Societal Categorization, Identity Conflict and The Rwandan Genocide

In discussion a couple of weeks ago, we attempted to come up with a definition for identity. Throughout this activity, we began discussing the difference between self-identification and societal identification. That is to say that, oftentimes, how one person identifies themselves may differ from how society identifies them.

Society organizes itself by separating people into categories. Think about any applications that you may have filled out – the categories are generally the same. They ask about gender, race, age, profession, economic status, religious beliefs etc. These are the categories that society uses to identify people. This directly relates to Henri Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory. According to Tajfel, social identity is a person’s sense of who they are based on their group membership.  We place others and ourselves into social categories. Once we have identified ourselves as belonging to a certain group, we tend to compare the different groups. The Social Identity Theory states that the in-group, or the most accepted group within society, will discriminate against the out-group to enhance their self-image.

Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory via Wikimedia Commons

These societal identifications have often been thought of as a cause of conflict. According to a study at the University of Colorado, “identity conflicts occur when a person or group feels that his or her sense of self is threatened or denied legitimacy or respect. Identity is the primary issue in most racial and ethnic conflicts.”

This research study reminded me of something we talked about in my World Politics class with Professor Allan Stam last semester. We discussed identity, specifically race and ethnicity, as a mechanism used by politicians to mobilize, gain support and accomplish their goals, rather than a direct cause of conflict. We primarily discussed this idea in terms of the Rwandan Genocide.

Historically, Rwanda had two main ethnic groups- the Hutus and the Tutsis. Prior to colonization, the divide between the two was very small. They spoke the same language, intermarriages were common and individuals were free to move between the two groups. However, when the Europeans came in the early 20th century, they decided that the Tutsis had more European characteristics, and put them in roles of responsibility. In 1933, when the Belgians gained control of Rwanda, they further escalated the divide by mandating that every person have an identity card, labeling them either Hutu, Tutsi or a smaller minority, Twa. The Tutsis were categorized by the Belgians as more intelligent, innately superior to the Hutus for no apparent reason except a slight difference in height, and narrower features.

Memorial Site for the Rwandan Genocide via Wikimedia Commons

Although ethnicity hadn’t been an issue prior to colonization, the colonists used it as a way to mobilize and gain support. It became a social construct – pitting the Hutus and Tutsis against each other in order to ensure Belgian control within the region. The Rwandan Genocide began because of the animosity between these two groups that was created by the Belgians.  Identity in itself was not the cause of this conflict- it was how the Belgians socially constructed the idea of race and ethnicity. Without societal stereotypes and categorizations, ‘identity conflicts,’ specifically conflicts over race and ethnicity, would not occur.