On the world scene today, we have experienced dramatic social changes and events, most of which have been explained in terms of social identities. Perhaps the most remarkable event in recent years is that of the Rwandan genocide in which over one million ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were savagely massacred by the so-called extremist Hutus in 1994. The Banyamulenge (extension of the Tutsi-Hutu conflict) episode followed in Eastern Zaire.1 It would be more adequate to include the whole of central Africa, if not the whole of Africa, as facing the dehumanizing problem of social identities. Moreover, beyond Africa in the period after the changes of 1989, no single social problem has been as elusive or tragic as that of social identity (ethnicity) in Central and Eastern Europe. Many other parts of the world have not escaped this problem.

In spite of this being a deadly social problem, various commen-tators on the subject of "identity" have expressed it in nominalist terms. It has been referred to as a "narrative" (Martin, 1993 and Rex: 1995, 21-33). In ordinary terms, a narrative is a story or account and implicitly therefore a social creation. Put differently, social identities are not necessary;2 they might or might not be. This, in effect, declares the term "identity" ineffective in describing social reality or, simply as being fictious or imaginary.

But this is precisely the source of the problem, because the consequence of such a theory is that the so-called social identities are superficial and could or should be dispensed with. This interpre-tation has not lacked practical implementation. For example, in the period after independence, most African states faced with the problem of pluralist societies or social identities, decided to suppress pluralist social paradigms of development in favor of monolithic cen-tralized ones (Barongo, 1990:65). This simplification is unacceptable. When millions of people are dying one should not call it a "narrative". The word "identity" may be abstract, but when applied to a social process it bears a specific meaning whose application can be sufficiently effective. (Interestingly, while the word "identity" is denigrated and rejected, the word "specificity" is accepted in its stead [Martin, 1995:17] without realizing that the two words could be synonyms in the context of social process.)

In this connection, there is a definite need for a more authentic analysis and a positive approach to the glaring reality of the problem of social identity. Further, such analysis is essential to the under-standing of social changes and events in our world today. Against this background, I maintain that:

1. Epistemologically (or metaphysically), identity is prima facie and a priori a conflictural relation. This is the existential reality which must be recognized as such.

2. Social identities are the result of the nexus of human as an invariable factor, on the one hand, and their environment, on the other.

3. Social identities suggest the existence of "multi-wealth" which should be converted into a "commonwealth".


In order to understand the notion of social identity, it is essential first to come to terms with the term "identity". This is a metaphysical term, and as such abstract. As a consequence, its referent cannot be pointed at and said to be this or that. Never-theless, it can be described and in this regard, identity means a state of being the same in nature, quality, etc., and in contradistinction to others which are different.

To identify, therefore, is to delineate or isolate the features which mark out from others the referent in question. Put differently, identity is defined in terms of others -- what it is not -- and hence of a conflict! Thus to talk of identity is to talk of a conflictual relation. This forms the basis of the underlying philosophical problem of identity, which can be stated as: what true explanation can account for the cosmological features which are the same or seemingly permanent, on the one hand, and those which are changing or diverse, on the other.

This problem was first raised by the pre-Socratic Greek cosmologists or philosopher scientists, who included Thales, Anaxi-mander and Anaximenes. They were struck by the fact that nature was an organized physical system governed by a kind of law or constancy. They noted that nature was forever re-arranging, changing, and renewing itself. Yet, in spite of unending change, there was stark continuity (Copleston, 1985: 13-21). Hence their question: "What is real vis-a-vis change and diversity?" These philosophers were searching for identity or reality. Put differently, they were trying to "identify reality".

This philosophical issue was drawn to an extreme by the later ancient philosophers -- Parmenides, Zeno and Plato -- who insisted that reality was identified with permanence, on the one hand, and by Heraclitus who insisted that reality was identifiable with change, on the other. Even at this level, a conflict is discernible, but this is much more so as when Heraclitus says that being exists in many or that identity exists in difference (Walsh, 1985: 1-6). Here, Heraclitus not only expresses the fact of cosmological conflict, but he also points out that the changes and tensions are struggling to create a balance; in effect, that the cosmos is sustained by conflicts and their resolution.

