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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 2 .


Modern Hatreds: The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War
Stuart J. Kaufman

Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001
268pp. Hb.: 29.50; ISBN 0-8014-3802-0. Pb.: 12.95; ISBN 0-8014-8736-6.



This is an ambitious book. Kaufman aims to construct a 'systematic general theory' for ethnic war. (p. 10) He begins by reviewing common explanations for ethnic conflict (ancient hatreds, manipulative leaders, economic rivalry and a spiral of insecurity) and finds that none of them offer wholly reliable explanations for the escalation of ethnic war.

He is by no means dismissive of each of the theories, but points to occasions when the tinder did not catch fire despite the best intentions of leaders playing the ethnic card, or communities competing for the same scarce resources. Indeed, a useful lesson from Kaufman's work is that ethnic wars are difficult to start.

His search for a general theory leads to the identification of a variable that can energise the other explanatory factors for ethnic wars, and indeed link them together: symbolic politics. Kaufman acknowledges that a focus on symbolic politics is unfashionable and has been derided as being 'vague and unscientific' (p. 204) but constructs a convincing argument. He notes that '?ethnic symbolism combines the logic of ancient hatreds, manipulative elites, and economic rivalry?' (p. 12).

One criticism is that Kaufman's unpacking of the notion of symbols and symbolism is relatively slight. He assumes a very broad definition of symbols and symbolism, encompassing everything from myths and rituals to flags and poetry. Their role in the construction and maintenance of identity is important and perhaps deserves a deeper conceptual discussion. A much tighter definition of what the author means by symbols and symbolism, and indeed reference to some of the key works on this topic, would have aided the overall piece.

But this criticism does not detract from the overall strength of the book. Detailed case studies from Karabagh, Georgia, Moldova and the former Yugoslavia are used to good effect and examples from other regions are drawn upon. A key factor linking all of the cases he reviews is the drive for dominance over a specific territory by one group.

This is a tightly argued and accessible work. While polemical, it is convincing and the author is impressively rigorous in testing his claims. Chapters one and two are particularly useful and offer patient critiques of common explanations for the causes of conflict. I will be recommending that my postgraduate students make use of Kaufman's views.


Roger Mac Ginty



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