The Geography of Ethnic Violence: Identity, Interests, and the Indivisibility of Territory / Edition 1

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The Geography of Ethnic Violence is the first among numerous distinguished books on ethnic violence to clarify the vital role of territory in explaining such conflict. Monica Toft introduces and tests a theory of ethnic violence, one that provides a compelling general explanation of not only most ethnic violence, civil wars, and terrorism but many interstate wars as well. This understanding can foster new policy initiatives with real potential to make ethnic violence either less likely or less destructive. It can also guide policy makers to solutions that endure.
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Editorial Reviews

Foreign Affairs
Toft's book is well written and closely argued and contains four thoroughly researched case studies from the former Soviet Union. Its central proposition is that the likelihood of ethnic violence rests on how a conflict's principal antagonists think about or value a disputed territory. If a state considers territory indivisible, then it cannot satisfy the demands of an ethnic minority for sovereignty. This observation (which Toft claims is original and calls her "theory of indivisible territory") seems rather obvious and not necessarily inconsistent with alternative theories that focus on relative deprivation, ancient hatreds, security dilemmas, or elite manipulation. She also suggests that dispersed and urbanized groups are less prone to violence. That this is true with the dispersed is hardly surprising, but it is not only the Northern Ireland case that confounds the proposition in the case of the urbanized (try Beirut).
Foreign Affairs
Toft's book is well written and closely argued.
Virginia Quarterly Review
An important contribution to the literature on the origins of violent ethnic conflict. The author's explanation is compact, straightforward, and elegant.
— Spencer D. Bakich
American Journal of Sociology
[T]he central argument is clear and the book is well written and interesting. . . . I recommend the book to scholars in sociology, international relations, comparative politics, and history who are interested in social conflict and comparative race, ethnicity, and nation.
— Robert M. Kunovich
Perspectives on Politics
Toft proposes a useful theory and adduces convincing evidence on some of the key determinants of severe ethnic violence.
— Stuart J. Kaufman
Toft makes an important contribution to the literature.
Virginia Quarterly Review - Spencer D. Bakich
An important contribution to the literature on the origins of violent ethnic conflict. The author's explanation is compact, straightforward, and elegant.
American Journal of Sociology - Robert M. Kunovich
[T]he central argument is clear and the book is well written and interesting. . . . I recommend the book to scholars in sociology, international relations, comparative politics, and history who are interested in social conflict and comparative race, ethnicity, and nation.
Perspectives on Politics - Stuart J. Kaufman
Toft proposes a useful theory and adduces convincing evidence on some of the key determinants of severe ethnic violence.
From the Publisher
"Toft's book is well written and closely argued."Foreign Affairs

"An important contribution to the literature on the origins of violent ethnic conflict. The author's explanation is compact, straightforward, and elegant."—Spencer D. Bakich, Virginia Quarterly Review

"[T]he central argument is clear and the book is well written and interesting. . . . I recommend the book to scholars in sociology, international relations, comparative politics, and history who are interested in social conflict and comparative race, ethnicity, and nation."—Robert M. Kunovich, American Journal of Sociology

"Toft proposes a useful theory and adduces convincing evidence on some of the key determinants of severe ethnic violence."—Stuart J. Kaufman, Perspectives on Politics

"Toft makes an important contribution to the literature."Choice

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691113548
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 8/11/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Monica Duffy Toft is Associate Professor of Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and Assistant Director of the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, Harvard University.

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Read an Excerpt

The Geography of Ethnic Violence

Identity, Interests, and the Indivisibility of Territory
By Monica Duffy Toft

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2003 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-12383-7

Chapter One


So that my generation would comprehend the Homeland's worth, Men were always transformed to dust, it seems. The Homeland is the remains of our forefathers Who turned into dust for this precious soil. -Cholpan Ergash, Uzbek poet

No matter how barren, no territory is worthless if it is a homeland. History is replete with conflicts in which people fight to the death over what appears to be territory of questionable value. This is because territory is simultaneously a divisible, quantifiable object and an indivisible and romantic subject.