This view of a dual conflictual cosmological constitution is often referred to as the common sense view of the universe. This view seems to be supported not only by observation, but also by logical considerations. For, when it is asserted that something is changing, does this not at the same time imply that there is something which remains permanent or unaffected by the transformations. Otherwise one may ask: What is it that is changing? As a conse-quence, it is the delineation of that which remains unaffected by transformations -- the problem of identity -- that has traditionally been the concern of philosophers.

Before concluding, it may be useful to make a further distinc-tion within the problem of identity. In one sense, identity implies permanence amidst change, but in another sense it may imply one or unity amidst diversity or many. For example, when we see two objects with a similar color, we may wish to ascertain whether or not the two are identical. In this case, we are concerned with the problem of identity in the latter context of one versus many. How-ever, when we want to know whether a daughter of Mr. Okello has not grown up, we are concerned with the former meaning -- identity in spite of transformations in the passage of time.

Thus, in view of what has been discussed above, I want to re-assert my earlier position that identity necessarily involves a conflic-tual relation, which relation is pervasive in the cosmos and a fortiori, in man and his environment. Even such recent writers as J. Austin (1961), admit this conflictual relation. Therefore, when treating issues related to identity, a conflictual relation should be accepted and treated as such. In short, the solutions of the identity related problems must begin from recognizing and appreciating identity both nature and society as conflictual. This is an authentic approach. To deny or suppress it is neither useful nor possible without causing social instability because it is a denial of reality. Further, treating identity as a narrative is failure to perceive it as a natural manifestation.

Social Identity

Applied to society, the problem of identity then is expressed at two levels: one, how is the identity of a person to be expressed vis-a-vis other persons and in the passage of time; two, how is social identity expressed in the context of other societies and of the passage of time. We call the former individual identity and the latter, multiple identity.

Individual Identity. It may be difficult to define the identity of man as an individual. But if done, it would be a positive step in the direction of grappling with the problem of social conflict or identity and related social problems, and hence an attempt that is worthwhile. Thus, while sometimes one is seen as existent, at other times one is seen as unfulfilled; and while sometimes one is seen as closed, at other times one appears as open. Traditionally and most generically, persons are seen from two standpoints: that of the body which provides the basis for oneís determination and material interests, and that of the spirit which provides the basis for oneís infinity and rationality. Even at this level, one is seen as a conflictual or antino-mical unity. To be able to understand oneís social identity, this antinomical duality has to be taken into consideration. Notwith-standing, this dichotomy is not sufficient.3

This abstractive duality does not say much about the nature of the identity, although it forms the basis of the explanation of oneís identity and the conflict associated therewith. There is no such thing as a person living independently of the external world or oneís environment, whether historical, cultural or otherwise. One is a result of the individual -- the object and subject called man -- and oneís environment. One is a recipient of the external world much as one participates in the creation of the external world. Therefore, one is both a product and producer of the external world and of oneself.

In terms of the body, one could be described as physical, biological and psychological. As a physical object, one is either tall or heavy, has a heart or a head -- they provide him with a specific shape and volume different from other objects or beings, but "distinct" enough to agree with the shape of other human beings or other men. As a biological object, oneís heart pumps blood to other parts of the body, the stomach digests the food which it must obtain, the skin contracts under cold weather while it expands under warm weather; all these must function only in an environment. These too, happen only in so far as they agree with how other peopleís bodies function. So far, these are obvious cases of identity and difference.

In regard to the spiritual aspect, one does conceive of oneself in terms of the other. Ricoeur, in his study of the ontology of the Self, distinguishes between two aspects of identity: "Sameness" which is based on the ideas of relations through time -- a kind of mental continuum which is similar to Leibnitzís theory of consciousness -- and "selfhood" which is constituted by all the identifications to which a person has consented while at the same time allowing for change and evolution. Ricoeur then asserts that sameness cannot be conceived without the conception of selfhood. His conclusion is that the One cannot be conceived without the Other (Ricoeur, 1990). In effect, this means that to talk of the "One" is talk of the "Other" and to talk of the "Other" is talk of the "One".

