Small Wars Journal

Dangers of Ethnicity in Analysis

Tue, 10/29/2013 - 6:05am

Dangers of Ethnicity in Analysis

Andrew Marvin

In the pursuit of high-quality political or intelligence analysis, analysts need to be aware of lazy narratives they might encounter, particularly those of ethnicity and “ethnic strife.”  While backgrounds, beliefs, and languages do matter, some observers play the ethnicity card quickly and without much explanation.  Occasionally some writers feel as if labeling an article’s subject “Chechen,” “Muslim,” or “Kurd” tells a reader almost everything about him or her.  Ethnic narratives change the way the journalists, analysts, and the general public think about peoples in general and potential terrorists in particular.  When describing subjects, analysts should carefully consider what they mean by ethnicity and other personal attributes.  Likewise, they should avoid the rush to judgment about the implication of any single attribute.  Good use of structured analytic techniques and sophisticated thinking on the nature of ethnicity can ensure that analysts avoid generalizations and deliver nuanced insight on the background of an individual, group, or event.

The Boston bombings offer one example of this narrative in action.  Some observers spent a lot of time discussing the Chechen roots of alleged terrorists Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and some broadcast news networks mentioned the Chechen connection continuously during their coverage.  Chechnya, a federal subject (or republic) within Russia, has had a troubled history and can easily capture a reader’s imagination.  Chechnya rebelled against Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union.  Many of its inhabitants are distinct from ethnic Russians by language, custom, and religion (Islam).  Like the Abkhazians, South Ossetians, and the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Chechens fought for independence after the Soviet Union’s breakup.  Georgia and Azerbaijan each lost control of territory during these struggles, but Russia held on even after two wars against fierce Chechen resistance, which included fighters such as Shamil Basayev, a terrorist responsible for several spectacular and bloody attacks during the fighting.

Some Chechens became radicalized during the war and supported armed Jihad in several countries, including Afghanistan.  There, as in the Chechen civil war, their fighting prowess became the stuff of legends.  Gary Schroen recounts in his Book First In how a fire team of three Chechens caused a company of Hamid Karzai’s troops to panic and flee.  The unit regained its composure only after an accompanying Special Forces team called in close air support on the Chechens’ position.[1]

With exploits like these, the presence of Chechen terrorists in the US would be a significant development, and an interesting news story, but how relevant was Chechen identity to the Tsarnaev brothers?  Their father was Chechen, but their mother, Zubeidat, is an ethnic Avar.  Tamerlan was born in Russia, Dzhokhar was born in Kyrgyzstan.  The brothers spent their formative years in the United States, spoke English well, and by classmates’ assessments seemed to be very much typical members of Generation Y in terms of preferences of clothes, music, and social activities.  They were raised nominally Muslim but did not attend mosque in Kyrgyzstan.  Tamerlan was allegedly radicalized during a visit to the Russian Republic of Dagestan, but that was not until 2012.  Inspire magazine, which may have provided tradecraft and motivation, is affiliated with Al-Qaeda, very much an Arab terrorist organization with roots that go deep into the Arabian Peninsula, but with an organizational history and command structure that has been tightly tied to the South Asian countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Clearly many factors played a part in the lives of these men and the choices they made.

I cannot assess the individual drivers of the Tsarnaevs’ radicalization process, but observers, especially intelligence analysts, should use caution before throwing the ethnicity card as an adjective or explanation of action or motivation.  Too often our discourses, in news and in academia, treat ethnicity as something primordial, something that is in the blood.  A common companion to this broad-brush description of peoples are assessments of “blood feuds,” “ancient ethnic hatreds,” or “they’ve always hated each other.”  The conclusion many observers draw is that Hindus and Muslims, Croatians and Serbs, or any two groups, are just bound to fight each other eventually. 

These observations and narratives matter.  Some writers claim that the lessons Bill Clinton drew from Robert Kaplan’s “Balkan Ghosts” affected US policy in Bosnia during the 1990s.  Kaplan used the phrase “ancient hatreds” in his analysis of the situation, and his writing allegedly cooled Clinton’s interest temporarily in a “lift and strike” policy to lift an arms embargo on the Bosnians and strike at Serb positions and potentially lengthened that conflict[2].

