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Review of the book - 'Identity and Violence' by Amartya Sen

Umesh is a freelance writer contributing his creative writings on varied subjects in various sites and portals in the internet.


Identity and Violence is an extraordinary book written by the author and economist Amartya Sen. It raises the issue of violence which is so common and is related to the identity of the people involved in it.

The author has brought out the genesis of violence in a gripping and captivating manner and has given many historical examples to make that more evident and clear to the reader. The generation and building up of traits and attributes which give rise to violent tendencies are depicted and mentioned in their entirety.

The author has very nicely depicted the relationship between Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindu communities and their inter-relations in respect of their religions and the occasional violence erupting out of their interactions. All these aspects are discussed by the author in a philosophically analytical way.

The book of course has serious reading material and is interesting and useful for the general readers as well as research scholars.

About the author

Amartya Sen was born in the state of West Bengal in India on 3rd November 1933. He had his early education in Residency College, Kolkata. Thereafter in 1955 he went on to study at Trinity College, Cambridge, England and received a B.A. after which he did his M.A. and finally in 1959 he did his PhD. He taught Economics in many institutions in India as well as abroad. Some of these are Jadavpur University and Delhi University, in India; the London School of Economics and the University of Oxford, in the UK.

He then moved to Harvard (1988–98), where he was a professor of Economics and Philosophy. In 1998 Sen was appointed as the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. He remained there for a good 6 years and finally returned to Harvard as Lamont University Professor.

Sen had served in prestigious positions as president of the Econometric Society in 1984, president of the International Economic Association from 1986 to 1989, president of the Indian Economic Association in 1989, and president of the American Economic Association in 1994.

For his outstanding contributions in the area of welfare economics, he was awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics. His work on the study of famines and solutions to cope with them or prevent them was well received in scholarly circles. Later, Sen was appointed as a member of the Encyclopedia Britannica Editorial Board of Advisors for the period 2005 to 2007.

In 2008, Govt of India donated an amount of $ 4.5 million to Harvard University to establish the Amartya Sen Fellowship Fund to help some deserving Indian students to study at the institution’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Many Indian origin students availed themselves of that and benefited from the facility.

Amartya Sen, 87, presently is a Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, a Professor at Thomas W. Lamont University, and also a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. Incidentally, he is Harvard’s 37th Nobel laureate.

In addition to the Nobel prize, he has got, so far, the following awards -

  • Bharat Ratna (India).
  • Commandeur de la Legion d'Honneur (France).
  • The National Humanities Medal (USA).
  • Ordem do Merito Cientifico (Brazil).
  • Honorary Companion of Honour (UK).
  • The Aztec Eagle (Mexico).
  • The Edinburgh Medal (UK).
  • The George Marshall Award (USA).
  • The Eisenhower Medal (USA).

Amartya Sen's works

When Sen was a child of age 9 in the year 1943, he had witnessed the Bengal famine which made a deep impact on his mind and affected his thinking process significantly and all of it came in black and white in his works later. When he grew up he found that there was no problem with resources in India and what we lacked was only a proper system of distribution and providing it to the needy. He also mentioned the main reasons for starvation, not the famine itself but factors like declining wages, unemployment, rising food prices, and of course the well-reiterated factor that is poor food-distribution systems. His observations were full of clarity and pointed to the root of the problems. These things he finally brought out in his book 'Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation', published in 1981.

Sen was always having the concept of using economics for the welfare of the community and he termed these things like the 'conscience of his profession'. Through his influential monograph 'Collective Choice and Social Welfare' published in 1970, he highlighted the issues like individual rights in a community, majority rule, and the availability of information about individual conditions especially the condition of poor people.

Sen's main argument is for measuring poverty precisely and then devising methods for its eradication. He also highlighted the differential or preferential treatment being given to males over females in poor countries which sometimes led to fewer women than men in many communities.

