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Group Identities and Violent Conflict

The ‘psychocultural’ approach to ethnic conflict suggests that, far from being simply a label, ethnonational identity may be an independent factor in the outbreak and persistence of violent conflicts.40 As explained, social psychology proposes that individuals identify most strongly with groups when salient group identities are threatened, group stereotypes are endorsed by group members, ‘others’ are depersonalised, group boundaries are impermeable and hierarchical patterns are deemed illegitimate and unstable.41 The same four variables also facilitate inter-group conflict.

Thus, an analysis of markers of identity can shed light on the state of inter-group relations in a society. This is because group leaders and ‘ethnic entrepreneurs’ may help reformulate group identities, but the scope for the reinterpretation of identity markers, boundaries and stereotypes is in turn constrained by a community’s myth-symbol complex.42 Myth- symbol complexes, or more simply, communal ‘cultures’, are conveyed through formal and informal social institutions (the family, media, schools and sociocultural organisations) long before the outbreak of violent conflicts. Thus, the mobilisation of group identities for conflict follows a long process of social construction, institutionalisation and internalisation of identities.43

In turn, violent conflict hardens group boundaries and mutually exclusive identities and this hampers their inclusive reformulation. Ross proposes that when ‘exclusive identity claims [are] concretised as mutually exclusive claims to control a territory’ or the institutions of a state, ‘material resource distribution will not settle the conflict’.44 This effectively means that the ‘psychological components’ of conflict, such as threatened group identities, ‘contribute to a continuation of the conflict even after the initial, objective causes have become irrelevant’.45 For example, Taush et al. argue that in Northern Ireland mounting calls for the protection of ‘symbols of cultural expression’ reflect a latent conflict, which continues despite decreasing socio-economic disparity.46 This suggests that the myth- symbol complex, or ‘culture’ of communities engaged in violent conflict is an independent factor hindering the demobilisation of identities after the signing of peace agreements. Thus, beyond a redistribution of resources, conflict resolution may require ‘mutual acknowledgement and transforming the narrative about what is contested into an inclusive one’.47

Chapter 3 shows that, before and during conflict, the contents and structures of compulsory education in Lebanon, Northern Ireland and Macedonia embodied, conveyed and reproduced both the power hierarchies among communities and their mutually exclusive myth-symbol complexes. Social psychology suggests that for long-term reconciliation to occur, both the power hierarchies and the myth-symbol complexes conveyed by schools need to change. This work sheds light on the process of reformulation of the curricula and structures of formal education, and examines how unequal power relations and conflictual identities affected reforms. It also highlights which factors constrained the inclusive reinterpretation of core narratives and identities in plural societies emerging from conflict.

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