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How Identity Construction Contributed To The Rwandan Genocide

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The Rwandan genocide began in the 2nd week of April 1994 and by the 3rd week of May 1994, about 5-10 percent of Rwanda’s population had been killed, mostly by the Hutus. Beneath all the propaganda and clichés lies reality- the patholigization of ethnic identities. An unbiased study and understanding of why these people died is the only fitting memorial that can be given to them.

The study of identity has become and is a cornerstone of contemporary sociological and political discourses. Authors such as Cooley and Mead introduced identity studies, and these have since expanded into a broad study of the relationship between identity construction and violence. The recent genocides in Rwanda, Burundi, Kosovo, Bosnia and Darfur have reawakened scholarly interest in the subject. However, this in no way suggests that the area of identity conflicts has been an understudied subject in sociology and political science. It is a fact that majority of the conflicts in the world today have spurned because of ethnic differences.

History shows us that even in the 6th century BC, there were ethnic conflicts in the Balkans. In fact, I posit through my own personal observations (which I must confess are not necessarily accurate per se) that religion and ethnicity have been two of the main causes of wars from pre-historic till modern times.

The notion that identities are socially constructed is indisputable in social psychology and political science studies. It is the most basic criteria for studying ethnic politics. But the mere observation that ethnic identities are socially constructed does not by itself explain ethnic violence, (Fearon & Laitin, 2000). The purpose of this paper is not to reiterate this widely accepted notion. My focus is to understand the relationship between socially constructed identities and ethnic violence. In other words, how does the social construction of identities lead to ethnic violence?

Identities are marked by ethnicity, gender, class and race. The central idea is the concept of ‘difference’. This notion of difference categorizes into ‘us’ and ‘them’. The notion that we as a group share similar characteristics and the ‘others’ are different from our group, is the dominant idea. Simon (2011) examines the social construction of the self and the particular ways in which we convince others that we are who we appear to be. Generally, the notion of identity is shaped in relation to some other group. In fact, Goffman (1968) gives us a sense of how identities are constructed by others and also the “patholigization” of certain identities by society.

Tajfel and Turner (1981) posit 3 stages of identity formation; social categorization, self identification and social comparison. They argue that in extreme cases, differences or prejudices may lead to racism and other forms of intolerance such as xenophobia. In this light, one might argue that these xenophobic or racist feelings may easily lead to aggression and violence. Nevertheless, this might not necessarily be true, and even if true, this assertion will need to be proven. In this paper, I intend to use the Rwandan genocide between the Hutus and Tutsis as a case study in understanding how socially constructed identities led to ethnic wars that deteriorated into genocide. The researcher has developed a hypothesis: Identities are constructed by the elites in order to serve their political and economic interests, and at any given point in time may incite violence to achieve these interests.


The notion of the social construction of identity is a vastly researched topic in political science and social psychology. Many constructivists argue that identities are socially constructed, and there is no debating this fact. The focus of this work is to understand how identity contributed to the Rwandan genocide. In order to achieve this, I pose the following questions:

  • How were identities constructed in Rwanda?
  • Why were these identities constructed or better still, what was the rationale behind the construction of these identities?
  • How did these constructed identities lead to ethnic war and genocide?

By answering these questions, I believe I would be able to understand how the construction of identity led to the Rwandan genocide.


IDENTITY CONSTRUCTION: Identity is one’s conception of oneself and group affiliations as compared to others. “Constructing identity literally involves life experiences, relationships and connections, a solid mental or emotional stamp on a human” (Dowling, 2011). These constructed emotions and thoughts create a conceptual visual representation.

GENOCIDE: (Palmer, 1998), defines genocide as “a form of one-sided killings in which the state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are identified by the perpetrator”. An important aspect attached to the definition of genocide is the fact that it should be planned and systematic (Hitjens, 1999). The term was coined by a Jewish-Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in describing the murder and destruction of European Jews by NAZIs. He combined geno (Greek word for tribe or race) and cide (Latin word for killing). He also emphasized on the aspect of coordination with the aim of extermination.


Many scholars have researched on the notion of identity construction (Wendt; Spencer; Wolf; Simon B; Leowey M; Brass; Prunier; Goffman) just to name a few. This research work accepts the notion of identity construction and would discuss some of the contributions of these authors and others to the literature of identity construction and violence.

