Identity Insight

By OICD Executive Director, Prof. Bruce White

I find myself saying it a lot: the roots of so much division and conflict are in identity. For some conflict transformation NGO and international development practitioners, however, identity-based conflict is seen to be a less prevalent, even a minority, cause of conflict. For example, some practitioners see conflict over resources (e.g. water/oil) as a completely separate kind of conflict, perhaps more widespread than what they categorize as “identity-based” conflict, which they may define quite narrowly as conflicts only involving ethnic/tribal factors and forces.

While it is certainly true to say that there are conflicts that are not caused (at least initially) by identity factors, I’ve never accepted the idea that you can take identity and culture factors out of resource conflict, or indeed, most other forms. Surely the fact that a particular group of people see themselves as having a right to a resource depends upon their cultural identity as “that people” who have that right? And so surely notions of historical and cultural identity underlie any territorial dispute, and are vital to understand in order to resolve such disputes? This theme of the role of identity in resource conflict was the subject of a 2012 paper looking at the question as it affects water-resource conflict in Central Asia by OICD research fellow, Aliya Tskhay.

All of this opens up an important question: to what extent are identity and culture factors involved in all human conflict? In order to address this question, I have examined each type of conflict listed by the UN in their UNITAR-IPI (United Nations Institute for Training and Research—International Peace Institute) training course for high-profile UN member peacemakers and diplomats. This course categorizes 141 different conflict causes across 12 categories. I identified identity and culture dynamics in 86 of the 141 causes of conflict which puts the identity-based conflict at 60% of all human conflict (see Fig 1 for a breakdown by category).



Does this 60% figure seem low or high to you? To many of the aforementioned practitioners who define identity-based conflict in narrow terms, it will doubtless seem very high. But for those who understand the scope of influence that identity and culture factors can have, it may seem low. No matter where you may fall on this scale, it is important to realize that even for conflicts that may not begin with identity-based dynamics, a large proportion will come to involve identity factors at some stage in their development. And thus identity will need to be addressed as part of the conflict transformation work in many of the remaining 40% of cases.

If you’re interested to learn more about the categories and causes referenced here, look at page 18 onwards in this excellent summary of the UNITAR program. And if you have question, comments and/or feedback for me on this topic please contact me at bwhite* (where * is converted to the “at” sign).


Identity researchers are constantly concerned with identifying patterns of meaning in what people express. People’s words are rich in cultural imagery and thus even short utterances are complex and nuanced.

Originally developed for actual semantic analysis (e.g. within linguistics), the now open source Tropes software allows one to plug in text and analysis clusters of words of phrases that might have interesting “meaning making” functions. Done right, this software can really ramp up the ability to visualize a given population’s semantic possibilities. Check it out here.


In this regular look at the importance having access to effective tools in the challenging process of researching, analyzing and strategizing identities, we are directing readers to the Human Relations Area Files Database.

e-HRAF is an online database of contemporary and historic ethnographic information on hundreds of societies around the world. A great place to start when building up an identity profile or background of a particular population.

In addition, through the ease of access to a large well-sorted and edited collection of historical ethnography, the identity researcher/strategist can compare the past with the present, and evaluate whether older forgotten cultural concepts have the potential to be reintroduced into a present day population in order to achieve a variety of cohesion building initiatives.


OICD Director, Bruce White, outlines the EMIC method for countering identity based violence

In a project initiated by the OICD in partnership with the Imagine Africa Institute (IAI), the directors of both organizations were invited to speak to a diverse audience of participants at a Nairobi conference coordinated by UNESCO.

The project is aimed at countering identity-based violence in Kenya and the region using the OICD’s unique EMIC (Engagement Method for Identities in Conflict) methodology.

Following IAI president Pierre Sane’s address on the importance of countering divisive ethnic and political identity manipulation in Kenya and Africa more broadly, OICD Executive Director, Prof. Bruce White, gave an extended presentation on how social cohesion is critical to achieve in order to give a population the chance for positive social and economic growth.

