Identity politics on the world stage

David Muchlinski, David Siroky

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


In the late 1980s and early 1990s the scholarly study of world politics was dramatically altered as the Soviet Union finally collapsed. In its wake, the Soviet Union left behind something that it was supposed to have done away with-nationalism and expressions of national identity. As the Soviet Union crumbled, conflict erupted between various ethnic groups remaining in the former Soviet republics. Russians, Armenians, Chechens, Georgians and Tajiks all engaged in open and violent conflict in the name of national and ethnic identity. Why was nationalism such a force for violent conflict in the early 1990s when it had remained dormant for much of the Soviet era? And why did these various ethnic groups still identify with their ethnic kin when the Soviet Union was supposed to have replaced their loyalty to their kin with loyalty to the cause of revolutionary Communism? The devastating effects of ethnic conflict re-emerged elsewhere in Europe during the same period as the former nation of Yugoslavia collapsed into several distinct states. Serbia, led by a nationalist leader in Slobodan Milosevic, engaged in a brutal and protracted war against Kosovars, Croats, Bosnians and Albanians. At the end of the twentieth century, Europeans were shocked to learn that concentration camps had once again been constructed under their noses. The wars of the former Yugoslavia claimed over 100,000 lives, and displaced over four million people. This chapter explores the powerful effects identity-especially ethnic identity-has on international politics. Though at one time understudied, scholars of world politics have become interested in issues of identity as it has become clear that the field's main theory, neorealism, has failed to account for a variety of events such as the violent dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, increases in religious extremism and the effects these events have on world politics. This chapter introduces the study of identity and ethnicity in the context of a heated debate between two prominent scholars of world politics: Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington. The chapter discusses in depth how students of world politics should understand issues of identity, and explores how identity and ethnicity affect important issues-like domestic and international conflict-in the study of world politics. Identity is a difficult concept to grasp in the study of world politics. Are identities fixed from birth, or are individuals able to alter their identity throughout their lifetime? What makes ethnicity and identity a powerful force for mobilization in some instances and not others? How should scholars of world politics conceive of ethnicity and identity? This chapter addresses many of these questions. The chapter introduces concepts such as Primordialism and constructivism with regard to identity while exploring how the study of ethnicity itself often shapes how identity is defined. No longer a marginal field of study in world politics, the study of identity is not firmly established in the mainstream of the discipline.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationEncounters with World Affairs
Subtitle of host publicationAn Introduction to International Relations
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9781315579498
ISBN (Print)9781472411150
StatePublished - Mar 9 2016


  • Activated identity
  • Civilization
  • Constructivism
  • Ethnicity
  • Identity
  • Nominal identity
  • Primordialism
  • Socially constructed

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities
  • General Social Sciences


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