To Hang the Dog, or Let it Lie Sleeping?

May 22, 2007

Starting on a tangent, it is said that appendicitis was not at all a common disease until Edward VII came down with it a fortnight before his coronation, thus making it fashionable. Within the next decade, a record number of surgeries were performed; new techniques were developed and a great deal of literature created around this subject. By the Second World War – thirty-five years later – appendicitis was established in surgery as one of the commonest diagnoses for acute abdominal pain.

How many of the social constructs and social disparities around us exist for the mere reason that we believe them to exist? The same Englishmen who popularized the concept of appendicitis have an old parable which runs ‘give a dog a bad name and hang him’ which may be loosely taken to mean that we live up, if anything, to the expectations and reputation that society allows us.

So to finally get to the point, is the concept of an ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka a similar social construct? Does it exist simply because we perceive its existence? To answer these questions I thought it necessary to first find out what ethnic conflict actually means.

An ethnic group is, simply, a group of people who identify with each other on the basis of a (presumed, adds Wikipedia) common genealogy or ancestry. Needless to say, recognition as a group by other groups is often a contributing factor to developing this bond of identification. So, even before the concept of an ethnic conflict emerges, its clear that the concept of ethnicity itself owes its existence at least partly to our continued attempts to define various ethnic identities. In keeping with this idea, the concept of ethnogenesis or the process of creation of ethic identity may be either an active or passive one.

There is good evidence that ethnicity in Sri Lanka owes its existence at least partly to Active Ethnogenesis, the process where “persons deliberately and directly ‘engineer’ separate identities in order to attempt to solve a political problem – the preservation or imposition of certain cultural values, power relations, etc”. Such attempts are often said to be related to processed such as Language Revival or creation of a new language in what eventually becomes a National Literature – two movements that were quite apparent in the past decades in both major ethnically defined communities in Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese and the Tamil. Passive ethnogenesis also plays a part, obviously; almost two millenia of it, if the National Literature is to be believed…

Having established that current ethnicity in Sri Lanka may to an extent be artificially constructed, it needs to be seen whether the perceived ethnic conflict is also a similar construct. To answer this question we’ll need to examine some theories put forward to explain the emergence of ethnic conflicts. Three schools of thought regarding causation of ethnic conflict exist: the Primordialist, Instrumentalist, and Constructivist models.

According to the Primordialist model, ethnic groups and nationalities “exist because there are traditions of belief and action towards primordial objects such as biological features and especially territorial location” . Prof. Donald Horowitz of Duke University, an authority on ethnic disparities, suggests that this kinship “makes it possible for ethnic groups to think in terms of family resemblances.”

The two main points of definition in this theory are biological features and territorial location. How valid is this in application to Sri Lanka? At first glance there seems to be a clear territorial demarcation. The 2001 Census Report shows that 76.6% of the Colombo District Population is Sinhalese, with only 12.2% Tamil, while the figures from Amparai are 39.3% and 18.8% respectively. What one should also bear in mind however, is that the population in Colombo is over 5 times that of Amparai. In fact, if the totals are calculated instead of percentages, one would realise that Colombo would have over twice the number of Tamil citizens as Amparai (272,583 vs 110,796)! Thus one may question assumption of a territorial demarcation, on the simple grounds that the vast majority of Tamils actually live in peaceful coexistence in the South of the country. The second aspect of the primordialist theory is the presence of biological features. This, too, can be seen to be more of a socially constructed concept than an actual one. The majority of Tamil citizens of Sri Lanka are no different in appearance to the Sinhalese. The very fact that cartoonists feel obliged to portray the classic Tamil with an ash-daubed forhead and a vetti for purposes of identfication – or even worse, actually label them as such – is proof that biological differences are at a minumum between the two groups. Furthermore, the criteria of using biological differences would make the concept a racial and not an ethnic one.


For these reasons, I think that the primordialist theory cannot satisfactorily explain any percieved ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. The second theory, which is the Instrumentalist, argues for the persistence of ethnic differences as the result of “the actions of community leaders, who used their cultural groups as sites of mass mobilization and as constituencies in their competition for power and resources, because they found them more effective than social classes. In this account of ethnic identification, ethnicity and race are viewed as instrumental identities, organized as means to particular ends.”

What this means in our context is simply that ethnic discrepancies are a creation of economic opportunism. Although I think the Instrumentalist theory cannot be applied with confidence to the origin of a percieved conflict in Sri Lanka, it may be a valid reason for the continued identification of Indian Tamils in particular as a distinct subset of our population. The ‘community leaders’ in question would naturally be the CWC.

