Nationalism & Ethnic Conflict

Politics 40102-01, Seminar (Comparative & Int’l Studies)
Nationalism and
Ethnic Conflict
Spring 2021

Tuesday 4-6:30pm
Virtual via Zoom

Prof. Chip Gagnon

Last revised 3/14/2021

Please be sure to check out the Sakai site for this course for all details.


From Rwanda to Europe, from South Asia to the US, political conflicts around the world today, both violent and nonviolent, have been framed in terms of ethnic, nationalist, or religious identity.  Some argue that the major cause of conflict is the clash between cultures or culturally-defined civilizations.  In this scenario, cultural difference itself can be the cause of violence.

Is cultural identity and diversity itself enough to explain conflict, hatred and killing?  What is the relationship between ethnicity, cultural identity, violence, and state power? Is there a link between globalization and culturally-framed conflict?  These are among the questions we’ll be thinking about this semester.

Over the course of the semester we’ll be focusing on the relationship between cultural difference and ethnic conflict.  We’ll start by exploring the sources of conflicts described as ethnic. We’ll look at the political, military, and cultural origins of the nation-state and the role of culturally-defined violence in constituting state, national, and group boundaries, including various explanations for conflicts framed in cultural terms, such as theories of the state and theories of nationalism and ethnicity; the relationship between liberal democracy and cultural identities; and the way conceptions of space inform nationalism.

We then proceed to look at some specific cases of nationalism and conflict framed in terms of cultural difference: Rwanda; Yugoslavia (Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo); Australia; Europe; the United States. For each case we’ll ask the following questions:  What were the origins of cultural difference? What were the origins of the specific meanings given to cultural difference? What were the immediate and proximate causes of conflict? How and why did it end up in violence? How can periods of peace and coexistence be accounted for? What does each account say about the agency of individuals, that is, their ability to act based on their own understanding of their situation and identity? Finally we’ll discuss issues related to justice (or the lack thereof) in the aftermath of such conflicts.


The following books are required.

Please buy hard copies (paperback versions) of these books. Studies have shown that comprehension is much higher when a text is read on paper as opposed to on a screen.

  • Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780
  • Peter Maas, Love thy Neighbor: A Story of War
  • Lee Ann Fujii, Killing Neighbors: Webs of Violence in Rwanda
  • Cas Mudde, Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (available online via IC library)
  • Ashraf H. A. Rushdy, The End of American Lynching (also available online via IC library)
  • Jelena Subotic, Hijacked Justice: Dealing with the Past in the Balkans – paperback edition (also available online via IC library)

Other readings will be on Sakai; links are included on the online syllabus.

Doing the readings

Since this is an upper-level seminar most of our time will be spent discussing the assigned readings in light of the questions posed above.  I therefore expect you all to have done the readings before each class.

What does “doing the readings” mean?

It doesn’t mean just sitting down and mechanically going through the articles and books; that’s a sure way to make even an interesting text boring.

Reading is an active and interactive process between the reader and the text. If you’re really reading a text you are also reacting to it. I’ve included a wide range of texts in order to provoke a wide range of responses from readers.

Reading should also be a reflective process. To really understand an article deeply it is usually necessary to read it and think about it, and then read it again, and think about it again, and discuss it with others, write about it and read it yet again. I’ve found that even after many readings, when I read a text in order to explain it to someone else I get new perspectives on the author’s arguments and assumptions, on the text’s strengths and weaknesses.

So when I say “do the readings,” I mean “engage yourself with the ideas of the text.” I understand that some of the texts are quite complex and that not all of them are entertaining. But struggle is part of the reading experience. If something’s not clear, if it’s confusing, talk about it with others outside of class, and/or bring it up in class. As I mentioned above, taking notes on a text while you read it or re-read it is also a very good way to engage the text and to make sure you understand it.

One way to think about this is to look at the readings as stories.  The authors are telling us a story about something.  What is the focus of each story?  What happens in each story?  Why?


