Racial and Ethnic Conflict Essay

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Conflict is a basic process in social life. In certain situations it can lead to the destruction of some groups, in others it may act as a cohesive force. Racial and ethnic groups may be the source and the result of the two faces of social conflict, acting as a boundary marker between groups that see themselves as distinctive in their interests and values from other such groups.

Much of classical sociological theory analyzed conflict against the backdrop of the industrial and political revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Europe and focused on class, status and party groups as the principal bases of group struggle. Divisions arising out of racial or ethnic membership tended to be assigned to a peripheral position in the analysis despite the overwhelming significance of war, colonialism, nationalism and genocide that formed an equally central part of the historical record.

Contemporary research on ethnicity and racial divisions has focused on trying to understand the processes of ethnogenesis, the construction and perpetuation of ethnic and racial boundaries, and the impact of forces like globalization and transnationalism on racial and ethnic conflict. While traditional patterns of international migration continue to play an important role in the generation of racial and ethnic diversity, they have been modified and changed by political and economic factors in complex and unpredictable ways. In the USA large numbers of Mexican migrants, both legal and unauthorized, have continued the growth of the Latino population into the largest single minority  group.  In  Europe,  the relations between

immigrants and ethnic minorities — not least the increasing number of Muslim migrants from Turkey and North Africa — will be a major element in determining the conflict and stability of the emerging political structure, no matter whether the European Union becomes a superstate or remains a looser federation.

Several different theoretical perspectives can be found supporting contemporary studies of ethnic and racial conflict. Some, like rational choice theory, are methodologically individualistic and apply a cost—benefit formula to account for ethnic preferences and to explain the dynamics of racial and ethnic group formation. These have been criticized on the grounds that they fail to appreciate the collective dynamics of much ethnic behavior and underestimate the irrational side of racial violence. Other common perspectives see ethnicity and racial divisions as a type of social stratification: theories employing neo-Marxist categories stress the economic components underlying much ethnic conflict; while those following in the tradition of scholars like Weber and Furnivall provide a more pluralistic interpretation of the differences in ethnic and racial power. In general, these differences originate from the forces of conquest and migration, and are then perpetuated by the processes of group monopolization once an ethnic or racial boundary has been created. In this way, a hierarchical ordering of racial and ethnic groups is created which will eventually generate conflict as circumstances start to change and disadvantaged groups challenge the status quo. Other theories point to social-psychological factors, like prejudice and ethnocentrism, or even sociobiological imperatives, like kin selection, as important explanations for the persistence of ethnic divisions and the ubiquity of racial conflict.


  1. Stone, J. & Dennis, R. (eds.) (2003) Race and Ethnicity: Comparative and Theoretical Approaches. Blackwell, Malden, MA.
  2. Stone, J. & Rizova, P. (2007) Rethinking racial conflict in an era of global terror. Ethnic & Racial Studies 30 (4): 534—45.

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