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Self Interest, Group Identity and Conflict


The subject of this paper is the framing of identity during conflict. By examining manifestations of the process during ethnic, social, moral, and communal conflicts we can better understand how ‘we’ becomes divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’ and what role of self-interest plays in this dynamic.


If the dynamics of conflict are scale independent, they are also conflict independent. Therefore, a better understanding of how group identity and the process of group identification can be obtained by the study of its role in different types of conflict. By finding commonalities in identity formation in ethnic and social conflicts it is possible to understand the conditions under which group identities manifest and change. A better understanding of the ‘refocusing” of individual identity from greater identification from one group identity to another will enhance knowledge of situations and trends amenable to changing the focus of identity, and thus presents the possibility of developing methods capable of resolving ethnic conflicts by changing the framing of the group identities within the conflict.

Why group identity? Esman establishes that “Humans are political animals, craving human association to help meet their most basic physical and emotional needs” (Ethnic 27) without providing any justification for it. De Waal establishes that we are political animals because “We descend from a long line of group-living primates, meaning that we are naturally equipped with a strong desire to fit in and find partners to live and work with” (Animals 74). We are political animals because being political animals allows us to form associations of mutual aid. “Basic human economic tendencies and preoccupations -such as reciprocity, the division of rewards, and cooperation… probably evolved… to help individuals take optimal advantage of one another without undermining the shared interests that support group life” (Animals 74). It is the need for group life that leads us to form group identity. “The need for belonging, to be anchored to a group for security, economic survival, and fulfillment of spiritual aspirations is what motivates group affiliation and gives rise to group identities” (Ethnic 27-28). Once the personal identity has become conflated with group identity, group success becomes associated with personal success.

It must be admitted that ethnic identity is not the only identity people possess. “Ethnic identity is only one of several collective identities that endow an individuals life with meaning” (Ethnic 27). It should, however be admitted that it is an important identity. “Ethnic solidarity is…share the most common attributes, a valuable common culture, a notable historic experience, and a common fate with my fellow ethnics” (Ethnic 27). Ethnic identity involves not only the sense of “shared destiny that comes not only from the basic sense of shared destiny resulting from grouping by association, but also common values and a common historic narrative.

In terms of self-interest, the choice to focus on ethnic identity over possible others is key because “Because reciprocity requires partners, partner choice ranks as a central issue” (Animals 76). Choice of which partners to enter into reciprocal relationships with determines access to services and resources. “Interactions among primates involve multiple partners exchanging multiple currencies, such as grooming, sex, support in fights, food, babysitting, and so on” (Animals 77). However, choice of identity focus is not always open. A person may not always choose openly and freely about which association to make. “Ethnic sentiments to which demagogues appeal is not created whole cloth” (Ethnic 34). Identity and association are not masks that can be adopted at will. Rather, “Ethnic identities usually draw upon deeper layers of emotional sensitivity then those whose basis is on more pragmatic interests” (Ethnic 28). Part of the creation of ethnic identity is the “othering” of non-ethnic persons so that association and identification with an “other” becomes a betrayal of the ethnic identity. “Ethnicity has no meaning except in relational terms. There must always be an ‘other’. When there is no ‘other’, identity and conflicts focus upon kinship groups, regional differences, or economic interests (Ethnic 29). Those who cheat and betray the ethnic identity are not tolerated. “Cheaters can be taken care of. If there is a choice of partners animals can simple abandon unsatisfactory relationships and replace them with those offering more benefits” (Animals 78). If members of an ethnic group take too much of group resources, by failing to reciprocate, because they have taken steps to reciprocate on the basis of other identities, dire consequences await. “All economic agents need to come to grips with the freeloader problem and the way yields are divided after joint efforts. They do so by sharing with those who help the most and by displaying strong emotional reactions to violated expectations” (Animals 79). Members of ethnic groups act aggressively and pro-actively to cut out potential deserters from the ethnic network off, before they can found relationships of reciprocity with others on the basis of kinships groups, regional differences or economic interests, thus leaving them bereft of an effective “mutual aid” society and subsequently endangered.

