Two theories (Social Identity Theory, and Relative Deprivation Theory) used to analyse the Bosnia-Herzegovina Conflict with additional Conflict Resolution Methods used to resolve the conflict 


The Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict was a three-way conflict that occurred in the Balkan state between 1992 and 1995, following the collapse of the Yugoslavian Federal Republic in 1991 (Hammond, 2007). The collapse of the communistic regime, which saw the creation of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia from the former Yugoslavia, resulted in conflict arising between three parties within Bosnia-Herzegovina: Muslim Bosniaks, Serbian nationalists and Croats. Each party desired different things, for example, the Muslim Bosniaks wished for an independent Bosnia, while the Serbs wished to remain part of Yugoslavia, and the Croats wanted to join the independent Croatian state. In February 1992, the Bosniaks and Croats joined forces to vote for independence in a nation-wide referendum which began the conflict with Serbian nationalists rejecting the referendum’s results and taking up arms in response (Richamond, Paris & Newman, 2009).

According to Meznaric & Zlatkovi (1993), the conflict evolved into a tertiary dispute, with different degrees of cooperation between the three main groups in different regions of the country. For example, Muslim and Serb forces allied against Croats in Southern Bosnia-Herzegovina, rival Muslims fought each other in North-West Bosnia, and Croats and Serbs joined forces in central Bosnia. This multi-faceted conflict evolved to such a degree that ethnic cleansing and siege warfare became common, for example, the siege of Sarajevo (April, 1992) and the murder of thousands of Muslims in Srebrenica (1995) by Serbian forces (BBC, 2015). The violence of the Bosnian Conflict is particularly jarring as, prior to the eruption of the conflict, the respective forces of it had been part of an integrated, functioning society. Such a dramatic upheaval of what was ‘normal’ for Bosnia-Herzegovina, to the point where violent conflict became an everyday occurrence, highlights the fragility of the organisations and groups individuals may identify as belonging to and how, when these groups are undermined, challenged or dissolved, the reaction can be explosive. A poignant example of this explosive reaction can be found in the numerous ethnic cleansings in the Laŝva Valley area by the Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosnia political and military leadership against Bosniaks between May 1992 and April 1993 (ICTY, 1995). Bosniaks in the region were subjected to persecution on religious and political grounds, interred in camps such as Kaonik Camp and the Vitez Detection Facilities, mass murder, rape and the destruction of mosques and homes (United Nations, 2001; 2004).

The conflict officially ended in 1995 with the intervention of the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) carrying out air strikes against Serbian positions in Bosnia in response to the attack on Srebrenica which saw 8’000 Bosniaks murdered by Serb forces led by General Ratko Mladic. Following this intervention, the Dayton Peace Accord was signed in Paris that same year and an international peacekeeping force was deployed along the border of the two entities created in the Accord; Republika Sprsksa and the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Reversing the 70 percent Serb controlled territory and reducing it to 49 per cent of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s territory was the ultimate intention of the Accord, the NATO airstrikes aided in this effort.

In order to explain the events of the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict, the theories of Social Identity (SIT) and Relative Deprivation (RDT) will be applied to the actions of the parties involved in the conflict and, following this, various methods of peacekeeping and conflict resolution will be discussed, namely diplomacy and post-war reconciliation.

Source: BBC Website

Social Identity Theory, according to Tajfel (1972), proposes that we define ourselves by the category or group we belong to and we are able to belong to more than one category at a time (Hogg & Turner, 1987). We naturally divide individuals into ‘us’ and ‘them’ groups based on how similar to ourselves they are, and our social identity comes from our membership in these groups (Turner, 1985). Our group membership is directly correlated to our self-esteem, and so we will stereotype ‘out-group’ members’ negativity in order to increase our group status and enhance our self-esteem (Tajfel, 1979). In the case of the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict, the breakdown of the Yugoslav Republic in 1991 resulted in the dissolution of the umbrella group which the main proponents of the conflict belonged to originally, i.e. members of the Yugoslav Republic. Though there were differences in religious and ethnic backgrounds, it was possible for individuals to ignore these differences in favour of promoting the umbrella group they were all part of as Yugoslavian citizens. The dissolution of this group identity resulted in the re-appraisal of the groups that the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina belonged to, culminating in them resorting to basing their grouping on religious and ethnic grounds: Bosniak Muslims, Catholic Croats and Eastern Orthodox Serbs.

