Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict

  • Published

Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict by Marc Howard Ross. Cambridge University Press, 2007, 384 pp.

Ethnic conflict makes headlines like nothing else. Civil war in Sri Lanka, the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, Tibetan and Uyghur independence movements in China, the Shiite-Sunni divisions in US–occupied Iraq, Muslim riots in France, tribe-centered election battles in Kenya, and the ongoing struggle between Palestine and Israel—these are just a few of the stories that have driven news cycles of recent years. The ubiquity and longevity of ethnic conflict often lead many consumers of media to believe that certain people “just can’t get along,” perhaps ascribing such conflict to inherent differences in the respective groups based upon a mythic past, such as the Jacob and Ishmael stories that underlie much of the common discourse on Arab-Jewish conflict. Unfortunately, few voices in the media seem interested in either addressing the real issues driving ethnic conflict or offering real-world solutions.

Enter Marc Howard Ross, renowned expert in the field of conflict management. His latest book, Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict, examines how culture frames the interests of competing ethnic groups and how peace might be achieved through broadening psychocultural narratives to include other points of view. He opens by discussing the dynamics of group identity, noting that cultural expressions, as reflectors of a group’s worldview, can play a causal role in conflict as well as serving to exacerbate or inhibit it, depending upon exclusivity or inclusivity of their narratives. Narratives matter precisely because they are the stories through which a sense of communal identity is constructed, and thus they reveal how people understand the conflicts in which they are involved—what Ross calls psychocultural dramas, “polarizing events about non-negotiable cultural claims, threats, and/or rights that become important because of their connections to group narratives and core metaphors central to a group’s identity” (p. 25). Citing the power of cultural expression in such ritualized performances as festivals and pilgrimages, Ross notes that, just as ritual can help perpetuate exclusivist narratives, it can also help conflicting groups “reframe or redefine the symbolic and emotional aspects of the conflict so that the parties can move beyond signed agreements and develop the institutions and practices needed to avoid future confrontations” (p. 86).

After the first three chapters, in which Ross outlines his theories on the role of narrative in conflict and conflict management, follow seven chapters offering concise case studies that detail how these dynamics work across the world—in instances where conflict has been actively abated and where it remains—beginning with Loyalist parades in Northern Ireland. Here, Ross contrasts Protestant parades in Portadown and Derry, demonstrating how the latter have grown into a more inclusive community celebration involving both Protestants and Catholics due to an opening of the central narrative of the parade, while the former remains a focus of political resistance. Next he analyzes Catalonia’s status as an independent and linguistically unique state within Spain and enumerates the various policies of the central Spanish government that have lowered the potential for ethnic conflict, even though language serves as the focal point for violent resistance elsewhere in the world, as in Sri Lanka. The issue of archaeological exploration on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem serves as a microcosm of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, illustrating how each “selectively utilizes historical references to bolster its position in building a non-linear argument. Time collapse is far more prominent than continuity” (p. 187).

In chapters that could be paired side-by-side, Ross analyzes the French headscarf ban targeting Muslim students in light of the various Republican narratives that underlie French national identity, while later he looks at the controversies surrounding the public display of the Confederate battle flag, with all its separatist and racist implications, in the context of race relations and the far different conception of national identity at work in the United States. Two final chapters are devoted to cultural contestation issues in South Africa, the first focusing upon the reinterpretation of older heritage sites that served the narratives of the ruling whites, and the second detailing the creation of new sites offering a presentation of the black experience in the nation. The book is illustrated throughout with pictures, maps, and two very helpful multipage charts that delineate the events most entrenched in the narratives of the Northern Ireland and Israel-Palestine conflicts.

“Political analyses tend to ignore, dismiss, or under-theorize the role that identity and emotional framing play in long-term conflicts,” Ross writes in conclusion (p 312). Indeed, most analysts tend to present longstanding cultural narratives either as mere fronts, schemas of political posturing designed to secure political advantage for a select few, or as markers of irrationality for cultures too backward to devote time and effort in concerning themselves with the “real” issues of economics and power. Such simplifications only serve to undermine the attempt to paint a larger, strategic portrait of ethnic conflicts in the world at large and therefore diminish the chance of transforming zones of disaccord into truly peaceful regions. This is where scholars such as Marc Howard Ross serve a noble purpose. The key arguments of Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict are backed up by Ross’ many decades of work into conflict management and the research he has conducted the world over. In this book, he offers more than just a set of academic musings—these are real guidelines for achieving peace and strategic stability, and those whose business is such would ignore his offerings not just at their own peril but at all of ours.

Guy Lancaster, PhD

Arkansas State University

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."