As a physical object, territory can be divided and later redivided. It can be explored, inhabited, mined, polluted, exchanged, sold, bought, and farmed. Borders and boundaries can be redrawn, place-names changed, and people moved from here to there.

Yet in many places of the world, borders and boundaries seem fixed in time and in the imagination. The name of the land has remained the same for generations, and the people inhabiting that land would rather die than lose the hope or right of return. In this context territory takes on a meaning that far exceeds its materialand objective description. It becomes not an object to be exchanged but an indivisible component of a group's identity.

Territories are objects that are physically divisible; at the same time they become intractably and eternally indivisible. How else can we explain why, in places like Jerusalem and Kosovo, men and women not only are willing to die but also allow their sons and daughters to die just to remain in their homeland?

The central theme of this book is that different actors-states and ethnic groups-view the same territory in different ways. This is not because states are generally rational and ethnic groups are generally irrational. Rather, it is because territory means different things to states and ethnic groups. Chapter 2 introduces and explores a theory of ethnic violence that places the dual meaning of territory at the center of a general explanation of why some ethnic conflicts become violent and others do not. I call it the theory of indivisible territory. Territory is a sine qua non of the state and can be an irreducible component of ethnic group identity. For both, control over territory may become a matter of survival and, consequently, an indivisible issue. When both sides in a conflict regard control over a disputed territory as indivisible, violence is likely.

In fact, if we ask ourselves why presumably rational actors-in this case, political elites representing states and ethnic groups at a hypothetical bargaining table-ever resort to violence, we are left with a puzzle. The puzzle stems from the often observed fact that there are almost always solutions short of violence which benefit both or all sides of a conflict more than could violence. Violence is costly, and it is risky, so whyever try it? The answer lies in the "almost always" qualification. Social scientists have in fact isolated three key obstacles to a rational settlement of disputes short of violence: (1) private information; (2) a commitment problem; and (3) an indivisible issue. The private-information obstacle focuses our attention on the fact that parties to a dispute often have a large incentive to conceal their true aims and goals, as well as the costs and risks they are willing to sustain to reach those goals. In such cases, over- or underestimations can lead to suboptimal outcomes (namely, war). The commitment problem addresses the issue of trust over the long term: if I agree now, and I am the weaker party, how can you, as the stronger party, credibly commit to honoring whatever agreement we reach short of war? Finally, the indivisible-issue obstacle comes up in conflicts over values that either literally cannot be divided (one thinks here of the apocryphal tale of Solomon's decision to divide a baby in half to satisfy two women who claim to be the mother) or that for one reason or another, the two parties consider indivisible. Territory, or more specifically, homeland territory, often has this characteristic.

Understanding ethnic war therefore requires an understanding of how two actors come to view control over the same piece of ground as an indivisible issue. For ethnic groups, the key factor is settlement patterns-that is, where groups live and whether they are concentrated in a homeland and a majority or a minority. Settlement patterns bind the capability and legitimacy of an ethnic group's mobilization for sovereignty. Where both capability and legitimacy are high, as they are for groups concentrated in a region of a state, ethnic groups are likely to consider control over disputed territory an indivisible issue and demand sovereignty. However, states are likely to view control over a territory-even a worthless or costly territory-as an indivisible issue whenever precedent-setting effects come into play. Precedent setting operates when a state faces more than one potential secessionist. The state fears establishing the reputation that it allows the division of its territory. Only when both an ethnic group and a state, usually for different reasons, view the issue of territorial control as indivisible will violence erupt. If, however, the ethnic group does not demand sovereignty (that is, make an indivisible claim to the territory) or the state sees its territory as divisible, ethnic war is less likely.

A key contribution of this book is to detail the important differences between political actors in ethnic conflicts and how these differences play themselves out in disputes over territory. Ethnic groups (and nations) are not states. Although reducing ethnic groups to the ontological equivalent of states may make for elegant and parsimonious theories, my research makes it clear that such theories can be of only limited use.

