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Dividing Lines – Conclusions and recommendations

Article by Prof Simon Mabon

July 19, 2022

Dividing Lines – Conclusions and recommendations

Each year, over a long weekend in May, the universities of York and Lancaster compete against each other in a series of sporting events ranging from football to darts, cross country running to swimming. The rivalry between the white rose of the University of York and the red rose of the University of Lancaster evokes memories of the War of the Roses, the conflict between two rival cadet branches of the House of Plantagenet, Lancaster and York, which fought for control of the English throne across the 15th century. Close to 600 years later, the legacy of this division remains in a sporting competition between two universities and occasional tensions between people from Lancashire and Yorkshire.


Whilst the nature of this division has transformed from violence into a sporting rivalry, other divisions remain central within the nature of political life. In some cases, division plays a useful role within and between societies, allowing people to define themselves by virtue of what they are not. Similarly, division – and forms of tension – play out socially in a range of different forms, from sporting rivalries to geographical tensions. Yet the nature of these divisions differs dramatically, contingent upon the type of identity and relations with the other.


Understanding division within and across contexts is challenging and yet hugely important when seeking to reduce inter-communal violence or prevent mobilisation leading to such forms of violence. As contributors to this collection argue, difference alone is not the main source of antagonism, violent or otherwise. Rather, it is the politicisation and/or securitisation of this difference, wherein communal identities are transformed into sites of contestation with difference framed as a security challenge to the ordering of political life. In each case, deep divisions within and across societies emerge as a consequence of the framing of particular identities as threats – defined broadly – to the desirable order and way of life. This ranges from the political divide in the United States to the role of religious groups in political life in Indonesia and Malaysia.


As essays in this collection have shown, the concept of sectarianism offers much by way of understanding forms of division across societies beset by difference. Whilst some may reject this, claiming that a conceptual approach found in the study of identity politics may suffice, this collection has shown that understanding division through the lens of sectarianism offers much. Indeed, sectarianism offers a lens through which one can understand cleavages within society that take place as a deviation from a collective whole. For example, the splintering of different identities from within a collective whole, be it national, political or religious identities. This approach allows for analysis of how such identities become internalised and take on salience beyond the transient, amorphous and instrumental view of identity held by those who view identities as mere social markers. In addition, the concept of sectarianism helps to understand the discursive construction and framing of such forms of difference, which can lead to mobilisation of communal difference. This can be seen across the essays in this volume, albeit conditioned by the context specific peculiarities of time and space.


Understanding the nature, construction and evolution of communal difference is of paramount importance to those looking to contribute to a more peaceful and just world. Whether this plays out within societies beset by deep divisions or between states, critically reflecting on the nature of division is essential. Although existing analytical approaches offer useful insight in exploring the nature of divisions, the concept of sectarianism serves as a valuable tool in understanding division in the modern word.


Key recommendations



  • To avoid viewing communal conflict as a product of immutable ‘ancient hatreds’;
  • To offer more nuanced analysis of communal difference beyond identity markers;
  • To contextualise identities within broader socio-economic moments;
  • To avoid essentialism in analysis of communal tensions; and
  • To acknowledge the importance of history, culture and religion in understanding difference but not to over stress it.


Policy Based:

  • To encourage a move to issue based politics;
  • To support civil society initiatives that operate across communal groups;
  • To support the emergence of issue based political parties;
  • To avoid a ‘one size fits all’ approach to addressing communal violence; and
  • To support efforts to facilitate democracy and good governance.
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