Social identity and conflict

While the PPP has jettisoned Marxism-Leninism from its constitution – and presumably the class-based social structure that predicts inevitable conflict – the social identity approach inherent in the hyphenated nomenclature we have assumed presents its own challenges. According to this theory, every individual divides his/her social world into distinct so-called social categories, and locates themselves and others in relation to them. Based on a cumulative process of locating oneself, individuals can constitute their social identity, i.e., define themselves in social categories such as gender, geographic location, class, profession, ethnicity, etc. In Guyana, we have prioritized ethnicity in politics.
The basic assumption is that people strive for a positive social identity. As social identity is derived from membership in groups, positive social identity is the outcome of favourable social comparisons made between the in-group (i.e., the group to which one belongs) and other social groups. As long as membership in a group enhances one’s self-esteem, that is: as long as social comparisons remain (on balance) favourable, one will remain a member of that group. However, if the group fails to satisfy this requirement, the individual may try to 1) change the structure of the group (social change), 2) seek a new way of comparison which would favour his/her group, and hence reinforce his/her social identity (social creativity), or 3) leave/abandon the group with the desire to join a ‘better’ one (social mobility).
For individuals who are members of a minority group, to achieve a positive social identity presents specific challenges, since the majority’s preponderance in most areas of national life presumes assimilation by other groups. In Guyana, by the turn of the 20th century, African Guyanese who had been enslaved to work on the plantations feared the implications of Indian Guyanese – who had been brought as indentured labourers after the abolition of slavery – becoming a majority. In the run-up to independence, Forbes Burnham and the African Guyanese-dominated PNC were handed the state by the colonial power, and he imposed a dictatorship to subjugate the majority Indian Guyanese. This inevitably led to severe contradictions that eventually pauperized the country and precipitated severe ethnic conflict.
Donald Horowitz offers the best-known application of social identity theory to cases of ethnic conflict. He focuses on group comparison between what he calls “backward” and “forward” groups appurtenances of modernity. Members of “backward” groups must decide whether to emulate out-group behaviour to compete, or adopt different coping strategies, such as claiming preferential treatment or compensation if “backwardness” is perceived to have emerged from past injustices and discrimination. “Backward” groups harbour fears of extinction if they cannot catch up with “forward” groups. Their anxiety flows from the diffuse danger of exaggerated dimensions, limits and modifies perceptions, and produces extreme reactions to modest threats.
Horowitz also stipulates a relation between self-esteem, anxiety, and prejudice about conflict. Self-esteem is raised by aggression, especially if aggression is projected on others as justification for own actions, i.e., prejudices about other groups’ aggressiveness produce and intensify anxiety and justify aggression (as self-defense).
Comparisons between ethnic groups centre on their relative group worth and relative group legitimacy, and merge easily into a politics of ethnic entitlement in which the quest for power is both instrumental (power as a means to an end, e.g., averting the threat of group extinction) and symbolic (power as a confirmation of status). This means that in unranked systems, groups will make efforts to dominate and avoid domination by others. What may thus have initially been a conflict over needs and interests becomes subordinate to conflicts over status and the rules of the political system. The intensity of ensuing conflict is, according to Horowitz, a function of the relative strength of group claims: the more invidious the group comparison and the larger the area of unacknowledged claims to group legitimacy, the more intense the conflict.
Unfortunately, even though we have now become a nation of minorities, and each group can craft programs to win elections by treating all groups equally, fears of domination remain that are exploited by power-hungry leaders.