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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2009, Vol.1, No.1 .


Nations, States and Violence
David D. Laitin

(Oxford University Press USA: New York, 2007) pp 168, HB £16.00, ISBN 978-0199228232

Although few scholars would welcome being described as ?priomordialists?, the insights of constructivist thinking have yet to affect the dominant explanatory models used in the study of ethno-nationalism. The consociational segregation of ethnic communities remains a default conflict management prescription, while deterministic downward spirals of ?outbidding? continue to dominate analyses of why those conflicts occur. In this stultifying atmosphere, David Laitin?s short book provides a breath of fresh air. Together with his erstwhile co-author, James Fearon, and other scholars including Kanchan Chandra and Rogers Brubaker, Laitin has pioneered groundbreaking research on ethnic identity and nationalist contention. This book offers an accessible and concise introduction to the latest thinking in the field.

Laitin begins with the idea that ?multiculturalism has value and properly promoted can work better than it has worked in the past? (ix). This can be achieved, he argues, by a better understanding of what multiculturalism means and, specifically, what ethnic identity does and, crucially, does not do. Contrary to the dominant views, Laitin points out that the ?real challenge for understanding communal relations, given the vast potential for violence, is the near ubiquity of ethnic cooperation? (11). Thus, conflict arises not because of ethnicity, but because of the actions of political entrepreneurs on the one hand, and, on the other, ?weak states? that are unable to provide basic security provisions to their citizens (21). Laitin imports the idea of ?tipping points? to explain how ethnic identities are mobilised. Concentrating on linguistic differences ? notably in Catalonia and post-Soviet Eastern Europe ? he describes how policy choices ?cascade? among populations and across generations (78). This process establishes ?norms of solidarity? (52) and passing the ?tipping point? provides rich incentives to form rigid ethnic boundaries. There is, therefore, a nuanced rational choice functionalism underpinning Laitin?s analysis ? ethnic groups emerge to meet social needs. The implications of this approach strengthen the constructivist claim that identity can be both pliable and resilient: as Laitin points out, while national identity can give an appearance of permanence, it can also be flexible enough to take advantage of shifting political opportunities (58). This is an important point that fundamentally undercuts the determinism of both the Horowitz?s and Lijphart?s models, both of which remain profoundly suspicious of ethnicity.

Yet whereas Lijphart and Horowitz provide detailed schemes for ?managing? ethnic conflict, Laitin argues that the solution to contentious politics ?is the establishment of a rule of law rather than the suppression of national aspirations? (130). He rightly points out that factionalism, regionalism, and heterogeneity are hallmarks of the post-1991 era, and suggests that separate institutions can be ?strengthened through participation? (137). Although Laitin?s constructivism implies that the concept of the ?nation-state? is passť, it could be countered that state apparatuses will remain necessary to ensure that there is a Madisonian balance of ?ambition ? [countering] ambition?. Indeed, despite the potential inherent in regional autonomy schemes, the state remains problematic. For instance, incentives to cooperate may not be sufficient in situations where the state itself is contested ? this not only relates to situations of ethnic conflict but to any number of ?transitional societies? across the globe. Again, a layered reorganising of the state may not necessarily reduce its power or solve the dilemma of state intervention encouraging divergent perceptions of opening opportunities and threats by political entrepreneurs. That said, this is a rewarding book that challenges received wisdom in a lucid, straightforward manner and it deserves attention.


Cillian McGrattan, University of Ulster



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