During the presentation, Prof. White outlined the EMIC method, summarizing its ability to work to promote the positive identity factors of a given cultural group while mitigating against and countering the negative. The talk met with positive and interested feedback from the participants.

The OICD and IAI continue to pursue partnerships in Kenya and the region and promote their complementary approaches to helping to achieve a systematic countering of identity-based violence and promoting social cohesion.


OICD Director, Bruce White and IAI President Pierre Sane


signupgraphicFor over a decade we have relied on a patchy mailing list system to keep members informed of goings on at the OICD.

As well as being patchy, the old system had no facility for members to share their interests with the organization or other members, or to get more involved in the organization beyond attending OICD events.

Today we launch a new and improved membership system which focuses on matching up new and old member’s interests with what’s going on the organization.  Hopefully with this new system in place we can more effectively fulfill the aim of building and maintaining our culture and identity network and platform.

New and old members alike, do head over to and sign-up to the new membership system.


“Engaging Conflict and Peace through Identity: An Academic-Practitioner Collaborative Workshop”

from the Department of Anthropology, UCL and the OICD
9th– 10th November 2015, London

On the 9th and 10th of November 2015, a two-day conference, “Engaging Conflict and Peace through Identity: An Academic-Practitioner Collaborative Workshop” was hosted by the Department of Anthropology, University College London (UCL) and the Organisation for Identity and Cultural Development (OICD). The conference brought together leading academics, practitioners and representatives from conflict transformation NGOs to analyse the role of identity in the promotion of peace and/or the promotion of conflict.

Conference is opened by Bruce White and Ruth Mandel

Conference is opened by Bruce White and Ruth Mandel

The first day featured a series of academic and practitioner perspectives on conflict transformation, CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) and the promotion of social cohesion through identity. The second day consisted of an interactive simulation which applied the OICD’s EMIC (Engagement Methodology for Identity in Conflict) to a UK CVE case study, showing the productive capacity to build bridges between practitioners and academics.

 The conference was opened by Dr. Ruth Mandel (UCL) who welcomed participants and introduced them to the workshop. Dr. Bruce White (UCL) then proceeded with the first talk of the day, “Engaging Conflict and Building Cohesion through Identity”. The OICD’s two main goals were introduced – the application of interdisciplinary research on identity to real world problems and the creation of a platform for academics and practitioners to discuss and construct real world application of research.

Bruce discusses identity

“If we desire to live in a peaceful and just society, we must construct our identities in a way that is conducive to so doing.” (Dr. Bruce White)

Dr. White discussed identity as a root cause of conflict, constructed in nature and therefore manipulated to divide, radicalise and sectarianise. Dr. White also emphasised that identities are under our control, which also implies that we can counter this manipulation in providing competing discourses that dilute or offer alternative frameworks of meaning to individuals.



“History can be made personal, emotional, embedded and deeply connected to one’s sense of self” (Dr. Susan Pattie)

“History can be made personal, emotional, embedded and deeply connected to one’s sense of self” (Dr. Susan Pattie)

Next, Dr. Susan Pattie (University College London) continued with her talk, “When Friends Become Enemies: Identities at the Breaking Point”, discussing how everyday connections can break and reverse in times of crisis. Creation and consolidation of a powerful master narrative act to limit identity formation as selected history is made personal, emotional, embedded and connected to one’s sense of self.

Dr. Pattie discussed the creation of this narrative through the performance of history through poetry and song, made more pervasive due to their importance to everyday life, group recital and the use of symbols which hold meaning for the performers. As the master narrative comes pervasive, connections and comparisons to others are lost which acts to prevent flexible identity formation.

