develop a civic identity and a sense that they share common goals with the rest of society. Problems often arise when particular groups are discriminated against: when ethnic identities also align with patterns of repression or inequality. Therefore, dealing with what appear to be ethnic disputes usually means addressing underlying questions of economic and political marginalization, and finding acceptable ways to redistribute resources.

If ethnic groups are to co-exist peacefully with each other, they need to know that their views are fairly represented in national decision-making, usually through systems of power sharing.

Sources: See Globalization adjustments

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