The premature closing of minds is a well-known pitfall for intelligence analysts.  To combat it, a variety of structured analytic techniques (SATs) have been developed that can help analysts keep open minds towards problems.  Techniques such as the pre mortem, starburst analysis, and structured self-critique can help analysts consider alternatives.  One goal of SATs usage is to ensure one’s answers are not shaped prematurely by labels such as “Muslim,” “Generation Y,” or “Chechen.”  These techniques are best learned in structured training but are also accessible to analysts through a variety of good books.  The techniques listed here came from “Cases in Intelligence Analysis:  Structured Analytic Techniques in Action” authored by Sarah Beebe, an analyst who has served in both the National Security Council and the CIA.  Beebe, a veteran instructor and intelligence analyst, counsels clients to employ sound thinking strategies when approaching ambiguous problems.

While SATs are good tools to avoid a variety of analytic pitfalls, Rogers Brubaker, a sociologist at UCLA, has created a theoretical framework that might specifically help observers better understand and analyze the role ethnicity plays in society.  As a scholar, Brubaker found modern academia so quick to label segments of the population that he called the phenomenon “groupism” and wrote a scathing critique of the practice in his book “Ethnicity Without Groups.”  His work is a reaction to earlier thinkers who insisted on the concrete nature of ethnicity, with some arguing that ethnicity and culture were primordial, or, in essence, genetic.  Ethnicity is important, but it is not always concrete.  As with abstractions like love and justice, ethnicity can be important, and it can be detected (if not perfectly measured) by degrees.  It is this variable-ness of ethnicity upon which Brubaker expands.  Analysts might do well to consider three of his concepts when thinking about “groupness.”  These concepts are:  groupism as a variable, group-making as a project, and the role of ethno-political entrepreneurs as drivers of groupism.  These concepts can help analysts think about “groupness” or ethnicity specifically without surrendering to the notion that certain attributes of a group or person are immutable.

The first way analysts should combat “groupism” is to understand that the “groupism” of ethnic identification is not primordial and set in stone, but rather variable.  Our fellows in this world have different shades of skin; they speak different languages and practice different religions, or sometimes none at all.  These dimensions can all matter, but they do not matter all the time.  Peoples such as the Armenians and the Turks, the Croats and the Muslims, lived side by side peaceably for long periods.  Certainly there were distinctions of language, custom, and religion between them, but there were many similarities as well.  As people intermarried or learned a new language, group membership could become fuzzy, or even impossible to discern.  Something happened to these communities to make them fight each other.  Something happened to mobilize the population, to “ethnicize” the peoples and ethnicize their conflicts so that on a level it was an ethnic conflict. One thing that happened is that their group identification increased.

Depending on one’s background, reading Malcolm X’s autobiography, attending Hebrew school, or learning to play the bagpipes can increase an individual’s affinity for and identification with a certain group.  Because of its intensity, war is a powerful source of groupism and ethnicization as demonstrated by David Kilcullen, an expert on counterinsurgency.  In his book “The Accidental Guerrilla” the author demonstrates how Indonesia’s military occupation of East Timor changed the groupist dynamics of the East Timorese people.  Kilcullen estimates that approximately 50% of the pre-occupation population of East Timor identified as Catholic.  After 24 years of protracted guerrilla war against the Indonesians, that number was up to approximately 90%.  While the church may have won many converts in the decades of war, Kilcullen found upon his arrival in 1999 that many self-identified Catholics engaged in animist practices.  On this basis Kilcullen argues that wartime mobilization drove Catholic identification among the East Timorese.  He writes that “because most other Indonesians were non-Catholic . . .Catholicism seems to have become a nationalist identity marker, a symbol of East Timorese identity and resistance against the occupation.”[3] In East Timor, Catholic identity seemed variable, and its increase may have been tied to the general mobilization and organization of the East Timorese against their Indonesian occupiers.

Now aware that groupness and ethnic identity in particular is variable, analysts can be on the lookout for the action Brubaker labels “Group making as project.”   He writes that if we treat groupness as a variable and isolate the dimensions we wish to observe (such as religious practice or language) we can “attend to the dynamics of group-making as a social, cultural, and political project, aimed at transforming categories into groups or increasing levels of groupness.”[4]  This might occur through government efforts--such as schools teaching a certain language, or provinces renaming geographic features to reflect a different language or interpretation of a place.  The Kosovo Liberation Army offered a cynical example of group making as project during its fight for independence from Serbia.  The KLA engaged in a series of provocative attacks against Serb policemen which invited reprisals in return.  These reprisals hardened the resolve of affected Kosovars and increased their desire for independence from Serbia, championed of course by the KLA.

