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The psychology of security threats in ethnic warfare: evidence from Rwanda's genocide

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This article addresses the role of threat in explanations of ethnic and other inter-group conflict and examines two issues in particular. First, it explains how security threats work by providing micro-level evidence of the psychological causal mechanisms behind them. Second, it contributes to two longstanding meta-theoretical debates in security studies on the causes of ethnic warfare. It asks how important are emotions – such as fear, resentment, and hostility - compared first with structural and materialist factors in explanations of ethnic conflict, and compared second with rationalist approaches. On the first issue, the article identifies four psycho-social mechanisms at work when an ethnic in-group faces a security threat: boundary activation, out-group derogation, out-group homogenization; and in-group cohesion. I show that the greater the threat, the stronger each of these psychological effects. Addressing the two meta-theoretical debates, the article suggests they present a false theoretical choice. Both emotions and material opportunities matter in ethnic conflict, and emotion and rationality are not opposing alternatives. I propose then two simple but fundamental precepts to refine existing theories. First, I distinguish between support for violence - which I term ethnic mobilization – and participation in violence - which I term ethnic violence. Emotions matter for mobilization, but material opportunities matter more for violence. Second, I apply an axiom in social psychology - that emotion and reason interact in numerous ways in individual judgement and decision-making - and illustrate these psychological mechanisms using micro-data. The article draws inter-regional and inter-temporal comparisons from within the case of Rwanda’s civil war (1990-94). The war culminated in a genocide that involved one of the most rapid and deadly mobilizations of a civilian population in world history. It uses a combination of survey data of ordinary Rwandans, content analysis of national radio broadcasts, and micro-case studies of four Rwandan communities.

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