These groups each had their own cultural and social identities based on experiences perceived to be unique to their respective groups, with non-group members viewed negatively in comparison to in-group members. In this case, propaganda used by Serb nationalists in Serbian controlled areas portrayed Muslims as Islamic fundamentalists (Azinović, 2007; Matvejev, 2001), in order to justify the violently aggressive tactics that were employed in the three years before the conflict was forcefully brought to an end. Croatian media promoted negative, hostile views of the ‘enemy’ in order to desensitise Croats to the military tactics used in events, such as the Laŝva Valley ethnic cleansing where over two thousand Bosniaks were killed (United Nations, 2001).

Because we wish to be better than individuals in other groups we can, and will, engage in violence in order to obtain, and maintain, a position of power in a situation (Tajfel, 1979). This is evidenced by the fact that, when the Bosniaks and Croats banded together for independence in 1992, the response of Serbs was to attack and gain control of as much territory as they could in a bid to maintain their group position. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbs made up just 30 percent of the overall population with Bosniaks accounting for 42 per cent, whereas when the state was still part of Yugoslav Republic Serbs were the majority and so had the greatest opportunities, access to resources and power (ABC News Report, 1992). With the collapse of the communist state and with Yugoslavia losing its strategic importance with the end of the Cold War, Serbs were faced with the reality that their power and affluence was dependent on an entity that no longer existed, thus invalidating and decreasing their collective group worth. Runciman (1966) implies that this correlates with the concept of relative deprivation – the idea that we judge our standard of living based on what we feel we should have and the reality of our situation.


Relative deprivation is a universal human phenomenon, present in all groups, cultures and societies that explains the near-immediate hostility and violence of the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict in a way that is complimentary to Social Identity Theory (Pettigrew, 2002). Studies have found that civil unrest has a strong correlational link with relative deprivation, suggesting that our willingness to engage in hostile, violent behaviour against non-group members is influenced by what we feel we are entitled to (Gurr, 1970). Snyder & Diesing (1997) studied 16 war crises and found that conflict occurred due to the fear groups experienced based on: appearing weak, a successful attack by the enemy, and the inevitability of war. The fears that groups experienced revolved around pride and egoistic deprivation, with individuals and groups perceiving the loss of power and influence as a major motivational factor of conflict, as opposed to general feelings of anger and resentment.

There are different types of relative deprivation: fraternalistic and egoistic, which explains the events of the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict in different ways. Fraternalistic deprivation (FD) pertains to the positions an individual feels they deserve or are owed within their own group and whether or not they wish to leave the group (Runciman, 1966). The in-fighting of Bosniak Muslims in North-West Bosnia is a prime example of how individuals in the overall group of ‘Bosniak Muslims’ disagreed and wished to act in different ways, thus resulting in the splintering of the group into, for example, the Patriotic Leagues and Zelene Beretke (Schindler, 2007).

In contrast to FD, egoistic deprivation (ED) focuses on the way an individual views their group relative to other groups (Runciman, 1966). The response of Serbs to the independence referendum in 1992 is a prime example of this, since the perception was that the position of Serbs was being eroded by the increasing freedom, influence and resources available to Bosniak Muslims and Croats. The history of Bosnia-Herzegovina is very important in understanding why the conflict arose in the first place, as Tint Alon (2002) points out that we base our predictions for the future on past experiences. Bosnia-Herzegovina was liberated from Nazi control in 1945, became part of the Yugoslav Republic and experienced over 50 years of a communistic regime where Slavic individuals had the best opportunities available, in direct contrast to how Slavs were treated under the Nazi’s who viewed them as only slightly above Jews ethnically-speaking (BBC, 2015). As a result of this history, the Serbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina possessed personal experiences, and familial knowledge of the discrimination they experienced when they were the victims of persecution, and naturally wished to avoid becoming victims again, through any means necessary. The economic development of Yugoslavia after the end of World War II is also an important aspect in the development of the conflict, as Geschwender (1964) notes the dramatic improvements in material wealth resulting in an exponential growth in the expectation of Serbs and the disparity between expectation and reality.