Continuing his writing journey, Sen has written many books. Some of these are Choice of Techniques (1960); Growth Economics (1970); Collective Choice and Social Welfare (1970); On Economic Inequality (1973, 1997); Poverty and Famines (1981); Utilitarianism and Beyond (jointly with Bernard Williams, 1982); Choice, Welfare and Measurement (1982); Commodities and Capabilities (1985); The Standard of Living (1987); On Ethics and Economics (1987); Hunger and Public Action (jointly with Jean Drèze, 1989); Inequality Re-examined (1992); The Quality of Life (jointly with Martha Nussbaum, 1993); Development as Freedom (1999); Rationality and Freedom (2002); The Argumentative Indian (2005); Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (2006); The Idea of Justice (2009); An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions (jointly with Jean Drèze, 2013); and The Country of First Boys (2015).

He has also written many articles and essays pertaining to topics like History, Culture, the AIDS crisis in India, Identity etc.

The book 'Identity and Violence', Chapter-1: The violence of illusion

The author has illustrated the concept of identity of the people and how the people associate themselves with particular group, race, or religion. On one side it gives a good amount of strength and confidence in belonging to a group but at the same time, it might culminate in harming and killing of people belonging to other groups or having affiliations with them.

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It is also true that everyone belonging to the group would not be that offensive and that these violent incidents are the handiwork of some evil leaders or so called group champions who have only one motto that is to spread terror and violence. It is unfortunate that some groups have such people who malign the repute of the whole group.

Violence between two groups is not a one-time affair as it erupts time and again and each group feels as if the other group is from some different breed. This type of identity is not a good thing as it is generally a source of violence.

Chapter-2: Making sense of identity

A person generally identifies himself with a group, cult, or religion and feels pride in that affiliation. There are some who do not like this association and declare themselves as cosmopolitan but then the group also treats them in a similar way and that apparently looks like a loss of identity. The group would also make them feel it by isolating them from the group.

So, it is good to have affiliation with a group or religion but blindly following it for violent objectives is not desirable. The scholars and academicians belonging to a group have a great responsibility in this matter to make people aware of their true identities in a correct perspective.

In any case, identity should not be a reason for violence whether it is instigated or created by the individual in a society.

Chapter 3: Civilizational confinement

In this chapter of the book, the author has discussed the impact of civilization on a person who belongs to this particular civilisation and culture and identifies oneself with it. So, everyone found oneself connected to a culture or group.

The obvious clash between the civilizations or groups led by their leaders also was a big source of violence. To mitigate these clashes, democratic systems of Govt were conceptualised mainly in the western part of the world and then some others also followed that in their respective countries.

The idea of adopting democratic setups was to minimise these conflicts and to some extent, it helped also but not in a major way as was required to eradicate the subsequent violent incidents.

Chapter 4: Religious affiliations and Muslim History

There had been many historical incidents of violence in the whole world here and there but in some places, their number was quite large due to varied reasons including religious rigidity or inherent differences and these acts of violence erupted time and again in those localities. The author has deeply pondered over the Muslim history as well as the history of other religions across the world and their interactions with other communities. The views of Muslim scholars are also taken into cognisance while the author narrates the various facades of Muslim history and its effects on others.

The situations which nurtured many of these acts of violence were quite complex if one goes into their anatomy but the fact is that in certain communities violence was a part of their culture and this was a fearful matter not only at that point of time but existing today also. There are many issues like the backwardness of a particular community, lack of education, lack of opportunity, defective bringing up, and most of the time living in a society where violence becomes a daily affair. So while analysing the reasons for violence we cannot attribute or make a particular community responsible for that. People may have affiliations with any religion they like but it does not entitle them to go on the route of violence. It is highly unacceptable in a cultured society.

The formation of terrorist groups in various countries due to local problems or global influences is also a big matter of concern and is a big source of violence worldwide. Until we understand what these groups actually want and until we do not pinpoint and nail down the people who are funding or backing those terrorist outfits, there will not be any decrease in violence. Reducing violence cannot be done with counterviolence as the root cause for violence is to be found and resolved.

Chapter-5: West and Anti-West

Some of the European countries which were powerful and ambitious alighted on the ports of many African and Asian countries and made them their colonies and took full control of them. This widespread colonisation exposed the native people to the western culture and the culture of the native people was naturally modified to quite an extent in that situation.

