Elgar Handbook of Civil War and Fragile States
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Elgar Handbook of Civil War and Fragile States

Edited by Graham K. Brown and Arnim Langer

The Elgar Handbook of Civil War and Fragile States brings together contributions from a multidisciplinary group of internationally renowned scholars on such important issues as the causes of violent conflicts and state fragility, the challenges of conflict resolution and mediation, and the obstacles to post-conflict reconstruction and durable peace-building.
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Chapter 16: Theories of ethnic mobilization: overview and recent trends

Peter Vermeersch


Even though violent ethnic conflicts often look like highly unorganized and spontaneous outbursts of popular anger, in reality they always involve a certain degree of planning, organizational effort and strategic deliberation. An ethnic conflict occurs only when a critical number of people have made the calculated decision to pursue their goals with violent means (Wolff 2007, p. 6). Such a decision is part of a longer history of political organizing along ethnic lines. This longer process can be called ‘ethnic mobilization’; leaders decide to speak for ‘their’ ethnic group, thereby making the abstract idea of ethnic belonging a somewhat more tangible reality, and engage the members of this group into political action. This does not mean that such mobilization inevitably leads to violence; as Brubaker and Laitin (1998, p. 88) have argued, ‘measured against the universe of possible instances, actual instances of ethnic and nationalist violence remain rare’. In many cases ethnic mobilization remains firmly within the limits of peaceful democratic political competition (Habyarimana et al. 2008). Nor does it mean that the grievances invoked by such political action are not deeply felt by the population prior to the process of mobilization, or that the population is not genuinely or spontaneously angered by ‘the ethnic other’. But the step from grievances to ethnic strife should never simply be regarded as an automatic linear chain from cause to consequence; ethnic mobilization is a complex, multidirectional and not necessarily convergent or coherent process. Therefore, it needs careful examination.

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