Identity Conflict Based on Social Theories

Identity Conflict Based on Social Theories

In 1994 the Rwandan genocide resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of Rwanda’s Tutsis and Hutu political moderates by Hutus. Estimates of the death toll have ranged between 500,000 and 1,000,000,

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The extent of the unleashed anger and violence that occurred shocked the world. The scale of the conflict is succinctly summarized by Jones ( 2001).

It is difficult to overstate the scale or brutality of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Between 6 April and 17 July, the Rwandan state engaged in an act of mass carnage against its own population, targeting a minority ethnic group and political opponents. In a mere fourteen weeks, several hundred thousand people — perhaps as many as a million — were gunned down, beaten to death, or literally hacked to pieces by machete, often after being raped, tortured, and forced to watch or participate in the execution of family members (Jones, 2001, p. 1).

This event also led to tremendous social upheaval and about fifty percent of the population were displaced due to there fighting. “The Rwandan genocide was horrific even by the standards of a century repeatedly marred by mass political and ethnic slaughters” (Jones, 2001, p. 1).

The horrendous genocide that took place as a result of the conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups has been a cause of much debate and theoretical soul-searching in recent years. In the light of postmodern and post-structural discourse there has been a renewed interest in the importance of the relationship between social and psychological identity and prejudice and oppression. As a result the underlying causative factors in the Rwandan conflict have become a subject that reflects on contemporary views and theoretical assessments of the concept of identity in societies. This has meant that the analysis of Rwandan conflict and genocide is part of a reevaluation of the meaning of identity and how the differences in group and individual perceptions of identity could have led to genocide on the scale and ferocity of Rwanda.

In this light, a central thesis that will be explored in this paper is that the understanding of identity and identity conflict needs to be expanded beyond the psychological or purely sociological dimensions. In order to understand how identity acted as a fuse to the Rwandan genocide it will be suggested that a more inclusive and comprehensive theoretical perspective on identity needs to be adopted.

Theoretical perspectives on the conflict

Self-Justification Theory

In order to understand the origins of the conflict one must take into account the pre-colonial myths that were an important factor in the animosity between the Hutu Tutsi groups. This refers to the Rwandan origin myths that was promulgated to justify hierarchical relationships and inequalities in the society and which were later to simmer into genocide. The myth of Kigwa, a deity who fell from heaven and his three sons, Gatwa, Gahutu and Gatutsi, provides the background to the feelings and perceptions of self-identity that was source of self-justification in the conflict (Lemarchand, 1999).

As a result of their different responses to a task set by Kigwa, Gatutsi become his successor, and Gahutu became his brother’s servant, while Gatwa was relegated to the status of outsider. This mythical view therefore placed the Tutsi above the Hutu in terms of social and cultures ranking, power and privilege. This in brief and put very simplistically forms the basis for a perceptions of the hierarchical distinctions that constitute the essence of cultural and social identity in the society, and which was to be transformed in the convoluted and complex history of the country into the conduit for social conflict.

This self — conception or perception of identity was subsequently used and distorted by the colonial invasion of the country. This in turn resulted in the view that the Tutsi were the oppressors in the society. The Hutu on the other hand developed a sense of identity which included a view of themselves as liberators of the country from Tutsi oppression — which is another form of self — justification through identity.

As stated, the colonization of the country exacerbated the situation with regard to identity and self-justification. The effects of the colonial involvement and distortion are an area of discourse that is extensive and strictly beyond the ambit and parameters of this paper. Suffice to say that the Hutu sense of identity was used by the colonizers to their advantage and led ultimately to a scenario in which the Hutu sense of inferiority became linked to a perception of their rightful place and leadership of the country, while the superiority of the Tutsi group was transformed into a perception of their illegitimacy as a result of their essential ” foreignness” in the country.

Social Identity Theory

One of the central factors in this conflict is the psychological interpretation as to what drove people to murder their neighbors en masse. This is also linked to the psychological complex that constitutes societal identification and acceptance. What adds a considerable degree of depth and complexity to the issue of interpretation is the fact the society was largely homogeneous and there was a great degree of intermixing and intermarriage between the ethnic groups.

A further complicating aspect that should be borne in mind in any theoretical assessments or analysis is that Rwanda was a country that was largely socially constructed and engineered, as it were, by the process of colonization. This also relates to various ideological aspects that have to be taken into account; such as the fact there was the perception in terms of identity that the Tutsis were innately superior to the Hutu, which was also a central causative factor in the friction that was to result in the horrendous violence that ensued. As referred to, the majority Hutus took to viewing the Tutsis as foreign invaders and not true Rwandans. This psychosocial construct and racist ideology set the stage for hatred and preceded the genocide.

Taking the above variables into account, Social Identity theory is possibly one of the most obvious means of interpreting the events and the inner dimensionality of the conflict that occurred in Rwanda. Social identity theory takes three central psychological variables into account; these are social categorization, social identity, and social comparison or Identification. These components can be related to the Rwandan situation. The aspect of social categorization is related to social identity in the strong group affiliation that created the Hutu and Tutsi group divide. The aspect of social comparison was also clearly part of the problem in the assumption of superiority by the Tutsis.