Further, recent studies in psychology and philosophy have added a new vista toward a much greater understanding man. They seem to agree with regard to the problem of identity. Psychoanalysts have argued and demonstrated an indissoluble connection between the Self and the Other. Accordingly, the Other reveals the reality of Self through a multifaceted Self (Mannoni, 1969); that is, oneís existence needs the existence of the Other not only in physical and social terms, but also psychologically. Relationships and communi-cation are possible because of the consciousness that the Other exists. Otherwise how would we talk of emotions in the category of love and hate. Language too, has been shown to demonstrate the issue of identity in difference. In linguistic terms, the conscience of "we" means relative heterogeneity, which implies that the opposite is constitutive of the "we". In this way, Landowski emphasizes, if only in linguistic terms, the existence of the Other from the view of the Self (Landowski, 1991).

However, in spite of this propensity of the Self for the Other, there is stark fear and insecurity of the self with regard to the Other. While the self enjoys and reposes in the Other, he is still in conflict with the Other. Thus, out of the yearning for the Other, one reposes in the family but may feel more secure in a clan, nationality, nation, regional body like the EEC or EA community and the like. One may even cherish a universal body such as the United Nations which, I believe, was borne out of the propensity for the Other.

Whereas this progressive association supports the views of Landowski, Mannoni and Ricoeur, a propensity for progressively smaller association to the level of talking of, and cherishing individual identity and personal privacy emphasizes manís wish to repose in oneís self. Put succinctly, whereas the propensity of association does exist, the propensity of "de-association" or disaggregation also exists. For example, attempts to fill the post of Secretary General of the United Nations reflect such disaggrative human propensities. The Africans converge on a specific candidate, the Americans look for another sympathetic to American interests, while the Russians and Chinese support another specific candidates, according to each nationís or group of nationsí interests. Even within a nation, there are dis-associative or disaggrative tendencies. The war in Northern Uganda is being interpreted in ethnic terms (The Monitor, Novem-ber 29th, 1996). That is to say, the Banyankole who are in the South of Uganda want the Luos in the North to suffer the consequences of the war. Within the Banyankole too, it is alleged that the Bahima are benefiting because they belong to the same sub-grouping as the President himself. This view could be extrapolated to include indivi-duals: did not Museveni as President condemn individual soldiers for "reaping money from corpses" (The Monitor, November 29th, 1996).

In this regard one can talk of the tension of the community. To talk of society or community is to talk of simultaneous intersubjec-tivity and subjectivity, conflict and reconciliation. This is because while manís desires constitute his subjectivity, at the same time there is common desire for social order or common good, wherein lies the embodiment of intersubjectivity (Lonergan, 1983:214-218). It is these associative and de-associative propensities that express the conflict in nature, man and society. But apparently, the conflict, as Heraclitus claimed, is essential for balancing and the search for harmony as demanded by the rational and transcendent character of the human person.

However, it should be mentioned as well that the identity of man in terms of cognitional paradigms also is influenced by oneís externality. The selfhood or identity of a person is influenced, not only by oneís colleagues, but also by oneís wider environment. In other words, oneís spirituality is not expressed ex-nihilo; one is a nexus of forces from oneself and from outside oneself. Even though one possesses free will, it is exercised within an epistemological framework. In other words, the rationality of man also tries to put order in the confluence of the internal and external influences (Ruch, 1984: 180-198).

In general, the external influences include history, culture, environment and relationships. These affect oneís spirituality. When these combine with the body, a composite being is created. Thus depending on the vivacity of the specific force(s) and whether they be body or spirit related, the person will be what he/she is. It is dependent upon these factors, as well as on the period and space that oneís choices, goals, principles and habits, in a word, oneís identity will be formed.

