Tag Archives: Nonviolence

Complexity and Proaction: A sincere hope for the (perhaps distant) future

27 Mar

What do civilians do to survive conflict?  This sounds like a fairly straightforward question, but it’s not.  Until very recently, scholars of violence and practitioners of  violence prevention saw civilians as entirely reactive parties that did little to shape the course of conflict.  While there have been some major steps in recent years in understanding what decisions civilians make to survive and their role in influencing the course of conflicts, the field is still taking its first steps (if you’re interested in further reading let me know).  The burgeoning consensus is that civilians are major players in shaping conflict, though academics and practitioners are only beginning to imagine the limits of civilian agency.  If there is indeed significant work to be done, what might the future of civilian self-protection look like?

To be blunt, we’re pretty clueless about civilian self-protection.  Few empirical accounts exist, and no work that I’ve come across directly ties empirical findings to broader theories of how civilians survive multiple types of conflict.  Because of this major theoretical gap, Casey Barrs, the most prolific author on the idea of civilian self-protection, argues for a limited survival-approach that ignores the rights-based programs that characterize many NGOs’ work.  For Barrs, whatever works, be it bribing combatants or fleeing at the first hint of conflict, should be encouraged and aided.  Civilians are more likely to understand this and therefore react to conflict better.  NGO’s should allow them to become ‘owners’ of their own survival.  In sum, we don’t know enough to prescribe strategies to civilians facing the prospect of mass atrocities.  Trying for anything more than bare survival is not only presumptuous on our part, but also dangerous.

Lamentably, Barrs is right for the moment.  If analysts do not really understand how civilians influence conflict, let alone how their actions during conflict determines both their lives and the condition of society post-conflict,  average civilians are unlikely to think about these issues.  Civilians are not expected to act with the broader conflict in mind, but there’s some potential that scholarship could permeate aid practices, which could perhaps diffuse a norm that sees civilian agency in conflict as extending beyond individual survival.

Could this imagined future become a reality?  It is possible that we’ll reach a point where we have a strong understanding of conflict dynamics, have strong norms of civilian protection, and have institutions in place able to react quickly and decisively to conflict that it will be possible to imagine a wider conception of civilian self-protection?  Could future civilian self-protection strategies be not only proactive but even emancipatory? And for me, perhaps the most exciting question is could civilian protection strategies be designed not only to save the civilians enacting them but to positively mitigate violence in the broader conflict system?

For now, these questions sound like overly ambitious and hard to even conceptualize.  For example, will civilians ever really feel secure enough to think beyond their immediate survival to their role in the broader conflict?  There are some reasons to be hopeful.  Complexity theory for one offers a medium through which we may be able to understand how conflict functions, and more specifically, civilians’ roles in it.  Complexity theory imagines conflict as a complex system in which agents interact with many other agents in multiple ways, which are ultimately too complex for humans to understand.  Randomness is inherent in the system.  So complexity theory helps explain why conflicts develop in surprising ways, often beyond the comprehension of analysts.  To read complexity theory as a accepting defeat in our attempt to understand conflict would be a mistake, however.  Rather, while creating a framework for dealing with complexity, it also accepts that some developments in conflict are indeed beyond our ability to predict or explain.  Some analysts are beginning to see conflict through a complexity-inspired lens.

Early warning technology is another reason to be optimistic.  While the idea of early warning has existed for a long time, practitioners and scholars are starting to imagine how these systems can serve local communities rather than analysts far removed from the conflict.  At the same time, many regional governmental organizations are in the process of implementing conflict early warning systems.  This marriage of theory and institutionalization could one day provide many civilians with the ability to learn of conflict before it physically confronts them, and develop more proactive strategies.

I would like to be hopeful that this is all possible, but there are also some harsh realities that can’t be ignored.  While I am very hopeful that complexity theory will offer a new and improved method for imagining the complexity of conflict, we can’t forget that complexity theory was designed to help us understand why we can’t understand certain systems.  Yes, complexity theory is probably a step up, but there’s a limit to our analytic ability.

Another problem is how civilians will actually understand their role in determining conflict, and in turn, be able to make constructive changes to their behavior.  It’s possible, but by no means for sure, that academic knowledge on how civilians act during conflict will imbue at-risk communities.  However, civilians would then have to not only accept that validity of this theory, but also be in a place in which they could enact it.  While it is simply difficult to imagine the confluence of developments in early warning technology, norms of civilian agency, and the dynamics of mass atrocities in the future, but it is also difficult to imagine with all these mitigating factors, civilians will act considerably differently in the future than they do now.  This speaks to broader questions to how civilians have reacted to conflict over the course of history, but to my knowledge, civilians dealt with the Peloponnesian War in a similar way as Syrians do today.  My vision puts significant stock in the power of globalized humanitarian discourse.