Because of these strong emotional reactions to violated expectations that occur when and individual attempts to reciprocate outside a given social network, individuals “focus” their perception of their group affiliation upon the group level that provides the greatest value. “Classical economics views people as self interest maximizers driven by pure selfishness… for a biologist, this falls as far wide off the mark as can be” (Animals 73-74). In contrast to classical economics, this relationship is not the one with the highest immediate payoff, but rather the one with the greatest payoff (reciprocation) over time. “It is a lot of trouble to always keep a watchful eye on the flow of benefits and favors. This is why humans protect themselves against freeloading and exploitation by forming buddy relationships with partners… who have withstood the test of time. Once we have determined who we trust, we relax the rules. Only with more distant partners do we keep mental records and react strongly to imbalances, calling them “unfair” (Animals 79). Group solidarity and identification thus becomes associated with regular interaction.

Even at times when they are not the basis of benefit distribution, group identities tend to retain validity. “Though they do not exist in nature and are not immortal… ethnic solidarities continue to be valued and maintained by their members; they have been and remain realities in their lives and among outsiders who are touched by their activities” (Ethnic 37). Group identities represent potential power. “Politics, the competition for power and influence, is seldom absent from the affairs of human collectivity” (Ethnic 48). For group members, it is important not to let group identity and coherency lapse. The alternative to maintaining group identity is the formation of group identity again, tabula rasa. “Aggrieved communities may require decades or more before they develop the means and will to resist. Effective mobilization for political purposes, civic or violent as the case may be, must be sustained over time and this entails organization” (Ethnic 63). The danger for a group identity lies during this organization period. “The effectiveness of ethnic communities in promoting and defending their interests depends partly on the resources they can muster in numbers and in funds, their internal unity or divisions, their political skill and determination in using these resources, and the opportunities available to them within the rules and practices of the polity” (Ethnic 99). Times of chaos and disorganization are times when the group identity is unable to provide the greater market of possible reciprocal relationships that make group identities so valuable.

Understanding the dynamics of inter-group relations is impossible without understanding the dynamics of intra-group dynamics. “Ethnic politics cannot be understood without reference to the inevitability of divisions and factions within ethnic communities. Ethnic communities are seldom, if ever, monolithic” (Ethnic 45). Rather, there may exist divisions within group identity. “Divisions and factions arise in all ethnic communities. They may be based upon kinship attachments, on social and economic class, on personal ambitions, on ideology, or on combinations of these factors” (Ethnic 45). Fragmentations within a group identity thus empower other, different focuses on identity, and thus endanger the value of the group identity as a whole. ‘Though we may speak of ethnic communities…as collectivities, what we really refer to are those who at a particular point in time represent and act in the name of their ethnic community’ (Ethnic 45). It is therefore in the interest of any potential group identity to represent itself as monolithic, regardless of the reality.

Representation of a group identity as monolithic is simpler if more elements of individuality are held in commonality. “Ethnic appeals are effective for mobilizing precisely because they draw on layers of sentiment and feelings of group solidarity that are powerful enough to evoke population support and induce some to risk their lives in what they believe is its defense” (Ethnic 36). The more “layers of sentiment” and association that exist between people, the more firmly the group identity can be established. “Most ethnic solidarities are combinations of material and emotional bonds, of daily experiences and historical memories that are not easily broken or readily forgotten and account for the longevity of so many ethnic identities” (Ethnic 37). But group identity is not only a matter of the number of commonalities, but also the strength of commonalities. The strength of association not only depends on how deeply pertinent the commonalities of daily life are, but also how deeply those bonds reach into the personal self. “As well as reflecting collective identity, <religion> involves systems of belief about the basic nature and destiny of humankind, of their place in the universe and the institutions that embody and defend those beliefs” (Ethnic 84). The breadth and depth of commonalities among members of group identities determine the effectiveness of the creation of a group narrative.

