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Psycho Cultural Conflict Theory

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 1649 words Published: 13th Jun 2017

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According to the psycho-cultural conflict theory, identity is the most important need in the hierarchy of human needs and, when denied, results in violent conflict. The satisfaction of one’s basic needs is intricately related to his/her identity. The Psycho-cultural Conflict Theory is similar to the Primordial approach to ethnicity which emphasizes the fact that peoples ethnicity (identity) is deeply rooted in their past.

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Irobi (2005) argues that memories of past traumas magnify people’s anxieties. This is as a result of ethnic identity which produces fear, hatred and, consequently, ethnic conflict among two ethnic groups which have a history of ethnic discrimination and stratification. Irobi posits that when an ethnic group has a history of being stereotyped and discriminated based on their ethnic identity from another group, it results in violent conflict since ethnic identity remains part and parcel of the entirety of an individual. Ethnic groups which have been discriminated against and stratified into lower class citizens always habour a feeling of marginalization of their identity and this produces strong feelings of hatred and resentment towards the other group which did the discrimination. This is what Richardson Jr. & Sen (1996) call ‘victim mentality’. Irobi (2005) criticizes the inadequacy of modernization theory which holds that modernity will result in the dissolution of ethnic affiliation. He observes that ethnicity is fixed and part of the identity of individuals and groups. Therefore, any marginalization of an ethnic group or discrimination against it based on ethnicity will receive strong resistance (conflict). This is particularly seen in the mobilizing role of ethnic identity.

Psycho-cultural conflict theorists like Ross (1997) and Horowitz (1998) believe that conflicts which are caused by identity are usually dangerous, violent, intractable and highly protracted, and often very difficult to resolve. This is because identity which is at the centre of the conflict, “is an unshakable sense of worth, which makes life meaningful and includes the feeling that one is physically, socially, psychologically and spiritually safe” (Faleti, 2006, p. 51). When this feeling of safety (identity) is threatened, there is a defensive reaction aiming at protecting this at all costs and the result is violent conflict which becomes a matter of life and death. This tends to affect development since violence is perpetually continued affecting productive sectors of local economies.

The psycho-cultural theory of conflict argues, therefore, that resolving this type of conflict is usually very difficult and tends to defy any resolution mechanism. There is always constant outbreak of violence with such conflicts despite attempts at resolving the conflict. Their resolution takes long and sometimes, it is not possible to talk of resolution, but management. This is because the issue of ethnic identity is uncompromising and its denial is a complete affront to the group’s very existence. The outbreak of consistent violence as a result of this type of conflict makes life and security fragile, thereby affecting human well-being and development. Thus, the link between ethnic conflicts, their resolution and development is clearly seen. Due to the deep-seated, protracted and intractable nature of conflicts based on identity (ethnic conflict), their resolution remains very difficult and takes very long, and this produces strings of violence thereby affecting meaningful development. Seymour (2003) therefore emphasized that identity influences the process of conflict and must not be overlooked when attempting to understand the origins of conflict and when planning its resolution.

The psycho-cultural conflict theory has been heavily criticized by many scholars. The theory has been criticized for attributing the main basis of conflict and violence to identity based on ethnicity. Critics are quick to point out that there is a tendency for many people to label any conflict as ‘ethnic identity’ based when that conflict exceedingly has a different cause (Tonah, 2007).

Bowen (1996) contends that those conflicts which are said to be based on ethnic identity are products of modern politics. He argues that although people have had many identities for long, which are based on their culture (ethnicity), these people only began to see themselves as members of vast groups, opposed to each other only during the modern period of colonization. Bowen (1996) mentioned that the Rwandan, Burundian and Bosnian conflicts are politically based conflicts rather than ethnic identity conflicts, but these conflicts later assumed ethnic identity dimensions. Osaghae (2005) also argues that what is seen as ethnic conflict is not so, but elite manipulation of people to gain advantage of their political and personal ambitions. Ethnic identity, to him, is elitist manipulation of ethnicity to gain control over political power and what is seen as conflicts emanating from ethnic identity are not at all, but politically based conflicts. It is possible for elites to manipulate a group of people against each other. It is even possible for conflicts in some parts of Africa and other places to take ethnic dimensions even if the initial cause of the conflict is political, resource, religious or any other cause (Tonah, 2007).

Ernest Penan (cited in Bowen, 1996) believes that ethnic identity is constructed by intellectuals for their personal interests and that ethnic identity is a set of ideas rather than peoples values in conflict. Chandra (2006) believes that ethnic identity does not matter or has not been shown to matter in explaining most outcomes of violence. Fearon & Laitin (2000) also argue after an enquiry into the relationship between ethnic identity and violence that the mere observation that ethnic identities are socially constructed is not so.

In conclusion, the Psycho-cultural Theory simply argues that identity based on ethnicity explains the main reason for conflicts in society. The weakness of the theory makes it imperative for this study to be able to properly identify the sources of ethnic conflict in the Bawku Traditional Area in order to devise appropriate resolution mechanisms to them.

Conceptual framework

It remains evident that development is meaningfully achieved through the existence of peace. Peace here refers to the absence of violent conflict and effective conflict resolution which both border on security. Ethnic conflicts, very often, are intractable conflicts which involve values, claim to status, identity, deprivation of needs and external factors such as political infiltrations (Coleman, 2000). Thus, ethnic conflicts are often protracted and remain very difficult to resolve and their continuous existence poses danger to local level development and they tend to seriously hinder security which is needed to ensure peace for development.

Ethnic conflicts as shown in Figure 1 primarily result from past historical and colonial experiences which are further exacerbated by factors like lack of access to power, resources and ethnic marginalization/stereotypes which are magnified by peoples’ struggle for their ethnic identity. The continuous ethnic polarization through these factors leads to violence (conflict) which results in low investments in local economic activities/commerce, decreasing agricultural, educational and health standards, insecurity, high dependency ratio, loss of lives and low incomes for individuals and families. The end result of all these, as seen in Figure 1, is decreasing levels of socio-economic development.

The effective resolution of ethnic conflicts can have positive implications for development. Schoeman (1998) argues that a society in which people are secure (when violent conflict is properly resolved or is absent), will:

  • Enable people to develop their communities;
  • Enable people to be architects of their own lives;
  • Enable people to come together to pursue economic and other development; and
  • Enable people to participate in the development of the society.

In resolving ethnic conflicts , one needs to focus on satisfying the basic needs which have been deprived (UN DESA, 2001) and also creating a proportional equality in deep-rooted cultural and identity issues (Richardson Jr. & Wang, 1993) using third party intervention and inter-group cooperation (Horowitz, 2000; Lipchitz & Crawford, 1995). All of these can be done by effectively engaging the conflicting parties in mediation, inter-group dialogue and third party intervention using indigenous methods. Issues which are mostly root causes of conflict when tackled properly results in effective conflict resolution thereby trickling down to sustainable peace which has implications for local development.


Core Problem

  • Low Investment due to insecurity
  • Destruction of Property and infrastructure
  • General Insecurity
  • Low Agricultural Production
  • Low commerce
  • Refusal to accept posting
  • Low Income
  • Decreasing Educational and Health Standards
  • Retarded Development

Ethnic Conflict

  • High Dependency Ratio
  • Low Income
  • Loss of Lives
  • Low Income
  • Poverty
  • Struggle for Ethnic Identity
  • Lack of Access to Power. e.g. Chieftaincy and Political Connections
  • Past Historical and Colonial Experiences
  • Ethnic Marginalization


  • Lack of Access to Natural Resources. e.g. Land
  • Decreasing Levels of Social/Economic Development


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