Multiple Social Identities: Having said this about an individualís identity, social identity or collective personality is not very different. Thus, if there can be an internal conflict in man, the individual, a fortiori a great conflict should be expected in society. If, as Plato said, society is "an individual writ large," when the problem of identity versus multiplicity is enlarged to the social level the conflicts are multiplied.

Thus, the term "social identity" reflects a group of people who are homogenous and permanent in spite of change and multiplicity. In other words, the people in question have certain features invariable in time and space. This also means that, in spite of changes, the people in question remain the same. This description is partly meaningless if taken literally; however, if we recall what we said above, that identity has meaning only when it is linked to other things, then social identity has meaning when a group of people is seen against other groups. In other words, the group in question lacks complete identification without other groups. Practically, this means that, such a group, generally, has a similar physical, psychological and ideological position vis-a-vis other groups, which is quite sufficient for purposes of understanding social reality.

For example, the Rwanda case involves the Tutsi who are generally tall and slender with long teeth and long nose, whereas the Hutus are short, stout and shift in their movement. The former are shepherds while the later are farmers. The term social identity means that a specific group of people has such specific dominant characteristics in contrast to other groups. Of course, as a social grouping, they cannot be completely homogeneous. The term "people" allows for difference because, unlike objects people are unlimited in number and can realize themselves in unnumbered ways including such factors as bodily interests, psychological endowments and cultural achievements. A group of people can do likewise.

Nonetheless, when the term social identity is employed, it is meant to bring forward certain dominant characteristics which people either have or do not have in relation to other people. Doorn-boss shows how the Bairu are different from the Bahima (Doorn-boss, 1978:147). At least, verifiable propositions can be made about a social identity. For example, under the present conditions in Zaire, we can reasonably assert that the Tutsi are hostile to the Hutu or vice versa. This states the existence of conflict in society at two levels: within a specific social identity and against other social identities, and the term identity can be applied meaningfully.

Thus, at the collective level as well as at the individual level, there is not only an expression of conflict, but also the possibilities of its rebalancing, reconciliation and resolution of tension. Ricoeur shows this as we have seen. Auge affirms that the other is present in all cultures and in organizations of all kinds (Auge, 1988). Amselle too, defines identity in Africa as the utterance of difference considered as a system of relations.

In addition, even though African identities are based on opposition, they create grounds for negotiation and establishing balances of power. This is possible because the utterance of identity in Africa involves forgetting the conditions of social conflict (Amselle, 1990), for we must not forget the communalist spirit ascribed to Africa.

In general, therefore, we can make the following observations.

- One, that identity and conflict are inseparable. This occurs not only at the level of nature or the cosmos, but also at the level of human persons and all societies. Conflict occurs not only internally, but also externally; not only bodily but also spiritually. In spite of the personís free will, social identity is influenced by the vivacity of the nexus of the operating forces.

- Whether psychologically, physically or spiritually, the inter-action of various forces serves to support our position: first recognize and appreciate the conflict in nature, man and society, and then try to bring about reconciliation.

- The personís free will, as manifestation of oneís transcen-dence, should assist in going beyond different influences and make oneís choices rationally.


How this social identity manifests itself must be examined and assessed. But first there is this question: Does social conflict matter? Does it have consequences? This is a difficult question because, as we have said, though conflict is seemingly universal, yet the violence is not equally universal.

Different ethnicities co-exist, religious groupings co-exist, ideological groups can co-exist; so why should this be a basis for deaths of millions? In answer I would first raise another question: Would a social conflict occur were this latent cosmological conflict to be absent?

Let us recognize that, before there can be a fight, there must be fighters, before there can be philosophy, there must be philoso-phers. In short, before there can be a conflict there must be "con-flictors", for conflict is not possible ex-nihilo. Therefore, to talk of a social conflict is to presuppose people who conflict. In other words, the existence of conflictual parties provides the basis for the conflict. In this regard social identities do matter or more technically, the conflictual latency matters. The latent conflict does not imply a specific concrete and active conflict, but it is ever waiting for an opportunity to be active. Therefore it matters. Put succinctly, do away with the conflictual substratum and the conflict disappears.

