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Michael Ignatieff (1997) posits that objective convergence, economically facilitated by the processes of globalization, inspires a narcissistic need for subjective divergence. Coined the ‘narcissism of minor difference’, such need is satisfied by over-stating minor collective differences and is blamed by Ignatieff (1997) for arousing previously submerged notions of Serbian and Croatian identity and fuelling the ethnic conflict of the 1990s.

The theory of the narcissism of minor difference was formulated by Freud but inspired by anthropologist Ernest Crawley, who, Burstein (2003) contests, was actually misquoted by Freud. Indeed, Crawley argued that all differences are problematic, not just the minor, and Freud (1921, p101), in his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, later suggested that greater difference may cause even greater hostility. Whilst embraced by many, Freud (1930, p114) in fact downplayed the significance of minor difference as a “convenient and relatively harmless satisfaction of the inclination to aggression, by means of which cohesion between the members of the community is made easier.” This smacks more of football fanaticism.

Heinz Kohut (1971) finds the roots of narcissism in traumatic loss of, or separation from, the idealised parent (generally paternal) imago or omnipotent object – internally cathected in childhood and therefore exalted vis-à-vis the superego (Kohut, 1971, p41). Clearly, Tito could be deemed as this lost omnipotent object but, if the analogy with narcissistic development is to be carried successfully further, we would need to see a continued unfulfilled desire among Yugoslavs for fusion with Tito and fixation on him as an archaic self-object (Kohut, 1971, p45) - not the observed swift replacement of the reality construct he represented. The period of greatest narcissistic vulnerability ends when an idealized superego has been established (Kohut, p42). Given narcissistic origins in early development, the analogy also only holds if Tito presided over a nation of children. Sennett (1971) would argue that, in terms of psychological maturity, this may well have been the case; his theory of identity, the ‘myth of common solidarity’, relies on the notion that people are trapped in an adolescent phase by the social structure of modern urbanism (Sennett, 1971, p31).

Neutering Ignatieff’s take is the lack of clarity over whether minor difference – such as the differing approaches to breaking an egg in Lilliput (Swift, 1726) – causes conflict or, as believed by Werman (1988), hostility predates and is independent of differences between individuals and groups. To boot, Ignatieff implies that minor difference becomes an issue when it grows to “confer advantage” (Ignatieff, 1997, p65).

In contrast to Ignatieff, Samuel Huntington (1993) argues that the main source of conflict can be seen between groups that differ radically by measures of language, religion and culture. He deems it “secular myopia” to view ethnic difference as minor and to deny that religion is “possibly the most profound difference that can exist between people” (Huntington, 2003, p254).

The validity of Huntington’s argument was quashed shortly after publication of his Clash of Civilizations? by the unfolding Rwandan ethnic conflict between hardly discernible Hutus and Tutsis – both Christian and only assigned their ethnicity by European colonists (Gourevitch, 1998 and Mann, 2005). Although he could highlight religious divide between Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosnians, such an identification would overlook the extensive secularization of Yugoslavia (Ignatieff, 1997, p54) that preceded ethnic conflict and the cultural commonality between ‘ethnic’ groups (Wachtel, 1998). Conflict in Uzbekistan, Zaire and Somalia can hardly be explained by racial and religious barriers, particularly in the latter which is seemingly mono-ethnic (Greenlee-Donnell, 2010, p353).

Globalization has wrought radical changes in social structure and accompanying changes in psychological reality. New identity-shaping psychologies have therefore arisen. Their social establishment, and reality-generating potency, is dependent upon the affinity between promulgators of constructs and varying social interests. One possibility, presented by Berger and Luckmann (1967, p200) and relevant to debate over the origins of the conflict in former Yugoslavia, is deliberate ideological manipulation in times of crisis by political leaders, e.g., Tudjmann and Milosevic.

What can be termed ideological socio-political manipulation can also be seen as therapeutic assistance with successful internalisation – successful in terms of establishing new psychological structures that assuage loss of the idealized parental imago by fulfilling socially and psychically beneficial functions it previously administered to. Tito’s death can be conceptualised as both loss of an idealised parent imago and the socially constructed reality he represented. Herein lays the prudence of a combined socio-psychoanalytical approach to determine those therapeutic social applications that can soothe psychological urban trauma without socially brutal techniques.

Mutually exclusive argument concerning the dominance of religious-versus-secular drivers of ethnicity appears redundant when we recognise that secular agencies of political indoctrination and psychotherapy mimic the plausibility structures of religious conversion (Hunter, 1951). Uptake and maintenance of divisive plausibility structures politically promulgated by Tudjmann and Milosovic required the same conditions needed by religious (re)-conversion: displacement from other worlds previously ‘inhabited’ and segregation of the individual from the ‘inhabitants’ of other worlds – especially ‘cohabitants’ in the world left behind (Berger & Luckmann. 1967, p178). The need for segregation explains the violence.

Mutual exclusivity between psycho-analytical and social scientific approaches as expressed by their proponents seems facile. Despite some polemic footnotes deriding psycho-analysis, Berger and Luckmann concede that no radical transformation of subjective reality (including identity) is possible without the establishment of strongly affective identification with significant others (Berger & Luckmann, 1967, p177) who, by over-stating minor collective differences through rediscovered language, myth and fantasy, proffer new plausibility / reality structures.

Here, Berger and Luckmann (1967) concede the worth of psychoanalysis by recognizing the significance of cathexis and replication of childhood experience of emotional dependency upon significant others (Kohut, 1971) and its broader societal ramifications. Their concern with psychoanalysis is its emphasis on early developmental cathexis over an on-going process of alternation (Berger and Luckmann, 1967). Although psychoanalytical and social science proponents may themselves fall foul of the ‘narcissism of minor difference’, an understanding of Ignatieff’s specific psychological approach to ethnic identity formation and social-scientific appraisals of identity suggests that their combination derives the most utility from the application of individual psychoanalysis to broader societal issues.


Berger, P. & Luckmann, 1967. The Social Construction of Reality, Penguin Press, Harmondsworth, p200.

Ibid., p177, p178.

Burstein, A.G., 2003. Difference, Dread & Desire, Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol.86, No.3, p42.

Freud, S., 1930. Civilization and its Discontents, Hogarth Press, London, p114.

Gourevitch, P., 1998. We Wish to Inform you that Tomorrow we will be Killed with our Families: Stories from Rwanda, Picador, New York, pp47-55.

Greenlee-Donnell, C., 2010. The Somali Diaspora: A Journey Away (review), Callaloo, Vol.33, No.1, p353.

Hunter, E., 1951. Brainwashing in Red China, Vanguard Press, New York.

Huntington, S., 2003. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, New York, p254.

Ignatieff, M., 1997. The Narcissism of Minor Difference in The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience, Metropolitan Books, New York, p65.

Kohut, H., 1971. The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Approach to the Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp308-324.

Mann, M., 2005. The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp432-34.

Sennett, R., 1996. The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life, Penguin Press, Harmondsworth, p31.

Wachtel, A.B., 1998. Making a Nation, Breaking a Nation: Literature and Cultural Politics in Yugoslavia, Stanford University Press, Stanford.

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