Studying the relationship between identity and conflict

Political scientist Nicholas Sambanis discusses his work examining identity and conflict, including the discrimination often encountered by migrants.
Nicholas Sambanis

Nicholas Sambanis (Photo by Dan Renzetti)

An ethnic minority faces state violence after advocating for self-determination. Immigrants endure discrimination from the native population. A local government faces the challenges of integrating newly arrived refugees. A country erupts into civil war. 

Yale political scientist Nicholas Sambanis’ expertise covers all these scenarios. He studies civil war and other forms of intergroup conflict, both violent and non-violent, what causes these conflicts, and ways to end them. He has also focused on interventions to help countries engaged in ethnic conflict transition from hostility to peace, and he works on ways to reduce ethnic prejudice and discrimination in cases where ethnic conflict is expressed non-violently.

Sambanis, who began his academic career at Yale, serving on the faculty from 2001 to 2016, spent seven years at the University of Pennsylvania before returning to Yale this year as the Kalsi Family Professor of Political Science in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

He’s also founder and director of the Identity and Conflict Lab (icL), which conducts interdisciplinary research on questions of intergroup conflict and identity politics. 

In an interview with Yale News, Sambanis discussed the lab’s interdisciplinary approach, his evaluation of strategies to reduce anti-immigrant bias, and his early-career experiences at Yale. The interview has been edited and condensed. 

How did you come to study civil war and other intergroup conflict?

Nicholas Sambanis: I was drawn to these questions in the mid-90s, while I was pursuing my Ph.D. at Princeton. At the time, I was interested in the process of European unification and had started studying international economic policy with a focus on monetary policy coordination. Being from Greece, I had seen how important it was for the country to join the EU. The idea of forging institutions that tied countries together fascinated me.

Then, the wars in Bosnia and the genocide in Rwanda changed things for me. These wars played out as I was thinking about my dissertation prospectus, and I decided to switch from economic policy to security policy and to study ways to end violent ethnic conflict. These seemed like more pressing problems at the time, and harder to solve. So I started to work on multilateral peacekeeping operations, studying whether they can help end civil wars.

What kinds of research does the Identity and Conflict Lab pursue?

Sambanis: We conduct problem-driven research in the social sciences. The main problem we address is the incidence and expression of identity-based conflict, both violent and non-violent. The scope of our work is broad — there is no single, narrow theme. We have worked on why some conflicts over self-determination turn violent while others remain non-violent, why governments choose to accommodate some ethnic groups while they repress others, and what drives bias and discrimination against immigrants and ways to reduce such bias.

We have also worked on predicting the outbreak of civil wars and exploring both cognitive and biological foundations of prejudice, integrating insights and methods from political science, psychology, economics, and history. The work is driven by real social problems, but it is also informed by theory in the social sciences. We pay a lot of attention to proper measurement, conceptual clarity, and on advancing the literatures in the field we work on, though we also aspire to influence policy debates.

What are you currently working on?

Sambanis: For the past seven years, my focus has been on immigration. I focus on challenges of immigrant integration across countries. Native-immigrant conflict is a type of ethnic conflict, usually non-violent. At any one time, there can be a dozen ongoing projects at the lab, and these extend beyond immigration. For example, for several years now, we have been collecting data on self-determination movements by various ethnic and religious groups around the world so as to anticipate and explain the outbreak of violent separatist conflict. We’re also doing work on state and religious minority-group conflicts, with a focus on India and Pakistan. We have also been expanding to the field of political communication with a focus on foreign policy. There, I am very interested in exploring the role of nationalism in escalating inter-state disputes over sovereignty and territory. We have conducted some research in Greece and Turkey and will expand to other countries.

Does the work focus on economic immigrants or refugees?

Sambanis: We’ve done studies on both. While people tend to be more positively disposed towards refugees than economic immigrants, in practice the public often questions the veracity of refugees’ claims for asylum; they perceive economic opportunity as their main motive when their justifications for seeking asylum can’t be documented and verified.

But we have done studies on both types of migrants in many countries, including Germany, Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus. Right now, we’re doing studies in Italy, Spain, France, Denmark, and we’re starting a new project on migrant workers in the Gulf region. A recently published book with two of my former postdocs, Danny Choi and Mathias Poertner, called “Native Bias: Overcoming Discrimination Against Immigrants,” presents some of the main ideas that structure the lab’s work on native-immigrant conflict. The book focuses on Muslim immigrant integration in Germany and explores challenges to the European model of multiculturalism. The data for that book were collected over several years mainly through experimental interventions in the field. The main idea is to create micro-environments, skits basically, which allow unobtrusive observation and measurement of people’s reactions to immigrants and other natives when they adhere to or violate valued civic norms. This allows us to measure behavior, not just attitudes, while isolating specific causes of that behavior experimentally.

What is the relationship between identity and conflict in the questions you study?  

Sambanis: The role of identity on behavior is the overarching theme of my work. The dominant perspective in political science right now is that social identities (ethnicity, race, religion) don’t matter as much as people’s material interests. Identities are used by people who are really motivated by material interest — they are justifications or ways to organize collective action in pursuit of other goals. That view doesn’t seem right to me, though. And depending on your position on that core question, you would develop different types of interventions to end conflict. It is not easy to separate affective interests from material interests and motives of behavior, however. How you see the world and your position in society can shape your identity and vice versa.

Is that true regarding people’s attitudes towards migrants?

Sambanis: The perception of cultural [identity] threat seems to be a more powerful predictor of native-immigrant conflict than economic competition. But like in other contexts, identity and material interests are often fused together. Recently, political scientists interested in reducing prejudice against refugees have been drawing ideas from psychology about cognitive interventions designed to induce empathy toward refugees by pushing natives to take their perspective or by making salient the shared refugee backgrounds that some native populations have with refugee populations.

In the United States, for example, they would do surveys asking people when their families came to the United States, or if they had any immigrants in the family. And they found that asking people about these shared histories tended to improve their attitudes towards immigrants. There are a few studies like this, including in Greece and Cyprus, where there are very large segments of the population that have a family history of displacement. These studies were intriguing because they suggested that it is easy to break through identity barriers with simple cognitive interventions. But after doing studies around the globe, I found no support for this idea, unfortunately. Changing stereotypes and eliminating biases toward ethnically different groups probably requires structural, long-term interventions.  

Your first job in academia was at Yale. How was your experience?

Sambanis: I was attracted to Yale because of its reputation as a leading political science department. There were pioneering scholars on the faculty, and some of them really impacted my own trajectory as a scholar. I learned so much from reading and observing my colleagues here, both the leading senior scholars and junior faculty. Coming up the ranks here as an assistant professor changed everything about the way I approached my research. It changed the questions I asked and the methods I used to study those questions. In many ways, Yale was the best school I ever attended. Coming here was the right decision for me and I’m glad to be back. 

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