Bridging Divides

Review War and Peace


Cultural Contestations in Ethnic Conflict

by Marc Howard Ross

Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007, 388 pp.


What does culture, and contestations of it, have to do with ethnic conflicts? How do the former help resolve and even prevent the latter? The conceptual and pragmatic links are not overly apparent. Thus, a better understanding of the provocative spaces between culture and conflict would benefit producers and consumers of cultures as much as policymakers and peace-oriented organizations.


In Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict, veteran conflict studies scholar Marc Howard Ross expertly examines the origins and present outcomes of nine “hot spots” of ethnic conflict, broadly understood as ranging from the symbolic to the violent. The introduction presents “easy questions and hard answers” about what these “fights” are about. In so doing, Ross establishes the running themes and arguments of the book, revolving around the construction of contested narratives that can either reduce or heighten tensions in conflict based on their inclusivity or exclusivity. In his words:


Cultural identities, from this perspective, are both barriers to, and opportunities for, the mitigation of ethnic conflict. The argument developed here is that movement towards constructive conflict management in long-term intergroup conflict is facilitated through the development of inclusive narratives, symbols, rituals, and other cultural expressions in context where mutually exclusive claims previously predominated.


Immediately, the reader is called upon to put aside any expectation of strictly construed “objectivity.” Ross’ aim is clearly not to simply understand the cultural dimensions of conflicts (often disregarded in favor of the political, economic or otherwise), but also to inform both those who study and otherwise work in conflicts as to how they can be more effectively resolved on the ground. Cultural dimensions must be given more serious, in-depth and practical consideration in the resolution of conflicts. Doing so is a prerequisite for lasting post-conflict peace,1 and demands a level of engaged reading, thinking, and action that may seem too much for those who feign separating the ethical from the scholarly. Making this leap, however, lands the reader not only on the firmer analytical grounds Ross constructs, it also brings the reader into a realm where studying the cultural dynamics of conflicts means reaching out to and assisting those who are immersed in such antagonistic, often violent and deadly, situations.


Too often, those directly involved in contested situations are too close to the issues to see the bigger picture or even their own predicament accurately, let alone a possible resolution. Focusing on wider cultural heritages and narrower pressing cultural traits of conflicts is a pragmatic way to end them, as evidenced by the actual conflicts worldwide Ross both documents and upon which he theorizes. Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim stand out as exemplars in this respect yet, indicative of gaps in Ross’ otherwise excellent book (which I will return to shortly), no mention is made of them by Ross even in his chapter on Jerusalem’s Muslim, Jewish, and Christian relations.


For a book that purports to defend the roles of culture, framing the construction of competing narratives in conflict zones as “political psychology” seems at first to be a strange place to begin. Yet, after having done so in his second chapter, the immediate import of Ross’ subtle distinctions become clear in his discussion of cultural performances and enactments as being inextricable from political and other discourses. The value of this distinction lies in the sharper focus it allows on the diverse array of cultural elements Ross considers. For example, in discussing religious parades in Northern Ireland, he make clear how violence erupts precisely when popular assumptions based on historical narratives (both distant and recent) are institutionalized in identity-based organizations and triggered by their leaders. Language takes center stage in another discussion on multilingualism in Spain. While not the strongest arrow in Ross’s quiver, the argument does outline a model of how political and cultural efforts can clash and still lead to compromise in, say, education and public sphere discourse at local and global levels simultaneously.



The Shankill Road, Belfast during The Troubles, circa 1970. (Wikicommons)


Another of Ross’ arguments deals with access to and caretaking of religious monuments in Jerusalem, where Ross locates the source of the competing claims of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in narratives of ownership dating back millennia; here he stresses that resolution here may be more logistical than cultural. The discussion again illustrates that culture alone has its limits in resolving conflicts and cannot effectively serve this purpose in a vacuum devoid of equally important considerations, from the historical to the ideological and beyond.


