Social conflict and group mobilization

source: Du Shiyu and Qi Jiayan, “Multi-agent Modeling and Simulation on Group Polarization Behavior in Web 2.0”

An earlier post drew attention to the fact that there are sometimes powerful forces leading to the disintegration of previously peaceful populations of people into violent opposition across groups (link). A population concentrated in a geographical space (city, region) almost always represents a variety of sources of differentiation across groups: racial differences, economic differences, and cultural and religious differences, to mention several important ones. And virtually any sources of group identity and group wellbeing can potentially be a source of conflict and opposition within the population. So the earlier post asked the question, what are the factors that lead these latent conflicts to break out into active conflict? What leads individuals within a group to begin to mobilize together with the goal of resisting or attacking members of other groups?

Several factors are evident. First, there are multiple kinds of agents in play, both individual and collective. The cohesion-fission results are the complex consequence of the agency and strategies of these many agents and their strategic interactions. And there are agents working to secure cohesion at the same time as other agents work to bring about conflict across groups. Second, there are multiple sources of collective grievance that may serve to provide the raw materials for mobilization — fields over which groups have different levels of access to outcomes that they want to control. And third, there are a variety of structural factors that appear to be relevant to the dynamic processes of mobilization that may occur. Let’s look at each of these.


Leaders. Leaders sometimes have an interest in using inter-group conflict as a basis for mobilization of supporters around them, for the purpose of extending their power and the resources they control. (This is often referred to as “political entrepreneurship.”) Political leaders can provoke polarization by giving particular salience to one set of group characteristics over another. Lies, distortions, and emotional exhortation can provoke rank-and-file followers to increase their emotional level of commitment to the program of this group or that. The history of BJP in India as a provoker of Hindu-Muslim antagonism is a case in point (Atul Kohli, Democracy and Discontent: India’s Growing Crisis of Governability). (A good illustration is Sam Popkin’s “Political entrepreneurs and peasant movements in Vietnam” in Michael Taylor, Rationality and Revolution.) Here is Popkin’s description:

This chapter examines the mobilization of peasants during the Vietnamese revolution. It shows how, out of the rational choices of myriad individual, peasant society can be restructured and new institutions constructed. It shows in particular how peasant organizers, starting with limited material resources and using only their organizational skills, can “bootstrap” their organizations into existence and so “build something from nothing”. Through small interventions in the patterns of daily life these political and religious organizers, here called political entrepreneurs, build institutions which generate a “revolutionary surplus” or profit, and financed by this surplus they then use their local bases to recruit people to a national struggle. (9) 

Organizations. Organizations have the ability to communicate with their members; they can supply resources to support mobilization (lease buses to transport demonstrators to the capital city); and they can educate and indoctrinate followers into a particular social world view. There is a wide range of organizations that are relevant to mobilization in a social environment:

  • Community-based organizations
  • Youth and student organizations
  • Gangs and criminal organizations
  • Business and industry
  • Religious organizations and leaders
Organizations also have the opportunity of building a high degree of emotional adherence in their members. Michael Mann emphasizes each of these avenues of influence in his analysis of fascist paramilitary organizations in the 1930s (link). 

Ordinary rank-and-file actors. Most people at any given time are not actively engaged in protest or militant activity. So the success or failure of efforts to polarize a population depend on the ability of leaders and organizations to activate these ordinary actors.



Now turn to the grievances that may lead actors to mobilize for action against another group. The primary source of conflict among groups within Marxist theory is property. Class conflict is the primary social conflict. But much social conflict seems to arise from non-material factors —

  • Material conflict of interest across communities (property, wealth, income, jobs)
  • Cultural and religious conflict of practice
  • Conflict over political power within the state over resources
  • Kinship relations and conflicts across kinship groups

So there is a wide range of potential causes for polarization. However, at most times and places these potential grievances remain latent rather than expressed. Leaders and organizations can extend efforts towards mobilizing the emotions and adherence of members of society for solidarity around one or another set of grievances.

Influences on the spread of conflictual mobilization

Proximity. The spatial distribution of people across a region influences the ease with which they communicate with each other. Neighbors are more likely to be influenced in their beliefs and motives for action than are strangers from widely separated parts of the city. C. K. Lee points out the impact that dormitory-style living arrangements had for workers in “sunset” industries in China; rumors and calls to action flowed easily through the residential buildings (Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt).