“…ethnic identities are often not so much acquisitions inherited at birth but ascriptions engendered by the need to anchor artificial states in collective identities” (Taras &Ganguly, 2007). This book argues that the colonial legacy of the Germans and Belgians played a large role in the construction of identities between the Hutus and Tutsis. John Bowen even posits that the differences between the Hutus and Tutsis were almost inexistent in pre-colonial eras, but that the little differences that existed were politicized by the colonial administrations to serve their interests.

Taras & Ganguly postulate that “the prerequisite for fomenting ethnic schism and therefore divide and rule tactics was cultivating ethnic markers between groups”. This explains why the colonial powers developed a strategy of constructing differential identities between the Hutus and Tutsis during the colonial period. (Comas-Diaz et al, 1998) argue that ethnic conflicts are fundamentally related to ethnic identities. This work goes further to assert that there is the existence of a straightforward social psychology of liberation to native social psychologies.

(Fearon & Laitin, 2002) explain the meaning of the statement: ‘identities are socially constructed’. They respond to this by positing a definition which stipulates that the content of social categories, the valuation and membership rules are products of human speech and action, and as such can change over time. Thus, identities can be constructed and do change over time.

(Brass, 1991) in his book “Ethnicity and Nationalism: Theory and Comparison” argues that ethnicity and nationalism are not ‘givens’ but are a consequence of political and social constructions. He goes further to outline the roles that the elite play in the construction of these identities. Although his focus is on the origins of ethnic identity and modern nationalism, it is nonetheless important to this work because it provides a unique perspective into the modernist approach to the construction of ethnicity.

(Kapferer 1988 & Prunier 1995), argue that ethnic groups are conditioned by ethnic discourses that make them susceptible to violence against others. This meaning that ethnic discourses, may shape the minds of their followers to commit violence against persons whom they consider are not alike. Moreover, Fearon & Laitin postulate that differences between extremists and moderate elites of an in-group, sometimes pushes the extremists to provoke violence against an out-group in order to increase their hold on power.

(Nagel, 1994) stipulates that the construction of ethnic identity is as a result of agency and structure. Whilst comparing the NAZI holocaust to the Rwandan genocide, Hintjens argues that the similarities between the two lies in the military and ideological preparations before the genocides, and also in the use of myths and conspiracy theories to justify slaughters (Hintjens, 1999). She proposes that the genocide in Rwanda was as a consequence of the colonial construction and radicalization of identities, the fight for political power within the Rwandan state, and the susceptibility of the Rwandan population to following commands.

I must admit that after reading Hintjens’ work, my understanding of the Rwandan conflict widened. However, her insistence on the fact that the Rwandan state and not necessarily the construction of identities by colonial powers (although she admits it played a role) was responsible for the genocide, is at loggerheads with my own thinking. The researcher imposes the majority of the blame on the colonial powers for radicalizing identities. I however, also admit that the Rwandan state also played a role in creating conditions that led to genocide.


I employ constructivism as my theoretical framework. Constructivists assert that reality is constructed and that things such as identity are not givens. A person’s sense of who she/he is is dependent on their group memberships. However, because constructivism is such a wide field, I have narrowed my theoretical framework to two sub-branches of constructivist theory: social identification theory by Tajfel and the concept of symbolic interactionism by George Herbert Mead.


This theory is based on the extent to which persons identify themselves to groups. This theory posited by Tajfel proposes that a person’s sense of who he/she is is dependent on their group memberships. “Social identities provide status and economic self-esteem” (Deaux, 1993). Hence, we would always want to increase our self image and enhance our group’s status to the detriment of others. Social identities make persons to highly evaluate themselves and there by discriminate against other persons whom they perceive as threats to their social identities.

(Fordham & Ogbu, 1986) explore the psychological consequence of social identification and even argue that persons will always act in accordance with the attributes of their social identifications. For instance, it was observed by (Arroya & Zigler, 1995) that African-American students prefer lower grades in order to maintain solidarity with their social groups and culture. Those African-Americans who excel academically become ‘raceless’ and develop interpersonal conflict and ambivalence.

