Theories of social-psychological motivations for conflict locate the sources of conflict in the way in which individuals perceive their environment, locate themselves in it, and on that basis form individual and group identities that guide their behaviour and actions.
The most important social-psychological theories of conflict are realistic group conflict theory, social identity theory, and psychoanalytic/psychodynamic theories. A relative newcomer among these theories is the theory of symbolic politics.
Social-psychological theories of conflict are relatively young and have been around in their earliest forms only since the 1960s. The first to emerge was realistic group conflict theory (Sherif 1966). Social identity theory has its origins in the 1970s and 1980s (Billig 1976, Tajfel 1981, Horowitz 1985). Psychoanalytic and psychodynamic theories of inter-group conflict have been developed from the late 1980s onwards (Volkan 1988, 1992, 1994, 1998; Montville 1990; Ross 1993, 1995). The theory of symbolic politics was developed by Kaufman (2001).
Realistic Group Conflict Theory
This theory was first formulated by Muzafer Sherif in 1966 and then revisited in 1988. The theory adopts basic premises of the rational choice approach in assuming that inter-group conflict originates in the perceptions of group members with regard to real competition for scarce resources, thus suggesting that hostility between groups results from real or perceived conflicting goals because they generate inter-group competition. In other words, the dynamic that evolves when groups are engaged in competitive zero-sum competitions leads to each group developing negative stereotypes about, and enmity toward, the other group(s) with which it competes.
Sherif et al. (1988) verified these basic premises in the so-called Robbers' Cave experiment involving boys in a summer camp who had never met before. When they were split into two groups engaging in competitive activities with conflicting goals (i.e., goals that can be achieved only at the expense of the other group, such as sports tournaments) inter-group hostility emerged very quickly and almost automatically.
Social Identity Theories
The most important theorists in the social identity approach are Henri Tajfel (1981), Michael Billig (1976), and Donald Horowitz (1985). According to this theory, every individual divides his/her social world into distinct classes or so-called social categories and locate themselves and others in relation to them. On the basis of a cumulative process of locating oneself, individuals can constitute their social identity, i.e., defines themselves in social category such as gender, geographic location, class, profession, ethnicity, etc.
The basic assumption is that people strive for a positive social identity. As social identity is derived from membership in groups, a positive social identity is the outcome of favourable social comparisons made between the in-group (i.e., the group to which one belongs) and other social groups. As long as membership in a group enhances one’s self- esteem, that is, as long as social comparisons remain (on balance) favourable, one will remain a member of that group. However, if the group fails to satisfy this requirement, the individual may try to change the structure of the group (social change), seek a new way of comparison which would favour his/her group, and hence, reinforce his/her social identity (social creativity), or leave/abandon the group with the desire to join a 'better' one (social mobility).
For individuals that are members of a minority group to achieve a positive social identity is very difficult because minorities almost always have an inferior status in comparison with the majority. Thus, for members of minorities, different strategies are required to confront the challenge of a achieving a positive social identity. First, if the social system is perceived as legitimate and stable, and there are no visible alternatives to the status quo, or there is no conceivable prospect of any change in the nature of the system (such as in a feudal society), they just accept their inferiority and acquiesce. Second, if the system is perceived as illegitimate by the minority, very soon alternatives begin to be envisioned. The system loses its stability, and oppression and terror by the majority-controlled state becomes the only way to maintain it. Third, if majority-minority relations are perceived as illegitimate and the system is no longer stable, the minority group members will tend towards a rejection of their inferior status. They then may reinterpret and redefine their group's characteristics and, thus, try to transform their social identity into a positive one.
Donald Horowitz (1985) offers the best-known application of social identity theory to cases of ethnic conflict. It focuses on group comparison between backward and advanced groups in which members of the backward groups must decide whether to emulate out-group behaviour in order to compete or adopt different coping strategies, such as claiming preferential treatment or compensation if backwardness is perceived to have emerged from past injustices and discrimination. Backward groups harbour fears extinction if they cannot catch up with advanced groups or if preferential treatment is limited, and their anxiety flows from diffuse danger of exaggerated dimensions, limits and modifies perceptions, and produces extreme reactions to modest threats. Horowitz also stipulates a relation between self-esteem, anxiety and prejudice in relation to conflict. Self-esteem is raised by aggression, especially if aggression is projected on others as justification for own actions, i.e., prejudices about other groups’ aggressiveness produces and intensifies anxiety and justifies aggression (as self-defense).
