Researchers at the New England Complex Systems Institute have shown that a mathematical model - based purely on the geographic distribution of ethnic groups - can provide a highly accurate prediction of where violent conflict will occur.
Over time, mixed ethnic groups tend to separate as people are drawn towards living around others like themselves. This reflects a universal process that is also seen in chemical and biological systems. And according to May Lim and colleagues, when this separation reaches a given threshold, violent conflict is highly likely.
The flash point is characterised by an island or peninsular of one ethnic group, of between 10 and 100km in size, being surrounded by geographical areas populated by other ethnic or cultural groups. "Violence arises when groups are of a size that they are able to impose cultural norms on public spaces, but where there are still intermittent violations of these rules due to the overlap of cultural domains," they said.
By contrast, either a sufficient ethno-cultural mix or a sufficient boundaried separation between groups appears to protect against conflict. In the former case, distinct ethno-cultural groups are not large enough to develop strong collective identities, or to identify a given space as their own. In the latter case, groups can reach a large enough size to enjoy sovereignty over a given area.
Using such information about the geographic distribution of ethnic groups in former Yugoslavia, in the early 90s, just prior to civil war, and India, using both countries' census data, the researchers were able to predict with a high degree of accuracy where real future violent conflicts took place (as determined by historical records).
The researchers said their research had not considered the social and economic factors that can trigger violent conflict, but rather it shows the ethno-cultural distribution patterns under which such violence will be more likely.
"The insight provided by this study may help inform policy debates by guiding our understanding of the consequences of policy alternatives," Lim and colleagues concluded.
Lim, M., Metzler, R. & Bar-Yam, Y. (2007). Global pattern formation and ethnic/cultural violence. Science, 317, 1540-1544.
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.
Link to ABC News clip on this research (free registration required).
Link to Science podcast interview with co-author Yaneer Bar-Yam (MP3).
Link to further info.