The Manifestation of the Conflict of Social Identities

It was observed earlier, that the latent cosmological and social conflicts are influenced by both internal and external factors. With regard to the internal aspect, the individual is able to rationalize his experience, and form a general view of reality. This exercise can be transposed to a social grouping. The result of such rationalization is the building of a shared mental edifice. This is called an ideology -- a peopleís ideology, their spirit or their ethos. Perhaps it is the ideology or common consciousness of being one in relation to the Other that gives social groupings the characteristic of being referred to as social identity.

Apparently, more than any other factor, consciousness de-fines the boundary of the relevant social identity, notwithstanding the fact that the boundaries are susceptible to change (Okwudiba Nnoli: 1989/1). For that matter, an ideology is a social instrument because it contains the ideals or goals, the content and methods for obtaining the goals of that social identity. In the case of social identity, the ideology involves production of a theory of the differ-ence which often is transformed into the devalorization of the Other. The Other is presented as an enemy who is a threat (whether real or not) to the social identity in question, while the identity in question present itself either as superior, better or at least positive. As a consequence, the ideologized social identity is mobilized against the Other who is seen as a threat to the identityís interests including its existence. The Other may follow similar steps.

In the process, members of the identity who are devoted to the expression of the ideology and who can harmonize the prevalent feelings and strategies emerge as leaders and mobilizes the identity. These leaders could be religious, businessmen, politicians, teachers, professionals or even the elderly who explain their history "wisely". The message is that either our history has always been superior or that our existence has always been threatened and that now is the opportunity to defend our history or to fight for our existence. At this level, the conflict becomes political as it relates to who is stronger, or who is correct or who should distribute what and how it should be distributed. Interest now becomes power or how we should defend ourselves or liberate ourselves.

For an ideology to be effective it must be received by a number of people who have generally fuzzy feelings. These feelings are given explicit expression by the leaders. The ideology acquires an emotional mobilization strategy because it touches on the deeper feelings a number of people cherish. Although it retains a semblance of a reasoned set of ideas. This emotionality is engineered from the three axes of history, space and culture (Martin, 1995:12-13).

With regard to history, the group is infused with nostalgic feelings of the past as it constructs the past -- we were rulers, we never cultivated, etc. These are collective memories which may give impetus to the emotionality of a specific group. Even when the history is traumatic, it serves to intensify the group emotious. For example, the Bairu -- Banyankore (Western Uganda) vehemently reject any attempts to re-install a king even as a cultural head because the king was a preserve of the Bahima whose rule was crude and still has great emotional impact on the Bairu memories.4 In any case, the historical events and changes affect the group emotions.

Closely, related to the aspect of history, is that of culture. Culture involves all that society has achieved including knowledge, affectivity and material accumulation. Very often, culture also involves the goals of the members. For example, the Banyankore boys on maturing must begin preparing for marriage -- which includes paying the bride price. This then becomes a major goal in life until they are married. Those cherishing Christian ideals do not settle until they have married in church. Dress, music, language, foods too have affective influence on group consciousness. The meaning carried by certain words or objects also highly influences the emotional aspect of the people. Let me illustrate: traditionally Ban-yankore boys would never marry a woman who already had a child with another man; such a woman would be called "Kishiki-makazi" -- girl-woman. Thus, if a person used this term in reference to such a female, a lot would be implied such as having lesser vital force.5

Space too, has its force in relation to social identity. There is a sense of belonging of people in an historical place, or of people being in a different place from their home. They may feel their destiny lies at the specific place because their ancestors lived and were buried there. The confluence of their life is presented as being fixed at their home place. For example, in Uganda, there are many student and non student associations based on their places of origin. This reflects the weight and relevance placed on the space called home. For instance, traditionally, the Baganda never sell their ancestral burial grounds (Ebijja). However, more importantly, space may come up in relation to the exercise of power. We are in our country and cannot be ruled by foreigners is a prevalent fiction in Uganda in reference to President Museveni of Uganda.6 Put differently, the group feels that they should be masters without external competition or infiltration.

