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The 20th Century has been marked by a return to ethnic and religious affiliations and identifications which continue to be in the foreground of political discourse. The rise of religious groups is represented by the media as a turbulent phenomenon, which spikes new conflicts globally. These representations of collective identities are politically utilized. Resource conflicts and controversies about citizenship and residence rights become more difficult to solve, because notions of identity fuel them with generalizations and prejudice. In this video, political anthropologist GÜNTHER SCHLEE argues that collective and individual identities (i.e. which collective identity an individual opts for) are subject to change over time. The ways in which groups and individuals identify often result from a dynamic interplay between political advantages, economic opportunities and plausible identity options for personal choice. Looking at the process of identification and analyzing which factors influence it, may help to improve human organization on all levels.


Günther Schlee is Director at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle/Saale (Germany). Before becoming Director at the Max Planck Institute, Schlee taught Social Anthropology at the University of Bielefeld and received a guest lecturing position at the renowned School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (École des Hautes Études en Science Sociales) in Paris.
Schlee’s ethnographic region of expertise is Northeast Africa. He has done extensive fieldwork in South Sudan as well as in parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. His interest stems from the ethnic multiplicity that dominates in these countries. More recently, Schlee has also looked at the political effects different forms of collective identification had in other countries, such as Germany. Schlee works interdisciplinary, using both anthropological as well as political, linguistic, and economic lenses for analysis.


Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology

The Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology is one of the world’s leading centres for research in socio-cultural anthropology. Common to all research projects at the Max Planck Institute is the comparative analysis of social change; it is primarily in this domain that its researchers contribute to anthropological theory, though many programmes also have applied significance and political topicality. Fieldwork is an essential part of almost all projects.

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Original publication

How Enemies are Made: Towards a Theory of Ethnic and Religious Conflict

Schlee Günther
Published in 2008