Room for Debate: The Link Between Social Fragmentation and Violence

2 Feb

Does social fragmentation lead to violence? If it does, how important a factor is it? Is violence itself the primary cause of social fragmentation? Will reversing social fragmentation lead to less violence and atrocities? I’ll present the arguments for and against social fragmentation as a cause of violence, but ultimately leave it up to the reader to decide which theory is more convincing. Personally, I’m not entirely sure what I think.

For some conceptual clarity, here’s the definition of social fragmentation I have in mind: A lack of bridging capital or the opposite of social cohesion, and strongly related to a collective lack of social capital. Sometimes the result of social exclusion. It may also include a lack of bonding capital.

The case for social fragmentation as a cause of violence

The argument that social fragmentation leads to violence is a fairly straight-forward one. Colletta and Cullen argue non-fragmented societies have high degrees of social capital, which is important for positive outcomes, “…there is little disagreement about the role of social capital in facilitating collective action, economic growth, and development by complementing other forms of capital.” The resulting social cohesion provides societies with greater resilience to shocks, “Social cohesion is the key intervening variable between social capital and violent conflict. The greater the degree to which vertical linking and horizontal bridging social capital integrate, the more likely it is that the society will be cohesive and will thus possess the inclusive mechanisms necessary for mediating or managing conflict before it turns violent.”

On the other hand, social fragmentation results when institutions are unable to provide equally for all citizens or when leaders purposefully exclude populations. The resulting societies have fewer structures able to mitigate conflict and weaker norms that convince individuals not to use violence to settle disputes. Subsequently, groups tend toward inward to identity groups they feel they can trust for protection, sacrificing bridging capital for bonding capital. This exclusionary social capital can subsequently used negatively, stoking instead of hampering the chances of violence. Naraya et al. argue the effects of social fragmentation can be seen across society, from incidences of domestic violence to large-scale violent conflict.

Colletta and Cullen add to Naraya et al.’s theories by presenting a more specific framework for the link between social fragmentation and violence. Their basic thesis is, “Weak social cohesion increases the risk of social disorganization, fragmentation, and exclusion and the risk for violent conflict.” While social fragmentation can be managed, and therefore the conflict produced does not necessarily lead to violence, certain structural conditions make this more difficult:

Conflict does often engender large-scale violence if various structural conditions are present, such as authoritarian rule and a lack of political rights (as in Rwanda and Guatemala), state weakness and lack of institutional capacity to manage conflict (as in Somalia) and socio-economic imbalances combined with inequity of opportunity and a weak civil society (as seen in Cambodia)… Thus violent conflict is triggered by the presence of strong exclusionary bonds and disempowerment combined with a lack of horizontal bridging and vertical linking social capital.

So while social fragmentation alone does not cause violence or atrocities, it creates an environment conducive to atrocities, without which they would be highly unlikely to happen. For Colletta and Cullen, the most common route to violence is when social fragmentation causes groups to protect their own at the expense of others, and therefore they argue that working to improve bridging capital is the best strategy.

While Colletta and Cullen see the effect of social fragmentation and the potential for violence as occurring across society, Lindemann offers a clear vision for how social fragmentation directly influences violence. He argues that it is not social fragmentation that is the problem, but the lack of institutions able to handle the fragmentation at the elite level, a dynamic which previous studies of the causes of civil war had not examined in full.

Inclusive elite bargains redistribute rents and jobs, and ultimately unlink social fragmentation from violence because without elites participating in the shaping of exclusionary social relationship, they don’t lead to violence. When societies are socially fragmented, and ruling elites build political institutions that exclude the elites of already marginalized groups, these elites are prevented from providing benefits to their political or social group. This endangers their status as elites, and therefore they rebel if the following conditions are met, “First, the exclusion of certain ethnoregional elites needs to be maintained over time. Second, the exclusion of certain leaders has to be consistent across categories, that is, the affected groups and their elite representatives must be systematically denied access to most (or even all) state structures (jobs) and state resources (rents). Third, it is obvious that the importance of the alienated elites matters.”

These rebellions may lead to mass atrocities either because the opposition elites are threatened by being totally excluded from formal political power and commit a mass atrocity themselves, or these rebellions can threaten ruling elites, provoking a state-led mass atrocity. In sum, social fragmentation matters if elites carry it out against other elites along lines of differentiation already present in society, because it is these parties, the ruling and opposition elites, that have the power to mobilize violence. It should be noted that Lindemann is writing on civil war risk, rather than atrocities, and most civil wars do not lead to mass atrocities.


The case against social fragmentation as a cause of violence

The case against social fragmentation as a cause of violence does not deny that social fragmentation occurs or even that it has deep effects on society, but rather than social fragmentation itself is caused by larger, powerful forces, and isolating social fragmentation as the independent variable misses the true causality. In this view, violence is itself the main cause of social fragmentation and/or smaller social cleavages are multiplied by violence to make it appear as if social fragmentation is what’s ripping society apart.