Comparisons between ethnic groups center on their relative group worth and relative group legitimacy and merge easily into a politics of ethnic entitlement in which the quest for power is both instrumental (power as a means to an end, e.g., averting the threat of group extinction) and symbolic (power as a confirmation of status). This means that in unranked systems, groups will make efforts to dominate and avoid domination by others. What may thus have initially been a conflict over needs and interests becomes subordinate to conflicts over status and over the rules of the political system (citizenship, electoral systems, official languages, constitution, etc.). The intensity of ensuing conflict is, according to Horowitz, a function of the relative strength of group claims: the more invidious the group comparison and the larger the area of unacknowledged claims to group legitimacy, the more intense the conflict.
The most important representatives of the psychoanalytic approach to inter-group conflict are Vamik Volkan (1988, 1992, 1994, 1998), Marc H. Ross (1993, 1995) and Joseph Montville (1990).
Their theories mainly seek to explain how people form images about themselves and others. Volkan argues that there are suitable targets of externalization determined either by culture (familiar objects of a child's environment), or shown to the children by parents and other adults. Such suitable targets of externalization are symbols such as flags, songs, special dishes, places of worship, religious icons, memorials, certain animals (Ross, 1995), but also people, and groups of people (Volkan 1988), and they can have both positive and negative connotations. Yet, this is not sufficient for the definition of group identity. In addition to cultural symbols and rituals, a group identity needs enemies (who help the group members define who they are not), chosen glories (important, usually mythologized and idealized achievements that took place in the past), chosen traumas (losses, defeats, humiliations -also mythologized- that are usually difficult to mourn), and borders (physical and/or mental) that facilitate a clear distinction between in-group and out-group.
Minorities, especially if they are considered impossible to assimilate into the majority can easily become suitable targets for externalization of the majority’s negative feelings and self-images. In this case, minorities not only attract hatred, suspicion, and rage of the majority because of the characteristics they allegedly have but they also serve as reservoirs of the majority's negative self-images whose very existence is blamed on the minority (e.g., majority aggressiveness is necessary as a self-defence against minority aggressiveness). Relations between minority and majority may become even more strained if that minority is linked to a state or nation that in the past inflicted a deep trauma upon the majority group (e.g., favoured/ruling majorities in colonial regimes). In that case, and after the balance of power changes in favour of the majority, the minority often becomes a target of ethnic cleansing, massacres, and genocide.
Symbolic Politics Theory
Symbolic politics theory proceeds from social-psychological assumptions and rejects rational choice approaches, assuming that the nature of ethnicity is constructivist rather than instrumentalist and that human motivation is based on emotion rather than rational cost-benefit calculations. Hence, it is emotions that allow individuals to prioritise goals.
Core to the understanding of the dynamics of ethnic conflicts is the so-called ‘myth-symbol complex’ that defines ethnic groups (both in terms of what makes their members alike and distinguishes them from outsiders). The definition of ethnicity that underlies this assumption is one in which ethnicity is both historically and culturally rooted and thus can either enable or constrain its instrumentalisation in the context of ethnic conflict. In other words, the more prominent the role of hostility in a myth symbol complex that distinguishes members of one group from those of a particular other ethnic group, the greater the likelihood of violent conflict and vice versa.
Symbols which reflect interests and “values” (such as security, status, etc.) are what people respond to emotionally. It is thus the emotionally most powerful symbols presented to them to which they respond and on the basis of which they prioritise goals and favour leaders.
From this perspective, then, three main preconditions for ethnic conflict exist. First, violent conflict requires the presence of a group mythology that justifies hostility. Second a group needs to perceive an existential threat to its existence. Third, groups opportunities to mobilise, in the sense of political space (political freedom, state failure/regime collapse) and territorial concentration of a group (or a territorial base in a neighbouring country).
In the presence of these conditions, escalation towards violent ethnic conflict can be either elite-led or mass-led and happens through the interaction of three processes: mass hostility, chauvinist political mobilization, and an ensuing security dilemma.
Among social-psychological theories, the standard-setting work remains Horowitz’ 1985 volume Ethnic Groups in Conflict, which presents an empirically rich overview of ethnic conflict primarily in Africa and Asia in support of its theoretical framework. More recently, Stuart Kaufman won the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order in 2003 for his book Modern Hatreds: The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War, in which he applies symbolic politics theory to cases of ethnic conflict in the Balkans and the former Soviet Union.
Among psychoanalytical theories, Vamik Volkan and Marc Howard Ross stand out as theorists and applied theorists. Volkan’s 1997 Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism applies psychoanalytic principles to the explanation of ethnic conflicts in Cyprus, the Balkans, and the Middle East, among others. Ross’s 2007 volume Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict applies key concepts of psychoanalytical theories, such as psychocultural traumas and interpretations, to a diverse range of conflicts from Northern Ireland, Spain, the Middle East, South Arica and the American South.