Does social fragmentation lead to violence? If it does, how important a factor is it? Is violence itself the primary cause of social fragmentation? Will reversing social fragmentation lead to less violence and atrocities? I’ll present the arguments for and against social fragmentation as a cause of violence, but ultimately leave it up to the reader to decide which theory is more convincing. Personally, I’m not entirely sure what I think.
For some conceptual clarity, here’s the definition of social fragmentation I have in mind: A lack of bridging capital or the opposite of social cohesion, and strongly related to a collective lack of social capital. Sometimes the result of social exclusion. It may also include a lack of bonding capital.
The case for social fragmentation as a cause of violence
The argument that social fragmentation leads to violence is a fairly straight-forward one. Colletta and Cullen argue non-fragmented societies have high degrees of social capital, which is important for positive outcomes, “…there is little disagreement about the role of social capital in facilitating collective action, economic growth, and development by complementing other forms of capital.” The resulting social cohesion provides societies with greater resilience to shocks, “Social cohesion is the key intervening variable between social capital and violent conflict. The greater the degree to which vertical linking and horizontal bridging social capital integrate, the more likely it is that the society will be cohesive and will thus possess the inclusive mechanisms necessary for mediating or managing conflict before it turns violent.”
On the other hand, social fragmentation results when institutions are unable to provide equally for all citizens or when leaders purposefully exclude populations. The resulting societies have fewer structures able to mitigate conflict and weaker norms that convince individuals not to use violence to settle disputes. Subsequently, groups tend toward inward to identity groups they feel they can trust for protection, sacrificing bridging capital for bonding capital. This exclusionary social capital can subsequently used negatively, stoking instead of hampering the chances of violence. Naraya et al. argue the effects of social fragmentation can be seen across society, from incidences of domestic violence to large-scale violent conflict.
Colletta and Cullen add to Naraya et al.’s theories by presenting a more specific framework for the link between social fragmentation and violence. Their basic thesis is, “Weak social cohesion increases the risk of social disorganization, fragmentation, and exclusion and the risk for violent conflict.” While social fragmentation can be managed, and therefore the conflict produced does not necessarily lead to violence, certain structural conditions make this more difficult:
Conflict does often engender large-scale violence if various structural conditions are present, such as authoritarian rule and a lack of political rights (as in Rwanda and Guatemala), state weakness and lack of institutional capacity to manage conflict (as in Somalia) and socio-economic imbalances combined with inequity of opportunity and a weak civil society (as seen in Cambodia)… Thus violent conflict is triggered by the presence of strong exclusionary bonds and disempowerment combined with a lack of horizontal bridging and vertical linking social capital.
So while social fragmentation alone does not cause violence or atrocities, it creates an environment conducive to atrocities, without which they would be highly unlikely to happen. For Colletta and Cullen, the most common route to violence is when social fragmentation causes groups to protect their own at the expense of others, and therefore they argue that working to improve bridging capital is the best strategy.
While Colletta and Cullen see the effect of social fragmentation and the potential for violence as occurring across society, Lindemann offers a clear vision for how social fragmentation directly influences violence. He argues that it is not social fragmentation that is the problem, but the lack of institutions able to handle the fragmentation at the elite level, a dynamic which previous studies of the causes of civil war had not examined in full.
Inclusive elite bargains redistribute rents and jobs, and ultimately unlink social fragmentation from violence because without elites participating in the shaping of exclusionary social relationship, they don’t lead to violence. When societies are socially fragmented, and ruling elites build political institutions that exclude the elites of already marginalized groups, these elites are prevented from providing benefits to their political or social group. This endangers their status as elites, and therefore they rebel if the following conditions are met, “First, the exclusion of certain ethnoregional elites needs to be maintained over time. Second, the exclusion of certain leaders has to be consistent across categories, that is, the affected groups and their elite representatives must be systematically denied access to most (or even all) state structures (jobs) and state resources (rents). Third, it is obvious that the importance of the alienated elites matters.”
These rebellions may lead to mass atrocities either because the opposition elites are threatened by being totally excluded from formal political power and commit a mass atrocity themselves, or these rebellions can threaten ruling elites, provoking a state-led mass atrocity. In sum, social fragmentation matters if elites carry it out against other elites along lines of differentiation already present in society, because it is these parties, the ruling and opposition elites, that have the power to mobilize violence. It should be noted that Lindemann is writing on civil war risk, rather than atrocities, and most civil wars do not lead to mass atrocities.
The case against social fragmentation as a cause of violence
The case against social fragmentation as a cause of violence does not deny that social fragmentation occurs or even that it has deep effects on society, but rather than social fragmentation itself is caused by larger, powerful forces, and isolating social fragmentation as the independent variable misses the true causality. In this view, violence is itself the main cause of social fragmentation and/or smaller social cleavages are multiplied by violence to make it appear as if social fragmentation is what’s ripping society apart.
Benjamin Valentino lays out the basic components of this analysis in his book Final Solutions, which looks specifically at mass atrocities. Broadly he notes that many fairly homogenous societies have experienced mass killing, while many societies with deep social cleavages have not. Furthermore:
Proponents of the plural society theory, however, offer surprisingly little evidence that social cleavages are more intense in societies that have experienced genocide or mass killing than in those that have not. To date, quantitative research on ethnic conflict and genocide has found little correlation between indicators of ethnic, social, economic, and cultural differences and the likelihood of large-scale violence between groups. Nor do ethnic wars appear to be more likely to result in mass killing that political or ideological conflicts.
Mass atrocities and large-scale violence are such rare events that looking for deep social cleavages produces too many false positives, and the social fragmentation theory doesn’t offer an obvious mechanism for certain how attitudes, relationships, and norms lead to organizations with high capacities for violence.
Another reason to doubt the social fragmentation theory is the role elites and the “greed” side of the “greed vs. grievance” formulation play in sparking violence. If what causes violence and atrocities is largely elites feeling threatened or sensing an opportunity to increase their power, then social fragmentation is secondary because opportunity, not identity or grievance, is the driving force.
Thirdly, many studies of violence and identity see the former as primarily driving the latter, and not the other way around. In his study of the Mozambican civil war, Lubkemann argues trying to find causality in pre-war fissures is misguided because the war itself shaped identities to a degree that there was often little resemblance between people’s pre-war and during-war identities. Experiences of violence, both in myth and in reality, determine how people view others, and subsequently the “othering” that occurs produces social fragmentation.
Finally, looking at social fragmentation may overstate the role that ideology and social relations (writ large) play in atrocities. Lubkemann’s argues that while “new wars” (defined as civil wars between often weak forces after the end of the Cold War) are indeed about politics, they’re not the macro-politics they’re often made out to be. Instead, the political goals of actors are highly localized and diverse.
His work is in line with Kalyvas’, who sees civil wars as driven by civilian decisions to give denunciations to the warring parties. Civilians tend to ideologically support whoever controls the region where they live, but use armed actors to settle personal scores (admittedly often shaped by micro-level social fragmentation) through false denunciations. War is ideological, in that civilians direct violence for political purposes, but their goals are limited and it is violence that allows social fissures to be exploited, rather than the social fissures that bring the violence in the first place.
In sum, social fragmentation can be observed in violence, but it is not the primary cause nor can attempts to decrease social fragmentation prevent the violence from beginning in the first place.