Benjamin Valentino lays out the basic components of this analysis in his book Final Solutions, which looks specifically at mass atrocities. Broadly he notes that many fairly homogenous societies have experienced mass killing, while many societies with deep social cleavages have not. Furthermore:

Proponents of the plural society theory, however, offer surprisingly little evidence that social cleavages are more intense in societies that have experienced genocide or mass killing than in those that have not. To date, quantitative research on ethnic conflict and genocide has found little correlation between indicators of ethnic, social, economic, and cultural differences and the likelihood of large-scale violence between groups. Nor do ethnic wars appear to be more likely to result in mass killing that political or ideological conflicts.

Mass atrocities and large-scale violence are such rare events that looking for deep social cleavages produces too many false positives, and the social fragmentation theory doesn’t offer an obvious mechanism for certain how attitudes, relationships, and norms lead to organizations with high capacities for violence.

Another reason to doubt the social fragmentation theory is the role elites and the “greed” side of the “greed vs. grievance” formulation play in sparking violence. If what causes violence and atrocities is largely elites feeling threatened or sensing an opportunity to increase their power, then social fragmentation is secondary because opportunity, not identity or grievance, is the driving force.

Thirdly, many studies of violence and identity see the former as primarily driving the latter, and not the other way around. In his study of the Mozambican civil war, Lubkemann argues trying to find causality in pre-war fissures is misguided because the war itself shaped identities to a degree that there was often little resemblance between people’s pre-war and during-war identities. Experiences of violence, both in myth and in reality, determine how people view others, and subsequently the “othering” that occurs produces social fragmentation.

Finally, looking at social fragmentation may overstate the role that ideology and social relations (writ large) play in atrocities. Lubkemann’s argues that while “new wars” (defined as civil wars between often weak forces after the end of the Cold War) are indeed about politics, they’re not the macro-politics they’re often made out to be. Instead, the political goals of actors are highly localized and diverse.

His work is in line with Kalyvas’, who sees civil wars as driven by civilian decisions to give denunciations to the warring parties. Civilians tend to ideologically support whoever controls the region where they live, but use armed actors to settle personal scores (admittedly often shaped by micro-level social fragmentation) through false denunciations. War is ideological, in that civilians direct violence for political purposes, but their goals are limited and it is violence that allows social fissures to be exploited, rather than the social fissures that bring the violence in the first place.

In sum, social fragmentation can be observed in violence, but it is not the primary cause nor can attempts to decrease social fragmentation prevent the violence from beginning in the first place.

5 Pieces on Trends in Violence and Contentious Politics

16 Jan

These five (well really seven) articles were the most eye-opening for me in the past year.

1. Edward Carpenter – The New Blitzkrieg and Keith Somerville – Ivory, Insurgency, and Crime in Central Africa: The Sudans connection

While these articles take on different topics, together they offer up a few lessons about the nature of modern warfare. In his article, Carpenter notes the high recent incidence of mobile rebel groups taking vast territory quickly in under-populated areas. These groups tend to operate by using Toyota pickup trucks with mounted machine guns and operate as networks, rather than the top-down hierarchies favored by yesterday’s rebels. These rebel groups have proved difficult to combat because they’re both physically and organizationally agile, and even when superior air power halts their advance, they tend to disperse even further, launching well-entrenched rural insurgencies.

Somerville’s article examines similar types of groups, but instead of focusing on their military tactics, he highlights the ways in which they involve themselves in illicit economies across borders. Armed groups from Darfur to Cameroon trade in ivory, and this trade is both based on a long history of trading between semi-nomadic groups and the more recent rise of armed groups on the margins of weak states. Somerville’s research demonstrates that these armed groups have both deep local roots and an international reach. Particularly in the Sahel, vast spaces do not have strong government presence, providing ample opportunities for networked groups to sustain themselves. Any solutions have to take this reality into account.

2. Jay Ulfelder – The Political Power of Inertia

The dynamics Jay describes in this piece are not new, but their historical lack of recognition, particularly among the NGO community, makes his argument a worthy inclusion. When we think of how to lessen the potential for violence in sub-Saharan Africa, we tend to think in terms of big, explosive events: mass atrocities, wars, and political transition. All of these, however, are very rare events. The vast majority of analysis predicting dramatic political change turn out to be wrong.

This bias of always predicting or imaging how to produce sensational change belies that for the most part, change is subtle or doesn’t happen at all. And when they do happen, they often prove to be momentarily blips that quickly recede and the status quo ante re-entrenches. Bureaucratic logic prizes stasis over change and humans tend to be creatures of habit. All of this means that while it is not futile to plot how to make change, we have to be aware that it very rarely happens (at least in the way we imagine). If there is one upside here, it is that violence will likely not emerge in most countries not currently experiencing it. If Jay’s right, and inertia is an underestimated political force, then working to achieve un-dramatic change in countries teetering on the brink is an advisable course of action.

3. De Waal et al. – The epidemiology of lethal violence in Darfur: Using micro-data to explore complex patterns of ongoing armed conflict

In their analysis of violence statistics in Darfur, de Waal and his fellow researchers come to a surprising conclusion. While the conflict had traditionally been portrayed as one between an Arabizing government and African tribes, they found far more complexity. Some of their most interesting findings were that the Sudanese Armed Forces engaged in armed confrontations with every other armed actor, including other government agencies and allied Arab tribes during the studied period. The Arab tribes, generally portrayed as aggressors against the Fur and Zaghawa, actually had more casualties caused by inter-tribal fighting than all the African tribes combined. While the violence did have some patterns, like that it tended to have clear high and low intensity periods, it appeared somewhat random. It looked much less than political violence and more like banditry, where every armed actor sought to take advantage of every other through violence.

