Interethnic Networks and Societal Peace

Interethnic Networks and Societal Peace

There are many societies around the world where different ethnic groups live together. However, examples show that some manage to live peacefully, without having violent conflict, while others do not. So there is always a question, why does it happen that some ethnically heterogeneous communities manage to live peacefully and others not? What might be the reason behind it?

There are many studies in ethnic conflicts that try to explain reasons of why ethnic conflicts happen between different ethnic groups living side by side. There is almost always never only one reason that explains the phenomenon, which means that the unique and all explaining solutions might not exist for all cases. However, discussing some interesting theories can offer ways of thinking and sometimes show how they can be useful in practice when it comes to avoiding conflicts between different groups.

There are studies that observe the actual character of interethnic relations in specific communities and offer the explanation of one of the reasons, that could be behind the conflict between ethnic groups. It is about the ways of how communities are organized – along intraethnic lines or interethnic lines and if the groups living in the same community interact with each other on different levels or not. To put it simply, one can look at the diagram:

Source: Ashutosh Varshney, “Ethnic conflicts and civil society, India and beyond”

When communities are organized only along intraethnic lines and interconnection between ethnic groups is weak or nonexistent it is easier in these kind of communities’ polarization to occur in conflictual situations and it is also easier for the situation to take a violent path. Communities which unite different ethnic groups, might be experiencing different exogenous factors that might be purposefully or non-purposefully damaging relations between the groups. For example rumors about the decisions and actions by the one group that might not be acceptable for another. However, the more the communities are organized along the interethnic lines, they are more likely to deal with this kind of spoiling attempts more successfully. The more and deeper interethnic connections are in both every day life and in more formal ways, the less vulnerable nonhomogeneous communities can be to these kinds of exogenous factors, thus peace between the groups can be more stable. While the communities where the different ethnic groups interact with each other less, might be more vulnerable to conflicts.

The interaction forms between the groups might differ. There can be more official forms of interaction like business relationships, NGOs, trade unions and so on and more non-formal interaction forms, like family level interactions, children playing together, neighbors visiting each other and planning common activities, etc. The first form of interaction is called association forms of interaction while the second one is every day form of interaction. Each of them are important, as they both build bridges between different societal groups. Both forms of interactions between different ethnic groups are needed to sustain peaceful relations.


This approach is strengthened with some actual examples from diverse communities. Once study was made in India,[1] in the cities where Hindu and Muslim communities[2] live together, the observation did show that communities where relations were organized along the interethnic lines – representatives of both groups had business together, were part of same organizations and also had every day connections –  were less likely to engage in a violent conflict against each other. On the other hand, in the communities that did not have such connections and were mostly organized along the intraethnic lines, probability of conflict was higher. The reason is that in such communities the groups who do not interact with each other, know little about each other and therefore it is easier in the specific situations inaccurate perceptions to start dominating within the groups about each other, which can eventually lead to the conflict and sometimes violent one as well. 

Which forms of intergroup interaction is more useful?

So the question might arise, which forms of interaction is more helpful in terms of sustaining peace? Everyday forms of interaction are important as it allows the communication between the members of different groups and if the engagement is routine, then it is even possible small networks to start forming among small groups of people who represent different societal groups. However, association forms of interaction like having business together, proves to be more solid mechanism, as association forms usually serve not only the interests of specific individuals but also wider groups of people that includes members of different ethnic groups, so it becomes an interest to maintain peace between groups and not to damage the shared interests and benefits that derive from association forms of interaction between different group members.

To sum shortly, It is still difficult to say whether the interaction levels only can offer an explanation for intergroup conflicts and offer unique solution, as conflict cases are usually complex and consist different aspects of problems. However, as some of the existing studies and examples suggest, the more different groups interact with each other, the more difficult it is to break their bonds and make them involved into conflict and especially in the violent form of it.

[1] For more information, please see Ashutosh Varshney’s “Ethnic conflicts and civil society, India and beyond”.

[2] In the studies of ethnic conflicts often ethnic, linguistic and sometimes also religious categories are united under the “ethnic umbrella” and conflicts that occur on those bases are also categorized as “ethnic” conflicts. It is usually done to simplify the research process and give better understanding of the complex process with different variables.