Analysts might identify many drivers of this project.  In writing about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Thomas de Waal argues that popular “hate narratives” caused many Armenians and Azerbaijanis to harden their feelings towards their neighbors and ultimately take up arms in a conflict akin to a popular uprising.  “Uncomfortable as it is for many Western observers to acknowledge” he writes, “the Nagorny Karabakh conflict makes sense only if we acknowledge that hundreds of thousands of Armenians and Azerbaijanis were driven to act by passionately held ideas about history, identity and rights.”[5]  Stuart Kaufman, a former director of Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council, takes up a similar argument in explaining ethnicized conflict in places like Georgia and Bosnia.  He describes the mobilization process as “mass-led violence.” [6]

An alternative to “mass-led violence” is Brubaker’s concept of the ethno-political entrepreneur.  This individual drives the group making “project,” often for personal reasons, such as desire for acclaim, power, or money.  Fighting definitely makes people famous.  Conflict and banditry in Nagorny Karabakh made wealthy men out of many petty criminals.  In Georgia, a former sculptor became the head of its National Guard, and a former bank robber ran one of the more prominent pro-Georgian militias.  These ethno-political entrepreneurs benefit from conflict, foment it, and often times use their status to speak on behalf of a certain group.  In this way the KLA sought to represent all Kosovar Albanians during the conflict with Serbia, and ETA claimed to represent all Basques living in Spain.

So what does this have to do with the Tsarnaevs and possible Chechen links to recent or future terrorist plots?  Possibly it has nothing to do with them.  Such questions are best left to students of the case and of Chechnya:  I am neither.  However, this thinking about terrorist labels, groupism, and the importance of ethnicity does have very much to do with the work of every analyst and consumer of analysis--even readers of general news articles.  Analysts must avoid what Beebe refers to as “the rush to judgment” when determining intent and causality behind actors or events.  They should question assertions from sources, especially journalists writing in short form newspapers, regarding a subject’s background or the importance thereof.  Aspects of groupness, including religion and ethnicity, are very much variable and analysts might find evidence that supports different levels of intensity of these variables and their causes.  Events too, can be ethnicized.  Is the current fighting in Syria religiously driven?  Is it politically driven?  By asking these questions, and in particular asking oneself “so what” in regard to a subject’s group affiliations, I hope analysts will be able to deliver richer and more nuanced intelligence products to decision makers, and that decision makers in turn will be able to make sound choices on topics where the general narrative is sometimes oversimplified and sensationalized.

[1] Gary Schroen, First In (Presidio Press, 2007) pp.283-284

[2] Michael Kaufman, The Dangers of Letting a President Read (New York Times, 22 May 1999) (

[3] David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla (Oxford University Press, 2009) p.200

[4] Rogers Brubaker, Ethnicity Without Groups (Harvard University Press, 2004) p.14

[5] Tom de Waal, Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War (New York University Press, 2004), p.272.

[6] Stuart Kaufman, Modern Hatreds: The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War (Cornell University Press, 2001), pp.34, 124


About the Author(s)

Andrew Marvin is a managing consultant with IBM Corporation’s Intelligence Mission Solution’s Practice.  His views do not necessarily reflect those of IBM, the US government, or of any past or current client.


Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 11/06/2013 - 10:42am

When we talk about ethnicity, should we maybe talk about a little bit about American blindspots and emotional or psychological, well, weaknesses for lack of a better word?

An American Expert In The Foreign Papers:

<blockquote>In the case of Pakistan, we always believed that Pakistanis were a true ally. And they would tell us that. The Pakistani argument was that the Americans betrayed Pakistan many, many times. There was some truth in that but it was clearly an exaggerated story. I think the war in Afghanistan, the American soldiers in Afghanistan, has put paid to that argument.

I regularly teach American officers in various summer schools, and seven years ago they started telling me, 'Professor, I've served in Afghanistan for a year and the people who were shooting at me were coming from Pakistan. They are our ally. Why are they doing this?' I would tell them that Pakistan is playing a double game. And that began a slow shift in American opinion about Pakistan.</blockquote>…

So, "they", meaning the national security collective, always knew, and yet, why did they act in the way that they did? How do you get to an emotional or psychological space where you pay for this sort of stuff against your own, and knowingingly at that?

I mean, think about that. Think about what people knew at the highest and not so highest levels, yet convinced themselves they had no choice but to continue? And here the doves, yes, even the anti war doves, sometimes contributed as much as the DC interventionists. When it comes to South Asia, sadly, this is a big blind spot for the entire "collective." The American dove world has its own way of looking at regions and blinds itself too.

For the interventionists, I reckon it's because the game becomes the objective rather than the real objective which is American security interests and I don't mean the overly broad term that you all use to justify anything you want to do. I mean the way the man or woman on Main Street imagines it.