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The social identity theory states that groups give us a sense of belonging; belonging to the social world. This leads to conformity with the norms of the group and social categorization (them against us). Hence, the in-group will discriminate against the out-group in a bid to booster its self image and status. Tajfel posits that there are three processes involved in the social identity theory: social categorization, social identification and social comparison. In the first stage, we categorize ourselves as a group; Muslim, Christian, African, Caucasian. In the second stage we identify ourselves as members of our group and therefore act as such. In the third stage, we compare and contrast our group with other groups; Christian v Muslim, African v Caucasian. These prejudiced opinions may lead to extreme forms such as racism and xenophobia which may in turn lead to violence as was the case in Rwanda and Burundi.


The second theory employed in this research work is the concept of symbolic interactionism by George Mead. This perspective holds that society is socially constructed through human interpretations. It argues that people have subjective meanings of objects, events and themselves as opposed to objective believes. Language plays a central part in this process. Hence, through this process of interactionism identities are constructed through mutual definitions of situations. “Identities are thus strategic social constructions created through interaction with social and material consequences” (Howard, 2000).

Thus, I will use the social identity theory and the concept of symbolic interactionism as my theoretical frameworks in explaining the construction of identities in Rwanda. However, the fact that these identities were constructed does not proof that there is a relationship between the construction of identity and ethnic violence as was the case in Rwanda.


The relationship between identity construction and ethnic violence is a widely researched topic in social psychology and political science. My work aims to contribute to the already existing literature. For the purposes of this study, I would lay emphasis on quantitative and qualitative methods of collecting data. This would involve observations and criticisms of already existing literature. This research would also focus on secondary sources of information like journals, books, articles, dissertations and media. A main focus of this research will be the analysis of existing information on the causes and course of the Rwandan genocide.


Any study of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 must take into account psychological factors, domestic pressures, social conformism of the Rwandan citizenry and manipulation by external actors. This section, will analyze the different actors involved in the construction and patholigization of the ethnic differences between the Hutus and Tutsis; – pre-colonial, colonial, post-colonial, Rwandan state, conformism by Rwandans and economic pressures all played roles in this process.

External factors

Under colonial rule by Germany then Belgium, the army, church, administration and school were organized around the Tutsis. The colonial powers considered them superior to the Tutsis. German evangelists and historians exaggerated the differences between the Tutsis and Hutus. Some accounts said that the Tutsis had migrated from Ethiopia and were descendants of Noah. They also exaggerated the height differences between the two groups, there by implanting racial superiority and resentment between the two.

Western religious and racial value systems were imposed on the Rwandan society and gave credence to the notion of immutable racial differences in the make-up and abilities of both groups. (Van de Meeren, 1996) claims that when the Belgians decided to implement identity cards in Rwanda, this created problems as it was practically impossible to differentiate between Hutus and Tutsis. Hence, any man having 10 cattle was declared Tutsi, and any below 10 was declared Hutu.

Also, in schools and administration, height quotas were implemented. The taller persons were regarded as Tutsis and given preferential treatment. This racialization of ethnicities caused a lot of social tensions and even led to a revolution by the Hutus against their Tutsi overlords in 1959. The Hutu growing elite was particularly resentful of the overt racial discriminations superimposed by the colonial powers. This resentment and hatred for Tutsi over lordship and exploitation continued till the pre-genocide months when the Hutu elite manipulated this resentment into violent killings of Tutsis. By the end of Belgian rule, Hutu-Tutsi divisions had been established as inherited and immutable and their relationships had become tensed and overtly coercive than before colonial rule.

Also, in the years that preceded the genocide, the French well aware of these constructed social cleavages exploited it to their benefit. They continuously armed and covertly supported the repressive Habyarimana regime in its marginalization and social and political ostracization of the Tutsis. As (Bayart, 1994) puts it, “the Belgian desire for administrative and ideological simplicity was to have lasting consequences…ethnic markers on all identity cards made it possible to identify Tutsis and implement quotas and ultimately to implement selective killings.” Before colonial rule, a man could be Hutu to his clients and Tutsi to his patrons. This was how interwoven the Hutus and Tutsis were. But colonial rule changed all of this.

