Blood Lines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism by Vamik Volkan

11 October 2007

This article in the Guardian today put me in mind of this review I wrote a while ago.

Blood Lines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism by Vamik Volkan

When writing about international relations, it’s often easy (and tempting) to write about countries as if they were people. Germany didn’t like the way France was doing this, China was upset and therefore — the point is clear enough. By extension, there are times when it is convenient to talk about various ethnic groups in a similar fashion, because the single-mind, single-person outlook makes describing behaviours that much easier. There are quite a lot of dangers inherent in this approach, most of which are self-explanatory and usually boil down to the fact that it’s all too easy to oversimplify matters and not take important but subtle outside factors into account. And yet in accepting this caveat, is it still plausible to look at ethnic groups and treat the group as a distinct ‘individual’ for a different reason? Is it possible, even, to take that ‘individual’ and use a very individual technique — psychoanalysis — to try to understand ethnic conflict from a perspective that’s one step removed from classic models of international relations thought?

Psychiatry professor Vamik Volkan has adopted this kind of psychoanalytial approach to ethnic conflict and international relations in his book Blood Lines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism. Volkan has had very personal experience of ethnic conflict, having come from a Turkish Cypriot family who experienced the day-to-day pressures of living side by side with Greek majority on the island of Cyprus. As part of his psychological fieldwork, he has travelled to various places around the world that are caught up in ethnic conflict, attempting to speak to political representatives, smaller group leaders, and ordinary people to understand and interpret different perspectives on ethnic conflict. And on the whole, the addition of a more psychological context provides a different perspective on the standard arguments that tend to be thrown around in international relations studies.

I suppose the most obvious problem with Voltan’s psychological approach (one that I should mention first off, at least) is that you have to accept a lot of Freudian analysis to get through his arguments — and Freud is one of those authors whose writing is either loved or loathed. Even I had to grit my teeth a bit at some of Voltan’s interpretations that seem to veer a little too close to psychobabble for my liking, and there are times when his analysis seems disjointed, if not unconvincing. But some of the sample psychological profiles that Voltan puts together are really quite good and in some cases almost chilling. His analysis of an ideal terrorist leader, for one, provides a sound foundation for understanding the origins and driving forces of human behaviour — the personal factors behind the political violence. While Blood Lines definitely has its good moments and iffy moments, in general I think that the good parts are enough to make it worth reading and possibly going back to for future reference.

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