Finally, the central subject of this research is violent ethnic conflict. At its root, ethnic conflict is about groups of people arguing with other groups, where the "other" is usually characterized by differences in race, language, or religion. The vast majority of ethnic conflicts do not involve violence. Here, however, my focus is on the subject of violent ethnic conflict-both its presence and its absence. The book's central question is, Why do some ethnic conflicts turn violent, but not others? I do not attempt to explain why ethnic conflicts arise in the first place, only the conditions under which they are more or less likely to escalate to violence.

The Importance of the Issue

Today nearly two-thirds of all armed conflicts include an ethnic component. Ethnic conflicts are almost twice as likely to break out as fights over governmental control and four times more likely than interstate wars. Ethnic conflicts are the most prevalent form of armed conflict and are unlikely to abate in the short or long term. The number and intensity of ethnic conflicts across the globe directly and indirectly threaten the lives of millions. Since World War II alone, millions of people-both those capable of bearing arms and those incapable of doing so-have died as a result of their membership in a specific ethnic group. Understanding the conditions under which ethnic conflicts escalate to violence-especially extreme forms such as genocide-may help political elites and policy makers prevent such fatal outcomes more effectively, or at least reduce their destructiveness when they do happen. The structural explanation I offer holds out the possibility of facilitating this worthy goal.

Beyond highlighting policy options that can work, this book sheds a cautionary light on a number of policy proposals that either are unlikely to work or may prove counterproductive. Marc Trachtenberg proposes one potential policy measure, which my research suggests is problematic.

If the problem in what used to be Yugoslavia is that different ethnic groups there can no longer live together peacefully, and if for reasons having to do with precedent, proximity, and spillover effects in general, the Western world decides that the continuation of such violence is intolerable, then there is no compelling reason that intervention should be limited to preventing starvation or controlling atrocities ... there is no reason why the outside powers should rule out as illegitimate the very idea of trying to get at the root of the problem-for example, by arranging for an orderly, equitable, and humane exchange of populations.

Trachtenberg's recommendation of population exchanges seems an intuitively sound policy, yet the current empirical research does not make it clear that the exchange and separation of ethnic groups will "get at the root of the problem" and quell ethnic violence. My research shows why.

Ethnically based violence may also expand from conflicts within state boundaries to those involving other states. In the most famous example, World War I, an essentially ethnic conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary eventually engulfed all the great powers, resulting in a shattering destruction and loss of life. Similar fears appear today in the cautious approach that European governments are taking to the caustic Balkan environment. Ethnic wars have created refugee flows, disrupted trade, and closed transportation routes, all of which have the potential to destabilize the international system.

The theory of indivisible territory presented in chapter 2 directly addresses these issues by detailing how ethnic conflicts escalate into violence. It demonstrates that without an understanding of what territory means to each actor in a potential negotiation, averting potential conflicts is all but impossible. The theory, which addresses the origins of ethnic violence, also bears on the resolution of such violence. Concerns over control of territory does not wither as a result of armed combat. Instead, the fact of combat usually only reinforces the argument that because more brethren have died defending the land, it is even more incumbent on a new generation of fighters to regain or maintain control over that land.

The Literature

A review of the recent literature on ethnic violence illuminates the ways in which my theory is different from past approaches. Territory as a factor-its meaning and implications-is largely missing from previous considerations. A number of approaches have been proposed to explain ethnic violence, but each provides only a partial explanation for why ethnic violence erupts. These approaches can be divided into three rough categories: material, nonmaterial, and elite.

Thesis: Material-Based Approaches

A number of scholars have approached the subject of ethnic violence by focusing on the material conditions of ethnic groups within a state. This approach has three major strands: development and modernization, relative deprivation, and intrinsic worth.

