Racial/Ethnic Conflict

Racial/ethnic conflict is a basic process in social life and can be both destructive and cohesive. In some situations, it can be destructive for some groups and act as a cohesive force for others. Racial and ethnic groups may be the source and the result of the two faces of social conflict, acting as a boundary marker between groups that see themselves as distinctive in their interests and values from other such groups. Over the past 50 years, sociologists have grappled with a variety of perspectives on conflict that have emphasized various aspects of the destructive and the integrative nature of the process. Functional theorists have tended to downplay the purely negative forces while conflict theorists have tried to establish the central role of conflict as a means to challenge the status quo and bring about fundamental social change. Several attempts have also been made to refine and integrate the two approaches: pointing to the functions of social conflict or to elements of consensus and equilibrium found in both models.

Much of classical sociological theory analyzed conflict against the backdrop of the industrial and political revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Europe and focused on class, status, and party groups as the principal bases of group struggle. Divisions arising out of racial or ethnic membership tended to be assigned to a peripheral position in the analysis, despite the overwhelming significance of war, colonialism, national ism, and genocide that formed an equally central part of the historical experience. Some social thinkers did attribute greater importance to race and nation, but these individuals, such as Gobineau or Fitzhugh, were either fully fledged racial theorists or apologists for slavery. W. E. B. Du Bois, whose pioneering sociological studies of race relations at the turn of the century were a notable exception, found his works largely ignored during his lifetime. It was only in the second half of the twentieth century that the catastrophic results of fascism and the expansion of studies of racism, apartheid, and colonialism brought racial and ethnic conflict to the center of sociological analysis.

In the United States, the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, urban riots, and the violent nature of the confrontation between the forces defending segregation and those demanding racial justice began to make Parsonian theory, the dominant paradigm in the 1950s, look like an increasingly inadequate model to understand current developments. Together with the polarizing force of the Vietnam War, the idea of society viewed as an integrated system of self regulating subunits became increasingly implausible; somehow, conflict needed to be brought back into the sociological analysis. However, Marxist notions of a bipolar division between bourgeoisie and proletariat, while stressing conflict as a central theme, nevertheless also appeared to ignore, or at best gloss over, the powerful reality of racial, ethnic, and national conflicts. Reformulations of the Marxist tradition, particularly trying to incorporate race and ethnic conflicts into a global – world systems – approach, seemed to be a better synthesis of class and race.

In  South  Africa, the  implementation of apartheid after 1948 provided a stark example of a society based on racial oppression and naked force exercised by one racially defined group over others. One of the insightful early sociological studies of apartheid was aptly titled South Africa: A Study in Conflict (1965), writ ten by a student from Parsons’s sociology department at Harvard. Clearly, the reality of racial and ethnic conflict in apartheid South Africa made van den Berghe apply a radically different approach from that advocated by the author of The Social System. The  decline and fall of apartheid some 30 years later, however, failed to  support  van den  Berghe’s conflict laden predictions of the 1960s, and an understanding of why this relatively peaceful outcome occurred provided some useful lessons in the complex interplay between racial and ethnic divisions. A revolution of rising expectations, a powerful explanation for fundamental conflicts since its original formulation by Alexis de Tocqueville to interpret the French Revolution, did not escalate into a race war under South African conditions. Whether this was a result of the closely integrated nature of the South African economy, the moderation and wisdom of the ANC leadership, miscalculations by the white elite, or the geopolitical changes produced by the end of the Cold War remain questions that will be the subject of debate for years to come.

Another example of ethnic conflict, but this time one that developed in a much more violent and destructive manner than in South Africa, was the collapse of Yugoslavia in the aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union. Unlike South Africa, Yugoslavia appeared to have many favorable preconditions that might have been expected to ameliorate conflict in the run-up to the dissolution of the Soviet Empire. Tito’s state had been more open to western democratic influences than many of its eastern European neighbors, was more economically advanced, and had a relatively decentralized federal system allowing significant autonomy to its diverse multi ethnic, territorial units. Of all the satellites of the Soviet Union, this state seemed best positioned to handle the transition from communist rule to democracy without widespread ethnic violence. In reality, the state degenerated rapidly into civil war with a series of secessionist movements that led to the worst examples of ethnic cleansing and genocidal massacres in Europe since the end of World War II. What were the factors that caused this surprising outcome? Most analysts point to the role of geopolitical changes in undermining the legitimacy and rationale of the Yugoslav state. The divergent interests between the Serbian elites and Croatian, Slovenian, and Bosnian leadership produced a new context in which mobilization on an ethnic basis brought about the destruction of the previous federation. Former communist leaders quickly reframed their appeal on nationalist themes and the power vacuum created by the collapse of the Soviet bloc released these forces in a deadly struggle for ethnic autonomy and hegemony.

