Social identification and ethnic conflict

Nicholas Sambanis, Moses Shayo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


When do ethnic cleavages increase the risk of conflict? Under what conditions is a strong common identity likely to emerge, thereby reducing that risk? How are patterns of social identification shaped by conflict? We draw on empirical results regarding the nature and determinants of group identification to develop a simple model that addresses these questions. The model highlights the possibility of vicious and virtuous cycles where conflict and identification patterns reinforce each other. It also shows how processes of ethnic identification amplify the importance of political institutions and traces the effects of national status and perceived differences across ethnic groups. Finally, we demonstrate how a small but sufficiently potent group of ethnic radicals can derail a peaceful equilibrium, leading to the polarization of the entire population. We reexamine several historical cases as well as empirical correlates of civil wars in light of these results.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)294-325
Number of pages32
JournalAmerican Political Science Review
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2013

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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