Boundary Framing, “Ethnic Violence,” and the Politics of Restraint

By Peter B. Owens

In this essay I would like to explore an idea that has been the focus of much of my own research on the collective dynamics of mass violence – that the ways in which collective boundaries are framed by influential state and non-state actors can have significant impacts on the contours of state and non-state repression. Almost 15 years ago, in the wake of massive collective violence in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, Brubaker and Laitin (1998) made a plea for the disaggregation of the monolithic phenomena of “ethnic violence.” They influentially argued that viewing violence as inhering along ethnic lines often ignored the ways in which violence was purposively framed as such, clouding understanding of the heterogeneous causal processes at work within specific cases. Since then, numerous comparative studies have demonstrated the ways in which the framing of conflicts along collective boundaries—be they ethnic, racial, political, and/or religious—can have enormous impacts on the degree of violent repression used by both state and non-state actors (e.g. Gagnon 2004; Hagan and Rymond-Richmond 2009; Oberschall 2000; Owens Forthcoming 2014; Straus 2006; Su 2011).

However, as Owens et al. (2013) and Straus (2012) note, this literature remains largely focused upon the explanation of positive cases—those where mass violence does occur. In large part, this focus is understandable—when they do occur, instances of state-supported mass violence and repression are deserving of nuanced social scientific explanation. However, explanation of negative cases—where constitutive factors for the mobilization of violent repression appear to be in place but violent repression does not occur—are equally worthy candidates for detailed analysis. In other words, we need to know more about the politics of restraint. Here I think recent events in Ukraine may provide us with a case where official attempts to realign political conflicts along ethnic lines can sometimes fall flat.

In many ways, the ongoing territorial conflict between Ukraine and Russia would seem to be a worthy candidate for the mobilization of widespread violent repression. The political disintegration of ethnically-diverse states or territories, as in the case of Crimea, often means that ordinary people get “pushed to the walls” in being forced to choose their ethnic or national loyalties (Oberschall 2000). During such processes, collective memories of previous political violence can often play an important role. Under Stalin, millions of ethnic Ukrainians, Tatars, and other groups were systematically starved and deported into the Gulag during agricultural collectivization, with many thousands more targeted as a reactionary “kulak” class during later political purges (Applebaum 2003; Conquest 1968, 1986). Such historical events can often be used as a major source of symbolic ammunition to realign contemporary conflicts along ethnic and nationalist lines, especially when they are stoked by influential media sources and politicians, as in the former Yugoslavia (Gagnon 2004). Fears of a resurgent and expansionist Russian state have been especially pronounced among Ukraine’s Tatar population, for whom memories of Stalin’s targeted ethnic cleansing are especially strong. Despite popular fears and concerns, however, Ukrainian politicians and media seem to have been remarkably restrained (given the historical circumstances) in not framing the current conflict along ethnic lines, and instead interpreting Russia’s moves as straightforward political and territorial aggression that harkens back to the Soviet era.

In contrast, many pro-Russian politicians and officials, in an apparent attempt to gain the moral high ground, have systematically attempted to frame their conflict with Ukraine as a struggle against the repression of ethnic Russians, terrorism, fascism, and even Naziism. For example, in defending Russia’s recent armed intervention in the Crimea, foreign minister Sergey Lavrov argued that Russian troops were there to protect ethnic Russians from attacks by ultranationalist Ukrainians, noting that these groups represented an imminent threat to the safety of the entire Russian-speaking population of the region. These supposed threats, however, never materialized, despite numerous tense standoffs between the Ukrainian and Russian military. Putin and Lavrov have also consistently portrayed the Ukrainian uprising as a veiled anti-Semitic threat, referring to the Ukrainian revolution as a “pogrom,” and comparing demonstrators to Ukrainian Nazi collaborators during World War II. That this framing of conflict along ethnic and nationalist lines has occurred alongside the recently-stated aims of Putin to create a “New Russia” (“Novorossiya”), uniting Russian-speaking peoples across the former Soviet republics, speaks to the central role that collective ethnic framing has played in justifying Russian territorial ambitions.

Despite fears among some commentators that Ukraine could become “the next Yugoslavia,” Russia’s attempts to realign its territorial ambitions along ethnic lines seem to have fallen flat, at least for the time being. (This may be in question given the recent circulation of leaflets in Donetsk, supposedly signed by the leader of a prominent pro-Russian group, asking that Jews identify themselves as such to local authorities or pay a fine. Both pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian factions in Donetsk have denied responsibility.) The present instance therefore provides us with a useful venue for negative case analysis—to explain why attempts to “ethnicize” the current conflict seem to have failed despite contrary efforts. Following Straus’ (2012) insights, this tenuous outcome has been likely aided by various meso-level forces of restraint, such as ongoing efforts by Ukrainian activists to counter Russian narratives on social media websites with demonstrable evidence of pro-Russian aggression. Since it remains unclear whether such outcomes will continue to hold in the near future, it is especially important for scholars to explore the politics of violence and restraint, in this and other cases, and the ways in which attempted realignments of politics along ethnic lines can either succeed or fail.



Applebaum, Anne. 2003. Gulag: A History. New York: Doubleday.

Brubaker, Rogers, and David D. Laitin. 1998. “Ethnic and Nationalist Violence.” Annual Review of Sociology 24: 423-452.

Conquest, Robert. 1986. The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. New York: Oxford University Press.

Conquest, Robert. 1990. The Great Terror: A Reassessment. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gagnon, V. P. 2004. The Myth of Ethnic War: Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Hagan, John, and Wenona Rymond-Richmond. 2008. “The Collective Dynamics of Racial Dehumanization and Genocidal Victimization in Darfur.” American Sociological Review 73: 875-902.

Oberschall, Anthony. 2000. “The Manipulation of Ethnicity: From Ethnic Cooperation to Violence and War in the Former Yugoslavia.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 23(6): 982-1001.

Owens, Peter B., Yang Su, and David A. Snow.” 2013. “Social Scientific Inquiry into Genocide and Mass Killing: From Unitary Outcome to Complex Processes.” Annual Review of Sociology 39: 69-84.

Owens, Peter B. Forthcoming 2014. “The Collective Dynamics of Genocidal Violence in Cambodia, 1975-1979.” Social Science History.

Straus, Scott. 2006. The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, and War in Rwanda. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Straus, Scott. 2012. “Retreating from the Brink: Theorizing Mass Violence and the Dynamics of Restraint.” Perspectives on Politics 10, 2: 343-362.

Su, Yang. 2011. Collective Killings in Rural China during the Cultural Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Violent State Repression

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