Monthly Archives: August 2012

Counting ethnic groups…

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… 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.

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Syria — the return of proxy wars.

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Kofi Annan is giving up. Assad’s deafness towards any mediation and the impossibility of a cease-fire or even complete cessation of violence have worn this skilled, experienced and certainly sincere mediator out. Given the daily reports on the increasing violence, the advances of the “rebels” (or however they need to be called), it does, however, make one wonder where Assad takes his intransigeance from if not from his deep conviction that he will be able to survive the violence and stay in power. The support of Russia and China are, materially and ideologically, probably the most important pillars of this conviction.While China is hiding discretly behind the large back of Russia, the latter is not hiding the least its full support of Assad’s regime and their hostility towards any UN action in Syria. The situation resembles the unfortunate history of those endless proxy wars that the US and USSR have had waged in the past in the names of “freedom” or “socialism” respectively. Both use allies to arm their respective sides in the violent clashes, both oppose diplomatically any proposal that might resolve the confrontation in one or the other sense, and Russia seems to please themselves in the role of Mr Niet in the United Nations Security Council.

And just as at the height of the Cold War the issues at stake have only very little if not nothing to do with the reasons for rebellion and violence that have motivated the rebellion in the first place. There are geostrategic motives for Russia and China to keep, or rather in the case of China to get a foothold in the Middle East, just as the motivation for the US to partake the Libya intervention was the geostrategic need to keep a foothold in the Maghreb. But there are also “ideological” reasons to support Assad if the mixture of one-man/one-party authoritarianism and rapaciaous, capitalist enrichment of a select few can be called an ideology. And finally, just as the nuclear deterrence of the Cold War offered an almost perfect security cover for the geostrategic pushing-and-shoving on the ground, the Israel-Iran conflict with the menace of a nuclear escalation offers a convenient cover for showing off geostrategic competition in Syria.

And just like in the proxy wars of the past this greater chess game is played without the least consideration of the population and will only serve to radicalise the worst elements of the violent players. The war in Angola lasted 30 years, the war in Afghanistan is yet not over. A Twitter went round that Syrians were returning in the hope the battle over Damas would be over soon; from former proxy wars they’d better seek refuge far away and for a long, long time as this might be only the very beginning of decades of violence.

 

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