Additionally, groups tend to compare downwards (Runciman, 1966) and this can be seen in the propaganda that was used by the various antagonists in the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict in order to associate a win-lose situation with the conflict. In the case of the Serbs, if they lost then they portrayed the loss as resulting in the destruction of Serbian values, traditions and economic prosperity which their opponents would benefit from. This sort of propaganda played on fears and stereotypes in order to desensitise the Serbian people to the violence against Bosniak Muslims and Croats by Serbian forces in the conflict. Thus, Serbian propaganda was designed to create an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality (Dutton, 2007). Such rationale then provided for the genocide of thousands of Bosniak Muslims by Serb forces during the conflict, such as the massacre of eight thousand Muslims in Srebrenica, as well the mass rape of over twelve thousand Muslim women over the duration of the conflict (Henry, 2010; Crowe, 2013). Indeed, as Cawthorne (2009) mentions, even after the initial assault by both Serb militia and military forces, Serb civilians would continue attacking Bosniak Muslims, looting and burning down homes, and even physically assaulting and killing them. These actions were acceptable because Serbs viewed Bosniak Muslims as deserving, as they were perceived to be responsible for the war, and ultimately beneath them because they were ‘the enemy’. It is not so much a surprise then that mass genocide and mass rape occurred during the conflict against Muslims by Serbs and that, even today, mass graves are still being found with the bodies of victims of the atrocities of the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict (Balkan Insight, 2015; BBC, 2013; Vice, 2015; Reuters, 2013).

Communication skills are some of the most crucial skills for individuals and groups to possess during a conflict (Deutsch, Coleman & Marcus, 2006). The ability to show that one group is listening to another, that they are taking into consideration their opinions and understanding their experiences, ultimately makes resolution more likely in the long-run (Bornstein & Gilula, 2003). The natural tendencies towards bias that individuals have, such as misperceptions, stereotypical thinking and the narrowing of the range of viable options (a result of groupthink), are pervasive and difficult to reduce and change, but they are greatly affected by good communication (Mackie, Hamilton, & Susskind, 1996). According to Paolini, Harwood and Rubin (2010), one of the biggest problems with conflicts is how individuals and groups engage in fundamental attribution errors (FAE) about the opposition. FAE is the tendency to attribute behaviour to internal aspects of an individual, such as their personality, while attributing our own behaviour to external circumstances, such as the environment or the behaviour of others (Ross, 1977). In the case of conflicts, the aggressive actions of the out-group are perceived as being the cause of our group’s behaviour, whether that be air strikes, artillery and mortar attacks or, such as in the case of Srebrenica, mass murder of over 8’000 Muslims by Serb forces. There is no universal explanation of FAE, though the Just-World Theory proposes that, because people believe that we get what we deserve and deserve what we get, we attribute failures to dispositional causes because this satisfies our need to feel like the world is a fair place and that we have control over lives. Both Bruger (1981) and Walster (1966) both point out that viewing the world as a just-place reduces perceived threats and provides a sense of security, that is psychologically beneficial (Gilbert & Malone, 1995). This however has great potential to result in victim-blaming (Walster, 1966). Applying this to the Bosnian-Herzegovina conflict, FAE uses the perceived ‘fundamentalism’ of Muslims to justify the violent action taken by Serb forces against Bosniak Muslims, and the Just-World theory allows Serbs to feel like the violence is justified because, obviously, the Bosniaks must deserve the violence and harm for some reason otherwise they wouldn’t be suffering. This enabled Serbs to not feel responsible for the conflict. They are instead able to believe they’re responding to a threat and acting accordingly. Serb President Slobodan Milosevic in 1992 to a reporter on the attacks against Muslims in Serb-controlled regions of Bosnia-Herzegovina are a clear indication of this flawed thinking: “You can check, travelling around, through Yugoslavia, the Serbs were not attacking anybody else’s territories, they were defending themselves” (ABC News, 1992a).