Put together, these elements carry great emotive potential and most likely will affect oneís decisions and actions, as well as oneís choices and goals. These do have the capacity in themselves to cause social events and changes, including building a world view. However, when the emotional manifestation is supported by a form of rationalization, tension builds up and any incident can result in violence.

For example, in Rwanda, since the 1962 revolution, the Hutus have wielded power while the Tutsis have lived in diaspora. For a long time, the principle of Hutus administration was based on the fear, suspicion and hatred of the Tutsis. It was generally believed and sometimes expressed that if the Tutsis returned to Rwanda or, worse still, if they gained power, the Hutu would be harassed or even annihilated -- and apparently these fears were vindicated. Not only was this belief expressed, but it was also turned into a divisive ideology which percolated through to the whole society in Rwanda and outside. Therefore, when the Tutsis started to negotiate their return to Rwanda, the anti-Tutsi feelings were presented as truths among the Hutus who also organized resistance against the return of the Tutsi to Rwanda. As a terrible consequence, when the Hutu president was killed, genocide ensued.

There were efforts on both sides to organize and to stop the "threat" or make it disappear. Thus while the Hutus built anti-Tutsi ideology, the Tutsi too formulated their anti-Hutu ideology -- both antagonistic ideologies. For example, referring to the Hutu, one old Tutsi man living in Uganda said: "Bashangwa batategyeka". This means that, the Hutu never rule or that, it is not their business to rule!

In this regard therefore, social identity is characterized by a conflictual relationship or "otherness" of fear, suspicion and struggle on both sides. In addition, it should be recognized that both insiders and outsiders serve to enhance the social identity and its attendant conflict by way of building conflicting ideologies. Further, I would mention again that, within a specific social identity there is also considerable disagreement. To take again the example of Rwanda: There is a generally accepted claim that even though the majority of Hutus were against the return of the Tutsis to Rwanda there were some Hutus who were not concerned about this: hence you have the "moderate" Hutus and "extremist" ones.


We observed earlier that human choices depend upon the confluence of forces acting from within and without. This neither means that the operation of these forces is mechanical nor does it mean that they operate in the same manner all the time, nor does it mean that the one on whom these forces are acting remains the same. In effect, this implies a high range relativity whose both epistemological and practical consequences can be easily guessed. Put differently, depending upon the force or vivacity of a specific influence and the transcendence of oneís own self, one will make oneís choice. This too, implies the possibility of existence of more than one identity in a personís environment. Hence, the competition of identities acting upon a person out of which one will make oneís choice between one, two or three options.

There is a good example and probably a unique one among the Banyankole in Ankole, there are two major socio-ethnic identities, the Bairu and the Bahima. Upon the advent of Colonialism and Christianity, the Bahima who were mainly rulers adopted the Anglican religion of the colonizers almost without exception, while the Bairu divided in equal numbers in their choices between Catholicism, on the one hand, and, on the other, one group accepted Anglicanism, and a minimal number was left for traditional religions. However, when the Bairu Anglicans challenged the Bahima over their preserve of power (when Hima alleged supremacy), a re-arrangement ensued. The Bahima joined the DP which was mainly a Catholicís political party, while the Bairu Anglicans joined the UPC which was a political party for the Uganda Anglicans (Doornboss, 1978:127). As a social fact this alignment and reorgani-zation has a number of implications.

First, as pointed out earlier, depending on the force of specific conditions one chooses an identity. In our case, in spite of the Bahima being Protestant Anglicans they rejected the UPC and joined the DP because of its force upon them at the time.

Second, in spite of the Anglican Bairu and Catholic Bairu claiming one ethnic identity, they were separated on the basis of religion and politics.

Third, it serves to attest to the rationality and transcendence of the human person who makes choices among competing identities. Indeed, it should be noted that absence of competition implies absence of choice. Man will always try to identify with one or several groups, which implies a choice of reference groups and a rejection of others.

