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Ethnicity and Democratic Governance

Berman summarizes EDG’s contributions to date

(July 2009) Interview by Safiah Chowdhury and Nathan Jackson

Director Bruce Berman has been at the helm of the EDG ship, navigating the unruly waters of ethnicity — and academic research on this topic — for almost four years. Like many Major Collaborative Research Institutes (MCRIs), the Ethnicity and Democratic Governance project strives to be multidisciplinary in its approach. However, going beyond multidisciplinary organization to a truly interdisciplinary research program in which academics from different streams of social science can discuss, debate, and collaborate in a productive manner is an extremely difficult endeavor. “The greatest challenge has been bringing the four spokes (or principal research streams) of EDG together,” says Berman, “We want to take a multidisciplinary project and turn it into an interdisciplinary project.” Ensuring that each individual spoke (or research stream) does not retreat into its own silo has thus been one of EDG’s foremost goals.

Connecting globalization and ethnic politics

Developing the connection between globalization and ethnic politics has been a primary contribution of the EDG project, according to Berman. While conflict between peoples and cultures has existed for many centuries, for Berman, the ‘ethnicization’ of politics we see today is largely a phenomenon of the last 30 years — a process shaped by parallel processes of globalization (complex economic integration, rapid international movement of peoples, confrontations of cultural differences and the ensuing potential for conflict) at the political and economic level.

Exploring the relationship between political institutions and ethnicity

The substantial body of EDG research presented in several of the workshops has explored the ways that political institutions are the most important (although hardly the only) factor shaping the development and politicization of ethnic communities, as well as both the character of ethnic conflicts and the institutional and policy mechanisms for resolving them and directing them into stable democratic processes. “We have explored this extensively in our workshops on constitutional design, territorial pluralism and autonomy (upcoming in 2010) in ethnically diverse societies, as well as in the workshop that explored the dynamics of the process of ‘recognition’ of ethnic groups by public institutions; and this constitutes one of our most substantial contributions to theory and practice thus far.”

Understanding the relationship between ethnicity and religion

Although the role of religion in modern ethnic conflict was not one that was highly stressed in the original research plan submitted to the project’s funding council, EDG has since attempted to tease out the relationship between ethnicity and religion. Expressions of ethnicity have come to include a very strong religious element, points out Berman. He believes this heightened religiosity represents a break from ethno-national movements of the 1940s to 1970s which were ideologically largely secular. Berman cites the project’s 2008 workshop on religion and secularism as an important conceptual turning point. The workshop not only focused on competition created within societies between different world views based on different religions, but tried to come to terms with how secular societies can truly accommodate religious differences — potentially in the public, as well as private, domain.

The influence of development policy and democratization on ethnic strife

Ironically, even well-intentioned development policy and democratic ideals can increase ethnicity-based conflict. For instance, in some cases, efforts by the international community, or particular states, to increase the status and position of indigenous communities have lead to conflicts of autochthony (sons of the soil). In the complex process of determining who is genuinely indigenous to a particular area or State, various different groups may make claims to indigeneity for the purpose of getting international aid and access to increased resources. However, due to the difficulty of ‘proving’ who came first, the situation often becomes very tense and has a tendency to disintegrate into conflict. While not detracting from the importance of the very genuine claims of indigenous populations, the multiplication of claims displays the complexity of attempts to ‘govern diversity’ under democratic conditions. Even well intentioned efforts can go awry in often unanticipated ways. Finally, issues of autochthony have also become a prominent part of anti-immigrant politics of the extreme right in several European countries.

Developing EDG’s global dimension

Most comparative research has largely focused on societies in particular regions or continents. With researchers working in all regions of the world, EDG has been able to broaden the comparisons between ethnicity and ethnic conflict in both the developing and developed worlds. “Seeking out the differences and similarities in these contexts is increasingly important,” noted Berman. EDG has endeavored in its workshops, conferences, and scholarship to more fully develop this breadth of comparison.

No Universal Answer to Ethnic Conflict

Though the similarities and differences between contexts are important there is no universal, all-encompassing theory regarding ethnicity and democratic governance — and the project does not strive to provide one. Instead, one must seek a theoretical approach that allows for the understanding of complexity, explaining the many similarities as well as the idiosyncrasies of ethnicity and ethnic claims. Regarding EDG’s particular contribution, Berman explained, “we’re not going to make a ‘theory of ethnic politics’; what we’re in process of developing is a conceptual kit that will allow us to both cast light on specific cases and reveal global similarities and differences”.

The future of ethnic diversity and democracy

Looking to the future, Berman extends a sense of cautious optimism. “I think that we have a good chance of finding innovative solutions to the problems of ethnic conflict in particular settings.” He doesn’t, however, dismiss the magnitude of the challenges faced. “Some of the possibilities though, I find frankly frightening. And maybe I can say, getting toward the end of this project, that the world is a more frightening place than it was before we started because I see more and more what can go wrong and have less of a sense of the capacity for political institutions to respond effectively." These very challenges, which may have intensified over the last four years, emphasize the important role projects like EDG can play in informing positive solutions. By asking hard questions and collaborating on developing possible answers, EDG hopes to make a solid contribution to what are some of the most challenging and threatening issues that humanity confronts.

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