Due to the ethnic and religious diversity present in Bosnia-Herzegovina, there are two methods of conflict resolution which may have provided a way of reducing tensions and improving relations between the groups: interdependency and contact. Sherif (1966) proposed that forcing groups to interact with each other and to recognise that they relied on the other for a practical purpose, would reduce inter-group conflict because of the need to work together to achieve ‘superordinate goals’. These goals could only be met with the cooperation of the groups, such as the cooperation of Bosniak Muslims and Croats alongside the NATO airstrikes in 1995 that pushed back Serb forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Coupling this interdependency with increased contact, based on Allport’s (1954) contact hypothesis, the prejudicial thinking of group members would be challenged by the continuous contact and reliance on out-group members and would, ultimately, cause a reduction in prejudice and conflict. Allport (1954) states that, under certain conditions, interpersonal contact between individuals and groups is one of the most effects ways of reducing prejudice between group members. However, contrary to Allport’s hypothesis, in some cases, increased contact between different groups can actually increase hostility, such as in the American South during the civil rights movements of the 1950s where racial violence and prejudice was greater in areas of increased contact between the two groups. Negative intergroup contact may be a better indicator of prejudice than the positive contact Allport’s theory suggests, because it makes the social group of out-group member’ more salient during the situation (Paolini, Harwood & Rubin, 2010). In order to address this, Allport developed a set of conditions that were necessary in order for contact to be mutually productive and reduce prejudice. As defined by Forsyth (2009) these conditions are as follows: contact must be supported by authority figures on both sides; is voluntary and participants are equal during the contact situation; cooperative interdependence is present within and across-groups; the opportunity for individual contact with out-group members is possible and; members of the out-group are seen as typical of the group rather than as exceptions so that the stereotypes individuals have can be undermined and challenged.

Comparatively viewing these two theories together, we have Social Identity Theory (SIT) which explains group formation and the development of hostility between groups based on mutual stereotyping in order to enhance our group standing, and Relative Deprivation Theory (RDT). RDT provides a basis for why groups may attack each other based on perceived inequality between the groups, often with the group that has better access to resources being the aggressor due to their desire to maintain their access. These theories provide a comprehensive overview of the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict in that they both provide ample explanation for why the dissolution of the Yugoslav Republic had such a negative impact on Bosnia-Herzegovina, and also why three distinct groups formed revolving around religious, ethnic and nationality identity.

The conflict resolution methods discussed, mainly interdependence, contact and improved communication, were employed by UN forces and were included in the Dayton Peace Accord of 1995. These methods have been relatively successful, with a cessation in the violence and an international peacekeeping force present between Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in order to ensure the conflict does not begin anew. There is still, however, tension and hostility in both Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, most especially with the recent discovery of several mass graves of victims of the genocide committed by Serb forces under the command of General Ratko Mladic during the conflict (Balkan Insight, 2015; BBC, 2013; Vice, 2015; Reuters, 2013). Whether or not the conflict will begin anew is unknown, there is still hostility and pain on both sides of the issue, and the discoveries of more victims of the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict is like salt on an open wound that has only barely begun to heal.

Source: Britannica

It can be hoped that, in the 20 years since the conflict came to an end, the efforts of the international community to prosecute individuals, such as General Mladic and others, for their parts in the conflict has aided in the healing process that Bosnia-Herzegovina is still going through so many years after the abrupt end of the conflict that claimed the lives of over 100,000 people in Bosnia-Herzegovina.


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