This was alright but it gave birth to the feeling of anti-West in the minds of some native people who wanted to preserve their own culture and identity. This was also a big source of, and of course a genuine source of conflicts and confrontations and even led to violence in many places.

These things came to an end when the big global powers of that time retreated to their mainland and these colonies got free from their clutches and many free countries evolved out of that process.

Chapter-6: Culture and Captivity

In this chapter the author has brought out the effect of culture on economic development and how does actually culture matters in these things, especially in the economic progress. He has given many examples like the comparison between the economic developments in South Korea and Ghana which in 1960 started from the same levels in those countries but South Korea could develop at astounding speeds while Ghana could not. Sen emphasises that culture should not come in between when national policies are formed for the progress and prosperity of a country. When cultural attributes come in the way of progress and development then it is a serious matter to ponder to find out as where we went wrong.

Chapter-7: Globalization and voice

The author has very beautifully brought out the fact in this chapter that people in one part of the world bother about the poverty or injustice happening in some other part and that shows that there is a universal concern for each other in spite of belonging to different countries separated by large cultural and geographical distances. This is something that requires further nurturing of these welfare emotions between the various people belonging to different countries as well as different cultures.

Chapter-8: Multiculturalism and Freedom

This chapter contains discussions on the relationship between multiculturalism and undesirable violent activities like terrorism. One thing which often happens in a multicultural society is that one culture takes some trait or attribute from another and after some time starts erroneously claiming it as its own original attribute. The new generations accept it as an integral part of their culture. Like that there are many things that permeate from one culture to another and everyone starts identifying oneself with it not knowing that it was not there originally. So, there are ambiguities and contradictions everywhere.

Chapter-9: Freedom to think

This chapter is very thought-provoking where the author asks whether a global world concept is possible where there is no place for riots and violence. He exemplified it by giving the example of the formation of two countries India and Pakistan in the year 1947 and the subsequent formation of Bangladesh from the territory of erstwhile East Pakistan. During these partitions, a lot of violent bloodsheds was there which was at all not desirable. These things are still happening in some parts of the world even today and are a matter of great worry for the whole of humanity.

Identity and Violence


Amartya Sen is one of the prominent economists in the world who has tried to estimate poverty through rational methods and pinpoint the reasons for its occurrence in society. He has repeatedly discussed these issues in his works related to famines and poverty whichever part of the globe these belong to.

The book 'Identity and Violence' is a thought-provoking treatise by the author and those readers or research scholars who are interested in learning about the genesis of violence and understanding the identities of the people behind these acts of violence, will be benefited from this work.

I rate this book as a must-read for serious readers as well as research scholars.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Umesh Chandra Bhatt


Umesh Chandra Bhatt (author) from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on June 10, 2021:

Kyler, thanks for your visit and such an elaborate and wise comment. Appreciate much. Blessings.

Kyler J Falk from California on June 10, 2021:

"Violence" is quickly becoming a dangerous word to use in Western culture, though I'm sure most are unaware of the current motion to charge that word with more than its literal meaning. There's a push in Western cultures, though, due to our more privileged circumstances, to call words and thoughts "violence". It is becoming much like the idea of "thought crimes" but more based in what someone else can project upon others, rather than what is publicized by the individual being called "violent".

I bring this up because a book like this touches on some very important notions, but the laypeople in Western cultures are quickly moving beyond the ability to properly grasp these concepts, and discuss them on a meaningful level. You bring up cultural appropriation and its tendency to create contradictions, but here you'd have powerful groups that will call the appropriation itself "violence" whether or not the individual even understands that they have "stolen" something. Constructive conversation about social issues break down swiftly in Western cultures because of these privileged outlooks, and redefining words based on issues many other countries and cultures wouldn't even touch on as a marginal consideration.

This book might just have to go into my library for posterity and philosophy purposes. Thank you for bringing it to my attention!

Umesh Chandra Bhatt (author) from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on June 10, 2021:

Jodah, thanks a lot for sparing your time and for the nice comment. Have a good day.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on June 10, 2021:

This sounds like a very worthwhile book, and I thank you for your in-depth review and also for sharing about Amartya Sen's life and achievements. Good job, Umesh.

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