Varshney, Ashutosh. 2001. "Ethnic Conflict and Civil Society: India and Beyond." World Politics Vol. 53, No. 3 (Apr., 2001) (pp. 362-398) (JSTOR)


In this passage from his 2001 work, “Ethnic Conflict and Civil Society,” Varshney highlights the importance of civic associations in maintaining peace in multi-ethnic societies.  First, he explores the fact that in India between 1955 and 1995, a disproportionate amount of violent conflict between Hindus and Muslims took place in cities.  When cities in which there was a large amount of ethnic violence were examined alongside cities which maintained peace between ethnic communities, the deciding factor was found to be civic associations.  These civic associations will be variable in size, etc based upon the amount of people living in the area.  In rural villages, where there are not a lot of people living in each town, there is a lot of face-to-face interaction between Hindus and Muslims.  In cities, there are lots of people who therefore require lots of organizations.  The key, as Varshney diagrams in figure 34.1 (337), is that the more people in the local setting, the more links will be required between them to maintain peace.  In cities, where the face-to-face intimacy of villages is scarce, multiple and variable organizations, such as unions, cadre-based political parties (in a multiparty democracy), civic and business are required.  Economic interests in particular can be key to maintaining ethnic peace in times of strife. (MW)

In Varshney’s “Ethnic Conflict and Civil Society: India and Beyond,” he examines the common factors in places that experience interethnic violence, focusing his studies on communities India. He begins by noting two main factors that lower the chances of intergroup conflict: 1) having people interact for the public good across ethnic groups and 2) formal group interactions which are stronger and more likely to maintain peaceful relations than general, unorganized interaction. The first reveals that groups working cross ethnically are able to “build bridges and manage tensions,” rather than only working to improve conditions amongst their own group members without considering the needs of others. For the second point, formal modes of interaction (trade unions, business associations, etc) that have multiethnic participation promote stronger ties than informal interactions (friends from different communities having dinner together or going to festivals) because the formal associations make it much more difficult for politicians to divide groups in an “us” versus “them” dynamic. When considering the importance that the atmosphere that a “civil society” provides, he notes that this type of organization “[promotes] communication between members of different” groups and helps to facilitate understanding among communities in times of tension. Size and type of communities play a huge role in the existence or absence of violence, with larger, urban settings requiring more intergroup connections to maintain peace because these groups can represent larger numbers when individuals can’t make the connections themselves. (JK)



Ashutosh Varshney is a professor of Political Science at Brown.  

Leading Questions

1.What empirical observation presents the initial puzzle in this article? (333.5)

2. Varshney describes the conventional research approach as studying cases of violence and looking for a commonalities. What are the dependent and independent variables in such an approach?

3. What, according to Varshney (333.7ff), is the logical problem with this approach?

4. Walk us through Varshey's logic leading up to the conclusion that "82 percent of the urban population has not been 'riot prone'" (335.3).

5. What was the author's analytical strategy from there? (335)

6. What is the "single most important proximate explanation" for differences in violence? (335.6).

7. What are the two forms of engagement? Which one is more effective? )(335)

8. Once the link (between engagement and conflict) and the difference (associational > everyday), what are the next research questions? (335.9)

9. What mechanism is associated with everyday engagement across ethnic lines?

10. What do "peace committees" do?

11. Explain how the second mechanism is illustrated by this diagram


12. At 338.5 the author writes "[t]he explanation above is deductive." What does he mean?

13. So, what is the "secret" of how intercommunal civic networks contribute to interethnic peace? (338.7ff)


Outline (of original article)

  1. Introduction
  2. Clarifying Concepts and Terms
  3. Why Civil Society? A Puzzling Feature of Ethnic Conflict
  4. Resolving the Puzzle: The Role of Civil Society
  5. Evidence That Civil Society Matters
    • Similar Provocations, Different Responses
  6. Endogeneity and the Underlying Causation
  7. Concluding Observations

See also