Ethnic conflict does not necessarily have to be violent. In a multi-ethnic society where freedom of speech is protected, ethnic conflict can be an everyday feature of plural democracies. For example, ethnic conflict might be a non-violent struggle for resources divided among ethnic groups. However, the subject of the confrontation must be either directly or symbolically linked with an ethnic group. In healthy multi-ethnic democracies, these conflicts are usually institutionalized and "channeled through parliaments, assemblies and bureaucracies or through non-violent demonstrations and strikes." While democratic countries cannot always prevent ethnic conflict flaring up into violence, institutionalized ethnic conflict does ensure that ethnic groups can articulate their demands in a peaceful manner, which reduces the likelihood of violence. On the other hand, in authoritarian systems, ethnic minorities are often unable to express their grievances. Grievances are instead allowed to fester which might lead to long phases of ethnic silence followed by a violent outburst. Therefore, ethnic peace is an absence of violence, not an absence of conflict. Another consequence is that violent ethnic rebellions often result in political rights for previously marginalized groups.
Academic explanations of ethnic conflict generally fall into one of three schools of thought: primordialist, instrumentalist or constructivist. Recently, several political scientists have argued for either top-down or bottom-up explanations for ethnic conflict. Intellectual debate has also focused on whether ethnic conflict has become more prevalent since the end of the Cold War, and on devising ways of managing conflicts, through instruments such as consociationalism and federalisation.
The causes of ethnic conflict are debated by political scientists and sociologists. Explanations generally fall into one of three schools of thought: primordialist, instrumentalist, and constructivist. More recent scholarship draws on all three schools.[year needed][who?]
Proponents of primordialist accounts argue that "thnic groups and nationalities exist because there are traditions of belief and action towards primordial objects such as biological features and especially territorial location". Primordialist accounts rely on strong ties of kinship among members of ethnic groups. Donald L. Horowitz argues that this kinship "makes it possible for ethnic groups to think in terms of family resemblances".
Clifford Geertz, a founding scholar of primordialism, asserts that each person has a natural connection to perceived kinsmen. In time and through repeated conflict, essential ties to one's ethnicity will coalesce and will interfere with ties to civil society. Ethnic groups will consequently always threaten the survival of civil governments but not the existence of nations formed by one ethnic group. Thus, when considered through a primordial lens, ethnic conflict in multi-ethnic society is inevitable.
A number of political scientists argue that the root causes of ethnic conflict do not involve ethnicity per se but rather institutional, political, and economic factors. These scholars argue that the concept of ethnic war is misleading because it leads to an essentialist conclusion that certain groups are doomed to fight each other when in fact the wars between them that occur are often the result of political decisions.
Moreover, primordial accounts do not account for the spatial and temporal variations in ethnic violence. If these "ancient hatreds" are always simmering under the surface and are at the forefront of people's consciousness, then ethnic groups should constantly be ensnared in violence. However, ethnic violence occurs in sporadic outbursts. For example, Varshney points out that although Yugoslavia broke up due to ethnic violence in the 1990s, it had enjoyed a long peace of decades before the USSR collapsed. Therefore, some scholars claim that it is unlikely that primordial ethnic differences alone caused the outbreak of violence in the 1990s.