While de Waal et al. are careful not to overclaim, it is not unreasonable to expect other warzones to exhibit similar patterns. While Darfur, admittedly, may be an extreme case because of the lack of formal governance and the sheer number of armed actors, it’s possible scholars of violence have traditionally overstated the degree to which identity and ideology affect the execution of violence. Warfare may in fact largely follow the logic of violence, rather than the logic of politics. If this is true, violence prevention strategies have to focus more on preventing the conditions that allow violence to happen (poor governance, illicit economies, poverty, etc.) than getting combatants to strike political deals.

4. Nils Gilman – The Twin Insurgency

Gilman’s article is the most theoretical on this list, but it still provides concrete ways to better understand trends in contentious politics. Gilman’s main argument is that the modern state is facing a “twin insurgency”. From above, the state has to deal with an emerging class of plutocrats who feel they have no duty to pay taxes or otherwise act in the interest of any state. For this select but powerful group, the ideology of nationalism is unimportant and states only exist to be wielded for personal profit. Even more insidiously than disengaging, they actively use their economic power to limit the ability of governments’ to collect revenue from its citizens. From below, “comes a series of interconnected criminal insurgencies in which the global disenfranchised resist, coopt, and route around states as they seek ways to empower and enrich themselves in the shadows of the global economy. Drug cartels, human traffickers, computer hackers, counterfeiters, arms dealers, and others exploit the loopholes, exceptions, and failures of governance institutions to build global commercial empires.”

The implications of Gilman’s theory are enormous. In countries like Nigeria, it is not just the peculiar economic impact of oil has created elites uninterested in service-delivery, but that these elites are part of a global movement. Even the upper limits of successful institutional reform may not be enough to limit the corrosive power of internationally-connected plutocrats. The implications are similar for the insurgency from below. While globalization generally connects licit businesses and activities, it’s underbelly is an increasingly connected illicit world that makes it harder and harder to compartmentalize and attack. The lines will begin to blur between criminal enterprises, rebels, and terrorist groups, and these amalgamations will have increasingly internationalist goals (though not in the way Marx envisaged). Neither insurgency is a formal entity with the goal of capturing the state as 20th century insurgencies were, but both seek to keep the state at arm’s length. Without pushing it away entirely, both insurgencies seek to exploit the state’s power to achieve particular goals while carving, “out de facto zones of autonomy”.

5. Krasner and Risse – Well-governed failed states? Not an oxymoron!

Krasner and Risse write, “Failed states are supposed to be safe havens for terrorists, where anarchy, violence and chaos reign. This is the conventional wisdom.” They go on to explain why the conventional wisdom is wrong. They start with a theoretical point, nothing that pretty much all countries (with the possible exception of Denmark) have areas of limited statehood. By this they mean there are areas of the country where the state has less than complete (violent) authority. Therefore failed states are very rare (maybe only Somalia and DRC), while most other states have some degree of limited statehood.

Additionally, Krasner and Risse find that there is no link between service-provision/governance and the degree of statehood/government capacity. In short, there are well-governed failed states, where non-government entities, from NGO’s to civil society to kin networks, step in to provide services to residents. Furthermore, they argue there are three conditions that make service-provision more likely: legitimacy (acceptance by population of governing actor), task properties (simpler tasks are more likely to be completed), and institutional design (the strength of connection between external and local actors).

Krasner and Risse’s research has two central implications for peacebuilding work. First, increasing state capacity is not necessarily the most effective route to improving the lives of citizens, especially when states can be predatory actors themselves. Second, working with communities requires acceptance and a good working relationship with local elites. Finally, in states that are truly failed, and no indigenous capacity exists, it is advisable to perform relatively simple tasks that only require a few partners, and larger projects without indigenous partners are much less likely to succeed.

6. Honorable mention: Duncan Green – What are the big trends on conflict and fragility? Some great presentations at DFID

2015 Mass Atrocity Forecasts

12 Jan

In my last post, I looked back on how my predictions fared in 2014. While there are a couple different ways to measure success, all in all I was a little under 50%.

Here are my predictions for 2015. Like last time, I’ll not do a simple yes/no, but rather a percentage of how likely a mass atrocity is to happen. By mass atrocity, I mean 1,000 deaths caused intentionally by a discrete combatant group against another discrete noncombatant group. I’m including more countries than I did last year, and hopefully this will offer more accurate forecasts.

  • Nigeria (95%)
  • Iraq (95%)
  • Syria (95%)
  • Pakistan (75%)
  • Afghanistan (70%)
  • South Sudan (70%)
  • Sudan (65%)
  • Mexico (55%)
  • CAR (50%)
  • North Korea (50%)
  • Somalia (30%)
  • DRC (30%)
  • Libya (25%)
  • Gaza (25%)
  • Cameroon (20%)
  • Ukraine (10%)
  • Rwanda (10%)
  • Lebanon (10%)
  • Burundi (5%)
  • Yemen (5%)
  • Chad (5%)
  • Guinea (5%)
  • Kenya (5%)
  • Ethiopia (5%)
  • Burma (5%)
  • Eritrea (5%)
  • Zimbabwe (5%)
  • Mali (5%)

Explaining my forecast for each of the 28 countries here would be tedious and probably unnecessary, so I’ll skip it. However, I’ll select a few countries where my risk prediction doesn’t generally line up with the consensus in the atrocity prevention community.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram has probably already committed a mass killing in 2015, and across the border in Cameroon, Boko Haram is also active, though the chances of a mass atrocity are lower if not insignificant.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are not countries on the traditional atrocity prevention agenda, but that has more to do with uneasy relationship between anti-atrocity advocates and the U.S. military than the countries’ risk. Their respective Taliban’s both committed atrocities last year, and it seems likely that trend will continue.

In Mexico, it’s never a question of absolute casualty figures but how those casualties are categorized. Because there aren’t clear numbers on how many cartel members die as opposed to civilians, it’s hard to know whether more than 1,000 are killed by a specific drug cartel, even if thousands will almost certainly die in 2015.

In the DRC, like Mexico, more than 1,000 are highly likely to die. However, the splintered nature of armed groups in the country’s east means I think it’s more likely than not no single group will kill 1,000 civilians. The situation’s not dissimilar in Libya, where there is rampant violence, but it is committed by a myriad of militias.

Israel probably committed a mass killing in Gaza last year, and while confrontations between Hamas and Israel seem to operate on two or three year cycles, there’s still a decent chance Israel ‘mows the grass’ again this year.

While Rwanda is often praised as one of Africa’s most efficient governments, this sheen of good governance masks a political powder-keg. Whenever the elite coalition Kagame has built fractures, the struggle to fill the resulting power vacuum will likely result in mass violence. The same principle applies in Zimbabwe and Eritrea.

Finally, Burundi and Burma are two countries that have been high on the atrocity prevention agenda that I rated at only 5%. In Burundi, it seems the government has repressed the opposition enough that ruling elites are unlikely to be threatened during the 2015 election. There are some parallels here with Burma. While the treatment of the Rohingya minority is horrendous, it seems Burma’s elites have settled on forcing emigration rather than initiating a mass killing, which would be more politically risky.

Looking Back on My 2014 Mass Atrocity Forecasts

2 Jan

A year ago, I took a stab at predicting which countries would experience mass atrocities in 2014 (defined as 1,000 noncombatant intentional deaths caused by discrete group). My predictions were fairly accurate, if not perfectly so. Here’s what I predicted. I’ve put “YES” next to places that did experience atrocities and “NO” next to the countries that didn’t. For the countries where it’s simply too hard to know, I’ve put a “?”. I don’t want to get too in-depth into how I determined whether atrocities occurred, but I have some explanations in the footnotes for countries that are hard to judge one way or the other.

  • Syria (95%) – YES
  • South Sudan (85%) – YES
  • Iraq (85%) – YES
  • CAR (75%) – YES [1]
  • Sudan (60%) – YES
  • Afghanistan (50%) – YES [2]
  • North Korea (50%) – ? [3]
  • Mexico (35%) – ? [4]
  • Nigeria (30%) – YES
  • Burma (20%) – NO
  • DRC (20%) – NO [5]
  • Egypt (10%) – NO
  • Mali (5%) – NO
  • Venezuela (5%) – NO

To judge how accurate I was, one measure is to see each case as containing 100 points. If an atrocity did happen, then I get the number of percentage points that I predicted (for example, I get 95 out of 100 for Syria) and if one did not happen, I get the result of subtracting the number of percentage points I predicted from 100 (for example, I get 80 out of 100 for Burma). Because my predictions were not just yes/no, this method helps account for the probabilistic aspect. Measuring this way, I did very well, receiving 920 out of a possible 1200, excluding Mexico and North Korea because of the inconclusive judgments. However, that score should really be 920 out of 1400, because civilian deaths in Gaza during the Israel-Hamas conflict constitute a mass atrocity. Similarly, the Pakistani Taliban committed a mass atrocity. A mass atrocity may have occurred in Somalia, but the numbers don’t seem high enough to definitively say for sure.

There are a few problems with this metric for success, though. First, my numbers success rate is considerably boosted by the very high probability (the “No Shit List”) and the very low probability cases. If I remove the cases where I predicted probabilities above 80% and below 20%, and add in Pakistan and Gaza, my score comes out to a much less impressive 375 out of 800, even though by the standards of forecasting international events, it’s not bad.

The results of my projections have both optimistic and pessimistic ramifications for the ability to forecast atrocities. On the one hand, being a little less than 50% accurate in medium-risk cases is much better than the standard 65%-80% false positive ratio that’s common even in the best performing models (though it’s easier to outperform statistical models in one year than five). Additionally, with the exceptions of Pakistan and Gaza, no episodes of atrocities occurred in countries with probabilities less than 30%. On the other hand, in every case that I listed a probability that an atrocity would happen and it did, the country had been experiencing large-scale violent conflict at the beginning of 2014. One of the two cases I missed was also the one not experiencing large-scale violent conflict then.

Therein lies the problems. It’s fairly easy to predict where atrocities will occur for countries already experiencing mass violence. While it is certainly useful to predict anywhere where atrocities will occur, the real prize of forecasting is to identify the cases where atrocities will occur that aren’t obvious to the casual observer. Because mass atrocities are such rare events, that’s frustratingly difficult.

In my next post, I’ll put up my mass atrocity forecasts for 2015.

Update (1/16/15): Earlier today I realized that in analyzing my predictions I had missed the chance to analyze whether I had been overly optimistic or pessimistic about mass atrocities in 2014. I’m particularly interested to see if I avoided the bias that generally has forecasts over-predict the likelihood of rare events, which atrocities are.

I’ll do this by adding up the percentage points I predicted in total (and divide my 100) and then compare that to the actual occurrence of atrocities. If we exclude the atrocities that happened that I didn’t predict, I predicted there would be 5.4 mass atrocities in 2014. Within my prediction sample, there were actually 6 mass atrocities. So I was pretty close. My accuracy here was helped because each country that had a mass atrocity in 2014 in my predicted list also had one in 2013.

However, if I include Gaza and Pakistan (as I probably should), I was less accurate, again predicting 5.4 atrocities when 8 actually occurred. For whatever reason, I bucked the trend and under-predicted the number of atrocities that would occur in 2014.

Clarification (1/4/15): For this post, I defined a mass atrocity as 1,000 deaths in a single year. While this is partially consistent with other definitions for a mass atrocity used by The Early Warning Project and my thesis, it doesn’t clarify the conditions for when a mass atrocity continues over multiple years. The convention is that 1,000 is required in the onset year, and then if the number of deaths drops below a much lower threshold for a few years, then the mass killing episode ends. For example, by the Early Warning Project’s definition, a state-led mass killing episode continued in Myanmar last year, even though as far as I can tell, the casualty numbers were well under 1,000. For my predictions, because I’m only looking at one year at a time, I’m thinking about whether death counts will reach 1,000 each year. Neither definition is better than the other, but for the purposes of my predictions, the 1,000 threshold every year makes more sense.


[1] Though the numbers aren’t entirely clear, it seems very likely that more 1,000 noncombatants were killed by anti-balaka forces (and possibly ex-Seleka forces too) in 2014.

[2] By July, more than 1,500 civilians had already been killed, with 74% of those caused by anti-government forces (mostly the Taliban). The total number had risen to over 3,000 by November, with the Taliban responsible for 75%.

[3] Obviously, the North Korean regime isn’t releasing data on its prison camps, but investigations by Amnesty and the OHCHR makes it seem very likely more than 1,000 civilians died in 2014. However, the lack of data makes it impossible to know for sure.

[4] Like North Korea, there’s just not enough data to say. It’s not that we don’t know that huge numbers of people were killed by organized crime, but it’s unclear how many of those count as civilians (cartel members are combatants in this case). It seems likely, but one can’t be sure.

[5] While the civilian death toll almost certainly exceeded 1,000 in 2014, to my knowledge, no one single group can claim to have killed more than 1,000 noncombatants.

Structure, Ideas, and the Functioning of Social Change

10 Dec

In August, Waging Nonviolence published an article on how same-sex marriage in the United States went from being a political impossibility in the late 1990’s to a political inevitability today. In regards to the manner of the victory, the authors Mark and Paul Engler write, “Rather than being based on calculating realism — a shrewd assessment of what was attainable in the current political climate — the drive for marriage equality drew on a transformational vision. It was grounded in the idea that if social movements could win the battle over public opinion, the courts and the legislators would ultimately follow.” For them, same-sex marriage is sweeping the country now not because of an abundance of political money, effective lobbyists, and committed lawmakers, but because “average” Americans changed their opinions on its morality. When it came time for them to vote on the issue, political figures had to listen to the (democratic) will of the people.

In a very different article a few weeks earlier, Jim Sanders made the case that the success of the Boko Haram insurgency in northeastern Nigeria is because the group’s strategy does not conform to the government’s expectations. Group’s imagined contexts (or in other words, a worldview) set the boundaries for which strategies are possible, and the context in which Boko Haram sees itself is very different from Nigeria’s, “They have created their own reality, an amalgam, as John Campbell says, of twenty-first century technology and esoteric (medieval) Islamic texts, which they hold up as guiding documents.” Boko Haram has not sought to engage in traditional electoral politics, formal or informal. For Sanders, Boko Haram is “postmodern” because its strategy derives from a significantly different belief system, rather than, as Mark and Paul Engler put it, “…a shrewd assessment of what was attainable in the current political climate…”

Both articles make claims on how change can happen. For Sanders and Englers, political structures (by structures I mean a set of political relationship that are not all horizontal) can be shaped entirely by ideas. For this thesis on the functioning of change to hold true, the assumptions that power is diffuse and that horizontal relationships based in ideology have the capacity to change vertical relationships based on authority without needing a weakness in those structures must also be true. In short, Sanders and the Englers are implicitly arguing that ideas are the basis of how society is organized (or at least can be), rather than the logic of bureaucratic politics.

These claims align broadly with postmodern theories of power and change. Foucault, for example, writes in Power/Knowledge that power is, “…localized here nor there, never in anybody’s hands”. Gene Sharp’s theory of power, which may or may not be generally classified within the postmodern school, shares many similarities with Foucault (Mark and Paul Engler devote an entire section of their article to detailing Sharp’s theory of power). Sharp makes the important insight that power is relational. By that, he means that “power” exists only in individuals’ relations to each other, rather than being a monolithic force that exists within institutions and governments. Sharp’s project in describing power is demonstrating how social movements can accumulate it and ultimately overthrow regimes. He uses the metaphor of pillars of support, which activists seek to knock over, by gaining allies, one at a time.

The problem with postmodern theories of power, and by extension the two articles I’ve cited above, is that they tend to minimize the ability of structures to attain and wield power. Let me explain (with examples first, theory second). Sanders and the Englers argue that ideas are the primary driver for achieving the change they describe. However, both articles sell themselves short by failing to highlight the effects of structures on ideas in their respective scenarios. Though Boko Haram’s strategy is a result of an imagined context quite different from others’ expectations, the context it imagines can’t be disentangled from political structures, or to say it differently, structure and ideas form a feedback loop. By this I mean that Boko Haram’s military force has created a balance of power (which creates a political structure) that gives Boko Haram’s ideas space to exist. The counterfactual here is that if Boko Haram could not muster the military power to evict the Nigerian government from much of northeastern Nigeria, its ideas would be inconsequential in terms of social change, and would probably not exist in their current, outrageous form.

Initially I found Mark and Paul Engler’s thesis to be quite convincing, but after putting it on my Facebook wall, fellow Swarthmore alum Jonah Wacholder pointed out some of its holes. Jonah wrote, “Everything about the fight to achieve same-sex marriage, from its choice as a goal to the (successful) tactics used to achieve it, was grounded in a series of pragmatic political judgments…[same sex-marriage advocates] kept marriage litigation out of the federal courts until 2009. They accepted civil unions in multiple states. They compromised on religious exemptions to bring in recalcitrant state legislators. They deliberately adopted a public relations strategy that focused on same-sex couples that met the norms of conventional respectability as thoroughly as possible.”

Therefore, while proponents of same-sex marriage did try to shift public opinion, they also calculated their strategy to partially conform to structural constraints. This dual theory of change was both top-down and bottom-up. It sought to both change the structure that ultimately determined the status of same-sex marriage while influencing the norms that informed the structure’s thinking. Whether transformational change on same-sex marriage was possible without engagement with the concentrated power of political structures is impossible to know for sure. However, the fact that advocates assumed focusing solely on moving public opinion was sub-optimal implies ideas alone couldn’t substitute for working to alter political structures and political ideas.

The implication I see here is that seeking to achieve change solely with ideas, which can be defined as horizontal power relations, overlooks the strength of political institutions and structures. This brings me back to Gene Sharp. He would argue that structures are simply the accumulation of person-to-person relationships, and therefore vulnerable to change through the same tactics as individuals. However, this neglects why structures are powerful in the first place. The structures exist because of the strong quality of relationships between individuals in those structures, which are not only based on ideas. Bureaucratic politics play a strong role in determining the cohesion of structures, and this force is more impervious to alteration from outsiders. Sharp is not naive in the need to wield power and leverage support to achieve political change, but I would argue that in not distinguishing between power relationships based on ideology and power relationships based on structure and authority, he fails to fully describe what makes political institutions resilient to change. In terms of change, political institutions are usually more successful at removing pillars of support from activists than vice versa.

In some cases, significant social change can happen primarily through the power of ideas. While the fight for same-sex marriage was about both responding to structural opportunity and norm diffusion, ideas played an important role. Jonah again, “We’re succeeding for homophobia (at least sometimes, for some people) because the political tactic of coming out is brilliant and extremely powerful when you have a group that exists in every family and every socio-economic category. (Successful same-sex marriage advocacy leverages this by connecting the same-sex couples who want to marry to people the audience knows and has emotional commitments to, or could imagine knowing and having emotional commitments to.)”

In some movements, like same-sex marriage, the role of ideas (and public opinion) can have an out-sized effect of determining outcome. However, in most cases attempting to disentangle ideas from structure/opportunity is a futile endeavor: focus only on ideas and you’ll never achieve change, focus only on structure, and you have no rationale for achieving change. The only answers are imperfect.

Why Study Peace Versus Violence?

11 Nov

*This is a lightly edited version of a short paper I prepared for an external project.


The choice of whether to study peace or to study violence is a more difficult dilemma than it would first appear. First, what is the relationship between the two? Are they merely inverses? If that’s true, why study one or the other? If they’re not, what are the differences? These questions will not fully be answered in this post, but I should be able to shed some light on ways to better conceptualize these problems.

Strangely, there seems to be very little written explicitly about the advantages of studying peace or violence (to the point where a literature review becomes unhelpful). It becomes even stranger when one realizes an entire academic discipline, peace and conflict studies, was founded in response to a perceived over-focus on the causes and manifestations of violence. However, from a bit of research I’ve done and my experience within the peace and conflict literature more generally, it seems peace and conflict scholars are more interested in how studying peace can lead to a more peaceful (defined broadly) world, rather than the advantages and disadvantages of studying one over the other.

The relationship between peace and violence

Determining the relationship between peace and violence depends on how one defines each. While “violence” is fairly well understood, peace is much more abstract. Some would define peace as the mere absence of physical violence, but some scholars, particularly in peace studies, go much farther, hypothesizing that peace entails everything from human’s symbiosis with the planet to harmonious family relations. While I would argue this expansive definition takes the concept of peace too far, rendering it practically meaningless, there is significant precedence in the peace literature to define peace as more than the opposite of violence. Peace, in the most basic conception, exists in negative form – that is, the absence of physical violence – and positive form – that is, the absence of barriers to social, political, and economic equality. When peace is defined as being comprised of positive and negative components, the distinction between “peace” and violence’s inverse becomes more clear, and peace becomes a concept worthy of study in of itself.

Georg Simmel was a German sociologist and philosopher writing at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. His work is foundational for the field of peace and conflict studies. In his essay “Conflict”, Simmel lays out his vision for the interconnectedness and form of peace and violence. Simmel argues that conflict is ever-present, but that it can take violent or peaceful forms. He writes that conflict, in whatever manifestation, is an attempt at socialization and unity, in that it seeks to redress grievances and eliminate sources of tension. Therefore, conflict can be physically destructive, but it is also generative in that it produces new social arrangements (a point now frequently made by anthropologists).

Simmel’s argument provides a basis for understanding the principles of conflict transformation: if conflict always exists, the challenge is to have it exist in a peaceful manner. A conflict transformation lens opens up avenues for studying the causes of peace, it more specifically, how violent conflict can be made peaceful without eliminating grievances.


Studying peace can be challenging because as a former peace studies professor of mine told me, it is like, “looking for answers on a blank piece of paper.” He went on to argue that because peace is the norm, it is best to study derivations in order to understand the norm itself. I was somewhat surprised to hear this from a peace studies professor, but I think it points to just how little understanding there is of why or how to study peace.

Part of the difficulty in studying peace involves disentangling peace from violence. Brewer argues that there cannot be one without the other: peace and violence imply each other. Even if peace is the norm, and is therefore difficult to study, it is conceived as normal in comparison to infrequent outbreaks of violence. Simply, it is hard to define peace without mentioning violence (whereas the reverse is not quite as difficult, because peace is so pervasive that it is assumed as the normal state). Even in a peacebuilding lens, studying the causes of positive peace is undertaken with the intention of preventing violence in the long-term.

Therefore, there is some confusion on what the explicit study of peace adds. The difficulty justifying its detachment from “violence” is hard enough, but even if that is achieved, it’s murky what studying peace provides that studying violence does not.


Ashutosh Varshney, an Indian political scientist, began a research project in the early 2000’s on why certain cities in India experienced Hindu vs. Muslim riots. He realized that to better understand why it happened in certain cities, he needed a basis of comparison, so he chose to also study cities where violence had not broken out.

Varshney’s research gets at a couple of key points on studying peace versus violence. First, it creates a context for violence as “abnormal” by setting a baseline for comparison. This is important for peacebuilders, because when seeking to prevent violence in a society, it is important to have a conception of what a low-violence society would look like for the target community. Since most peacebuilding organizations are Western and/or employ Western staff, and the paradigm of liberal peacebuilding, centered around concepts honed in Western countries like rule of law and an independent judiciary, is pervasive, peacebuilders are likely to operate with an implicit, but uncritical vision of peaceful societies present in the West. This vision may or may not have much in common with a realistic vision of how to create peace in the target community. When trying to prevent violence, failing to study what causes peace will lead to distorted perceptions of the routes to peace.


The existing research on understanding the causes of peace or the causes of violence is incomplete and scattered. No authors I found took on the theoretical issue directly, even if there is much work related to the question. For example, much of the peacebuilding literature operates on the assumption of preventing violence through causing peace, and therefore works on improving governance, for example, are largely looking at the causes of peace. While there is certainly a gap in the literature to be filled, I am skeptical of the value of studying the causes of peace in isolation. Because it is, as I have argued, so difficult to conceptually disentangle peace from violence to create two independent, non-overlapping bodies of study, I would argue that the existing research agenda can best be improved by seeking to studying the causes of peace and the causes of violence, much as Varshney has done. Such an undertaking would redress the overall lack of studies of peace and help ease, if not eliminate the dilemmas of a short-term versus long-term lens and focusing on physical versus structural violence.

The Sachs-Prendergast School of Activism

2 Sep

*The following is a guest post by my brother Timmy Hirschel-Burns.

Development and mass atrocities both interest me, and the articles I read are mostly about these two issues.  A few months ago, I realized that I could go from an article on corn production in Kenya to political conflict in South Sudan, but a major figure would be present in both articles.  Really, this was not one person, but two; Jeffrey Sachs and John Prendergast had melded together in my mind.  While this could be written off as subconscious sloppiness with little relevance to the real world, I think there are important parallels between Sachs and Prendergast.  Development and mass atrocities have much in common, and Sachs and Prendergast are among the leading figures in their respective fields.  Although Sachs’s ‘bookworm on a mission’ persona contrasts with Prendergast’s ‘cool guy out to save the world’ image, their methods are extremely similar.  That these two similar figures both became perhaps the most publicly recognizable person in their field is not a coincidence, but rather can shed light on how we approach developing countries-African ones in particular-, what types of activism gather attention, and how the shortcomings of these two figures can be avoided.  First, I will present some of the similarities between Sachs and Prendergast, and then I will discuss their broader significance.

