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Scientists Who Model Ethnic Violence Find That in Switzerland, Separation is Key to Peace

By Veronique Greenwood
Oct 12, 2011 10:55 PMNov 20, 2019 3:36 AM


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In Bar-Yam's model, areas where different language groups overlap have a high likelihood of ethnic violence (E). Once administrative boundaries are included, the risk of violence drops--except for a northwestern region, where ethnic violence has in fact occurred (F).

Ethnic violence is one of the bloodiest and most virulent kinds of conflict. Pinpointing areas where it's likely to erupt and sussing out why some areas have avoided it are intensely interesting issues to geographers, and Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute made headlines four years ago with a model indicating that how messy the borders are between ethnic groups may be a good predictor of violence

. Now, after using it to predict where violence was likely to occur in India and the former Yugoslavia

, both areas known for their ethnic turbulence, he's posted a paper on the ArXiv

that applies his analysis to Switzerland, a enviably peaceful country that nevertheless has four national languages and large, devout populations of both Protestants and Catholics. How do the Swiss do it, he asks? His team's answer, basically, is geographic and administrative isolation. Switzerland is divided up into cantons

---states that each run almost autonomously---that are fairly homogenous in terms of language and religion, and the country's mountains and lakes provide geographic barriers between regions that might clash. Looking at data from the 2000 census, they found that the one area where the model predicted a reasonable possibility of violence, based on the mixing pattern of languages and religions, was the region northwest of Bern where in fact there was significant violence in the 1970s. The Jura separatist movement

---a group dedicated to creating a French-speaking canton from part of the predominantly German-speaking canton of Bern---resorted to arson around that time, and in 1979, Jura was recognized as its own canton. (But the borders were drawn along the lines of religion, rather than language, and the violence did not completely subside; at the moment, the government is considering lumping the French Protestants of Bern in with the French Catholics of Jura to alleviate the problem.) Trying to get everyone in area to feel brotherly to one another may not be an effective way to manage violence, Bar-Yam and colleagues write. For assimilation to work, no group should be so large as to have an independent identity or public spaces that they identify with, they say, and in the absence of that, partition may be a better option. While this work is certainly food for thought, it raises a number of questions. Partition along religious lines did not work well at all for India and Pakistan

. Bar-Yam and colleagues do not address what specific characteristics---in terms of previous conflict, general climate, and political response---are required for new borders to quench violence. One might make the argument that the long and bloody conflict prior to Partition could be in play in the India-Pakistan example, but it's clearly more complicated than that: Before the establishment of the modern cantons, Switzerland, that bucolic icon of peace, had 200 years of intermittent religious conflict


Image courtesy of Rutherford, et al.

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