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December 28, 2006


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I just don't think the sort of analysis offered here even comes close to what is necessary to address these issues. This is the stuff of philosophy and sociospychology. An inquiry into the foundations of identity and contingency is necessary.

It kind of annys me when economic types stray toof ar afield with their mirky social sciences and broad categorizations.

Statements like:

"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."

are so oversimplifying that they seem almost useless to me. That the strenth of one's identification with groups of any sort, ethnically based or not is a matter of contingency is a big DUH! That one's focus and teh strenth of ones identification with groups also varies as to current influences is also a big no duh! But to say that is not a product of anything in the distant pass seems to be so obviously false that it seems hard to believe it came out of Cass Sunstein;s virtual mouth.

I'm a very secular Jew, one who believes in world citizenship and cosmopolitanism, one would ultimately like to see not griup identification left in the world other than belonging to humanity at large as a teleological matter. That my sense of Jewish idnetity fluctuates with what I hear aboust antisemitism around the world, how many Jewish jokes or stereotypes I witness, how much my grandmothers guilt me around the high holidays is so not controversial or interesting I find it hard to believe I'nm even discussing it. But to claim that what happened in the distant past doesn't factor into identity dynamics, the knowledge I have of my particular religion and its history, and even the genetic propensities that come with being a Ashkenazi Jew (yes on the whole I think the genetic proensities of askenazi jews, which are themeselve likely a function of our tragic history tends to factor into identity politics) seems an almost absurd claim.

Economists should stick to economics: making mirky observations and hypotheses and testing them with laughuable "experiments" and social "science" and leave the heavy lifiting to others, philosophy to the philosophers and math the the physicists and mathameticians.

But that's just me. There's a reason there is no real Nobel prize for economics, just a bank sponsored approximation.


Here is an anecdotal example of belief ethnification occurring right on our doorstep: Religiosity in the US has "bloomed" over the last quarter century. Lines have been drawn between the religious vs. the nonbelievers (despite E. O. Wilson’s attempts to calm the waters, so to speak). I just read an excellent Newsweek post by Susan Jacoby exemplifying this trend.



"With relatively small shocks, a population that did not much separate along ethnic lines might come to do so."

An interesting thesis, for and against which there is likely an endless amount of interesting empirical data. But I'm afraid that I'm missing the application w/r/t Iraq, where any close attempt to academically pedigree Sunni, Shia and Kurdish groups' intense desire to annihilate one another may be fatally complicated by a short supply of bullet-proof graduate students.

Are you contending that more recent "shocks" control these groups' current passions, rather than the recognized centuries-old antagonism? Merely suggesting the possibility? Collaterally suggesting that pacification and a brief period in which no one is "shocked" (or shot, burned beaten or bombed) might be enough to bring people together under a united Iraqi banner? In short, is this an oblique argument for more troops? Is it an argument at all?

Help an old student (well-accustomed to being four steps behind you) see where you're headed with this one.


Mr. LAK, I think you're being too hard on the authors; I think it's great when a non-specialist approaches a field from a strange angle. These authors do not claim that their analysis solves all the problems; they are offering a unique point of view on a serious problem. I welcome that kind of thing, and my only complaint is that they don't go very deep into the problem. I agree that ethnic identification is not fundamental to people and societies. I believe that I am ethnically Scottish but I care so little about my ethnicity that I don't really know.

I suggest that group identification -- of which ethnic identification is a subset -- becomes more important in times of stress. In some idyllic society with no internal conflicts, people would forget about ethnicity and would identify themselves only as citizens of the society. But the more conflict and stress people face, the more they feel the need to belong to a strong group that will protect and succor them.


