Human identity has been shown throughout history to be a powerful mobiliser. From the Holocaust to the Rwandan genocide to the present populist political climate, identity has played a key role in the incitement of division. Peace and conflict scholars have illustrated that identities can be manipulated to serve different ends, promoting affinity and unity just as easily as fear and hatred.
It is essential to harness the great potential of identity in transforming conflict and promoting peace and cohesion in society. However, despite this clear mandate, accessible frameworks and practical tools to apply on the ground seem difficult to understand or implement. Why is this the case? If identity holds such transformative potential, why are identity-based approaches not a part of every practitioner’s toolkit?
- Framework Confusion: Academics and practitioners have been working to develop identity tools to aid in the prevention of conflict and the promotion of peace and cohesion. Yet, each discipline has their own conceptions of what identity is, making the integration of contemporary identity theories difficult.
- Method Vacuum: Despite progress towards understanding and analysing the potential role of identities in conflict, there are few concrete guidelines or training for practitioners to follow. For example, there are few accessible methodologies that build effective counter or alternative narratives.
- Fear of Backlash: A common concern is that programs which harness identity for peacebuilding can backfire. Identity is viewed as a double-edged sword which can both cause and mitigate conflict. This feeds into a Catch-22, where fear of engaging identities leads to a lack of theoretical and practical development of identity-based solutions.
In order to overcome these limitations, the following areas represent opportunities for developing identity-based frameworks and methods:
- Building a common framework. Each theoretical, disciplinary, and professional approach to defining and analysing identity has something to teach us about working with identities in conflict. How can we extract the most important components of these approaches and build a common framework that can be shared and utilised across conflict transformation and related fields?
- Developing and testing methods to identify division. While there are established methods for researching and analysing identity, there is no common agreement on how to identify identity-based divisions in various cultural contexts. How can the most useful research and analysis methods be incorporated, adapted and evaluated for practitioner use?
- Creating platforms and strategies to counter division and promote cohesion. In addition to the ability to effectively understand how identities are being used to create division, the real potential of utilising identity in conflict and peace building work lies in countering and preventing these attempts. As such, a key challenge is knowing how to develop strategies that are designed to target identity-divisions specifically, and to understand how to systematically develop the platforms that can design and implement such strategies.