The examples of South Africa and Yugoslavia suggest the complex dynamics of ethnic and racial conflict in the modern world. Much of the research on ethnicity and racial divisions has shifted toward trying to understand the processes of ethnogenesis, the  construction and perpetuation of ethnic boundaries, and the impact of forces like globalization and transnationalism on racial and ethnic conflict. While  traditional  patterns  of  international migration continue to play an important role in the generation of racial and ethnic diversity, they have been modified and changed by political and economic factors in complex and unpredictable ways. In the United States, large numbers of Mexican migrants, both legal and unauthorized, have continued the growth of the Latino population into the largest single minority group. In Europe, the relations between immigrants and ethnic minorities – not least the increasing number of Muslim migrants from Turkey and North Africa – will be a major element in determining the conflict and stability of the emerging political structure, no matter whether the European Union becomes a superstate or remains a looser federation.

A central focus of concern among social scientists has been to provide a better understanding of the dynamics of ethnic conflict and racial violence. Inadequate assumptions about the nature of modernization and modernity have been revealed by the increasing salience of such conflicts under capitalism, socialism, and in the developing world. The expectation that modernity would result in a smooth transition from gemeinschaft to gesellschaft, from community to association, accompanied by the gradual dissolution of ethnic affiliations and racial identities, has proved to be entirely inaccurate. The continuation of persistent racial inequality in the United States, and the stub born tenacity of ethnic warfare and genocide in societies as diverse and remote from each other as Bosnia and Burundi, suggest that these forms of division have not lost their power to mobilize human groups and to undermine such ‘‘rational’’ considerations as economic profits and losses. Ironically, failure to appreciate the strength of ethnic ties under Marxist regimes was repeated by the advocates of hegemonic global capitalism until the events of September 11, 2001 forced a dramatic reappraisal of the diverse and complex sources of contemporary identity. Those social scientists who have long argued against a narrow focus on material factors and stressed the fundamental nature of the ethnic bond in explaining the stubborn resilience of nations and nationalism seem to be receiving increasing empirical support from recent developments.

Several  different  theoretical  perspectives can be found supporting contemporary studies of ethnic and racial conflict. Some, like rational choice theory, are methodologically individualistic and apply a cost–benefit formula to account for ethnic preferences and to explain the dynamics of racial and ethnic group formation. These have been criticized on the grounds that  they  fail to  appreciate the  collective dynamics of much ethnic behavior and under estimate the irrational side of racial violence. Other common perspectives see ethnicity and racial divisions as a type of social stratification: theories  employing  neo Marxist  categories stress the economic components underlying much ethnic conflict, while those following in the tradition of scholars like Weber and Furnivall provide a more pluralistic interpretation of the differences in ethnic and racial power. In general, these differences originate from the forces of conquest and migration, and are then perpetuated by the processes of group monopolization once an ethnic or racial boundary has been created. In this way, a hierarchical ordering of racial and ethnic groups is created which will eventually generate conflict as circum stances start  to  change and disadvantaged groups challenge the status quo. Other theories point to social psychological factors, like prejudice and ethnocentrism, as important explanations for the persistence of ethnic divisions and the ubiquity of racial conflict.

Two highly controversial arguments center on genetic imperatives, which it is claimed operate through the mechanism of kin selection and form part of the application of socio biological thinking to ethnic and race relations.  Neoconservative theories  concentrate on cultural factors, which, it is asserted, are disproportionately distributed among certain ethnic and racial groups. Such theories have been vigorously challenged because of their deterministic, if not racist, implications. The heat of the debate reinforces the conclusion that no single theory provides a generally accepted and comprehensive explanation for the complexity of ethnic group formation or the persistence of racial conflict in contemporary society.

As a result of this analytical discord, it is hardly surprising that the proposed solutions to racial and ethnic conflict are equally diverse. Some see these divisions as fundamental to social life and that the search for a final solution to such conflicts is a never ending task that can be as potentially dangerous as the problem itself. Others propose that it is better to channel and institutionalize diversity in ways that make it less destructive and thereby reduce its enormous potential for violence and bloodshed. Creating cross cutting cleavages, blurring the boundaries of race and class, decentralizing political power in different forms of federal structures that protect the interest of specific ethnic and racial groups, and trying to ensure that majority rule also respects minority rights are just some of the techniques of social engineering that have been deployed to take the sting out of multi ethnic political units. Still others claim that the celebration of ethnicity and racial identity will bring about changes in attitudes and behavior that mitigate the dangerous polarization of groups along these types of boundaries. The persistence of ethnic and racial conflicts suggests that the diversity of theoretical interpretations is matched by the range of policy strategies, and that the continuation of ethnic and racial conflicts is likely to be an enduring feature of most societies for the foreseeable future.


  1. Horowitz, (1985) Ethnic Groups in Conflict. California University Press, Berkeley.
  2. Stone, J. (1985) Racial Conflict in Contemporary Society. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  3. Stone, (2004) Scholars and the South African Revolution. In: Conversi, D. (Ed.), Ethnonationalism in the Contemporary World. Routledge, London.
  4. Stone, & Dennis, R. (Eds.) (2003) Race and Ethnicity: Comparative and  Theoretical Approaches. Blackwell, Malden, MA.
  5. Van den Berghe, P. (1965) South Africa: A Study in Conflict. Wesleyan University Press, Middletown.

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