However, there are certain limitations to this theoretical trajectory that require the additional perspectives that are offered by other theoretical stances. It will suggested throughout this paper as a central focus of discussion that this conflict can only adequately understood in terms of the full range of its causative factors that need to be provided in a more integrative theoretical approach .

The issue and problematics of identity is one of the focal points of debate in terms of the contemporary analysis of conflict and individual and group behavior. As Huddy ( 2001) notes:

Postmodern theorists in the humanities have challenged traditional conceptions of identity by arguing that the fixed subject of liberal humanistic thinking is an anachronism that should be replaced by a more flexible individual whose identity is fluid, contingent, and socially constructed ( Huddy, 2001, p. 127).

The above view also takes into account the relationship between individual behavior and social and group constructs. In essence, Social Identity theory focuses on aspects of intergroup conflict, the conformity to group norms, as well as the issues and outcome of low group status, and the “…conditions under which it generates collective action, and the factors that promote the categorization of oneself and others into groups” ( Huddy 128).

One of the limitations of this theory is the critique that social identity theorists are “…disinclined to examine the sources of social identity in a real world complicated by history and culture” (Huddy 127). However, this theory has application to the present study and the conflict between the two groups in that it describes the ways in which group identity can lead to division on many levels and lead to civil war and genocide.

However, the problematics of using Social Identity theory to explain the events that took place in Rwanda is underscored in an article by Tony waters entitled, Tutsi Social Identity in Contemporary Africa. There author points out that there were few real or substantial social differences between these two groups of people. In fact, he points to the fact that there had been a great deal of intermarriage and intimate levels of association between the Hutus and Tutsi prior to the civil war.

This view therefore tends to problematize the issue of simple identity difference between the two groups as a central causative factor. It consequently opens up other possibilities and theories that need to be investigated. It raises the question as to how the extent of the depth and makeup of the differences between the two groups could have resulted in the horrendous aggression and massacre. In other words, the question that needs to be answered is, how did psycho-social identity differences create such deep rifts in a society that was in fact closely related by intermarriage and years of living closely together. This leads to the conclusion that there are other social and political factors that need to be taken into account in order to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the events, as well as how they impacted on the meaning of identity. .

Social Dominance and other theories

As noted above, the discussion and analysis of the causative features of this conflict and the concomitant effect of this analysis on possible resolution scenarios is largely dependent of the ability of the particular theoretical model to take into account the many variables of this conflict. In order to achieve a more holistic view of the conflict one has to take into account the fact that the hostility in Rwanda, as in many other regions of the African continent had their origins in “…modern struggles for power and wealth” ( Pottier). As Pottier states in Re-Imagining Rwanda: Conflict, Survival and Disinformation in the Late Twentieth Century, “The world, however, easily overlooked this modern origin, since the confrontations it witnessed appeared to have taken on strongly ethicized, seemingly ‘tribal’ overtones and justification” ( Pottier). This study goes on to make a valid point that is germane to the present discussion and analysis of the role of identity. This refers or the view that,

The Rwandan 1994 genocide in particular… was for too long and at too great a cost portrayed by the media as rooted in tribalism. Rwanda’s bloodbath was not tribal. Rather it was a distinctly modern tragedy, a degenerated class conflict minutely prepared and callously executed ” ( Pottier).

The above quotation also refers to a somewhat different theoretical trajectory which, if followed, would take us beyond the ambit of the present emphasis on the issue of identify. However, what the above quotation clearly emphasizes is that all the aspects and variables in this conflict cannot be comfortably dealt with by social identity theory. If follows therefore that in order to understand the Rwandan conflict in terms of identity one has to search for a more inclusive and comprehensive theoretical framework to ascertain the origin and the roots causes of this genocidal behavior.

This point is made in Social Dominance Theory: Its Agenda and Method by Sidanius et al. (2004). The authors state that that conventional theories and views about identity as a cause of conflict have not been able to explain the widespread nature and ferocity of the conflict in Rwanda and other areas of the world. The reason he gives for this theoretical shortcoming is as follows:

We suggest that part of the reason for this hole in our theoretical understanding is that almost all approaches have focused on some specific psychological or sociological cause of prejudice and discrimination. Rarely have social scientists attempted to understand these problems by exploring the interactions among several levels of analysis — that is, the manner in which psychological, sociostructural, ideological, and institutional forces jointly contribute to the production and reproduction of social oppression

(Sidanius et al. 2004).

The above is an essential and important theoretical viewpoint and one that accords with the present analysis of the Rwandan conflict. In essence this means that the concept of identify should be widened and expanded to include more than just its psychological aspect. If we also take into account the more postmodern and post-structuralist views of identity as an amalgam of social, psychological, cultural historical and political elements, then this view of identity become even more relevant.

