In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethnicity in International Relations

  • Introduction
  • General Overview and Reference Works
  • Datasets on Ethnicity and Conflict
  • Theoretical Approaches
  • Ethnic Identity
  • Ethnic Parties
  • Interethnic Conflict and Cooperation
  • Democratization and Ethnic Conflict
  • Ethnic War and Genocide
  • Ethnic Riots and Pogroms
  • Ethnic Grievances and Rebellion
  • Ethnicity and Civil Wars
  • Ethnicity and Secessionism
  • Diasporas and Transnational Ethnic Ties
  • Ethnicity and External Intervention
  • Partition and Ethnic Conflict

International Relations Ethnicity in International Relations
Myra A. Waterbury
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0136


Ethnicity is an identity category that signifies membership in a group bounded by shared descent, history, myths, symbols, and cultural practices. Ethnicity and ethnic group belonging matters for politics when it becomes the basis for political mobilization, competition, and conflict. Ethnicity matters for international relations when ethnically framed politics leads to instability, violence, or war within and between states. Much of the international relations literature related to ethnicity therefore addresses the causes of conflict between ethnic and national groups. One of the major debates within the literature revolves around the causal significance of ethnicity: is there something uniquely conflict prone about ethnicity as a form of political identity? Some scholars see ethnic diversity and politicized ethnicity as inherent problems for democratic and international stability or argue that conflicts over culture are more likely to lead to intractable, large-scale violence. Others see ethnicity more as a tool used to win ongoing conflicts and political competitions, not as a causal factor. Moving beyond this debate, scholars use quantitative analyses of large datasets, case studies, and micro-level comparisons to flesh out more precisely why and under what conditions ethnicity becomes politicized, mobilized, and, in some cases, the basis for various types of violent conflict, from ethnic riots to civil wars to secessionism. In doing so, scholars rely on differing accounts of how ethnicity interacts with interests, perceptions, and emotion, who benefits from mobilizing ethnicity, and how ethnic belonging shapes preferences and policies. Their analyses then provide suggestions for how ethnic conflict and war may be better predicted, mitigated, and even prevented.

General Overview and Reference Works

Three types of reference works offer crucial perspectives on ethnicity and international politics for undergraduate students, graduate students, and scholars. Edited volumes that gather contributions from prominent analysts and are organized around broad themes rather than case studies, such as Carment and James 1997 and Lake and Rothchild 1998, continue to be relevant. Both volumes offer analytically rich accounts of the ways in which ethnicity matters for international relations. Three co-written volumes, Cordell and Wolff 2010, Gurr and Harff 2003, and Taras and Ganguly 2010, provide a nice balance among the domestic, international, and transnational aspects of ethnicity and ethnic conflict. All three would be appropriate as undergraduate texts. Two widely used readers on ethnicity, Guibernau, et al. 2010 and Hutchinson and Smith 1996, offer thoughtfully excerpted essays taken from major works and authors. The scope of both is broad and interdisciplinary within the social sciences. Either would be an excellent supplemental text for a course at the undergraduate or graduate level, though the focus of Guibernau, et al. 2010 is more sociological and domestic than the Hutchinson and Smith 1996. A reader on genocide, Meierhenrich 2014, offers the first comprehensive treatment of scholarship on the most extreme cases of ethnic violence.

  • Carment, David, and Patrick James, eds. Wars in the Midst of Peace: The International Politics of Ethnic Conflict. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.

    An edited volume appropriate as a graduate-level introduction to the international dynamics of ethnic conflict and the place of ethnicity in international relations. It focuses more on broad questions and phenomena related to ethnic conflict than on case studies, keeping it relevant to current scholarship.

  • Cordell, Karl, and Stefan Wolff. Ethnic Conflict: Causes, Consequences, Responses. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010.

    Provides a thorough examination of the literature on ethnic conflict as the authors develop an integrated, multilevel analytical framework to explain this phenomenon. They bring together domestic and international dynamics, and offer insights into both the causes of and global responses to ethnic conflict.

  • Guibernau, Montserrat, and John Rex, eds. The Ethnicity Reader: Nationalism, Multiculturalism, and Migration. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010.

    A compilation of excerpts from a multidisciplinary set of classic and more recent writings on ethnicity, nationalism, and multiculturalism. The focus is more on the domestic than the international dynamics of ethnicity, though the editors have compiled a solid primer on issues of ethnic violence, self-determination, and transnational ethnic politics.

  • Gurr, Ted Robert, and Barbara Harff. Ethnic Conflict in World Politics. 2d ed. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2003.

    A coauthored volume appropriate as an introductory text for undergraduate students. The primary unit of analysis is ethnic groups: how to define and classify them, how and why they mobilize, why and under what conditions they engage in conflict, and what their relevance is for global politics.

  • Hutchinson, John, and Anthony D. Smith, eds. Ethnicity. Oxford Readers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

    An extensive compilation of excerpts from a multidisciplinary set of classic and more recent writings on ethnicity. Most sections focus on ethnicity as a concept and form of identity, though many of the readings are relevant to understanding conflict dynamics and the global and transnational aspects of ethnicity.

  • Lake, David A., and Donald S. Rothchild, eds. The International Spread of Ethnic Conflict: Fear, Diffusion, Escalation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

    An influential edited volume that contains seminal writings from prominent scholars of ethnic conflict and international politics. The volume is organized around analyses of how and why ethnic conflict spreads within and between states, and ways to approach conflict management.

  • Meierhenrich, Jens. Genocide: A Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    A comprehensive and interdisciplinary compilation of excerpts from the most influential writings on genocide from the past century. Chapters address the concept of genocide and its causes, as well as the aftermath of and global responses to genocide.

  • Taras, Raymond C., and Rajat Ganguly. Understanding Ethnic Conflict. 4th ed. London: Longman, 2010.

    A textbook that is appropriate for undergraduate students. Conceptual chapters introduce theories of ethnic conflict, then place such conflicts into the context of international debates over sovereignty and intervention. Geographically diverse case studies highlight different types of ethnic conflict and international responses to them.

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