The last problem is that by the time techniques that expand upon current civilian protection practices are developed and implemented, it may be too late.  As Jay Ulfelder writes, it looks as if global patterns of unrest will cause a short-term spike in mass atrocities, even if broader trends point to a slow reduction in the amount of worldwide conflict.  If he’s right, then civilian protection infrastructure will likely appear only after the period in which it is most needed.

Predicting mass atrocities is hard enough, and so I realize that predicting civilian response in the distant future, which we in fact barely understand at the present, is pretty much impossible.  However, the prospect for an expanded view of civilian self-protection can at least function as something to strive for.  I do think there’s hope because just in the last few years we’ve seen changes in how NGO’s think about with self-protection.  Both Casey Barrs and L2GP have written about the need for NGO’s to help civilians protect livelihoods (thus shaping the post-conflict environment), and in the relatively small prevention practitioner community, their words will soon have an impact.  From where I stand, the future is exciting.

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What Will the Future of Atrocity Prevention and Response Hold?

13 Feb

*I started writing my thesis last week.  Because that’s taking up a lot of time, I just wanted to post the lightly-edited last section of the first draft of my first chapter.  If you have any thoughts on what I could do better, please feel free to share them.

The next twenty years will be an exciting time for the concept of early warning.  I believe the same applies to atrocity prevention and mitigation.  The idea of early warning, and certainly quantitative early warning, is in its infancy.  There is a good chance that the next two decades will see the institutionalization of early warning systems (EWS) within IGO’s, regional organizations, and national governments.  On the prevention and mitigation front, R2P is less than a decade old.  Unlike any norm before it, it provides a moral, legal, and operational backing for the prevention and mitigation of mass atrocities, which in turn deters potential perpetrators.

There are plenty of other reasons to find hope in efforts to close the response gap.  First, EWS’s are improving.  They are becoming more accurate, they are reaching out to include previously untouched constituencies, and their proliferation across Africa demonstrates that they are now accepted as a necessary component for any effective anti-atrocity policy.  Another positive sign is an emergent vein of scholarship that looks at how to direct early warnings to civilians on the ground rather than policymakers operating in metaphorical ivory towers.  Along these lines, there are signs that the UN and regional organizations are improving their early warning capacities.

While evaluation of the effects of early warning is difficult and practically nonexistent, it does seem that the international community is getting better at it.  Kenya offers a good case study.  In 2008, post-election violence killed thousands of people.  Accordingly, prior to the 2013 elections, many analysts predicted a similar outcome.  Fortunately, the elections went off with very little violence.  Why?  Well, combining analysis before and after the elections provides a picture of a thorough and multifaceted prevention effort.  Writing in 2012, Babaud and Ndung’u argue that while there were serious flaws, Kenya is one of the few places where locally-led conflict prevention and early warning have happened.  They also note the importance of the emergence of crowd-sourced prevention initiatives like Ushahidi, which provide quickly-available and accurate information on conflict dynamics.  Unlike many early warning systems, Kenya’s had a clear and systematic flow of information, represented by this diagram:

Writing after the elections, Jay Ulfelder surveys a number of experts on Kenya and concludes that there were four main preventive efforts that had an effect: (1) a conscious effort by the Kenyan media to limit inflammatory reporting spurred by a combination of international pressure and memories of 2008, (2) a government SMS service that blocked hate speech, (3) investment in Kenyan infrastructure between 2008 and 2013, and (4) the restraining of major political actors through their links to Western money.  He notes that these findings may not be generalizable to all prevention efforts primarily because the violence in Kenya would have been election-related.  Regardless, it shows that not only can the international community work together to promote prevention, but that an array of fairly simple programs can have a real impact on the reduction of violence.

In 1999, then-UNSG Kofi Annan wrote, “Today no one disputes that prevention is better, and cheaper, than reacting to crises after the fact.  Yet out political and organizational cultures and practices remain oriented far more towards reaction than prevention.”  Seven years later, in a report to the UNGA, he wrote, “In its resolution 57/337, annex, paragraph 35, the General Assembly recognized the need to strengthen the capacity of the United Nations for early warning, collection of information and analysis. I regret to report that no significant progress has been made in this area. In fact, unlike some regional organizations, the United Nations still lacks the capability to analyse [sic] and integrate data from different parts of the system into comprehensive early warning reports and strategies on conflict prevention.”