Social networks of affiliation. Social networks create communications pathways; they also create differentiated networks of trust. The fact that Suneel’s brother-in-law Atul attends the same temple as Suneel gives Suneel elevated grounds for trusting and relying upon Atul when it comes to learning current information and in responding to calls for action conveyed by Atul.

Incidents. Mobilization within a subcommunity is often triggered by an instigating incident — a traffic accident, an incidence of police brutality, an ethnic slur, a rumor of bad behavior by a member of another subcommunity. The police raid on the blind pig in Detroit in 1967 unleashed a cycle of mobilization and counter-mobilization within Detroit’s population and the state and federal governments.


Broadcast media. As was evident in the Rwanda genocide (link), control of radio or television stations is a major advantage for organizations and leaders who are seeking to mobilize their followers for a given kind of action.

Direct face-to-face mobilization. Organizations like labor unions, community-based organizations, and industry associations often have substantial personnel on the ground — cadres — who serve to communicate with and motivate the rank-and-file members and potential adherents. One important example is the GOTV efforts that various organizations are able to mount in times of elections. Another is the visibility and influence in urban neighborhoods that the Black Panthers created in the 1960s through their food programs.


Social media. It is widely believed, especially since the rapid mobilizations associated with the Arab Spring, that social media like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram can serve as effective pathways of mobilization and activization. (link

We still haven’t gotten to a clear answer to the question: under what conditions does a community begin to fission into conflicting components? But this analysis of the elements of the situation sheds some light on the facilitating or inhibiting factors that are relevant to such a process of fissioning. When leaders and organizations emerge who have a political interest in creating division (not an uncommon situation); when genuine underlying tensions exist (pertaining to resources or identity markers); and when features of proximity, interrelatedness, and weakness of policing permit the spread of divisive messages of faction; then fissioning is increasingly like.

The market for ethnicity

John Comaroff and Jean Comaroff have written a complex story of contemporary ethnicity and culture in Ethnicity, Inc.. The Comaroffs are, of course, distinguished cultural anthropologists at the University of Chicago who have done extensive research and writing on Africa. (For example, John Comaroff and Simon Roberts, Rules and Processes: The Cultural Logic of Dispute in an African Context; Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution, Volume 1: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa: 001.) So their observations on culture and ethnicity in a globalizing world are bound to be interesting.

Here is a nice statement of the way they conceptualize “ethnicity” (referring to Ethnography And The Historical Imagination):

For our own part (e.g., Comaroff and Comaroff 1992:49- 67), we have long argued that ethnicity is neither a monolithic “thing” nor, in and of itself, an analytic construct: that “it” is best understood as a loose, labile repertoire of signs by means of which relations are constructed and communicated; through which a collective consciousness of cultural likeness is rendered sensible; with reference to which shared sentiment is made substantial. (kl 542)

So ethnicity is semiotic and labile — or in other words, it consists in socially shared expressions of meaning, and it is especially prone to change and adaptation. 

Their central focus in this short book is on ethnicity marketized — hence “Ethnicity, Inc.”  Here is the heart of their insight in the book:

While it is increasingly the stuff of existential passion, of the self-conscious fashioning of meaningful, morally anchored selfhood, ethnicity is also becoming more corporate, more commodified, more implicated than ever before in the economics of everyday life. To this doubling–to the inscription of things ethnic, simultaneously, in affect and interest, emotion and utility–is added yet another. (kl 18)

They document in detail the central idea expressed by the title; the idea that ethnic groups worldwide are looking to commercialize and commodify their indigenous cultures. Even Scotland is looking to brand and market itself — along with the Shipibo of Peru, MEGA of Kenya, and Contralesa in South Africa. And, of course, this process throws a big handful of sand into the gears of the idea of “cultural authenticity” itself (post). The commodification of ethnic identity to which they refer is illustrated with many examples; for instance, with snippets from marketing materials developed for some of the world’s ethnic groups.

