Sons of the Soil, Migrants, and Civil War,

We read an interesting paper today (ht Sachin Benny with an assist from ChatGPT) in the Yak Collective weekly governance study group (Fridays at 9 AM Pacific). Sons of the Soil, Migrants, and Civil War, by James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin (World Development, V 39, No. 2, 2011). It compiles, codes and analyzes data about a subset of modern civil wars that could be considered “Sons of Soil” (SoS) civil wars, marked by conflict between an ethnic minority which views itself as being “sons of soil” of a regional base, facing demographic incursions by a larger ethnic majority (possibly with its own adjacent “sons of soil” claim in an adjacent territory) expanding into the minority territory. The paper compiles 139 examples from 1949-2008 (yes, Israel-Palestine is in the set, no the US Southern border is not) and codes them, and concludes that worldwide about 22.3% of civil wars are SoS civil wars.

The paper focuses on the settled (for now) Sri Lankan Tamil case as the main illustrative case study, but obviously the Israel-Gaza is top of mind worldwide. In the US, the southern border migration crisis is equally salient but is unfortunately not coded into the dataset of the paper.

My brief notes on the paper:

  1. I’m surprised this hasn’t been studied more. The paper says there isn’t much history to this field of study (the SoS subset of civil wars).
  2. The coding definition of “SoS civil wars” is a little too narrow for my tastes — they code hot wars in the 1949-2008 period that started within a generation of in-migration as SoS.
  3. Since we’re all parts of waves of interacting (and inter-breeding) migration out of Africa and there are no actual autochthons anywhere, if you zoom out properly, everybody has a SoS soil mythopoetic narrative anchored somewhere, or more likely in more than one place, and every war has an SoS causal factor to it. It’s all SoS wars all the way down.
  4. We talked a little about when a people start identifying as sons-of-soil in a region. My hypothesis is that it starts with the creolization of their language a few generations after arrival (assuming they survive). Then the Proof-of-SoS claim rests on twin pillars of a) documented continuous presence in the region (genetic claim) b) coherence of the narrative about that presence (memetic claim).
  5. SoS narrative claims form a loose, contentious, partial-order dominance hierarchy. Surprisingly, who was here first is rarely a big point of contention. Rather, the narrative conflict centers on who can tell the more compelling a+b story. The story must integrate genes and memes with geography in a compelling way, where typically third parties with no stake judge legitimacy.
  6. I’m reminded of a forum adversary from long ago who proposed the principle “land belongs to whoever it was first sacred” (in reference to the Ayodhaya temple issue, but also applicable to, for instance, the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa mosque, or the World Trade Center). I think this is a terrible principle, but it’s often the one that prevails in practice, even if military-economic-technological superiority leads to a different claimant prevailing. When that happens, a festering wound is created that typically doesn’t scar over into quiescence for centuries.
  7. There is a tension between primacy-based SoS claims (“we were here first”) and improvement-based claims (“we made it what it is today, and claim it by way of claiming what makes it great/sacred”). This is one reason pure historical precedence is ineffective in shaping these conflict narratives. For example, conservative American Whites have a strong SoS narrative despite obviously being recent European migrants. Besides the convenient near-complete elimination of predecessor peoples, what anchors this narrative is the “we made it what it is today” element.
  8. Sacredness is constructed, not just conceptually, but literally. The idea of “soil” is not the natural environment soil alone but the built environment. This is one reason monumental architecture and statuary are so important to establishing Proof-of-SoS. Satirical principle: Land belongs to whoever constructs the tallest useless building or statue on it. This is actually the same principle as the previous one — building sacred things is what establishes the claim to sacredness, and this can obviously be done on a grander scale with improving technology and economic power. To strengthen a historically later SoS claim, you must build a grander sacred monument. This has real consequences: Many Hindu nationalists don’t like that the Taj Mahal, a Mughal monument, is the most recognized symbol of India. There are attempts at revisionist histories that attempt to establish alternate histories for it. Arguably, the existence of the monument contributes to the legitimacy narrative of Muslims in India.
  9. Nomadic circulation patterns (as opposed to settlement-to-settlement migration patterns) is not comprehended by the model in the paper, and this confuses things a good deal, since pastoral nomads make a very different kind of SoS claim (right-of-way type claims rather than history-of-settlement claims). Particularly relevant to the Israel-Gaza conflict today. Both Arabs and Jews have had a historically nomadic relationship to the land under contention. The former as a fundamentally nomadic people, and the latter as a people who have historically wandered over a larger range due to both the push of political expulsion/persecution and the pull of trade opportunities.
  10. The Israel-Gaza conflict is not exceptional, but in fact a textbook case of the model in the paper. It just has exceptional strategic significance and is a top-10% messy example because of the collapse of the Ottoman empire and half-assed British-French clean-up after WW1. Neither side has a decisively superior SoS claim so the conflict is being entirely litigated through military and geopolitical forces.
  11. A good heat signature of the SoS dynamics is linguistic diversity within a geography, for a language group that looks homogeneous to outsiders. For example, the largest concentration of dialects/variants of English is in… England. Lots of SoS pockets there. Papua New Guinea has 500+ mutually unintelligible languages supposedly.
  12. Under conditions of modernity, the homogenizing linguistic effect of mass media and the economic circulation of information workers strongly weakens SoS dynamics. In Seattle, for instance, there are “locals” who try to freeze out tech-industry migrants (it’s called the “Seattle freeze”) but it’s a bit of a joke because there’s just too many of us rootless migrants around, and we dominate the economy too strongly. But a new SoS narrative is taking root, thanks to the monumental architecture of Amazon in South Lake Union (the glass globe, the high-rises) that rival the iconic sacredness of the Space Needle and older markers of sacredness all the way back to the Native American elements (Duwamish). I think us modern information workers have both settler and nomad characteristics so any postmodern SoS narrative that is taking shape today will end up being a weird thing in 100 years.
  13. A set of neighboring SoS mythologies can form a stable equilibrium so long as neither is expanding or shrinking demographically. This is almost never the case, so there is always a frisson of conflict as the paper notes. But the conflict rarely explodes into hot civil war because the rates of expansion/contraction in pre-modern times were rarely very dramatic.
  14. Modern SoS conflicts are driven by dramatically unequal development leading to differential population and economic growth and one group beginning to make larger techno-economic claims on “soil” while another group possibly has higher population growth.
  15. Shrinking populations face a very modern version of the SoS conflict problem. They need in-migration to survive materially, their Plan A ethnic birth-rate increase strategy generally isn’t working (EU, Japan), and their Plan B cultural assimilation plan isn’t working either. Genetic and memetic intermixing can save a civilizational environment, but breaks SoS narratives on all sides, forcing a rebasing to new SoS narratives which are not satisfying to anyone until a few generaitons have passed (and interbreeding has created “creolized” mixed-ethnicity people with a distinct identity).
  16. SoS claims obviously die with near-complete demographic collapse (due to disease, genocide, falling birth rates) and to the extent the partial-order dominance hierarchy shapes the conflict, the next-most compelling narrative gains precedence. But this is not the only way SoS claims die.
  17. One reason SoS claims might die is that they get just too confused and entropic after a few centuries or millennia. Mythologically, the narrative of South Indian Brahmins like me is that we are memetically “descended” from the mythological sage Agastya who crossed the Vindhya mountains from the Northern plains to bring Brahminical religion to South India. Genetically, we’re all supposedly descended from one or more semi-mythological Vedic sages (founders of clans called gotras, Kausika in my case) who were geographically located wherever the Vedas were composed (a highly contentious matter — candidates range from Punjab to Iran to Turkey). But my dark complexion suggests a different story.
  18. Modern genetic maps are going to reshape these conflicts I think. Personal case: 23andMe plots me as near-pure South Indian in origin, but my maternal/paternal DNA lineages (M3, R1a1a) locate me prehistorically in a very large area that stretches from Africa to Eastern Europe to Asia 40k-100k years ago. Who the hell knows what SoS story 17+18 add up to.
  19. In case it isn’t obvious, I think SoS narratives as a basis for conflict are profoundly stupid and we need to outgrow them as a species. Responsible local citizenship shouldn’t rest on confused mixes of genetic/memetic genealogy and records of presence of ancestors. A technologically modern civilization for a smart species should not have to choose between settler and nomad narratives. It’s migration from Africa all the way down, and handling migration dynamics in a principled and humane way, with a humane understanding of borders and border controls, shouldn’t run aground on idiotic considerations of “sacredness” and accidents of temporal primacy. And obviously, killing each other is always the dumbest way to settle any conflict, but extra dumb when the conflict is rooted in conflicting SoS mythologies.
  20. That said, I think once you unload all the political baggage and weaponized deployment in territorial conflicts, the question of the geographic footprint of our individual memetic-genetic heritage is a fascinating object of study. I for one would love a map tracing my genetic-memetic descent via migrations across thousands of years, culminating in the most important historical event ever as far as I’m concerned — my own birth in the little town of Jamshedpur in 1974 (coordinates on which I have zero SoS claims).