Unfortunately, at the beginning of 2014, little more progress has been made.  Despite early warning’s long history within the UN, it is still barely an institutionalized concept.  If there are some reasons to be optimistic about the prospects for closing the response gap, there are just as many or more to be pessimistic.  As it stands, the existence of any system that combines an intelligence gathering mechanism, an early warning component, and results in capable prevention or mitigation strategies is a fiction and will be continue to be so for the foreseeable future.  The same institutional and psychological barriers that prevent successful atrocity early warning, prevention, and response will persevere.  Ominously, a recent spike in both state collapses and global social unrest has likely contributed to a recent increase in mass killings, and this trend does not show an obvious sign of abating.

One estimate is that less than ten percent of civilians that survive natural disasters do so because of outside aid.  This figure is likely even higher for civilian victims of violent conflict and mass atrocities considering the more advanced nature of disaster EWS’s and the relative lack of political complications caused by disaster aid.  Even if there is major progress in closing the atrocity response gap in the next twenty years, the vast majority of civilians will have to survive on their own.  Therefore, when we talk about outside prevention and intervention, we must remember that the efforts of the international community are ultimately peripheral to the conflict experiences of most individuals.  Intervention is not, and will never be, a sustainable solution for preventing and mitigating mass atrocities around the world.  Survival is almost always the burden of the persecuted.

The Responsibility to Do What We Can: Understanding and strengthening local, nonviolent strategies for civilian self-protection in the context of mass atrocities

9 Dec

*The Sentinel Project has published my final report on strategies for civilian self-protection during mass atrocities.  This blog post summarizes my report and you can find the report itself here.

The Responsibility to Protect doctrine, instituted in 2005, exemplifies the dominant paradigm for action during mass atrocities: international intervention.  While R2P places the primarily responsibility on states, the international community is nonetheless positioned as the final authority on issues of civilian protection.  This approach has many benefits, but suffers from an inherent response gap.  The international community is simply unable to react effectively to every mass atrocity scenario because of structural constraints.  Therefore, most civilians that survive mass atrocities do so with little organized or institutionalized help from anyone beyond their immediate communities.  But exactly how civilians manage this is a severely understudied phenomenon even within the larger (already neglected) subfield of mass violence against civilians.  The lack of empirical work on civilian self-protection makes drawing concrete solutions on how to improve future civilian protection strategies difficult, and therefore a more apt approach combines theory on how mass atrocities function with non-comprehensive empirical work.

There are many schools of thought on why mass atrocities happen and how they work.  Despite the many legitimate points scholars have made over the years, one seems beyond challenge: mass killing is an instrumental process.  For political leaders, mass atrocities serve some other political goal and only occur after other attempts to accomplish the goal fail.  Another point of agreement among scholars is that mass atrocities are much more likely to occur during war; the upheaval caused by war gives extremist leaders a better chance of seizing power.  A point more contested among scholars, but no less convincing, is that beyond the leadership directing mass atrocities, ideology plays only a peripheral role.  Perpetrators of mass atrocities are not bloodthirsty killers, but rather more like, as Christopher Browning termed it, ordinary men.  For the most part, they are more convinced to kill by in-group coercion than ethnic hatred or sadism.

Broadly, there are two types of mass atrocities that commonly occur today: counterinsurgent (COIN) and communal mass atrocities.  Many mass atrocity scenarios, such as the violence we see today in Syria, has an element of both.  Strategies for civilian self-protection are significantly different between COIN and communal mass atrocities.  Therefore, for the purposes of understanding them, categorically separating the two types is necessary despite the potential analytic simplification.

During counterinsurgent mass atrocities, civilians have the best chance of escaping violence by attempting to remove themselves from the conflict.  If they can gain the trust of armed actors that they are not providing information or aid to either side, they may be able to avoid conflict altogether.  During communal mass atrocities, the task is similar, but the tactics are different.  Instead of simply removing themselves, civilians must change the logic that makes them targets in the first place.  Misinformation and social myths are rampant in every communal mass atrocity, and countering these rumors is crucial in preventing the outbreak of violence.  Secondly, leaders manipulate information to whip up ethnic hatred and instigate attacks.  Therefore, either discrediting these leaders or removing them from power can have positive effects.  Research on civilian self-protection during communal mass atrocities is still in its infancy, and scholars could do practitioners a huge hand by emphasizing the topic more in the future.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of instances in which nonviolent, local civilian self-protection strategies don’t work.  Violence during mass atrocities is an escalatory process, and the more entrenched cycles of violence become, the harder it is for civilians to bargain their way out of trouble.  This happens for multiple reasons: the collective action problem intensifies, psychological pressures harden combatants’ violent instincts, and lines of command falter.  Finally, armed groups with inflexible ideological commitments or significant economic incentives are much harder to work with for civilians in mass atrocity contexts.