Phil, we do know that there are four different groups in Iraq: Shias, Sunnis, Kurds, and Christians -- this last group being microscopic. But ethnic clashes between these groups were rare. That may be attributable to the brutal Sunnni repression of other groups, but recall that there was no ethnic conflict in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. Had the ethnic conflict been simmering just beneath the surface, it would have exploded into view immediately after Saddam was toppled. But instead the ethnic conflict grew in intensity with time -- feeding on the insecurities created by its own manifestations. It was a classic vicious circle, and is now in full swing.


There is indeed an argument here, but, as befits a complicated and volatile topic, it is a modest one.

It seeks only to raise a potential criticism of the current discourse on ethnic hatred to the extent that it commits the fallacy of irreformability.

In this context the fallacy implies a foundational, ahistoric, non-relational basis for ethnic hatred that by principle cannot be expunged from social experience.

According to such a foundationalist view, the roots of ethnic hatred are so deep and pervasive that no conceivable policy could reach far enough into "human nature" to bring about more than what all such peaceful episodes have proved to be: temporary alleviations or distractions.

I remember about twenty years ago discussing with a colleague born and raised in India a spate of inter-religious horror that was taking place there at that time. His pronouncement: "Communal violence is the human way." Subsequent events in many parts of the world have done little to change his view, I am pretty sure.

Still, that contention is surely too extreme. There are many types of actions that make up "the human way" and far from all of them involve ethnic hatred as a defining feature.

It is certainly true that there are events in the conjoint past of virtually any two prominent "ethnic groups" that can be invoked to incite rage in persons who consider themselves members of one of them.

But we are interested in preventing acts of ethnic hatred in the present and in the future, not in taming the past. If a long-ago outrage is being used to heat people up to attack somebody, that use is taking place in that present and the effect will occur in the future of that incitement.

Sunstein's article suggests that we should at least try to develop our knowledge of the relevant processes that issue in cascades of horror. Some day we might be able to adopt improved policies to counter the processes of ethnic hatred.

I can't find anything to object to in that.


I´ve really got to agree with LAK on this one.

I don´t think that what professor Sunstein is suggesting here is at all limited to "ethnic" struggles, but struggles of any kind in the human experience. Can we really say that the violence among ethnic groups is different than say, two gangs in downtown Chicago or New York? On a more minor scale, husbands and wives in verbal banter?

Sure, small things can cause huge problems, and this is for a countless variety of reasons, complicated infnitely when we´re talking about mass groups of people, all of whom will have their own personal reasons for engaging in violence. One person may have an intensely strong resentment for past wrongs (some Palestineans, for example), others may have strong religious beliefs (Islamic Jihadists, maybe), some may have met a member of the other ethnic group that they didn´t like, while others may be answering to violence that occured to them personally.

To cut this evenly across an ethnicity plate seems a bit too easy for something so complicated.

That said, I disagree with Eras´ contention that Iraqis "would have" done anything in a specific situation. To simplify an entire society´s collective psyche seems a bit far fetched, especially when we´re talking about a situation that requires people to put their lives in danger.



I really think that in order to settle this discussion, we´ll need a sociologist and psychologist for every single person involved in the struggle. And to be honest, psychology is pretty damn bad at actually settling these kind of disputes anyway. Psychologists can diagnose (sort of) certain problems, but really, in the end, there´s just this sort of guessing quality as to what makes people act in the ways they do. Sure, they´re good at pointing out some personal issues, and if there are some things that are obviously at play, then they can help the person cope with those problems.

I agree with Sunstein that ethnic hatred is not necessarily "built in" to the human condition, but it´s fairly established psychology that people identify more with people that are more similar to them.

Beyond that, good luck Cass.


Implicit in this discussion is the idea that if ethnic strife is engineered or promoted by various ethnic rabble-rousers then it is therefore contingent, reversible, and somehow less real. But engineered things, like public opinion, are as real factors in historical life as geography or the weather, even if in some other world they could have turned out differently.

Totalitarian societies in particular try to wipe out other means of identity, such as economic class, professional organizations, social organizations, competing political parties, etc. So religious life and ethnic life often become paramount (if they're not also suppressed), while all other means of identity are doled out by and controlled by the totalitarian state.

