Identity (Inter-Group) Conflicts

Identity Conflicts

Cate Malek

Based on a longer essay on Identity Issues, written by Louis Kriesberg for the Intractable Conflict Knowledge Base Project

Updated May 2013 by Heidi Burgess



For an "identity" or inter-group conflict to occur, the opponents must assign an identity to themselves and their adversaries, each side believing the fight is between "us" and "them." Conflicts where the antagonists seem to be fighting about their identities are called identity-based conflicts or inter-group conflicts.


Examples of such conflicts include conflicts between Blacks and Whites, Arabs, or Hispanics about race-related issues; conflicts between different ethnic or  religious groups, conflicts about sexual-orientation, even gender conflicts. However, it should be noted that not all conflicts between a black person and a white person are racial conflicts, just as all conflicts between a Catholic and a Protestant are not religious conflicts, nor all conflicts between a man and a woman gender conflicts. The conflict might be about some other problem entirely, or (more problematic) one person may see the conflict as based on race, religion, or gender, while the other does not.


Developing a sense of self is essential to becoming a mature person. Everyone's self-conception is a unique combination of many identities (i.e. gender, religion, and family). Identities apply to individuals, but can also be collective, extending to countries and ethnic communities. In such cases, people feel injured when other persons sharing their identity are injured.

Sources of Identity
Identities are constructed from various traits and experiences, many of which are subject to interpretation. For example, race is an important identity in some societies, but not others. Some analysts speak of ethnicity as an ancient and unchanging phenomenon. Others stress that ethnicity is socially constructed, with people choosing a history and ancestry and creating, as much as discovering, differences from others. Many other identities are based on shared values, beliefs, or concerns. This includes religion, political ideologies, nationality, or culture. Since everyone has multiple identities, their relative importance and compatibility differs in various times and circumstances.

Destructive Identities
Certain aspects of identities can create intense, destructive conflicts. If an identity has been heavily reinforced or is highly significant to someone, such as ethnicity or nationality, then threats to that identity can be hard to ignore. Cultural patterns in a group can create conflict. These patterns include a tendency to mistrust other groups or to belittle them.

Ideologies also create conflict. Thus, a group with a racist identity would tend to regard other races as inherently inferior. Sometimes, if a group feels they have been victims of another group, they can feel continuously threatened. Fearing attacks, they may act to prevent them, but in ways that threaten the other side. The result can be self-perpetuating destructive struggles. Also, leaders may benefit from the construction of exclusive identities, gaining power by arousing emotions against other groups

Identity is often created by past interactions. If a group is used to violent, coercive interactions, their identity will tend to celebrate group members who act tough while simultaneously seeing enemies as cruel and hateful. Finally, identities are rarely symmetrical. Powerful groups will try to define other groups. The Nazis' violent imposition of their characterization of who and what Jews were stands as a grotesque example of that tendency.

Constructive Identities
Being peaceful and loving is also an identity. Parents, religious leaders, artists, etc. can nurture those qualities in others. Mass media can convey the humanity and positive perspectives of the "enemy." The NGO Search for Common Ground has long run radio soap operas in Africa--and now more broadly, trying to present a humanized view of all sides of a conflict, and showing how collaborative identities can be formed --and be more successful -- than adversarial identities. 

There are also some powerful methods of deconstructing negative identities. For example, one side can reach out to the other to try to alleviate their suffering or to return a peaceful gesture. In addition, rival leaders of grassroots organizations can rebel against an uncompromising leader by organizing a peace movement.  For example, the Dutch Reformed Church, the church of the Afrikaners of South Africa, ended their support for apartheid, contributing greatly to apartheid's end. If one side admits the truth about past injustices and atrocities, it can alter their self-identity, and transform the conflict overall.

Finally some members of opposing sides usually interact positively, even when their groups overall do not.  For example, profitable businesses or collaborations in cultural or research activities can counter the destructiveness of conflict.


Whenever one or all sides of a conflict define the conflict in terms of group membership, it should be considered, at least in part, an identity-based conflict. Since identities tend to be very deep-rooted, this makes this kind of conflict more difficult to resolve, and requires different conflict resolution techniques to deal with. Rather than simply using integrative bargaining to divide up material interests, people involved in identity-based conflicts need to recognize and deal with the identity issues directly. This may involve giving more recognition to the others' identity and working with them to make them feel as if their  identity is respected and secure. This often requires techniques that one focus more on relationship-building, through processes such as dialogue or transformative mediation, as opposed to trying to use simple interest-based mediation to deal with these issues successfully.

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