A Political Science Perspective on Teaching about Violence
Steven I. Wilkinson
Assistant Professor of Political Science, Duke University; HFG grantee
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Political scientists who teach about violence nearly all recognize the value of incorporating readings from other disciplines. In my own courses, for example, I frequently include extracts from The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport's classic social psychology text, to spark discussions of whether diversity programs based on the "contact hypothesis" can reduce ethnic tensions and conflict. But despite our increasing openness to multi-disciplinary approaches to violence, political scientists inevitably pay greater attention to some issues than do our colleagues in psychology, history, sociology, and anthropology. What distinguishes political science from these other disciplines, in my view, is the central importance we attach to the role of the state in causing violence, and in failing to prevent it where it takes place.

First, we are interested in how the state shapes the identities (e.g., region, class, caste, tribe, and ethnicity) and the inequalities of economic resources and power that lead to violence. Second, we want to understand how and why some states do a much better job of preventing violence than others. We recognize, for example, that mass ethnic violence like that in Rwanda or Bosnia rarely takes place unless the state allows it to happen. So we try to identify what it was about the Rwandan and Yugoslav states that led their leaders to promote ethnic violence at one moment, rather than another. Third we want to influence policy. We use comparative analysis and statistical analysis to identify the policies that have been most successful in reducing violence. Once we identify the "right" policies, we then try to persuade politicians, NGOs, and governments to adopt them.

I think that in a semester-long course on violence, it makes sense to treat each of these three issues in sequence. In my own course on ethnic violence, I begin with readings that make students recognize that some of the solid ethnic categories and ethnic conflicts they may be used to thinking about are in large part the result of state categorization and discrimination. To emphasize that this process is not new, I use several books that look at the construction of ethnicity and how state-inspired ethnic categories affected the level of violence in the pre-modern period: Robert Bartlett's The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950-1350, David Nirenberg's Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages, and Richard Eaton's The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760). Robert Bartlett, for instance, describes how the medieval state decided who could be counted as a German or Slav, and how in the early middle ages it was relatively easy to cross from the status of "Slav" to the more privileged "German" class. He also shows how, as the shortage of manpower on the German frontier began to diminish, merchants and artisans developed a biological view of race that allowed them to block economic competitors who were Slav. By the end of the thirteenth century, entrants to the German guilds had to prove that they had German ancestors going back several generations. Medieval states discriminated between members of different ethnic and religious groups in ways that encouraged violence. In Spain, for example, the law required the confiscation of property and death for a Muslim who killed a Christian, but only a fine and exile for a Christian who killed a Muslim.

After establishing that state categorization and discrimination is not new, I complete the first section of my course with readings that show students how these processes have been intensified in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially as a result of the western colonization of much of Africa and Asia. Donald Horowitz's Ethnic Groups in Conflict is a useful text here, because it demonstrates how colonial rule strengthened some ethnic identities (such as Malay in Malaysia, Ashanti in Ghana) and favored some ethnic groups (Kikuyu in Kenya, Hawiye in Somalia) over others. Horowitz also shows how this process of colonial categorization and discrimination led to conflicts after decolonization, as favored groups such as the Kikuyu sought to hold on to their privileges in the face of sometimes violent protests by their rivals.

In the second section of my course, I explore the ways in which governments have tried to deal with ethnic tensions and ethnic violence. There is great variation in state responses to ethnic demands. Some, such as China, use a combination of occasional concessions and repression. Others respond by creating new federal units, decentralizing political institutions, and recognizing ethnic differences through policies such as ethnic preferences in government and employment. The comparative method allows us to explore how these policies affect the probability of ethnic violence in very different political and cultural environments. One book I like very much is Myron Weiner and Mary Katzenstein's India's Preferential Policies, which explores the issue of whether ethnic preferences have the capacity to resolve ethnic tensions by comparing their effects in India, the U.S., and Malaysia.

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