Why Violence and Conflict are Crucial to Anthropology?

Posted: November 26th, 2013

Why Violence and Conflict are Crucial to Anthropology?

Anthropology is an academic discipline that concerns itself with the study of human beings. It concerns itself with investigations concerning the origin of humanity, the mannerisms and behavior patterns exhibited by humans, and the physical and socio-cultural aspects of humanity. With the nature of the study being wide, it has mandated divisions within the discipline like social anthropology, linguistic anthropology, biological anthropology among others for the purpose of in-depth analysis. Despite the various categories placed in anthropology, a common phenomenon that has been realized in every subcategory is that there are noted differences with regard to the concerned focus. For instance, cultural anthropology has led to the conclusion that the various past and present social groupings had different lifestyles, religious orientations and cultural practices when compared to other cultures[1]. This also concerns linguistic anthropology where different languages have been noted across various nations bringing out the topics of race and ethnicity. Violence and conflict are viewed as social indicators of the differences that may occur in terms ideology, race, cultures and religious practices in our communities.

MacClancy asserts that the presence of clashes and violence “tell us much about the ways in which groups and persons organize and imagine themselves, constitute relations of power and hierarchy, and create social identities and meanings”[2]. The genocide experienced in Rwanda in the latter half of the twentieth century is a classical example that we can use in the analysis of clashes to determine their significance in the study of anthropology. Rwanda constitutes of two tribes, namely the Hutu and the Tutsi. The former is believed to have initially originated from Chad while the latter are from Ethiopia. Both groups settled in Rwanda in different periods, with the Hutu bearing the first position and therefore acquiring a level of predominance in their new settlement before the Tutsis arrival. The communities initially coexisted as peaceful people having had the same language group, Bantu, and religious orientations, Christianity. The source of the genocide and unrelenting conflict in the 1990s is attributed to the creation of social stratification and consequently social classes by the colonizers, notably the Germans and Belgians[3]. The Tutsis are conspicuously taller in stature than the Hutus and upon their entry into Rwanda, they had fought their predecessors and upon winning the war, a peaceful coalition was instituted with the defeated group agreeing to manage the Tutsi cattle in return for peaceful relations.

This led to the establishment of a Tutsi monarchy in the fifteenth century that lasted for close to five centuries and both tribes performed many intermarriages with the loyal administration of a Tutsi king. However, as the Belgians colonizers succeeded the Germans, they incited ethnic conflict within the two tribes using class distinctions. The Hutus were termed as the inferior group due to their short physique, less economic wealth and farming activities as opposed to the Tutsis economic affluence, tall physique and cattle ranching skills that christened them as the superior group. As the colonizers incited the Hutus, ethnic wars resulted from the setting and an uprising led by the Hutus led to the abolition of the monarchy and the reign of the Hutus in 1962[4]. The new government was unequally represented with the Hutus controlling eighty-five percent of the most crucial power positions while the Tutsis were accorded the remaining fifteen percent. The Hutu then resorted into murdering the Tutsis and fifteen thousand were demised during this period. Most Tutsis, numbering to at least one million persons, sought refuge in Burundi and Uganda.

In 1986, the Tutsi populace living in Uganda joined forces to create a revel party that invaded Rwanda in 1994 for retribution and this led to the genocide, where at least eight hundred thousand individuals were murdered. From this case study, it is evidenced that the information acquired from clashes forms a basic framework required for a holistic approach to an in-depth study of elements required to ascertain harmony in social settings, which in real sense forms the basics of anthropology[5]. The Rwanda genocide employs the use of historical, political and socioeconomic data for a comprehensive examination of what constituted to the identified conflict. Cultural terms as noted through a common language (Bantu) and religious practice (Christianity) led to peaceful coexistence with a common sovereign authority and intermarriage practices. These defined the cultural practices of pre-warfare Rwanda. Additionally, a scrutiny of the same culture exposed the rot behind the cultural dissemination attributed to power interests, structural factors within the government and factional influences (Belgians) as constituting to the root cause of the genocide.

These process forms the distinctive pattern of anthropological studies; conflicts/wars offer an informative source for such data. Violence is often an occurrence associated with a tense relationship mostly between two or more parties. Due to this nature, the victimized people in conflict situations are never a random group but rather one chosen with precision[6]. Anthropologists have used this guideline in studying the behavior of the victimizing group since, as the killings or other violent actions may be termed as inhumane and condemned by most people, the destructor acts form a varied point of rationality. For instance, the executors of violence in the Rwanda genocide acted from a revenge impetus stemming from their earlier pain noted in the killings that forced them into forced migration. The Hutus in their uprising justify their actions to a class oppression stemming from their colonizers and their incitements. Additionally, all violent cases are but a product of historically unresolved cases that tend to store pressure until the bearing point is reached and an outburst occurs.