  • Class participation (25%) Learning is an active process; if you think about the things you’ve learned the best, they’re usually things that you haven’t sat back passively and “absorbed,” but rather things that you learned by actively taking part and practicing. So too with critical thinking. I therefore expect each of you to be active participants in your learning. This is especially important in a seminar. To be an effective participant means having done the readings and being prepared to take part in discussions. Your class participation grade will be based on a combination of attendance, participation, and being prepared. 
    • Discussion questions. In order to facilitate discussion, each student will be assigned a class for which they will prepare a number of questions to guide discussion.  All students are expected to take part in discussion.
    • Participation. Discussion of readings is a key part of the learning process, especially in an upper-level seminar.  This includes keeping your video on and actively taking part in in-class discussions. I reserve the right to call on anyone, even if your hand is not raised or your video is not on. My goal is to include as many voices in possible in our in-class discussions.
    • Being engaged. Tempting though it might be to be multitasking during class time, I expect that you give your full attention to lectures and discussions. This is also in your own interest because exams will be based on discussions of readings.
  • Short reactions to readings (25%) Each week I’ll ask you to do a short (3-4 page) reaction to the assigned readings. In the papers you should briefly summarize the main points of the reading(s) and then give your reaction, analysis, etc.
  • Presentation (15%): Each student will have 15 minutes at the end of the semester in which to present his/her research project and to take questions. You should clearly and succinctly lay out the question(s) you are addressing, the sources you used, the ways in which you went about answering your question(s), the challenges that you faced, and the answer(s) that you found.
  • Research paper (35%): A 20-25 page paper focusing on a topic related to the themes of the seminar. I expect you to meet with me to discuss ideas. I am very open to the topic of the paper, as long as it is related to the themes of the course. If you choose a topic related to the US it must be comparative, bringing in at least one other non-US case. The 35% includes not just the final paper but the other assignments leading up to it (click for details).
  • I expect that you’ll meet with me to discuss possible topics, sources, etc. I expect you to use a range of sources, at least 15 and preferably more: journal articles, books, and if available, good web sources.
    • Written proposal is due by Friday 4/16;
    • Annotated bibliography by Friday 5/7;
    • In class on 12/3 or 12/10 you will be expected to make a 15 minute presentation on your research project, tying it into the themes of the semester and leading a discussion on it.
    • Final paper is due during finals week, on Friday 5/14 by 7pm.

Be sure to check out the Guidelines for the proposal and annotated bibliography, Here are some useful links:

You cannot pass the course unless you have handed in all written assignments.

Reading Assignments

Tu 1/26 Introduction Questions and answers; Culture and identity; Ethnicity, nations and states

Tu 2/2 Political background: Nationalism, ethnicity, the state and identity: European origins
Required reading:

  • Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780, Chapters 1,2,3,4,6

To think about:
The constructed nature of the modern state and of the territorialization of identity.

Tu 2/9 The concepts of “ethnicity” and “ethnic groups”
Required reading:

To think about:
The nature of identity, the concept of “authenticity”, the relationship between identity and politics, and between identity and conflict, including violence.

Tu 2/16 No classes

Tu 2/23 Nationalism and territory
Required reading:

To think about:
Our unspoken assumptions about the space we think of as ours, and about the people who reside in that space.

Tu 3/2
Case: US lynchings

Required reading:

  • Rushdy, The End of American Lynching, Introduction, Chapters 1-4, Conclusion

Link of interest:

To think about:
The notion of complicity; the sources of violence along ethnic lines.

Tu 3/9 – Tu 3/16 Case: Nationalism in Europe
Required readings:
Tu 3/9:

Tu 3/16:

To think about:
The sources of right-wing extremist nationalism in Europe

Tu 3/23 – Tu 3/30
Case: Yugoslavia (Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia)
Required readings:
Tu 13/23:

Tu 3/30:

To think about:
Was cultural difference the reason for the wars in Yugoslavia? What drove the conflict? Think of the conceptual bases of the war in Yugoslavia and far right populists in Europe.

Tu 4/6 – 4/13
Case: Rwanda
Required readings:
Tu 4/6:

Tu 4/13:

  • Fujii, Killing Neighbors, Chapters 1-6, Conclusion

To think about:
The sources of conflict that led to genocide in Rwanda. Why people took part, why they acted in particular ways at particular times.

bl_diamFriday 4/16 Proposal for research paper due

Tu 4/20
Justice in the aftermath of violent ethnic conflict
Required reading:

  • Subotić, Hijacked Justice: Dealing with the past in the Balkans

To think about:
How to deal with historical grievances and conflicts. The role of outsiders in this kind of process.

Tu 4/27 – Tu 4/4 Presentations on research projects (details to be provided)

bl_diamFriday 5/7 Annotated Bibliography for research paper due

bl_diamFinal research paper is due during finals week, Friday 5/14 by 7pm.