“Engaging religious actors of being sensitive to religious notions entails being sensitive to how we understand the particular person” (Dr. Sara Silvestri)

“Engaging religious actors of being sensitive to religious notions entails being sensitive to how we understand the particular person” (Dr. Sara Silvestri)

Dr. Sara Silvestri (University of Cambridge and City University London) then discussed the role of religion in conflict and peace-building in her contribution, “Religion within the Context of Conflict or Peace Producing Identity Dynamic”. In a situation of escalating conflict, religious language and concepts are used to cultivate identity. Religious claims are not the source of conflict, but can be used by leaders to obtain legitimacy and cultivate a particular power plan. Dr. Silvestri stated that it is therefore important to be sensitive to the language of religion which forms part of the cultural elaboration of conflict, but there is a need to look at other factors in seemingly religious conflicts. Participants next took a short break for lunch, reflecting on the talks in their vibrant discussions.


“We need to seek the opportunities for providing peace, rather than dwelling on the issues” (Phil Vernon)

“We need to seek the opportunities for providing peace, rather than dwelling on the issues” (Phil Vernon)

After the break, Phil Vernon, Director of Programmes and acting CEO at International Alert, described the organisation’s work, goals to build a capacity to manage conflict and the merits of taking a vision-based approach in this process. 

“We need to make Islamism just as unfashionable as fascism, which we as a society choose to reject… if it is worth tackling racism, tackling homophobia, then it is worth tackling Islamism” (Haras Rafiq)

“We need to make Islamism just as unfashionable as fascism, which we as a society choose to reject… if it is worth tackling racism, tackling homophobia, then it is worth tackling Islamism” (Haras Rafiq)

This was followed by a powerful talk by Haras Rafiq, managing director at the Quilliam Foundation, who emphasised that preventing extremism and tackling Islamism will require debate, dialogue and discussion.

Milo Comerford, a researcher at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, discussed the importance of examining the non-military activity of terrorist groups in order to understand how shared discourses can be ultilised as emotional persuasion tools. For example, through examining Jihadi group identity and culture, we can discover destructive narratives to inform an introduction competitive discourses with sophistication.

“Nothing is easier than denouncing the evildoer, nothing is harder than understanding him” (OR) “Extremism is primarily a narrow view of identity”. (Milo Comerford)

“Nothing is easier than denouncing the evildoer, nothing is harder than understanding him” (OR) “Extremism is primarily a narrow view of identity”. (Milo Comerford)

After this series of engaging talks, Dr. Bruce White and Wayne Jordash closed the first day conference by thanking participants for their engagement and inviting applications for attendance to the second day workshop.

Day two provided an opportunity for academics and practitioners to build on the day one talks by working in smaller groups to analyse and interact with conflicts and identity through the OICD’s EMIC process. After participants greeted one another and discussed day one’s events, the session was opened by Dr. White with an introduction to the OICD’s aims in promoting peace and conflict through identity.

2 groups discuss further

Groups discuss their dataset

In the first session, participants worked together to identify relevant identity factors from research data. Each group was given an unnamed data set, and asked to interpret its contents. Each dataset described a group of people, and participants worked hard to discover what kind of person their data set represented, forming their first impressions in groups.

Groups work together to form and present their views of the dataset

Groups work together to form and present their views of the dataset


Presentations were then given by each group. Group A described a predominantly white-British group who were socio-economically marginalised, adding that the group represented carried a strong anti-Muslim ideology. Group B identified a group with a strong community feeling, who at the same time felt divided and disenfranchised with British society. Group C identified a transitional generation in their dataset, who were predominantly female. Group D described male youth who were angry and confused with their surroundings but felt positive in their references to ISIS.

After groups had shared their initial impressions, groups worked to create a list of recurring ideas in their data set which the people represented either associated themselves with or associated themselves in opposition to. Concepts were then written onto labels and placed on a board under subsets titled “socio-economic”, “gender”, “religious/ cultural”, “national”, and “global societal”. The mess of labels spread across the board was then transformed as participants added and re-organised concepts. By the time the first session ended for lunch, participants were unaware of how the workshop would progress, but seemed eager to discover how their analyses would come together in the second session.