Anthropologists attribute all conflicts and violence cases to political, socioeconomic and economic factors, either as single or combined causative agents. Studying war and conflict from the perspective of anthropology aids in an analysis that aids in the revelation of the conflict source and the best techniques in which the clashes may be solved. By the fact that a disparity has escalated into a major conflict does not warrant the use of force or combat for the issue to be solved. Peaceful negotiations through dialogues and the creation of coalitions are good examples of how such problems may be solved. During such negotiations or case analysis, “anthropologists try to listen with acute critical attention to what people say and, just as significantly, don’t say, about conflict and violence”[7]. To discuss this concept, we will review the Afghanistan conflict that led to the institution of the Taliban faction in the nation. Just like the Rwandan war, it is believed that violence stemmed from ethnic clashes majorly among the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Pushtons and Hazaras, and secondarily supported by the Aimaqs, Baluchis, Kirghiz and Turkmens as the other tribes in Afghanistan[8].

The Taliban group rose in power ranks in the period of 1994 as a resistance movement against the oppressive Mujahideen period that had rent havoc in the nation. The initial global recognition of the Taliban was noted in the same year as the faction offered security to a procession headed for Pakistan from the warring ethnic groups. This gesture was held in a bid to ensure that other nations are opened up to trading practices in Afghanistan for the enhancement of economic and socioeconomic welfare in the warring nation. Having acquired support from other nations for their good gestures, the Taliban resorted to insuring the discontinuity of the various ethnic wars within the nation. Six years upon the group’s inception eighty-five percent of the nation had been brought to a peaceful state with a disarmament initiative that the Taliban monitored. However, to restore order within the conflicting parties, the Taliban have applied force leading to another oppressive system all in the name of conflict resolution.

The religious perspective held by the Taliban is primarily Islamic fanaticism that allows murder for the sake of policy institution. The faction has instituted tyrannical policies with regard to working and dressing conditions for women, educational institutes that have been accorded to male autonomy and no female schooling[9]. This has placed a sense of political power on the group forcing individuals to be compliant or else face stringent penalties like execution, rape, public flogging, and slavery among other activities. The conflict evidenced in such a nation can therefore be attributed to the religious standpoint that justifies the Taliban resentful actions in their own perspective and therefore the violence can never be tackled unless these aspects are changed. In other words, anthropologists determine this as the other unsaid part of conflicts and warfare since the combatants upholds aggressiveness as a means to achieving political and social order among the people.


Eller, Jack David. From culture to ethnicity to conflict: an anthropological perspective on international ethnic conflict. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1999.

Fisanick, Christina. The Rwanda genocide. Farmington: Greenhaven Press, 2004.

Havilland, William, Harald Prins and Dana Walrath. Cultural anthropology: the human challenge. Clifton Park: Cengage Learning, 2007.

MacClancy, Jeremy. Exotic no more: anthropology on the front lines. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Maley, William. Fundamentalism reborn?: Afghanistan and the Taliban. London: C. Hurst & Co. Publishers, 1999.

Metcalf, Peter. Anthropology: the basics. Florence: Taylor & Francis, 2005.

Nojumi, Neamatollah. The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan: mass mobilization, civil war, and the future of the region. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Schmidt, Bettina, Ingo Schroder and European Association of Social Anthropologists. Anthropology of violence and conflict. New York: Routledge, 2001.








[1] Peter Metcalf, Anthropology: the basics (Florence: Taylor & Francis, 2005).

[2] Jeremy MacClancy, Exotic no more: anthropology on the front lines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 99.


[3] Jack David Eller, From culture to ethnicity to conflict: an anthropological perspective on international ethnic conflict (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1999).


[4] Christina Fisanick, The Rwanda genocide (Farmington: Greenhaven Press, 2004).


[5] William Havilland, Harald Prins and Dana Walrath, Cultural anthropology: the human challenge (Clifton Park: Cengage Learning, 2007).


[6]Bettina Schmidt, Ingo Schroder and European Association of Social Anthropologists, Anthropology of violence and conflict (New York: Routledge, 2001).



[7] Jeremy MacClancy, Exotic no more: anthropology on the front lines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 109.

[8] Neamatollah Nojumi, The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan: mass mobilization, civil war, and the future of the region (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).



[9] William Maley, Fundamentalism reborn?: Afghanistan and the Taliban (London: C. Hurst & Co. Publishers, 1999).


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