In popular discourse, variations on Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis have cited cultural differences to explain conflicts ranging from Hindu-Muslim violence in India to the Rwandan genocide. Few scholars take these accounts seriously. Culture differences are multiple and ubiquitous. Were they sufficient causes of conflict, the world would have undergone far more inter-group violence than has in fact occurred. Social scientists have instead focused on a far wider range of reasons, including skewed distributions of material resources and the political mobilization of group identities by rival elites.
Yet those who are involved in or affected by such conflicts often describe or explain them in cultural terms, and this affects how the conflicts evolve. The empirical divisions expressed by a supposedly “ethnic” conflict can also change, as can the material issues involved, such that whatever first led to the conflict may no longer be relevant. In this process, global and local fears and narratives can intersect. Drawing on quantitative evidence and case studies from Southeast Asia, Graham K. Brown will explore how and why these shifts occur.
Graham K. Brown directs the Centre for Development Studies at the University of Bath. He has held research positions with Oxford University, and with the Consumers Association of Penang, Malaysia. His many publications include a chapter on Malaysia in The Political Function of Education in Deeply Divided Societies (2011). His current work focuses on the interactions between inequality, identity, and security, with particular reference to Southeast Asia.