It should be pointed out also that the choices are made not without cost. Still using the Hutus and Tutsis as an example, the former were equally hacked to death by their fellow, but extremist, Hutus when they accused them of reckless genocide. This social choice of whether the moderate Hutus were to be killed or not attests to the possibility of human choice and transcendence, much as it affirms the presence of conflict within the social generalities. Human choice affirms oneís transcendence or infiniteness, for he could not choose unless he were infinite. Choice therefore is a reflection of oneís human nature, and as social, oneís choice of social identities is an invariable human condition.

Identities are part and parcel of society. One must necessarily make a choice in different situations and any attempts to deny or denigrate his choices to the level of calling them "narratives" is to obscure the necessity of human choices, even though it be in reference to social identities. That one must make a choice is the nature of social reality. What is most fundamental is not what choice one makes, but that as a living spiritual and transcendent being he has to make a choice.

However, the wide range of choice smacks of danger. We recognize any choice of man without exempting even murderous choices. This is as open-ended as the unhampered freedom which results in anarchy. But this again can be left to the limitless transcen-dence of man that allows him, through culture and environment, to formulate ethical principles and values that restrain him from unethical choices. Hence manís choices are highly relative as they depend on the variable forces acting upon him.

Fourth, one is capable of changing from one social identity to another or simply suppressing one in favor of another.

Last, the same individual can embrace a manifold of identities even though such identities may seem contradictory. Thus, even though the Bahima were largely Protestant, they generally rejected the UPC whose membership was fundamentally Anglican in favor of the DP, a Catholic party.


So far, what we have done is to highlight and call for recog-nition that identity in nature, man and society manifests simultaneous conflict, unity and reconciliation. Phrased differently, identity declares conflict in nature -- human included -- but also accepts unity or homogeneity and yearning for harmony. It is my view that it is from this standpoint that the solution to the problems of social identity lies. Of course, it is very difficult to devise a totally successful rational social system; however, it is fair to keep trying in the hope that a fairer one can be found. In this case, we proceed to propound one, based on the meaning of identity -- or unity or homogeneity on the one hand, and of difference, on the other. With regard to homo-geneity, the relevant social system would presuppose a monolithic view of persons and societies irrespective of physical, cultural and environmental differentiation. Man is assumed to be the same everywhere, every time and all circumstances; in other words, there is an attempt to author a universal man, a universal culture, universal values and universal environment. The social system that most likely would recommend itself to such paradigm is socialism, whose consequences are too well known. Except for emphasis laid on the universality of human nature, a homogenizing system is likely to be a trite project precisely because it ignores the aspect of the latent conflict in identity. It will be recalled that, drawing from similar premises, the first African statesmen adopted a socio-political system that proved unsuccessful, if not disastrous -- Kaunda, Nkru-mah, Nyerere and many others. Interestingly, Ugandaís President, Museveni, is currently recasting social monolithism in the form of a supposedly all embracing mono-ideological movement. I have serious misgivings whether this movement will hold.

The social paradigm which I will develop and defend is the one whose foundation is conflict! Superficially, it may seem hopeless to anchor ourselves on conflict for a solution to identity related social problems. However, I wish to point out that, primarily, once we have accepted that conflict is a fundamental representation of identity, it is not possible to construct a social system that evades this reality. So, in which way does conflict form a viable basis for harmony?

In the first instance, we pointed out earlier that conflict is potential or latent although often it has been sparked into activity. This latent conflict, therefore, ought to be accepted and exploited for harmony. Hence, it is my view that the conflict which is reflected in the natural propensity to diverge or separate could be exploited by promoting individualism both at the personal and societal level. Put differently, the conflictual situation demands an atomized or a decentralized social system. This implies greater recognition and consequent promotion of individual freedom and independent decision, and action. In other words, this implies equality and justice, while in addition to freedom are important pillars of human exist-ence. In essence, this is opposed to monolithism.