Domestic Pressures and Rwandan State

(Rene Lemarchand, 1996) suggests that the interplay between ethnic realities and subjective reconstruction (manipulation) by political entrepreneurs lies at the heart of the Hutu-Tutsi conflict. Politicizing and inflating ethnic differences served as a convenient guise by President Juvenal Habyarimana to cover the real struggle which was over fundamental aspects of power and resources. In a bid to cling to power and control over domestic resources, the Rwandan state deflected attention and pathologized the differences between the Hutus and Tutsis. (Foucault, 1997) analysis of the relationship between power and knowledge gives us an understanding into how identities are socially constructed by the elite in order to serve their political and economic interests. The desire by the regime to remain in power led to the creation of ‘a state within a state’ with the formation of para-military youth organizations that worked in tandem with the armed forces and other state institutions at all levels.

Racist ideologies served as justifications for the more rudimentary goals of regime survival under harsh social and economic conditions existing at the time, coupled with political opposition. The Rwandan state used racial politics as a means of gaining support- ‘us’ against ‘them’. This definition of national identities based on ethnic lines served as the bases for the future conflict and genocide that ensued. The Hutu government imposed strict quotas in secondary high schools and public employment on the Tutsis. They were marginalized and many Hutus were taught to believe that they were superior to the Tutsis. (Uvin, 1997) argues that by 1994 in Rwanda, this elite brainwashing was so severe that the murder of a Tutsis was common and acceptable.

The Hutus blamed the Tutsis for the death of Habyarimana in a plane crash in April 1994. Amidst all the tension, the Hutu elite covertly and systematically planned to cleanse Rwanda of the Tutsis. However, it was so skillfully orchestrated such that the Tutsis were given a false sense of security prior to the genocide. When the killings began, the media was used to spread propaganda and Hutus were forced to kill Tutsis, those who refuse were in turn killed.

However, one cannot also ignore the susceptible and conformist nature of the Rwandan people. Internal family and state socialization had been so effective such that many Hutus carried out the violence without hesitation. (Lemarchand, 1970) even argues that most Rwandans before the genocide showed a remarkable obedience to their authorities. Obedience had been internalized to the extent that terror was rarely used as a means of ensuring obedience.

The role of economic and social pressures cannot be ignored as well. The imposition of the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP) had hit many African countries hard and Rwanda was no exception. These economic pressures coupled with over population contributed in creating social tensions and the necessary conditions for violence and conflict. One therefore bears in mind as stated by (Mamdani, 1996)that no matter how externally influenced or constructed the identities of Rwandans were, it must be acknowledged that the Rwandan state and its people also played a role in constructing ‘sp-called’ identities and racialization that eventually led to genocide.


Persons implicitly believe mistakenly that social categories are inevitable, unchanging and natural. However, (Ernest Gellner, 1993) argues that the ideas of ethnicity and nationality became attractive in the modern era because of economic and social changes. In fact, according to him, the effects of macro historical forces on politics and psychology gave birth to modern national identities. Fewon posits that it is the internal logic of discourses that drives the construction of identities rather than genes.

Nevertheless, as earlier stated, the recognition that identities were constructed is not sufficient reason for the escalation of violence. Why then did it become violent in Rwanda?

Based on research findings from previous literature and the discussions above, the researcher concludes thus;

The researcher takes into account the findings that pre-historic Rwanda had the Tutsis as overlords, and these overlords mostly took Hutu women as their concubines. This created a sense of hatred and jealousy in the Hutu camp. Even after independence and prior to the genocide, this proprietoral use of Hutu women by Tutsis had not yet been forgiven. This provided the elite with the opportunity to manipulate this hatred and resentment in the build up to the massacres.

One also takes into account the polarization and racialization of ethnicity by the German and Belgian colonizers in favor of the Tutsis. This created hate amongst the Hutus as the Tutsis were given preferential treatment. Again, economic and social pressures and the susceptibility of the Rwandans to their authorities also contributed in creating conditions that led to violence.

The final stroke that broke the Carmel’s back was the fact that the Rwandan state (elite) inherited racialization techniques of the colonizers and the notion of 2 exclusive ethnies; Hutus and Tutsis, through the exploitation of all available avenues of Hutu resentment toward the Tutsis. This patholigization of ethnicity by the Hutu elite led to violence which in turn became genocidal. All of these circumstances; social construction, patholigization and domestic pressure created conditions that led to genocide.

Generally, at the end of such works, recommendations are given, and under normal circumstances I would discuss on the decategorization of socially constructed identities. However, this is absent in this work because the researcher at this stage, lacks the expertise in this field. So, I would leave that for a later work.

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How Identity Construction Contributed To The Rwandan Genocide. (2021, September 10). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from
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