Well, they knew and they didnt' know, depending on the person and the situation. There is a very weird set of emotional reactions and counter-reactions that happens between elite Americans and their elite counterparts in some nations.

At any rate, it's a theory. Can't be much worse that a lot of the stuff that's peddled out there in consultant world or academia. At least my crazy don't cost you.

PS: This matters greatly for your study of UW. I know "going native" is a troublesome phrase around here and it has a bad meaning. I'm not talking about that--at least going native has the benefit of really understanding a certain point of view--what I am getting at is mythology, fascination, passion, the creation of idols and the love of the self, the excitement of the game and making money, all that yucky stuff no one wants to talk about because, hello, isn't this a military site?


Tue, 10/29/2013 - 2:43pm

You must have two sides to have war. In modern interstate war this necessity is never in question; it is clear who is fighting who. The issue becomes “what is the political objective and how much are you willing to pay for it?”

In intrastate conflict sides must be decided – who is fighting who. Too often in the case of conflicts between ethnic groups that question alone ends the inquiry. But the fact that two ethnic groups live side by side does not guarantee conflict. As the author notes:

“Peoples such as the Armenians and the Turks, the Croats and the Muslims, lived side by side peaceably for long periods. Certainly there were distinctions of language, custom, and religion between them, but there were many similarities as well. As people intermarried or learned a new language, group membership could become fuzzy, or even impossible to discern. Something happened to these communities to make them fight each other. Something happened to mobilize the population, to “ethnicize” the peoples and ethnicize their conflicts so that on a level it was an ethnic conflict. One thing that happened is that their group identification increased.”

That question of “what” mobilized the population is often assumed but that question should be at the heart of inquiry into what is happening. Dividing into two sides is an antecedent condition for war, but it is not a cause. What caused the conflict will become key to what is required to resolve it. I thank the author for reminding us of that point.

Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 10/30/2013 - 12:10pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

<blockquote>The US and its attitudes toward West and South Asia have never been entirely rational. The entire thing is very sad for our youngest and bravest in the military and for many peoples in the region. It's just not rational, a lot of this "international strategery" stuff. All wishes and whims and scheming on paper....</blockquote>

The above is from a comment I left on another thread here at SWJ.

Think about the argument as you read the following:

<blockquote>The countries are not merely at odds. Each believes it can play the other—with sometimes absurd, sometimes tragic, results. The conventional narrative about the war in Afghanistan, for instance, has revolved around the Soviet invasion in 1979. But President Jimmy Carter signed the first authorization to help the Pakistani-backed mujahedeen covertly on July 3—almost six months before the Soviets invaded. Americans were told, and like to believe, that what followed was Charlie Wilson’s war of Afghani liberation, with which they remain embroiled to this day. It was not. It was General Zia-ul-Haq’s vicious regional power play.</blockquote> - Amazon blurb, Hussain Haqqani's <em>Magnificent Delusions</em>…

These points were made many, many, many, MANY times by others--to include an entire body of literature by American scholars--but the points were made by those that official "fashionable" Washington doesn't listen to in its closed informational and emotional loop. The information that we two hurt each other again and again (even the well-meaning propose policies that have hurt innocent peoples in the region and others, most aid programs increased poverty) was out there always. But these things are not rational. Human beings are driven by emotion which we pretend is a scholarly and analytical attitude.

The best way to have a healthy relationship in the region is to simply work together when things are in our interest and to not pretend when our interests don't overlap. In this, I am sorry to say, Hussain Haqqani and Vali Nasr and others that wrote that we should move from a transactional relationship to a broader one were completely wrong. We needed the correct civilian based transactional relationship. And it's a big fat lie that we completely abandoned the region in the 90's. Look at the World Bank and its aid.

Any type of larger relationship was always going to fail in the immediate terms because of complicated domestic issues in both nations. Why people that spend their entire lives studying these things couldn't figure it out is beyond me but nobody in official DC ever has to 'fess up or say they got it wrong. The natural, larger and organic relationship some crave would have slowly grown had we left it to where our interests overlap. Instead, we both meddled. Constantly and in deleterious ways. Remember, it's not a vacuum. There is the UK, the Commonwealth, the IMF and so on.

We cannot achieve goals because the system is too complicated and too connected together and there are too many people making money off of it.

Those of you that will read the book and nod along in agreement need to ask yourselves, why when arguments come from just the right person do you listen but when it comes from someone else, you don't? I hope some younger scholars work on this sort of attitude. And I hope you have the guts to name names.

PS: I'm sorry about the name names part. People get things wrong, maybe I'm wrong, but it's infuriating, isn't it? When all the fancy scholars and advisors and Generals and so on finally admit what everyone else was saying all along, especially those that aren't in the right ethnic groups?

