Book Review: The framing of war... and peace

Kathleen Malley-Morrison and Tristyn Campbell review “Handbook of Ethnic Conflict: International Perspectives.”

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The Framing of War...and Peace

A review of "Handbook of Ethnic Conflict: International Perspectives." By Dan Landis and Rosita D. Albert (Eds.) New York, NY: Springer Science + Business Media, 2012. 647 pp. ISBN 978-1-4614-0447-7. $179.00

Reviewed by Kathleen Malley-Morrison and Tristyn Campbell

Handbook of Ethnic Conflict: International PerspectivesThrough the centuries, we have labeled wars in many different ways, using a number of different criteria, including approximate length (e.g., Hundred Years War, Thirty Years War); the nationality of the combatants (e.g., Sino–Japanese War, Philippine–American War); the country in which the fighting takes place (e.g., Korean War, Vietnam War); the region in which the armed conflict occurred (e.g., Persian Gulf War); the name of a nonstate group (e.g., Boer Wars); and specific dates (e.g., 1914–1918 War, also known as the Great War and the First World War).

More generically, wars have been labeled “revolutionary” (or “wars of independence”), “colonial,” “civil” (no matter how bloody) and “international” — and, of course, we now have the “war on terrorism.” In the United States, we use capital letters to refer to our Revolutionary War and our Civil War (or War Between the States). Sometimes the same war is named differently depending on which side you are on; for example, some southerners have referred to the American Civil War as the War for Succession.

The very definition of war has changed through the years. In one classic definition, Carl von Clausewitz defined it as “an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will” (von Clausewitz, 1908, p. 2). In contemporary society, war is generally equated with armed conflict of various levels of lethality. Project Ploughshares (2010a, para. 1) provided this definition of "armed conflict": “a political conflict in which armed combat involves the armed forces of at least one state (or one or more armed factions seeking to gain control of all or part of the state), and in which at least 1,000 people have been killed by the fighting during the course of the conflict.”

Using very neutral terms, Project Ploughshares (2010b) identified two major types of armed conflict — interstate and intrastate; it also identified three different types of intrastate armed conflict — state control, state formation and failed state. In all three types of intrastate armed conflict, religion can play a defining role. Between the end of World War II and the first decade of the 21st century, interstate armed conflict declined, and most armed conflicts were intrastate (Eriksson & Wallensteen, 2004; Harbom & Wallensteen, 2007). Moreover, since 1997, with the exception of 2007 and 2011, the number of armed conflicts has been decreasing (Project Ploughshares, 2000, 2008, 2012). Only about one fifth of armed conflicts since 1945 have been interstate (Harbom & Wallensteen, 2005).

Framing some forms of intrastate armed conflict as “ethnic” or “interethnic” conflict is a relatively recent phenomenon; this approach is featured effectively in the "Handbook of Ethnic Conflict: International Perspectives," an exciting addition to the Springer series International and Cultural Psychology (series editor, Anthony Marsella). Organized geographically on the basis of eight areas (the Pacific Rim, Southeast Asia, China, the eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans, Central Africa, Europe and Latin America), the handbook provides case studies of 20 ethnic conflicts, some of which are familiar to many in the United States (e.g., the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and some of which are less familiar (e.g., conflicts in New Zealand, Malaysia, France and the Netherlands).

The Israel–Palestine conflict and Philippines–Mindanao conflict can be seen as examples of what Project Ploughshares (2010b) labeled state formation conflicts, characterized by communal or ethnic interests struggling for regional autonomy or secession. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a prime example of a failed state unable to provide even minimum security for its inhabitants.

What is gained by framing the different conflicts in the handbook as ethnic conflicts rather than simply as intrastate conflicts? Framing conflicts this way reminds us that they are not only between nations, or nations and nonstate parties, or religions, but between people who identify with groups, whose group identity is important to them and who often try to deal with life’s challenges by relying on group memberships. From the perspective of scholars committed to understanding the causes of war and peace, such framing humanizes the analyses, rather than embedding them only in abstractions such as “historical events,” “economic factors” and “political causes.” From the particular perspective of a psychologist, framing conflicts as ethnic legitimizes viewing them not just as products of political, economic and historical forces but as struggles involving psychological dimensions that may underlie all the other contributing factors.

Indeed, a consideration of the armed conflicts described in the book suggests that von Clausewitz’s definition of war as a process of pursuing personal goals may be the most productive way of thinking about it, however misguided and misinformed such a pursuit may be. Finally, categorizing armed conflicts as ethnic also reminds us that solutions require attention not just to economic inequalities, human rights violations and borders, but also to human emotions and ways of thinking.

Ethnicity, like race, is a social science construct to which psychologists have devoted considerable attention. Although the editors, Dan Landis and Rosita Albert, explicitly disavow conflating race and ethnicity, they do not provide any definition of ethnicity. In chapter 2, however, Salzman defines it as “a common ancestry through which individuals have evolved shared values and customs over time” (p. 24); this definition is inclusive enough to apply to the range of conflicts described in the book (and, indeed, to many others) while also reminding us of the relevance of psychological research devoted to understanding ingroup/outgroup relationships, prejudice and discrimination, we/they thinking, ethnocentrism, social dominance, authoritarianism and so on.