I’m going to be thinking about this paper a lot more. There’s nothing surprising in either the data or the analysis, but it’s a solid starter frame and foregrounds the right analytical questions.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Norris Krueger says

    Love this – here’s a classic that you might enjoy! Spain, D. (1993). Been-heres versus come-heres negotiating conflicting community identities. Journal of the American Planning Association, 59(2), 156-171.
    (I can send you the pdf if you can’t retrieve it.)

  2. Ravi Daithankar says

    In my experience, SoS conflicts are always an expression of either actual/perceived scarcity, a deep seated insecurity/inferiority complex, or both. While our individual intelligence and our higher order brain function sets us apart from all the other species out there, the moment we try to function in the collective, we are gobsmackingly primitive and tribal. Evidence of just how stupid we are as a species is literally everywhere you look…from geographically localized SoS conflicts to geopolitical wars to what goes on inside our parliaments and house/senates all across the world. Its almost like a feature-not-a-bug cosmic poison pill that prevents individuals from aggregating too much of anything meaningful: the fact that you ultimately have to work with other humans for anything important enough for the species, but for every n+1 increment in cooperation, the collective stupidity of the system goes up by a factor of ~10x.

  3. I think Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle might provide a useful literary side trip (if you have the time).

  4. Is that properly male coded or do the authors use the male form because they think SoS is bad? What about the “soil”? I shed tears about “mother earth” every day but keep cool when the “fatherland” is sold out to whoever bids highest.

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