Having explored what group identities are, it is now time to explore why they form. Although this has already been partially explained through the need for mutual aid societies and touched upon in discussions of the processes that maintain group identities, further elaboration of the relationship between group identity and conflict is necessary.

Before we can do so, it is necessary to distinguish the roots of group conflict from the precipitators of group conflicts. According to Esman, “The roots of conflict lie always in disputes over real issues such as relative power (politics), material resources (economics) or respect (culture)” (Ethnic 89). Roy’s premise is that while conflicts between groups always exist, they do not automatically manifest (Cows 138). Instead, the simmering tension between groups that has been stored up in collective memory through the means of group narratives only urges a group to action and to conflict under certain circumstances. Esman lists these circumstances as: 1) Perceived affronts to a community’s honor or dignity; 2) tangible threats to the interests of an ethnic community; 3) Fresh opportunities to gain advantage or redress grievances (Ethnic 71-73).

It has been suggested that group conflicts are merely an effort to negotiate demands and power (Cows 29). However, as Roy goes on to explain, such a presupposition is based upon a narrative sequence and order imposed upon the events not by the participants, but by recorders, academics, activists, and government officials, each with personal bias, and none of whom were actual participants in the events which lead up to the conflict (Cows 129).

Roy’s formulation of how the actual participants see the process is that: “People act out a particular drama, attempting to negotiate rights and powers limited and distorted by oppression. The particular frame in which they engage in meaningful struggles… is constituted by unequal power relations that constrain the spaces within which they can move toward well-being” (Cows 133). Roy seeks to acknowledge that competitions for rights and power do not occur in a vacuum, but rather within the context of existing power relations.

Power relations are not only a matter of explicit oppression and restriction. They may also be a matter of implicit oppression and restriction. “Adults look to recreate, and are often unable to avoid recreating, aspects of their early relationships, especially to the extent that those relationships are unresolved, ambivalent, or repressed” (Cows 138). Adult individuals create and recreate the associations within groups because they have been, in a sense, programmed by earlier interactions. “How we are treated conveys messages, and often those messages are more compelling then verbal ones and also less subject to critical examination” (Cows 147). Through the reactions of others to individual actions, individuals within groups are conditioned to act within certain parameters. “The messages derived from… experiences are learned in a certain form that facilitates and is compounded by their internalization. They convey injunctions about how to be in the world… and attributions… about the individual who fails (Cows 148).

Roy explains the acceptance of such ideas (rather then their refutation) is not only based upon their internalization and difficulty of refutation, but in the way such ideas actually aid self-interest. “To believe these ideas is to reconcile people to disadvantages they might otherwise protest, but their acceptance also reflects certain realities and is therefore self interested. To reach such conclusions is to make the best of a bad bargain” (Cows 148). Individuals, by accepting the restrictions imposed by group dynamics, including those norms imposed as a condition of group membership, and those imposed by the wider dynamics of power relationships, manage to avoid harsh social sanctions that acting outside the stipulated power relationships would trigger.

Power relationships are nothing if not fluid. Because they are continuously defined and redefined by the pattern of interactions between people, the ‘rules’ governing relationships are hardly fixed. As the practice of seeding streams with potshards to prevent neighboring children from fishing demonstrates, Roy’s village was clearly not without considerable personal conflict. “Village fights were common. To be a farmer in Bengali village is to be ripe for a fight. Toil is constant, and so is fear of an uncertain future. There is little margin for tolerance and generosity toward a neighbor who messes with you cattle” (Cows 48).

