This article seeks to pull together the main body of work on the security dilemma and that concerning the relatively recent move in international relations in reconceptualizing and operationalizing the concept away from its usual interstate setting. First, it will discuss some of the ways in which the security dilemma has been defined. Second, it will concentrate on the work of those writers who have conceived of 'ethnic security dilemmas' and 'insecurity dilemmas' occurring at the intrastate level. Third, it will suggest some possible answers to the problems that this body of writing has raised. Fourth, it will both introduce and further develop the concept of the '(inter-) societal security dilemma' as a possibly more productive way of explaining the outbreak of ethnic violence. Moreover, throughout the article the question as to if and when ethnic conflict can be seen as a 'tragedy' in Herbert Butterfield's sense of the word will be addressed.