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Module Description

Ethnic conflict and its associated political violence is one of the contemporary world’s most significant, and often seemingly intractable, political problems. This module takes a generally comparative approach to the study of ethnic conflict and political violence, examining four societies divided by violent ethno-national conflict: Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda. These case studies are used to illuminate broader themes in ethnic conflict and political violence.

After briefly introducing the key concepts of the module, the relevant socio-political backgrounds of the case study societies and their armed conflicts are then introduced, to give students the empirical basis for discussing conceptual themes and comparative issues. The major theoretical traditions in the analysis of ethnicity, nationalism and ethno-national conflict are then outlined and debated, before the significant relationship between gender and nationalism/ethnicity is examined. A range of comparative themes in the dynamics of ethnic conflict are then investigated. Discussion of the theoretical and practical difficulties of defining and conceptualising political violence, and consideration of different manifestations of political violence, leads into an examination of non-traditional agents of political violence (women and children) and then to the horror of sexual violence in the context of ethnic conflict. The question of how much scope there is for significant political change in divided societies to be brought about by strategies of civil disobedience and non-violence is discussed, then state strategies of control and policing are debated. Finally, various topics in conflict resolution are examined. ‘Internal’ frameworks for managing or resolving ethnic conflict are discussed first (i.e. approaches that do not result in the break-up of a state), then strategies that produce new states (partition and secession). ‘Peace processes’ and conflict resolution theory are then introduced, as is the question of post-conflict reconstruction. The substance of the module ends by discussing the painful and difficult question of reconciliation: healing societies divided by violent ethno-national conflict.

This module requires a high level of enthusiasm, preparation and independent work, and active participation in seminars is expected. Good attendance at lectures and seminars is expected – in fact, departmental policy states that attendance at seminars is compulsory. Please let me know in advance if there is a good reason why you cannot attend a particular seminar. (If you are ill, it is advisable to get a doctor’s note that you can give to the departmental secretary if necessary.) Non-attendance on a day when you are scheduled to be a presenter will be particularly poorly looked upon. In addition to attendance at lectures and seminars, you should spend 8-10 hours per week on your own independent study for this module.

At the end of each term your tutors will be writing a term report on your performance in the class seminars as well as on your written work. This is available to your referees when they come to write references for you, and also keep the Director of Undergraduate Studies and your Personal Tutor informed of your progress. You can access these reports too. Please ask your Personal Tutor for more information if you are interested to do so.


You can come and see me in my office hours and contact me through e-mail ( If you genuinely cannot make it to see me during my office hours, please e-mail me for an appointment. You are welcome to drop by my office but please be aware that if you have not arranged an appointment I may not be there and even if I am in I may not be able to see you at that time. Please do let me know of any problems that you encounter on the module and I will try to help you where I can.

Module Aims

This module aims to:

  • Explore the field of ethnic conflict and political violence through the study of key themes and issues and certain significant case studies.
  • Examine the various forms that ethnic nationalism takes around the world and the implications it has for questions of human rights, peace and security.
  • Engage with key concepts and themes in the field of the comparative study of ethnic conflict.
  • Engage with central ideas and debates about the motivations for, practice and consequences of ethnic conflict and political violence.
  • Develop a critical awareness and understanding of competing theoretical perspectives in these fields.
  • Demonstrate how a comparative approach to case studies can illuminate general themes in ethnic conflict and political violence, whilst also revealing the individual specificities of particular cases and the corresponding limitations of a comparative approach.

Module Learning Objectives

The learning objectives of this module are that by the end of it you should be able to:

  • Demonstrate critical familiarity with the major theoretical debates and literature relevant to the study of ethnic conflict and political violence.
  • Demonstrate a clear understanding of the varied manifestations of ethnic conflict around the world and in particular the dynamics of the case studies used on the module.
  • Critically analyse, orally and in written work, key issues and debates relevant to the study of ethnic conflict and political violence.
  • Independently research in depth a particular topic relating to ethnic conflict and write an assessed essay on the topic, employing critical analytical skills.

Organisation of the Module

This module is organised around weekly lectures and seminars. Note: seminars start in week 2. Each seminar will generally follow the previous week’s lecture that will provide the framework and set out the major debates on a particular topic. In the seminars we will discuss particular issues arising from the debates and models we have set out in the lectures. At the beginning of each week’s reading list are questions or topics for discussion that are designed to guide our weekly seminars, though we do not necessarily have to stick to this rigidly or to cover all questions each week.

It is important to understand and consider the interconnectedness of the topics on this module. Each week’s topic should be viewed as one small piece in the much larger jigsaw puzzle that is ethnic conflict. (Note, for example, how many of the readings appear on more than one week’s reading lists.) While each topic can, to a certain degree, stand alone, you will have both a much broader and deeper (thus more complete) understanding if you are able to stand back and view the whole module holistically and see how topics interrelate. This is yet another reason why attending all classes and reading for every topic, not just the specific ones you intend to write assessment on, is so important.

As noted earlier, active participation in seminars is expected and it is important that you prepare sufficiently for seminars. Each student is expected to be part of a group giving a presentation on a particular seminar topic at least once during the year (this is not assessed but is compulsory, and you will get a feedback sheet for each presentation). The PAIS Undergraduate Handbook provides some tips to help you prepare for seminar presentations, so please consult it. The main piece of advice I can give is to never just read from a script, as though you were reading out an essay. This is boring for all of us, not least yourself! Your presentation should be viewed as an opportunity for you to improve your oral presentation and communication skills, which will stand you in very good stead for future employment. Your presentation will be much better if you simply talk to us, rather than reading from a handout verbatim – though having notes to refer to, of course, will be helpful. You are expected to provide a one or two page handout for your classmates. If you want me to photocopy this for the class, you must email it to me at least a day before the class – so no last minute preparation! When presenting, your group could also organise some activities for the seminar class to participate in that relate to the topic under discussion. The presenting group will be expected to take a leading role in guiding the seminar and facilitating discussion.

It is expected that all students have completed at least TWO READINGS for each seminar (obviously more than this when you are giving a presentation). Depending on the topic, where appropriate I suggest you try to read one relatively theoretical piece and one more case study based piece. The more you read, the more you will be able to participate intelligently and the more you will get out of the module.

Do not feel that you are bound by the module reading lists – I would encourage you to read beyond this in order to address issues you are particularly interested in and to develop as broad an understanding as possible. On certain topics there is an enormous amount of literature available, much more than can be given on the reading lists – find it and make your own judgements about what is useful and what is not. Further, if, as I am sure will be the case on some occasions, you are unable to obtain particular items on the list, you are expected to find alternative readings yourself. Also, there are many electronic items on the reading list. Coming to class and saying you have done no reading because you ‘couldn’t find anything in the library’ will not be believed.