Social Dominance theory provides a more integrative perception of the role of identity in conflict. As one critic comments, this theory suggests that “…most forms of group conflict and oppression & #8230;can be regarded as different manifestations of the same basic human predisposition to form group-based social hierarchies” (Maiese). This refers to the sociological concept of social stratification which is clearly seen in the hierarchical structure of Rwandan society. This also leads to a system of subordination and domination of one group by another, in this case the Hutu and Tutsi, who were struggling to maintain or advance their social status. Sidanius et al. ( 2004) takes this theory a step further in suggesting the integration of the individual and social aspects of identity. “Rather than merely asking why people stereotype, why people are prejudiced, why they discriminate, or why they believe the world is just and fair, social dominance theory asks why human societies tend to be organized as group-based hierarchies ( Sidanius et al., 2004).

Other theoretical perspectives

With the emphasis on the search for a more integrated approach to the question of identity and conflict, we will briefly examine some of the other major theories that illuminate the problem of identity and conflict in the Rwandan context. Social Categorization theory is also a theory that explains aspects of this conflict. This refers to the development of prejudice and stereotypical images and perception of the “other,” as a result of forms of prejudicial social categorization. This is obviously applicable in the foundation myth held by the Tutsi group referred to above – that they were immigrant rulers, racially distinct from Hutus, and naturally superior to them. Consequently, ingroup bias and outgroup prejudice were a major aspects in social category-based group differences.

Self-Categorization theory advances social identity theory by asserting that

Self-conception or self — cognition takes place on multiple levels of inclusiveness. Basically this theory is concerned with “…variation in self-categorization”….and it focuses on ” the distinction between personal and social identity” (Turner). In other words, this theory attempts to investigate how the higher-order processes of group behavior are a result of a change in perception from self-identity to social identity.

This relates to the conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi in a number of ways; for example in the fact that while many of the people in Rwanda who had close personal relationships that crossed ethic boundaries, but that these personal relationships were subsumed by the larger oppositional social categories. This also refers to cognitive factors that promote categorization of oneself as a group member. This relates more specifically to how Tutsi and Hutus defined themselves relative to their groups. The theory helps to explain the fact that conflict was fostered by the perception of stereotypes; such as propaganda that warned Hutu men to beware of Tutsi women. And portrayed Tutsi women as arrogant and looking down on Hutu men whom they considered ugly and inferior..


As Jones ( 2001) notes, “…there were significant obstacles to conflict resolution in Rwanda…”(Jones, 2001, p. 1). The high levels of hostility, distrust and violence proved to be effective barriers to any attempts to solve the conflict. Another obstacle was the level of rhetoric and ideological misinformation that was created by each side.

One possible solution to a situation like Rwanda would be to separate the groups by force and to establish a neutral or militarily controlled zone. This option stops the conflict but does not solve the problem.

Another more optimal solution can be derived from the above theoretical analysis. One of the most obvious resolution scenarios for an intense conflict can be derived from both psychological and social theories of identity. This solution suggests that as the conflict is based on an intense view of separate identity. Therefore, if a new unified identity that includes the aspirations of both groups can be developed, then this should resolve the conflict. In other words, as the violence and aggression is based on division and differentiation in terms of identity, then efforts to reshape these perceptions of difference through mediation and reconstruction would lead to a situation where the perceived stereotypes and false ideologies of one group by another would be replaced by a more accommodating and realistic view of commonalities rather than differences. Of course this is an idealistic view and one would have to take into account the fact that identity is also influenced and shaped by factors such politics and power.


The conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi involves a complex array of factors and variables. Central to this conflict is the concept of identity and difference between the two different groups. However, as has been suggested in the above analysis of critical theory, the meaning of identity is multivalent and composed of many aspects and layers of influence.

The various theories of conflict and identity provide different vantage points and perceptions; from the psycho-social dimension in Social Identity theory to the understanding of the construction group identity in Social Dominance theory. Each provides insight and part of the answer. But in order to understand the way that identity functions as a causative factor in conflict one has to adopt a more holistic and integrative approach which includes the social and psychological dimensions as well as political, cultural and historical aspects. All of these elements add to the makeup and constitution of individual and group identity.


Bigagaza J. et al. Land Scarcity, Distribution and Conflict in Rwanda. Retrieved from

Bird C. ( 2004) Status, Identity, and Respect. Political Theory, 32 ( 2).

Huddy L. ( 2001) From Social to Political Identity: A Critical Examination of Social Identity Theory. Political Psychology, 22 ( 1).

Identification. Retrieved from

Jones, B.D. (2001). Peacemaking in Rwanda: The Dynamics of Failure. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Lemarchand, Renee (1999) Ethnicity as Myth: The View from Central Africa. University of Copenhagen: Center for African Studies.


M. ( 2004) Social Status. Retrieved from

Moise Jean ( 2007) “The Rwandan Genocide: The True Motivations for Mass Killings.”

Emory Endeavors in World History 1.1 (2007): 9

Pottier, J. (2002). Re-Imagining Rwanda: Conflict, Survival and Disinformation in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Reicher S. ( 2004) The Context of Social Identity: Domination, Resistance, and Change

Political Psychology, 25( 6).

Sidanius et al. ( 2004) Social Dominance Theory: Its Agenda and Method. Political Psychology, 25 (6).

Turner J. Self-categorization theory. Retrieved from

Waters T. ( 1995) Tutsi Social Identity in Contemporary Africa.

The Journal of modern African studies, 33 ( 2) .

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