The map begins to take shape

The map begins to take shape

Groups place labels on the map

Groups re-organise the map

The map is discussed

The map is discussed






After a refreshing break, groups participated in an analysis and strategy building component of the workshop Participants from the four original groups were re-allocated to three groups, mixing experts from the data-sets to create diverse sets of experts on all dynamics of the given situation. New groups were then asked to compare and contrast the ways in which different concepts were used and accessed by groups. When groups presented ideas, comparisons were made between categories A and D, which shared very narrow and fixed focuses on concepts such as “nation” or “religion and culture”, as well as strong perceptions of right and wrong. Conversely, groups proposed that categories B and C accessed a greater variety of concepts across the board.

New groups work together to

New groups work together to interpret the map

Through interpreting and analysing the map on the board, groups were then able to select cultural symbols and narratives to develop strategies for countering extremism. The map enabled participants to recognise which concepts more radical groups would have to lose to become more like the groups which had more flexible identities (amplification), and the ways in which they could make positive connections with other groups (re-rooting). For example, the nationalist group A had felt underrepresented, and group D had perceived an oppression of Islam in British society. The two groups could be linked through the realisation of a common struggle, as was present in group B’s (more flexible) identity.

New groups build strategies

New groups build strategies

In the final stage of the workshop, groups designed interventions based on the strategies they had previously developed, discussing the extent to which they would be able to measure and evaluate the effectiveness of their proposals. Proposals such as religious school swaps, alternative narratives to portray new British values, introducing more Muslim role models in popular British culture through YouTube clips to target youth and the establishment of community dialogue programs to provide a voice for local people.

The workshop was closed by Bruce White and Wayne Jordash, who gave reflections on the benefits of bridging academic understanding to practical application in the creation of social cohesion.

It has been a productive two days in which individuals from many fields have shared their unique expertise through day one’s series of talks, and in smaller groups during the EMIC process simulative workshop on day two, discussing and building sophisticated platforms for conflict intervention. We hope this two-day conference has provided an inspiring and valuable experience which has demonstrated avenues for not only countering extremism in the UK, but also the potential for building social cohesion on a global basis.


OICD Makes Name Change

On October 26, 2015, in OICD News & Updates, by oicd

oicdlogo2015newThe Organization for Intra-Cultural Development has become the Organization for Identity and Cultural Development.

The name change was announced by the OICD executive committee today, October 26th 2015. The new name will allow the OICD to communicate the nature of its work more effectively.

The Intra-Cultural Development conceptual and methodological frameworks that the former name encompassed are unchanged and still at the foundation of the organization’s approach to conflict transformation, engagement and social cohesion building.

The transition to the new name will take some time as social media accounts, the OICD website, and graphical design elements are all updated. Please expect both new and old names to appear simultaneously for the transition period.



A flyer with further details on our two-day identity and conflict workshop, “Engaging Conflict and Peace through Identity: An Academic-Practitioner Collaborative Workshop” has been released.

The workshop will be hosted by the OICD in collaboration with the Department of Anthropology, University College London (UCL). The event will take place on the 9th-10th of November and bring together leading academics, practitioners and also representatives from conflict transformation NGOs (International Alert, Strategic Dialogue, and the Tony Blair Faith Foundation) to examine the role of identity in engaging conflict and/or promoting peace. It will pay particular attention to countering violent extremism (CVE) in the UK.

View the flyer here (pdf) View the full program here (pdf)

OICD UCL Workshop flyer-page-001



OICD partners with the Anthropology Department of University College London (UCL) to host a conference:

UCL Anthropology, 14 Taviton Street, London, WC1H 0BW (Rooms TBA)

9th-10th November 2015

Engaging Conflict & Peace through Identity:

An Academic-Practitioner Collaborative Workshop

See the full program here.