I do think, in fact, that this focus by Sunstein on "ethnicity" is missing something important. In Yugoslavia, as in Iraq, religion was the major fault line. There was no "Bosnian" ethnicity; these were Serbs and Croats whose ancestors had converted to Islam under the Turkish occupation. The Serbs and Croats, likewise, were defined by their Orthodox and Catholic religions respectively.

Religion remained a particularly vital force for resistance in the Baathist Iraqi regime. It also was the major faultline of organization of the regime--largely Sunni--and its victims who were largely Shia. It is natural that in the power vacum created by the end of the Baathist regime, Mosques that also performed important social service roles would emerge as the major power centers. This is not artificial, nor is the lingering resentment at ethnic groups coextensive with the Iraqi state who murdered Shias, nor is the formerly violence-riddled status quo ante proof that violence was not the key cement of pre-war Iraqi society. This is pecially so because the Iraqi regime was killing Kurds and Shias on an industrial scale in the decade before the US invasion.

Finally, I agree with the critic who noted that this kind of rarefied, abstract discussion of general rules and axioms on a complicated matter like ethnicity and atrocity is nearly useless. It's important to study the Iraqi experience, the Rwandan experience, the Yugoslavian experience, and others without excessive concern for developing general axioms, such as "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." So what. You must know the particulars of a situation to make any kind of useful predictions or say anything else sensible. There's no short-cut rationalist formula, which is what Sunstein seems to be aiming for.


I do not think of it as a rationalistic short-cut or in derogation of reality to try to identify factors in the subjective experiences of numbers of people who decide in the present to act on a proposition that includes ethnic hatred as its predicate, as in "I favor death now to all of x ethnicity."

The variation of relevant factors among individuals may be enormous, but that is no reason not to see if there are some statistically significant common "salient" factors in the subjective patterns of feeling that issue in the expressions of hatred.

It is legitimate to ask why the hatred proposition on some occasions seems to crowd out other, more commonly encountered feelings that are associated with actions or expressive of propositions that are aimed at realizing more peaceful conditions among people who lately and for some time previously were not at each others' throats. What was the change in feeling that caused the change in actions?

Sunstein's approach pays attention to the subjective feelings of those who engage in certain types of actions, taking their word for it that their feelings for the situation are important causes of the character of their actions. The working hypothesis implies that in studying how people live together, we are not bound to assume we know, assume we can never know, or assume away what people feel to be intrinsically important about what they do.

Sunstein uses "salience" to suggest that some relationships between abstract factors in experience are felt as sharply contrasted or as incompatible for conjoint realization in the present or in the relevant future (e.g., the envisioned triumph of their ethnic group and the challenge implicit in the presence or activities of another group). That is very likely a moment of danger of ethnic strife.

Accordingly, a main thing we would need to find out in order to understand the potential for strife is not only the objective division of domestic product or the actual history of ancient wrongs (as illuminating as an understanding of these might be), but the salient subjective feelings entertained in the time and at the place where the expressions of hatred occur.

No one is claiming that this sort of knowledge would be perfectly revelatory of the subject. However, understanding the shape and consequence of subjective feelings is a comparatively neglected side of the field where objects of interest to social thought and practice have been found and I for one am excited to see it beginning to be explored.


It is a wicked but long-recognized trick of our psychology that hatred is an effective balm for doubt. ("A yes. A no. A straight line. A goal.") And the salient subjective factors that may lead one to identify oneself (or one's 'group', however defined: ethnic, religious, political, pro-zappa, anti-zappa...) with the negation of (inevitably simplified) others will, indeed, be as unique as one's own experiences. That's all valid enough. On a macro-level, appreciating these salient subjective factors in conversation with one's enemies and allies (or, more likely, their leaders) is part of the art of diplomacy.