Political-development and economic-modernization arguments focus on the relative development of regionally concentrated ethnic groups within a state's borders. As the economy and state structures modernize, individuals should transfer their loyalties from their ethnic group to the state, leading to a demise in ethnic identity. This in turn should cause ethnic conflict and violence to diminish. In this theory, any ethnic conflict and violence that remain are the product of uneven development and modernization. Equalize economic development, and ethnic conflict disappears.

The development and modernization approach has not fared well empirically. First, development and modernization have not led to a decline in the salience of ethnic identities or regionally based ethnic conflict and violence. Violence continues to plague Spain and Northern Ireland, for example. Second, violence plagues rich and poor regions alike. In the former Yugoslavia, secessionist demands and violence broke out in the richest regions first, not in the poorest. Only after the federation was fully compromised did violence break out in the backward region of Kosovo. Economic development alone cannot explain the emergence of ethnic conflict and violence.

The group of scholars arguing for relative deprivation focus on resource competition among individuals who identify with a group. They claim that violence stems principally from perceptions of a decline in economic or political conditions after a period of improvement. The resulting competition for resources sparks collective action among individuals, who invariably form groups. As one group mobilizes, other groups are spurred into action. As these groups compete, conflict and violence erupt.

Although the idea of relative deprivation seems intuitively correct, it is impossible to test this theory adequately. Within any given society, individuals and groups have different notions of what constitutes a relative decline or improvement in their standard of living. The theory provides no guidelines on how to measure the perceptions of individuals in a society and how to aggregate those perceptions across groups.

A third major type of material-based argument comes from the international relations literature and focuses on a territory's intrinsic worth, a value that does not vary among actors. In this theory, actors are more willing to use force to secure valuable territory. This argument has two variations: strategic worth and intrinsic value. Often the two are inextricable. Strategic worth describes the security value of a given piece of territory. Is the territory astride major routes of communication? Does it share an interstate border? Does it contain natural barriers to invasion from other states or from states considered historical enemies? Intrinsic-value arguments focus on the wealth or resources that inhere in a territory. Does the territory contain a concentration of mineral or natural resources? Does it possess an infrastructure or industry of value? Does it have space for population expansion or arable land that could support an expanded population? If the loss of the contested territory threatens to undermine the security or economic survival of an actor, then that actor is likely to resort to force. This argument contains a powerful logic, and, as we will see, this logic does explain some variation in outcomes.

Although material conditions do affect relations between states and ethnic groups, explanations based only on material conditions underplay the ethnic dimensions and consequent tensions that might also contribute to conflict. State policies, for example, are not only economic or strategic, nor do they have only economic or material ramifications. Consider the Aral Sea basin. The Soviet state controlled the development and distribution of economic resources throughout the Soviet Union. It adopted policies and industries that undermined both the economic well-being of ethnic groups living in the Aral Sea basin and the cultural heritage of some groups. The huge hydroelectric dams and energy projects that benefited the rest of the Soviet Union caused the Aral Sea to dry up. Areas once teeming with fish are gone, and salt from the sea has caused severe damage to herding areas. The professions of fishing and herding are not only vital to the economic well-being of the indigenous populations of the region but also constitute part of their cultural heritage and national identity. In this case, economic development, or mis-development, by the state has caused these groups to suffer in both economic (material) and cultural (nonmaterial) terms.

Material-based explanations tend to overlook the frequent conjunction between material and nonmaterial factors. They thus oversimplify the motives of the actors. They cannot provide an explanation for why some groups are willing to risk death, internment, or mass deportation for seemingly worthless territory, or why those groups sometimes seek independence even when economic conditions are certain to be more desperate than those they are fighting to leave behind.


Excerpted from The Geography of Ethnic Violence by Monica Duffy Toft Copyright © 2003 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 The Forgotten Meaning of Territory 1
2 Indivisible Territory and Ethnic War 17
3 Territory and Violence: A Statistical Assessment 34
4 Russia and Tatarstan 45
5 Russia and Chechnya 64
6 Georgia and Abkhazia 87
7 Georgia and Ajaria 107
8 Conclusion 127
Appendix Tables 149
Notes 167
References 203
Index 219
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