In fact, drawing from this principle, several societies or countries developed social systems and policies which have given them some stability, for example, such policies as "ethnic arith-metic", federalism, ethnic balancing, ethnic proportionality principle or even the recent proportional representation of political parties and decentralization. Other related polices have included quotes in admission to schools, universities or the army, discriminatory appointment of public figures, which recently are gender sensitive. The NRM government in Uganda tried to accommodate all religious proportionally, which contributed to Ugandaís general stability for some time, until other factors came in. I think it is precisely because the religious conflicts, which are significant factors in Uganda, were recognized that there was stability. In short, individual choices should be given priority over communal choices. This is not to say that communal choices are insignificant, but rather that, the indivi-dual counts before the society.

This position too, is problematic and could lead to anarchism. Even if it is not an anarchism, it may be useful to look at the social systems of the continent of Africa from a pragmatic point of view, i.e., how successful they have performed vis-a-vis closed, mono-lithic systems. They appear to have faired acceptably, notwith-standing their difficulties. However, even this negative corollary could be avoided by recourse to Ricoeurís view of the Self and the Other, where the two are ever coveting each other (Ricoeur, 1990).

The difference between a social system based on unity and homogeneity and this one is that, instead of forceful unity and blanket equality which the former assumes, this latter principle of the Self yearning or searching for the Other assumes intentional preference and choice. In other word, it allows greater consideration that the rational, emotional and physical position opens to a preferred union of the different cultural identities including knowledge, emotionality and values. This approach recognizes that all -- the Self and the Other -- have resources and affirm the intention to exchange what they possess. Hence, it allows for a conversion of the multi-wealth into a commonwealth for the good of humankind.


Social identities have generated serious social problems which today threaten the very existence of humankind. Nonetheless, their cognitional acceptability remains fuzzy. However, if solutions are to be found, greater and clearer conceptualization is a pre-requisite. The notion of identity has a specific meaning when applied to society and denigration of it does not help the situation. It is primarily characterized by conflict and it has to be understood as such.

Social identity is a result of factors from within and from without. This means that one makes choices depending on social circumstances and other factors impinging upon one from outside and inside. This too, suggests competition of factors or social iden-tities. These factors are variable, but include cultural ingredients, environment and persons themselves.

Even though social identities involve conflict, this conflict is a guideline towards understanding social identities and the answer to its related problems lies therein. Hence, on this basis it is possible to conceive and work toward an harmonious union of several identities in a commonwealth based on individual freedom.

Philosophy Department, Makerere University

Kampala, Uganda


1. Once the Hutu fled the Rwanda-Zaire border, they met with nostility from the Tutsis living in Eastern Zaire. Although the hostility has acquired wider dimensions, the initial factor has acquired wider dimensions, the initial factor was ethnic conflict between the Tutsis and the Hutus.

2. The word "necessary" is used here in the Thomistic sense. That is to say, we could have social identities or not.

3. Whenever man is considered from the dualist standpoint, I am at loss as to where I should place the psychological aspect. For example, where do we place hatred -- in relation to the body or in relation to the spirit?

4. The old Ankore kingdom had two ethnic groups (identities) -- the Hima, from whom kings were extracted and the Bairu whose major occupation was cultivation and serving the Hima.

5. The usage here is Tempelean -- that beings in Africa, are conceived as having hierarchical levels of existence.

6. Rumors have been rife in Uganda that President Museveni was Rwandese and therefore should not become president of Uganda.


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Auge, M. (1988) Ibid.

Austin, J.L. (1961) "The Meaning of Words", in Philosophical Papers. Oxford.

Barongo, Y. (1990) "Ethnic Pluralism and Political Centralization: The Basis of Political Conflict", in Rupesinghe, Conflict Resolution in Uganda. London: James Currey, 1989.

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Landowski, F. (1991) Cited in D.C. Martin. Op. cit., p. 6.

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Ricoeur, P. (1990) Cited in D.C. Martin. Op. cit., p. 7.

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