In any conflict, the competition is never equal, and it would befall to the weaker part to activate individual times for support in times of need, to begin to call upon the group network. However, it was there that the conflict, through efforts of the village Chairman and matabbars, (Muslim landholders) typically stopped and compromises were made (Cows 59). People are embedded in a web of relationships, where attempts to alter one relationship either alters other relationships, or is resisted by other relationships. Because individual conflicts are embedded in this web of relationships, unequal power relations limit the ‘meaningful frame’ in which they engage in struggles. Although personal relations cannot be changed piecemeal the whole network of relationships can be altered by shifting the scale of the conflict to another level. Changing the scale of conflict then changes the scale at which the focus of identity occurs. An individual’s understanding of themselves shift from understanding themselves as an individuals to understanding themselves as members of a group. Roy says, “The moment when personal recognition failed and community identity took over, when the progress of the conflict moved beyond a quarrel on garden variety village concerns, was when the riot proper began” (Cows 75).

There are two elements that occurred in this process of enlarging the scale of identity to fit the conflict. The first is the fragmentation of a past system of association (the village). The second was the introduction of strangers. The two dynamics are inter-related. Roy relates the incident where the village chairman (a Muslim) elects not to approach the Hindu side of the rioters because “There are many unknown Hindus coming from other places. They won’t recognize me, so they might strike me… I was all along asking the Muslims to stop. But they wouldn’t listen to me” (Cows 35). The dynamics of recognition and acknowledgement had failed. “Identity is crafted from a set of ideas about similarities and differences, loyalties and obligations” (Cows 140). The sense of obligation, of past reciprocation and expected future reciprocation that had bound the Muslim chairman to Hindu villagers had been replaced by identity qualification based upon perceived similarity grounded on a religious level. As the conflict grew beyond being a village matter, his authority has chairman was no longer applicable.

The exact same dynamic can be observed in Rwanda. Temple-Raston narrates the role of the Intrahamwe during the genocide. The Intrahamwe were armed thugs moving to isolated locations, alienating and vilifying the local Tutsi population and forming a common ethnic identity with the local Hutu. Once the scale of conflict changed from inter-village disagreement to an ethnic war, a massacre was quick to follow, allowing the Intrahamwe to move on to a new village and repeat the process (Justice).

In both the case of the Rwandan genocide and the decision to riot in ‘Cows’, the stress generated by a simple village conflicts was magnified by existing latent tensions. Deprived of the normal measures of conflict limitation, the scale of the conflict swelled, involving strange participants, and refocusing group identity on a larger basis, effectively de-recognizing the previous identity. With no mechanisms to limit the exercise of conflict on this enlarged scale, the larger identities were capable of changing the more personal individual dynamics. In Rwanda, individuals went from being neighbors to being traitors and dangerous ethnic enemies suitable for massacre. In Roy’s Bengali village, the Hindu Namasudras were disabused of the notion of their equality with their Muslim neighbors.


Identity is not a single monolithic concept, but rather a group of contending possible system to identification, based on different types of commonalities and possible reciprocal relationships. The identity that is most focused upon as a primary identity is typically religious in nature, because religious understandings underlie so many aspects of identity, or ethnic in nature, because of the breadth of commonalities in culture represented by ethnicity. At most times, the personal identity is sufficient to deal with daily stress and conflicts. However, as the scale of conflict increases, the size of the population it is necessary to be associated with to effectively participate in increases as well. An increase of the scale of conflict also presents opportunities for altering the frame of meaning that constrains individual actions by altering the institutional and mental constraints represented by group identity.


Milton J. Esman, An Introduction to Ethnic Conflict, Polity, 2000 (Esman)

Dina Temple-Raston, Justice on the Grass: Three Rwandan Journalists, Their Trial for

War Crimes, and a Nation’s Quest for Redemption, Free Press, 2005. (Justice)

Beth Roy, Some Trouble with Cows: Making Sense of Social Conflict, University of California Press, 1994. (Cows)

Frans B.M. de Waal. “How Animals do Business”, Scientific American April 2005. p. 73-75 (Animals)

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