Young people, the US had leverage. Peaceful leverage. Money leverage, visas, investments in London and DC. And, instead, they had to militarize it. And the dummy pundits go on and on in their back-and-forth on drones or pop COIN or whatever when it was always about the fact that we weren't serious. And if we weren't serious, we should have just left. They cared only for money and to retain "strategic assets." Decision makers really are that dim.

Madhu (not verified)

Tue, 10/29/2013 - 12:55pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

From Stephen P. Cohen, a Brookings-wallah (that's my ethnic prejudice speaking, that's what you think right? Don't some of you dismiss my comments on this score because of my background? Be honest with yourselves, you know you do it, we all do.)…

Personally, I think Dr. Cohen gets it exactly backward on the need to hyphenate (it never works when we do it, but we tend to look at the "other" without examining our own failures) but don't take my word for it. Read his stuff, compare to what you know based on your experiences the past decade and ask who was more likely to get it correct, the status quo-ists, or a nobody like me?

Once again, time is an issue but this is a thread I will revisit with specific examples of prediction from the grand old lions of SA analysis and what subsequently happened.

One of the problems with Dr. Cohen's analysis is that it is more about a general idea than detailed specifics. The grand general idea or theory seems to have a hold on the US policy community and the military. Why do you always need a grand theory instead of studying a situation in all its complexity?

Madhu (not verified)

Tue, 10/29/2013 - 12:13pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

Speaking of analysis, what is it about the internet that tends to draw out more negative commentary? I don't always think everything is so dire or everything that was done was wrong and yet we tend to spend more time on the negative? I suppose it's a reaction to spin but does it hurt analysis too?

Madhu (not verified)

Tue, 10/29/2013 - 11:52am

Thank you for writing this!

I really cannot thank you enough. A certain amount of cliche is exactly the problem I've had with so much analysis related to "South Asia".

The lazy hyphenation of "India-Pakistan" is an example of what you wrote here:

<blockquote>The conclusion many observers draw is that Hindus and Muslims, Croatians and Serbs, or any two groups, are just bound to fight each other eventually.</blockquote> The US and UK foreign policy community has a complicated history in South Asia and does not recognize its own place creating such lazy narratives which presented one more difficulty in our campaign in Afghanistan.

Journalists do it too, they use "Hindu India" and "Muslim Pakistan" in an incredibly thoughtless and slapdash fashion (do the Indians do this officially? Why would any journalist put that language into any article? For what reason?) and use the word "rivalry" with equal thoughtlessness.

And the only analysts that count for some Americans are those with a British or Australian accent or the kind of accent you find among the type of South Asian that sits in meetings for the World Bank or the UN or whatever. Come on, everyone knows the Americans are weak-kneed for some of this stuff*. No point in pretending others don't know this about us. And no reason to dismiss someone because of their accent either, I am not putting anyone down, but you know what I mean. This is about the US, about us.

One thing I've found that has helped me is to read up on the history of the US in the region and to use as many varied sources as I can in order to "test" the status quo hypotheses of the region.

So, if the status quo says "X", I ask, "Y"?

Oh, haha, sorry. Cheesy joke.

But it <em>is</em> interesting to do this. Why did we hyphenate those regions? How did this come about? Who thinks this is correct? Who objects? Why are some foreign policy analysts, particularly in the US and UK, so fond of this formulation? Again, who objects and why? What are the strengths of that model? What are the weaknesses? Is this model really about the US or UK or Australia instead of the object of study itself?

And so on. It's been a personal eyeopener for me because I have no formal training in any of this.

On a more serious note, prior to a few years ago, if I mentioned that I thought the hypenation was lazy and that the American military--the Army in particular--had very old-fashioned and strange ideas on the subject, likely related to past personal and institutional relationships, I got a creepy pushback. Not necessarily here, and not based on ethnicity, but close to it. It saddened me. We all have our biases. We as humans will never be without a point of view. Just because you are "America-American" doesn't mean you can't be turned around, cultivated, overly fond or overly suspicious of others or whatever. And vice versa, nobody is immune. I do it too. It's hard to overcome.

Even people I consider friends assume what I think about South Asia must be because of my ethnic background. But the reason I bring it up is not because I am some ethnic that cannot think but because I grew up reading different things and hearing different things. I mean, I read the language of aid Bills, okay? Maybe that's why I object to things, because of a certain knowledge, not knee jerk ethnic feeling.

Again, thank you.

*A useful observation? A biased observation? LOL. Difficult matters indeed.