However, as far as the Tamil or Sinhalese Communities as a whole  are concerned, it would be too much of a generalisation to state that a divide exists as a ‘means to particular ends’. Indeed, Prof. Anthony Smith of the LSE argues that the Instrumentalist approach is chiefly associated with the ethnically motivated activism in the USA during the ‘60s and ‘70s, where a clearer link between division and motive can be apprehended.

The final theory is the Constructivist approach. Unlike the other two theories put forward to explain ethnic divisions, this third fits closer to the situation in Sri Lanka. In essence, it’s related to what Prof. Benedict Anderson of Cornell defines as the ‘Imagined Community’, i.e., that “a nation is a community socially constructed and ultimately imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group.”

The best example for this concept is the apparent differences created between the Hutu and Tutsi communities in Rwanda. The two groups concerned, as with Sri Lanka, were physically very similar in appearance. The only clear cause for conflict based on an ethnic identity can be traced to the period of Belgian Occupation of Rwanda, when the two communities were issued identity cards based on ethnicity, and differences of this nature which were “codified and established” by the Occupancy were used as motive factors in the Genocide that followed.

So all in all, I’m arguing that the idea of an ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is best explained by a constructivist theory, and is therefore only as tangible as the very parameters by which the distinctions between the groups are defined by the academia and general population.

Thus far, it is clear that the (a) concept of ethnic differences as well as the (b) concept of an ethnic conflict on Sri Lanka are both based on social perceptions, and not on any hard rules of discrimination.

The final question is whether this perception of ethnic differences and the perception of the existence of an ethnic conflict has indeed given rise to a true conflict in Sri Lanka.

Any country that gives its population a diverse ethnic identity is bound to have incidents of this nature occuring between the percieved ethnic groups. For example, an occasional Sinhalese may be unfortunate to get assaulted in a Tamil-dominated neighborhood in Great Britain or Canada. That does not mean that an ethnic conflict exists in either country. The only difference with the same thing occuring in Sri Lanka is the connotations that we give it in the enviroment that we have created in our minds eye.To agree that there is conflict between ethnic groups in Sri Lanka would therefore, as in Canada or the United Kingdom, be tantamount to making a grossly unfair statement by the vast majority of people in all these countries who live in peaceful coexistence. We have never experienced anything similar to the Genocides in Rwanda or the segregationism in the USA prior to 1964. Almost all Sri Lankan Sinhalese and Tamils are more preoccipied with their day-to-day activities than with the fear of what atrocties their ethnically different neighbors may commit if they turn their backs on them for one instant.

Sri Lanka has no more of an ethnic conflict in existence at the moment than any other multi-ethnic country. From another viewpoint, it has no less of a conflict either.

The dangers of this need scarecely be overstated. In 1950, the UNESCO recognised that a similar danger was posed by the concept of race, which it dealt with in a seminal article titled The Race Question. The minds that collaborated on this noted that the concept of race “created an enormous amount of human and social damage”… and  “deprives civilization of the effective co-operation of productive minds.” However, a solution that was proposed was to: “drop the term ‘race’ altogether and speak of ‘ethnic groups’.”

Half a century down the line, it’s clear that this concept itself creates as much confusion if not “social damage” as the one it originally sought to replace. So much so that The Third World Quarterly (Issue 6) of 2004 published an article by Dr. Bruce Gilley arguing against using the term “ethnic conflict” on much similar grounds to the UNESCO committee of 1950:

” For both practical and normative reasons there is a good argument for abandoning the field of ethnic conflict studies.”  (Abstract)

To conclude, I believe that ethnicity as well as the concept of an ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is based to a very large extent on perception. However, the inevitable spiral of positive feedback that will result in a true ethnic conflict occurring here will be promoted more than any one factor by the very acceptance that an ethnic conflict exists in Sri Lanka. And on that day, the dog will be hung for the bad name we ourselves gave it, so many years ago.

The trouble obviously, is that we humans are discriminators, dividers and classifiers born and bred. Long before the day that Aristotle began his misguided essays into taxonomy, we’ve been trying to dismantle and separate things into distinct components. Why? Maybe because the very basis of intelligence lies in the division of our external world into the ‘Me’ and the ‘Non Me’. Or maybe as aide memoires, for artistic elegance, or maybe for the simple joy of cleavage into portions. From atoms to society, its all been a question of ‘split ye then all that splitteth until it bloody well splitteth no more’. All justified, of course, in the name of Progress, or even better yet, Discovery. Perhaps the greatest discovery in store for mankind will be that it is sometimes better to leave things be.


2 Responses to “To Hang the Dog, or Let it Lie Sleeping?”

  1. jokerman Says:

    in defense of the utter boredom this article provokes, i would like to add that this was written as someone else’s sociology assignment. y’all can wake up now.

  2. anonymous Says:

    If,somehow you see this, could you provide the provenance on the cartoon, please?

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