Experience the Shipibo Way of Life for yourself in the heart of the Amazon Basin with our Peru Eco-Tourism adventure! Learn how to make Shipibo ceramic artwork, go spear fishing in the Amazon river and much, much more. (the Shipibo Home page from Amazonian Peru (disappeared))

The “identity” sector of the North Catalonian’ economy represents a new openmindedness [that] will see an expansion based on the culture of the region … as an alternative to globalisation. (the North Catolonian web page (disappeared))

MEGA [Meru, Embu, Gikuyu, Gikuyu Association, Kenya] Initiative Welfare Society is a community organisation formed to foster social/ cultural and economic development of Ameru, Aembu and Agikuyu people of Kenya. It … is driven by the desire to demonstrate how a community or a region can bring about prosperity by exploiting the cultural richness and entrepreneurial skills and resources of its people … (MEGA Welfare Society Home Page (disappeared)) (kl 14-46)

And from South Africa they describe Contralesa:

The Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) is the representative voice of ethnicity in the country. It speaks for culture, customary law, and the collective rights of indigenous peoples. Also for the authority of their chiefs and kings, past and present…. Having established a business trust a year earlier in order to join a mining consortium, they were about to create a for-profit corporation to pursue investment opportunities in minerals, forestry, and tourism; formal application had been made to register the company. (kl 77)

The second thread of argument they engage is the current political and philosophical literature on ethnicity and globalization. Discussing Foucault, Adorno, Montesquieu, and numerous others, they do some careful thinking about where “ethnic identity” stands now in philosophy and theory. They discuss, for example, the juridicalism that has swept through the field in human rights and first peoples (kl 789). (They refer generically to the effort to establish legal rights of property along ethnic lines as “lawfare”; kl 797.)

The commodification of ethnicity plays directly into the argument that identities are socially constructed and performative.  The recreation of “traditional crafts, ceremonies, and dancing” in tourist villages is plainly a Disneyland kind of activity — even when the performers have some hereditary relation to the earlier practices to which these reenactments point.  The ersatz culture that is performed has little or no resonance with ordinary life in those current groups. 

But it also appears that C&C also believe that people have identities as embodied subjectivities — however labile and socially influenced they may be.  And this implies that it is possible and worthwhile to investigate those subjectivities in their own terms.

There is a final pole to their analysis of ethnicity within the marketplace: the fact that ethnically defined groups are concerned about their property rights in a variety of things: traditional medications, historical land holdings, mineral resources, and even their languages.  This reflects a point about power and politics: a group is more able to sustain itself as a coherent group when it is able to successfully establish rights in important resources.  And these collective rights of ownership may play back into the mechanisms that support the persistence of a subjective group identity.

So it is that we return to where we began, with the articulation–the manifest expression, the joining together–of culture to property, past to future, being to business, entrepreneurialism to ethno-preneurialism. The permanent, unresolved, often aspirational dialectic that connects the incorporation of identity to the commodification of difference looks to be extending in all directions. (kl 2004)

What is unclear to me after reading the book is whether the two parts — socially constructed performances for a paying public and persistent subjectivity — are as closely connected as the Comaroffs seem to think. Here, in a nutshell, is how they think the two dynamics are connected:

What conclusions may be drawn from all this? Could it be that we are seeing unfold before us a metamorphosis in the production of identity and subjectivity, in the politics and economics of culture and, concomitantly, in the ontology of ethnic consciousness? (kl 279)

But are the two processes of identity-shift really so closely connected?  Does the fact that economic development policy makers want to brand Scotland really tell us much about whether there is a “Scot identity”? What kind of theorizing and research do we need to do in order to take the measure do what it’s like to be a Scot today? What might be included in such a status over a dispersed population of people with some historical ties to Braveheart? Is it a set of collective memories and monuments, a set of emotions of attachment to a standard narrative of Scottish history, or a set of behaviors, habits, and locutions?

In some way it seems as though the commodification of ethnicity is a sideshow, though an interesting one, while the real action is taking place elsewhere. (I don’t doubt that they are right in judging that the performances the Shipibo people put on for ethno-tourists have a feedback effect on the ways they think about themselves, and therefore contributes to a degree of shift in the particulars of their ethnic identities.) But there is substantive ethnographic work to be done on the conceptualization and description of these forms of subjectivity themselves, and the ways in which they are influenced and transmitted over time.  Marketization is part of that process — but it is only one part. And it seems as though the marketing of ethnicity to tourists is a fairly special case.

Think of all the ethnic identities that are continuing to evolve and shift without any involvement of the kinds of commercialization of ethnicity that C&C focus on: the South Asian diaspora in the Midwest, the Burmese community in Minneapolis, the Jewish community in New Mexico or Shanghai. In each case there are complex dynamics of memory, cell phones, traditions adapted to new circumstances, remittances, family conversations, and dozens of other mechanisms through which dispersed communities are maintaining and morphing their ethnicities. There is certainly more to the dynamics of ethnicity in the contemporary world than the commodification that the Comaroffs single out.

(Earlier discussions of diasporic communities and methodological nationalism here and here focus on some of those dynamics.)