Enduring international interest in anthropological study of conflict

High circulation anticipated for prize-winning Chinese translation of How Enemies Are Made

March 29, 2018

In his study How Enemies Are Made: Towards a Theory of Ethnic and Religious Conflict, Günther Schlee, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, developed a widely acclaimed alternative to established theories of conflict: he shows that reasons like the struggle for limited resources or competition between different religious or ethnic groups are not adequate to explain the origins of conflicts. The English edition of the book has been highly successful since its publication several years ago, and the most recent translation – into Chinese – appeared in 2017. This translation was selected by an expert jury as one of the 10 best books of the Chinese publisher SSAP. The translator, Xiujie Wu, accepted the prize at a ceremony in Beijing.

A closer look at the participants in conflicts
The most frequent explanation given for the origin of regional and global conflicts is a scarcity of natural resources. For example, the struggle for oil is considered a key catalyst for the wars of the twentieth century; in the twenty-first century, by contrast, water is expected to be a cause of major conflicts worldwide. Günther Schlee argues that this explanation is too simplistic: “Theories that see resources as central causes of conflict are not incorrect, but they cannot explain who ends up fighting whom and why an individual might choose to join one party in the conflict rather than another.” He points out, for example, that although conflicts may follow divisions such as Turkic peoples against Arabs, or Sunnites against Shiites, “there’s no reason why this should have to be the case. There has been very little research into how individual parties are composed and how their make-up changes depending on the particular conflict and interests involved. For this reason, the goal of my book How Enemies Are Made, which is based mostly on data from fieldwork in eastern Africa and the Middle East, was to develop a systematic model that shows what criteria individuals use when they identify with specific parties in a conflict.”

Conflicts seldom the result of religion or ethnicity alone
Similarly, hostility between two groups cannot be adequately explained by members’ allegiance to different ethnic or religious groups. “Strong identification with a religion or tribe is usually the result of a conflict and not its cause. For groups and belonging to a group are social constructions, not fixed, pre-set categories, and in conflict situations they exert a particularly strong attraction,” Schlee explains. In other words, if we want to understand how conflicts arise and what course they take, we must carefully examine the interests of the individuals involved in it. Schlee: “For many actors, the decision about which party in the conflict to join is a matter of rational reflection. It may be the party that is dominant locally, or it may be the party that pays better.” Religious belief and affiliation with a family or clan are often only of secondary importance in these decisions. “There are cases in which the group that was defeated in a conflict joins the group that was victorious – simply because the victors have the resources that make it possible to survive, and not because they share the same religion or language,” says Schlee. “There is always a dynamic interplay between the struggle for resources and the available patterns of identity. Therefore, in order to understand how the parties in a conflict form and how their goals and interests change over time, it is necessary to examine the motives of the actors.” This knowledge is also crucial when trying to develop successful models for mediating conflicts and reconciling opposing interests in order to make peaceful coexistence possible again.

Large print run for the Chinese book market
After appearing in German under the title Wie Feindbilder entstehen: Eine Theorie religiöser und ethnischer Konflikte (C.H. Beck 2006), the book was published in English as How Enemies are Made to great acclaim in 2008. The Russian edition (2004) has also enjoyed great success. “I am of course delighted that the book’s success promises to continue in China, where it has been published in an unusually large first print run of 5,000 copies,” says Schlee.

Contact for this press release
Prof. Dr. Günther Schlee
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Department ‘Integration and Conflict’
Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle (Saale)
Tel.: 0345 2927-101
E-mail: schlee@eth.mpg.de

PR contact
Stefan Schwendtner
Press and Public Relations
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle (Saale)
Tel.: 0345 2927-425
E-mail: schwendtner@eth.mpg.de

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