In chapter 1, Landis and Albert introduce several theoretical models for the analysis of ethnic conflict (e.g., social identity theory), and many of the subsequent chapters emphasize the strong role of particular religious and nationalistic identities in armed conflicts. Our own analysis of the conflicts described in the book suggests that there are other psychological theories (e.g., moral disengagement theory, with its focus on dehumanization) and constructs (e.g., social injustice) that are helpful in illuminating contributors to ethnic conflicts.

In regard to social injustice, the chapters are rife with examples of one group’s dominance over and discrimination against another group, often as a component or byproduct of colonization. For example, (a) “The underlying reality in Hawaii remains the colonization, marginalization, and decimation of the population of Native Hawaiians” (p. 30); (b) in New Zealand, “successive governments have largely ignored Maori concerns and have traditionally relied upon practices that favored European settlers” (p. 49); (c) following Spanish colonization of the Philippines, “The fighting between Christians and Muslims . . . resulted in deep-seated mutual animosities, distrust, and dislike, which . . . are still felt to this day” (p. 75); and (d) in the Belgian Congo, “Like most conflicts in Africa, the DRC conflict is a replica of the colonial legacy. In the DRC, this can be traced back to the violent Belgian conquest in 1885” (p. 388).

Another dominant theme is the extent to which colonizers, power elites and vested interests have deliberately stoked or even created ethnic tensions as part of a divide-and-rule or power maintenance strategy. In Sri Lanka, “successive Sinhala and Tamil politicians tried to out-do each other creating mistrust . . . [and] differences were both exploited and reinforced by State policies” (p. 95). In Turkey, “Of special interest . . . are the aggressive forays of the European Powers, especially Imperial Russia, in the waning decades of the [Ottoman] Empire and their self-serving and destructive manipulation of nascent Armenian nationalism” (p. 263). In Uganda, “Ethnicities and their meaning are reified, accentuated, or otherwise manipulated by those in power to enhance divisions and to minimize shared values or common goals” (p. 404).

These strategies, along with many of the incidents of violence described in the chapters, illustrate processes of moral disengagement as described by Albert Bandura (e.g., 2002), including dehumanizing of the other and providing “moral” justifications for atrocities. A moral disengagement analysis of interethnic conflicts could provide another layer of understanding of these conflicts. The sociocognitive mechanisms of disengagement described by Bandura are susceptible to exactly the kinds of manipulations described in many chapters (Malley-Morrison, in press).

In their introductory chapter, Landis and Albert comment that the question of whether ethnic conflicts are an inevitable result of being human “has yet to be answered” (p. 14). Contributors to this multidisciplinary volume suggest a variety of responses to that question but generally support the position that, although ethnic conflicts may be inevitable in multiethnic societies, armed conflict is not. Every chapter includes material describing efforts on behalf of conflict resolution, peace and reconciliation. Some chapters, such as the ones on Malaysia and India, focus primarily on interethnic peace and the factors that promote it.

In their concluding chapter, Albert, Gabrielsen, and Landis discuss both unsuccessful and promising approaches to conflict resolution and peace building. Their emphasis on developing trust and empathy resonates with Bandura’s view that empathy is at the heart of moral engagement, which is essential to the rejection of violence as a way of relating to others. It is clear that peace psychologists have the potential to make valuable contributions to more peaceful and equitable relations among groups; of particular value is their emphasis on achieving positive peace (defined by such characteristics as social justice and respect for human rights) rather than just an end to armed conflict (i.e., settling for negative peace).


Bandura, A. (2002). Selective moral disengagement in the exercise of moral agency. Journal of Moral Education, 31, 101–119. doi:10.1080/0305724022014322

Eriksson, M., & Wallensteen, P. (2004). Armed conflict, 1989–2003. Journal of Peace Research, 41, 625–636. doi:10.1177/0022343304047568

Harbom, L., & Wallensteen, P. (2005). Armed conflict and its international dimensions, 1946–2004. Journal of Peace Research, 42, 623–635. doi:10.1177/0022343305056238

Harbom, L., & Wallensteen, P. (2007). Armed conflict, 1989–2006. Journal of Peace Research, 44, 623–634. doi:10.1177/0022343307080859

Malley-Morrison, K. (in press). International handbook of peace and reconciliation. New York, NY: Springer Science + Business Media.

Project Ploughshares. (2000). The 2000 armed conflicts report. Armed Conflicts, 21(1).

Project Ploughshares. (2008). The 2008 armed conflicts report. Armed Conflicts, 29(2).

Project Ploughshares. (2010a). Defining armed conflict. Retrieved from

Project Ploughshares. (2010b). Types of armed conflict. Retrieved from

Project Ploughshares. (2012). ACR 2012 summary. Retrieved from

von Clausewitz, C. (1908). On war (F. N. Maude, Ed.). London, England: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner.