Social identification and ethnic conflict

Nicholas Sambanis, Moses Shayo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

134 Scopus citations


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

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This project originated in discussions at a conference held at the Juan March Institute in 2009, and we are grateful to its organizers. For helpful comments and discussions we thank Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, Michael Doyle, Mila Dragojevic, Donald Horowitz, Tasos Kalandrakis, Joram Mayshar, Roger Myerson, John Roemer, Ken Scheve, Steven Wilkinson, Andreas Wimmer, the current and previous APSR editorial teams and in particular David Laitin and Gary Cox, three anonymous referees, and seminar participants at the University of Chicago, George Washington University, IMT Lucca, Yale, and the conference on Advances on the Political Economy of Conflict and Redistribution (Berlin 2011). Laura Cremer, Haroula Gotsi, Moti Michaeli, and Kevin Russell provided excellent research assistance. Moses Shayo thanks the Maurice Falk Institute for financial support and the Leitner program in political economy at Yale for its hospitality during his sabbatical in 2010–2011. Yale University ( ). The Hebrew University of Jerusalem ( ). 10 04 2013 05 2013 107 2 294 325 Copyright © American Political Science Association 2013 2013 American Political Science Association


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