(The following is a modestly revised and slightly reoriented version of a post that can be found at The New Republic's Open University.)
During discussions of Iraq, many people have suggested that with the fall of Saddam, primordial hatreds have bubbled up to the surface. On this view, the current situation is what it is because long-suppressed ethnic and religious antagonisms are now in full bloom. The problem with this view is that ethnic hatreds are usually not primordial. Part of what we have been witnessing is a kind of rapid "ethnification," in the form of a social cascade.
<p>Some societies show low levels of ethnic activity. In most American cities, for example, most people do not act publicly in a way that draws even the slightest attention to their ethnicity. But some societies show slow or rapid increases in "ethnification," as people devote more of their efforts to showcasing their ethnic identity. Relevant clothing or dialects may, for example, grow in use over time. We can easily find eras in the United States in which ethnic identification grew (usually just a bit) or declined (sometimes a lot). As Hitler obtained power, many German Jews became more closely self-identified as Jewish, in part for reasons of self-protection. Many others masked their religion, also for reasons of self-protection.</p>
<p>A key question here is whether the relevant social norms impose pressure to identify in ethnic terms, or not to do so. It may be "politically correct" to broadcast one's ethnicity, or it may be politically correct to hide it. Sometimes the governing norms shift abruptly. When this is so, there can be intense pressure to self-identify in ethnic terms, sometimes to retain friends, sometimes to obtain material advantages, sometimes to save one's life. "Identity enterpreneurs" of various kinds can increase the pressure to emphasize ethnicity. It follows that ethnic identifications may well be a product of contemporary pressure, and have little to do with anything ancient or primordial.</p>
<p>With a focus on ethnic hatreds in the former Yugoslavia, the underlying process has been illuminatingly discussed by economist Timur Kuran in a 1998 paper, presented at a conference here (apparently unavailable on line but published as "Ethnic Norms and Their Transformation through Reputational Cascades," in the Journal of Legal Studies). Even at a late stage, people in the former Yugoslavia lived together harmoniously, and supposedly primordial hatreds played no role in the lives of most people. Old historical events were hardly salient. But as Kuran writes: "Within months, millions of Serbs who had shown little ethnic fervor began paying attention to ethnic statistics, promoting symbols of Serb exclusiveness, vilifying and ostracizing non-Serbs, referring frequently to the sufferings of their ancestors, and supporting the enlargement of Serbian-held territories." Previously happy mixed marriages disintegrated. Historical events that had mattered not at all suddenly became central to political debates. </p>
<p>A major conclusion is that even the most intense forms of ethnic hatred and fear can be a product of a process of ethnification, rather than a cause of that process. A careful investigation of the situation in Iraq would be necessary, of course, to know whether this conclusion holds for that country. But ethnic hatred is not in anyone's blood. Whether people focus on ethnic identity, or on something else, is partly a product of (current and recent) social pressures, not of anything that happened in the distant past. Kuran's argument also suggests the possibility of multiple equilibria: With relatively small shocks, a population that did not much separate along ethnic lines might come to do so.</p>
<p>While these issues are relevant to Iraq, ethnification can occur in any nation, even those lacking ethnic violence. We can find close analogues in cases in which people come more closely to identify in non-ethnic terms, involving such characteristics as gender, political conviction, age, disability, or sexual orientation. What is particularly interesting is how and when it becomes "politically correct" to identify, or to refuse to identify, in such terms, as mounting social pressures suggest that people ought to do one or the other. </p>