4.4.5 The Potential for Ethnic Conflict

In a multicultural society there is always a potential for ethnic conflict, which can be exploited by people seeking power.

As described earlier (, people are reassured by a sense of belonging to social groups.  They value their membership.  Social groups form around having shared experiences or tastes: such as living in the same neighbourhood, or working together, or being educated together, or having shared leisure interests.  People naturally belong to several such groups.  And there can a sense of rivalry between some kinds of group: sports teams, for example.

A shared culture can also be the basis for feeling a sense of group identity and awareness of difference from other groups.  Although people from different cultures can live together peacefully (4.4.1), there is always the potential for ethnic conflict.  The Balkans war in 1991 illustrated this vividly:

“The former Yugoslavia was a Socialist state created after German occupation in World War II and a bitter civil war. A federation of six republics, it brought together Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Albanians, Slovenes and others under a comparatively relaxed communist regime. Tensions between these groups were successfully suppressed under the leadership of President Tito.

After Tito’s death in 1980, tensions re-emerged. Calls for more autonomy within Yugoslavia by nationalist groups led in 1991 to declarations of independence in Croatia and Slovenia. The Serb-dominated Yugoslav army lashed out, first in Slovenia and then in Croatia. Thousands were killed in the latter conflict which was paused in 1992 under a UN-monitored ceasefire.”

The following sub-sections explore different aspects of the potential for ethnic conflict:

●  Social identity theory describes how a group’s sense of identity can be strengthened by depicting other groups negatively ( This has the potential to turn into open hostility.

●  Troublemakers can stimulate fear and hostility towards people of different ethnicity, even if they have been coexisting peacefully for generations (

●  Immigrants may look different and might have unfamiliar customs. Resentment against the resulting change in the character of a neighbourhood can fuel ethnic conflict (



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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/445a.htm.