Review: Sen’s Identity and Violence

Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (Issues of Our Time)
Amartya Sen

Amartya Sen is kind of a hero of mine. He is totally brilliant, diverse in his interests, politically principled while practical, and an economist who understands economics do not explain the totality of the human experience. This is a little book he wrote for the series Henty Louis Gates editors of smarty pants people writing serious but popular books. K. A. Appiah wrote one of these two, and I review it here.

The basic argument of this book is that identity is fluid. We have multiple identities, some of which we choose, some that are foisted upon us by others. But, when a part of our complex identity comes to be the sole defining characteristic of us (either by our own choice or someone else’s) we become more likely to either commit or endure violence.

Your reaction to this synopsis is probably something along the lines of “duh”. To anyone who would pick up this kind of book, I doubt Sen’s main point is surprising. What makes this book worth reading, however, is not the big picture, but the evidence he mounts to support his claims. Sen on globalization and its effects on the world’s poor are pretty in line with my own (a belief that on balance free trade is good for developing countries, but that a lot more can be done to make it more free and more fair) and his argument in favor of using the market to foster development is compelling. Additionally, Sen’s recollection of the riots between Hindus and Muslim in his hometown are haunting, and send home the obviously point that when identity is boiled down to religion, problems very often occur.

It’s a quick read, and worth your time. As are the other books in this series.

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