In this vein, Ross is able to compellingly extrapolate the lessons of one culture and apply them to another. As an example, Ross takes as primary vehicles of narrative integration in post-Apartheid South Africa the role of museums and history books as cultural bedrocks that can speak to a populace in not just “neutral,” but proactively peace-seeking, tones without sacrificing an iota of accuracy and validity. Without saying so directly, he implies the same efforts could be used to assist in the Israel-Palestine healing process, among many others.


As Ross makes clear, while it is insightful to inquire into salient and potent emotional dimensions of cultural contestation and ethnic conflict, doing so without alerting participants and observers alike to, and questioning the abandonment of, rationality is as guilty an act as directly perpetrating the conflicts. In the end, rationality creates the common—if also dissonant—grounds upon which conflicts can be resolved and prevented.


Steps toward inclusion can both heighten tensions as well as resolve them. This argument is put on display in Ross’ discussion on headscarves in France, which reveals how constitutional claims can be as powerful as religious ones in stoking inclusivity or exclusivity. In the name of secularism, anti-headscarves protests and laws against the headscarves take place; oppositely, in the name of the Republican state (i.e., the political system not the political party), whose duty it is to protect the religious freedoms of citizens and residents, protests and laws for the headscarves occur. Without losing sight of the plight of individuals who suffer psychologically and physically because of the tensions between these two positions, Ross suggests here that legal means must allay cultural contestations. Thus, steps towards inclusion can both heighten tensions as well as resolve them.


The last chapter of Ross’ book is concerned with displays of the Confederate flag on public and private property in the southern United States, an act which some see as racist and others declare an homage. This situation in particular exemplifies that not performing cultural acts can be as potent as performing them in diffusing and resolving conflicts. When the decision to act or not to act is in the hands of elected officials, culture offers a unique window opening onto the critique of representative democracy and the place minorities are put within it.


"Apartheid: then and now," (2008) by Carlos Latuff


Ross concludes his thesis by asserting “culture’s central role in ethnic conflict.” There is little doubt about this after his presentations of the conflicts couched in both cutting-edge and traditional conflict resolution paradigms. What Ross must be faulted for, however, is for not drawing on the centuries of narrative studies, let alone a more contemporary texts such as Homi Bhahbha’s Nation and Narration (Routledge, 1990), which offers analytical tools, exemplary structures, and cultural depth of tremendous benefit to the projects Ross and peace-builders carry out.


In contemporary cultural studies and critical theory, the reader response approach posits that meaning is created as much by who is reading as by what is being read. It follows, then, that when cultural artifacts are being (mis)read to the point of inciting conflict and violence, it is this very (mis)reading gone awry that must be critically examined in order to diffuse and resolve the situations in question. Cultural studies and critical theory have unacknowledged and neglected roles to play in literally saving lives and making the world a more peaceful place.


The leap from the reading of culture to the (often) surrounding conflict that Ross makes is a jump that literary and cultural critics dare not make. Out of fear of disciplinary ostracism, this investigation of narratives on the influence of people’s behavior (akin to reader response) in dangerous situations is often overlooked. But the serious limitation of Ross’ study that shadows his otherwise valuable work is his total sidestepping of the wealth of critical apparatuses provided by cultural studies and critical theory.  And yet Ross, like many scholars today, makes great effort toward and fanfare about being interdisciplinary. Stiil, he displays close to no knowledge of the fields of cultural studies and critical theory, which would have both opened up his work in conflict resolution and taken his own studies in directions other fields he draws upon (notably political and social sciences) typically prohibit,


Unquestionably, and notwithstanding these gaps, Ross does what he sets out to do: examine the roles of culture in nine ethnic conflicts so as to show how culture can be either a catalyst or inhibitor of conflict resolution. Integrating the body of knowledge of cultural studies and critical theory into the dimensions of conflict resolution Ross proposes is a logical and pragmatic next phase, whether for Ross in a second edition of his book or other peace-oriented researchers, culture-shapers, and policymakers.


May 11, 2011


1. Arguments that I set forth in Peace: A World History (Polity, 2009). Reviewed on The Mantle here.



Culture, Peace