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

By Veronique Greenwood | October 12, 2011 1:55 pm

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
  • Charlie

    Switzerland is economically prosperous while the other areas are extremely poor. Apples and oranges in my opinion.

  • Michelle M

    When economic conditions are unequal, separation means more economic problems for one group, and violence is likely to continue because those who have less see that separation was imposed to keep them poor and powerless.

  • AG

    This is contradiction to Singapore. British tried to prevent ethnic violence by seperating them into different districts. But ethnic violence was chronic problem. After independence, ethnic minority was dispersed into Chinese majority neighborhood. No ethnic enclave or ghettos was allowed. Now Singapore is one of the most peaceful nations.

  • http://facebook Leonora Moran

    Countries who use this model find separation is easier than dealing head on with the issues of diversity. This type of solution has no future and will not contribute to a lasting peace.

  • Shahid Neki

    Nevertheless, in each case the perpetrator would be the oppressor. In all reality I’m sure no one wants conflicts but when someone pushes you, you have no other choice. Of course we as people living in a comfortable environment away from where this occurs cannot and do not understand the occurrence of such events.

  • Cathy

    I think the economics is the big difference, as Charlie said. When everyone is doing well, they are far less likely to blame “the other” for any problems they encounter. When only one side is doing well, or no sides are doing well, “the other” is going to be the first target in accusations.

  • nodhimmi


    Yes, there are relatively poor and relatively rich areas around the world. However, being poor or rich is not a cause but an EFFECT, as wealth has to be CREATED. Only if cultural barriers like socialism, religion ect. hinder wealth to be created, people are relatively poorer.

    Thus, “sectarian violence” (how the genocide of millions of Hindus by a certain religion is called in political correctness) was one thing that hindered wealth creation in the area now Pakistan. While India could more or less prosper afterwards, Pakistan still is a poor sh…hole.

    So, given this, one barrier to becoming richer was eliminated by ceasing “sectarian violence” in India by building that border.

    Point proven to me.

  • floodmouse

    In college I had some advanced coursework in colonialism. In regard to the ethnic violence in Africa, it was thought a large factor was that artificial boundaries had been imposed by the European colonial powers. These artificial boundaries crosscut the historical ethnic territories. To do a thorough study of this issue, you would need to map ethnic, religious, and language divisions going back through time several hundred years (or as long as we have data), to see if there were sudden forced shifts in the boundaries that resulted in conflict.

  • wncchester

    Why no ethnic violence in Swiss land? Perhaps, unlike America, their educational, political and news media powers haven’t done a hundred years of ‘unfair’ drumrolls designed to support a single political party at the expense of REAL harmony?

  • Matthew Hall

    two state solution!

  • JD

    Switzerland is peaceful because they have common sense and teach everyone about guns and shooting that is a strong Swiss tradition. This is the last place on Earth anyone would want
    to be creating crime or war. Just like this saying says, Know guns, know peace, know safety. No guns, no peace, no safety.

  • zuri

    No, Switzerland is peaceful because there has been a relatively free market economy for a long time now. Because it is one of the least socialist places in Europe and the world. It was violent before. Trade, wealth and commerce is the whole recipe. It is undesirable to harm a potential customer, supplier or partner. Lakes don’t matter here, separation doesn’t help but economic freedom, property and the rule of law. Those things are inseparable.

  • Antifa

    Scientific racism is still racism. These so called “scientists” are nothing but a bunch of racist bigots trying to justify segregation.

    Antifa pride worldwide, don’t give an inch to these fascist bigots!

  • Daso

    JD Says:
    October 14th, 2011 at 12:04 am
    “Switzerland is peaceful because they have common sense and teach everyone about guns and shooting that is a strong Swiss tradition.”

    If this is true, then how do you account for the violence during the 1970s (as described in the article)? Did the Swiss only develop “common sense” after the 1970s or, as is more likely, common sense has nothing to do with the phenomenon of ethnic violence.


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