Moral outrage- A constant theme for Sachs and Prendergast is their moral outrage about the suffering of individuals around the world.  In The Idealist, Nina Munk describes how after seeing how AIDS victims did not receive medicine in Zambia, Sachs was so appalled he decided to dedicate himself to ending poverty.  His shock is again apparent when he visits the Millennium Village in Ruhiira, Uganda, where he spends much of the visit muttering to himself about how outrageous poverty is.  Munk describes how after speaking with a doctor, “Sachs shook his head in disbelief; he was personally offended by the situation.  ‘They can’t go on like this,’ he said.”  Prendergast also puts his moral outrage at the center of his actions.  In Not on Our Watch, co-authored by Prendergast and Don Cheadle, they describe a visit to a visit to a refugee camp for those displaced by violence in Darfur.  They write, “As we listened to the stories of the refugees who fled the genocide, we sensed what it might be like to be hunted as a human being…Enough is ENOUGH.”

Westerners hold the solution- Sachs and Prendergast both frame poverty and mass atrocities, respectively, as something the West allows to happen.  Prendergast focuses on Samantha Power’s idea that we must be ‘upstanders’ to genocide rather than bystanders in The Enough Moment.  Munk also describes how in Ruhiira, Sachs reacts to what he sees by saying, “This is how we allow fellow human beings to die, by doing nothing.”  Of course, when Prendergast and Sachs say “we,” citizens of Darfur or Uganda do not really factor in.  Rather, the “we” they see as key to stopping genocide and poverty are Western citizens and policymakers.  Their policy prescriptions almost always follow this idea.  For Prendergast, the solution tends to come through Western-led diplomacy, peacekeeping forces, or in the case of the DRC, ending the purchase of conflict minerals.  For Sachs, Western-led aid interventions are at the center of his strategy.  Their seminal projects highlight their position at the center of solving mass atrocities and poverty.  Prendergast’s Enough Project and Sachs’s The End of Poverty both hold titles that emphasize finality.  Prendergast has had enough of mass atrocities and his organization will stop them, while Sachs knows how to end poverty and will describe how in his book.

Celebrity affiliations- A major feature of both Sachs and Prendergast’s work is their collaboration with non-expert celebrities in an effort to draw popular appeal.  Bono writes the foreword to The End of Poverty, Sachs starred in the MTV documentary “The Diary of Angelina Jolie & Dr. Jeffrey Sachs in Africa,” and he has worked with Tommy Hilfiger.  Prendergast co-wrote two books with Don Cheadle, co-founded The Darfur Dream Team with basketball star Tracy McGrady, and has worked closely with George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, and Ben Affleck.

Negative reaction to criticism- Both Prendergast and Sachs have a reputation of taking criticism very personally and having relentless faith in their ideas.  Prendergast has had high profile arguments with Mahmood Mamdani and Alex de Waal, while Sachs has long-running feuds with Bill Easterly and Dambisa Moyo.  While all prominent figures will have critics and public debate can be valuable and constructive, in these debates Prendergast and Sachs’s tone is often noticeably defensive and aggressive.  A memorable scene in The Idealist describes Sachs screaming at parisitologist Christian Lengeler on an airplane over their differing views on malaria control.  While they have reacted poorly to criticism, Sachs and Prendergast have also shown unwillingness to examine their ideas.  Sachs failed to have the Millennium Village Project properly evaluated (although to his credit he did give Nina Munk fantastic and seemingly uncensored access).  Prendergast has consistently pushed the idea that Dodd-Frank 1502, the legislation aimed at preventing the purchase of conflict minerals that he lobbied extensively for, led to the demise of M23.  However, Christoph Vogel argues that the only evidence to support this theory is a report commissioned by Prendergast and his colleague Sasha Lezhnev.

While some of these similarities are particular to Sachs and Prendergast, many can be applied to other prominent activists, campaigns and organizations.  Sachs and Prendergast are leading figures in a particular school of activism, and I think this is where the similarities between Sachs and Prendergast have the largest implications.  At the heart of the similarities between Sachs, Prendergast, and similar activists is their theory of change: they need to draw Western attention to problems in developing countries, Westerners will care more about these issues, their moral outrage will lead to more resources and money focused on the problems, and these resources and money will solve the problems.  This theory of change which is so prominent in Sachs and Prendergast also pervades Power, Kristof, Invisible Children, and a major portion of prominent activism, and I think this is where the problem lies.

There is nothing inherently wrong about many components of this theory of change.  The inequality and brutality that is present throughout the world should bring moral outrage, and Westerners can play a meaningful and effective role in producing change in the developing world.  What this theory of change lacks, however, is humility.  It fails to consider that Western popular attention may be able to do little to help, that these activists may not be the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle, or that their moral outrage may not be enough to solve incredibly complex problems.  Perhaps they don’t know the answer, or the answer they thought they had was wrong.  They often can’t stop to consider power, institutions, history, and local knowledge because they have had enough of genocide, poverty needs to be ended, and they need to do it right now.  We do need to stop mass atrocities and end poverty, but it will be hard, it will take a long time, and it will take more than this type of activism.


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