… seems in many respects an unhelpful way to start thinking about ethnic conflict and, yet, if we want to gain some clarity about the conditions of ethnic escalations a large cross-country comparison still seems a necessary step. Indeed, there are some, although very few intelligent analyses of ethnic conflict that use quantitative data. Yet, the main problem remains that in order to count ethnic groups we have to assume that these groups exist with clear boundaries, a thick homogeneity within and clear distinctions without. We also assume that in multi-ethnic societies, the ethnic cleavages are the most important cleavages, for whatever reason, and that they, per se, generating conflict. In short, we reify ethnic groups and conflicts — which is, to say it again, a risky and epistemologically dubious enterprise.
However, much of the quantitative research on ethnic conflict cannot avoid assuming reified groups in order to have individual, distinct datapoints. Such analysis can make sense if a conflict already exists and the works of Nils B. Weidmann, Jan Ketil Rød and Lars-Erik Cederman or Andreas Wimmer, Lars-Erik Cederman and Brian Min shows how to make intelligent use of such datasets on the background of careful relational, sociological analyses of ethnicity and ethnification processes (see particularly Andreas Wimmer‘s work). A number of data projects have developed the dataset on the basis of the Atlas Narodov Mira, an ethnographic atlas, picturing ethnic boundaries across the world. The atlas was established by Soviet geographers and ethnologists in the 1960s. On which grounds, with which sources, with which criteria … all this remains obscure. These methodological problems have often been noted, however, this has not kept researchers from using the Atlas as source for databases on ethnic groups (quite often by the same who have criticized the lack of methodology). This weakness is quite striking and even to some point ludicrulous given the claim of statistic analysis to provide objective analyses with a high certainty. The common aura of statistics is that what is countable is “true”….even if the apples that are counted might be the pure invention of a hungry mind.
This obscurity of the original data source was all the more annoying for the academic community as the Atlas Narodov Mira is difficult to come by. But now, the worldmap project of the University of Harvard, provides a digital map of the Atlas Narodov. Even though the access to the map is not really what one could call user-friendly, it allows having a closer look at the ethnic divisions the Atlas notes and to compare these with other data on ethnicity. And here the trouble starts: the project has decided to render the maps without legend. So it remains entirely unclear which groups are counted as what. For instance, the Southern China border with Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar shows the miniscule patchwork structure that anyone who knows the region would expect. But then, it is totally unclear whether for instance the Mao (in China) and Mhong (in Vietnam) are counted as one and the same group (as some claim them to be) or as different groups, and if so as how many and different in which respect? If one wants to do comparative quantitative analyses of ethnicity and conflict…for instance in order to introduce a dynamic view of ethnic constructions….then this person would be ill served by the digital map and, most probably, its source the Atlas Narodov Mira. But probably that is the merit of this project: it shows the poverty of the data source and draws attention to the necessity of a much more serious, honest and critical discussion on the methods of conflict analysis.