On a micro-level, a retail-sociology level, I'm still stuck on the implementation issue: To search out "the salient subjective feelings entertained in the time and at the place where the expressions of hatred occur" in Iraq, we will require an army of bullet-proof and, likely, invisible graduate students. With cam-corders. That in hand, I'm sure we would learn a lot. But even then, the in-the-moment motivations of particular actors would be properly analyzed against the backdrop of recognized social, religious, historical and geopolitical agendas that are, by now, familiar to most students of the current conflict.

The underlying insight isn't in question. But what, practically, is being suggested?


And in rereading this post, this jumped out at me:

"In most American cities, for example, most people do not act publicly in a way that draws even the slightest attention to their ethnicity."

Come on Cass, are you serious. mayeb its becasue you are onlyhanging out in certain areas of those cities. I think the signaling that happens at 87th and MLK is a very stark contrast from Pilsen, which is a very stark contrast from lincoln Park, which is a very stark contrast to the Orthodox neighborhoods of Rogers Park.

Let's not confuse the large numbers of assimilated people in the wealthy parts of town with the totality of the populations of American cities.

I was just in Texas for instance, and saw a bumper sticker: White American and Proud of it.



The retail sociology, practical implementation questions you raise are good ones. They got me to thinking about the usefulness of inquiring into "subjective salience" when the fat is well and truly in the fire, as in present-day Baghdad.

I admit that the time for testing this type of theory in Iraq is past, at least for the duration of the hot war phase of that ethnification process. Bulletproof, invisible graduate students, as you point out, are not available to conduct the surveys.

But the Sunstein claim is that ethnification is a process that may have much shallower roots than is implied by doctrines like my Indian friend's claim about "the human way."

If that is so, then it may be more practicable than is commonly believed to interrupt the ethnification process early, before it degenerates into communal violence, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, lynching and so forth.

For example, when Milosevic first began to whip up the Serbian population about Kosovo, everyone was aware that the bitter and vengeful feelings were being intensified by invoking the great heritage of some 13th century battles with the Muslims and the martyred Prince of Serbia.

Suppose that at about the same time someone could have put a satire (in the manner of Blackadder) on Serbian television, portraying the Prince as an illiterate sanctimonious fool and implying that the famous defeat was more grotesque than glorious (probably not far from the truth.)

That may have been a way to break the effectiveness of the ethnic imagery and help to establish a different one instead. A different policy might have been predicated on the presence of Alabanians in Kosovo constituting a contrast that could be lived with rather than an incompatibility that could not.

I don't know enough about Rwandan history to suggest how the murderous Tutsi broadcasts might have been countered earlier. But anybody hearing them would have known that something was up which, if not mitigated with some other, non-ethnic-centered appeal, was going to get bad.

Another wave in the direction of bringing into the open the phenomenon we are talking about is the fairly widespread effort to criminalize "hate speech" and, particularly in some European countries, holocaust denial. These efforts would make no sense if we thought ethnic hatred were "the human way."

I think Sunstein's idea may have some potential to bring the intuitive knowledge that we have of the nature of certain types of appeals into the open where work can be done to clarify and deepen our knowledge of how ethnification works.


bcowan - Thank you for those illustrations.

Sunstein's suggested insights about the subjective process of group identification do seem much more powerful when considered as a theoretical basis for strategies that might prevent ethnic hated from taking root in the popular consciousness.

Addressing situations (or even just individuals) in which the 'ethnification' process is well underway is inevitably more difficult, but perhaps I am wrong not to be hopeful. Certainly there is no scarcity of opportunities to test and refine strategies for doing so.

Joan A. Conway

The Vikings, and Saxons wanted to knock the Celtics off the island, because they felt superior to them.

It is difficult to share land, when people have different ideas of whether to be a good husband to nature or strip it of its natural resources. England was very fertile and many in the area wanted to land. So it is about competition for land.


Some salient subjective ethnification experiences are recounted at:

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