NGO’s are in an ideal position to improve civilian self-protection strategies because of their ability innovate and their relative lack of institutional constraints.  NGO’s should always seek to work with existing community structures rather than inventing new ones, because in mass atrocity scenarios, nearly every social structure serves a protective purpose.  NGO’s should also be pragmatic, refrain from making moral judgments, and place civilian survival above every other consideration.  NGO’s have the ability to provide and disseminate crucial information communities often lack and should focus their efforts here.  Once civilians have this information, NGO’s should assist civilians in their efforts to protect themselves, but ultimately defer to civilian choices.  Civilian self-protection does not present a comprehensive strategy for ending mass atrocities, but understanding and aiding the process could go a long way in filling the atrocity response gap.

A Blueprint for Local, Nonviolent Responses to Mass Atrocities (Part II)

18 Aug

*This post originally appeared on the Sentinel Project blog.

Separating mass atrocities into categories risks oversimplification, but different response strategies apply to different types of violence.  Therefore, modern-day mass atrocities can broadly be separated into two categories: counterinsurgency (COIN) and communal.  While this division risks empirical oversimplification and many scenarios have elements of both, delineating the two allows for a more concise construction of the logic behind civilian self-protection.

During counterinsurgencies, the flow of information is the central cause of mass atrocities.  Combatants use civilians to gather information about enemy troop movements and the identity of civilian supporters of the opposition.  Because armed actors need this information, but are often unable to verify it independently, civilians have quite a bit of power in determining the strategic use of violence.  This power is often abused.  Kalvyas and Kaplan have both extensively documented how civilians partner with armed actors not because of ideologies, but to settle personal scores.  Fear is also a powerful explanation for civilian cooperation.  Kalyvas argues that physical control by armed groups is a highly influential factor in explaining civilian cooperation, especially as the conflict progresses.  Finally, when armed actors lack information to determine who’s working with the enemy and who’s not, they may resort to indiscriminate violence to intimidate would-be enemy collaborators.  This strategy, however, is not very effective, and so combatants will likely only pursue this strategy when there is a lack of resources to devote to information-gathering.

To counter these issues, there are a few basic measures civilians can take.  Collectively, these measures are most coherently contained within the concept of “Zones of Peace” (ZoP’s).  ZoP’s have been established in varying forms and with varying levels of success around the world.  They rest on the basic principle of civilian non-participation in COIN.  In his study of ZoPs in Colombia, Kaplan lists a few generalizable strategies communities can use: Creating a culture of peace, implementing conflict resolution processes, creating internal investigative bodies that have the trust of armed actors, and naming and shaming.  The first two help prevent civilians from using armed actors to settle disputes, while the second solves the information problem for armed actors.  If combatants on are confident that a certain community is not aiding any armed group, then they are much less likely to target the community.  Finally, the last strategy allows civilians to shame certain armed actors that have committed abuses.  If the guilty parties need to maintain good relations with NGOs, foreign governments, and local civilians, they may refrain from committing atrocities in the future.  One final strategy is for civilians to confront armed groups en masse and demand an end to atrocities.  While confrontation carries a high element of risk, if an armed group is hesitant to kill large numbers of civilians at the same time, it can be effective.

Responding to communal conflict differs from COIN mass atrocity mitigation, but the difference is not as clear as one might think.  In both situations, civilians become the intentional targets of violence as part of a process in which other goals necessitate the use of violence directed against civilians.  One commonly advocated strategy to address communal violence, particularly among studies examining the Holocaust, is to identify societies with deep social cleavages and cultures conducive to mass killing, and then attempt to positively change those elements through public messaging.  However, since explanations focused on pre-existing societal rifts seem to poorly explain why mass atrocities emerge and these rifts are widespread and deeply-rooted in many societies, addressing such issues directly would require huge resources (human, financial, and institutional).  Instead, addressing “hot spots” (as mass atrocities are often committed and directed by a very small group) with contact programs or education aimed at violence-reduction could be effective.  Perpetrators beyond central leaders often have fairly apolitical motives for participating in mass atrocities, with group dynamics being a more important cause.  Therefore, creating an atmosphere in which potential perpetrators feel increased social pressure to not participate mass atrocities could have a positive mitigating effect.  Similarly, the public challenging of perpetrator leaders early in the process of mass atrocities can also reduce violence by creating the political will to withdraw the public complicity necessary to commit large-scale violence.  Communal violence is also often driven by misinformation.  This misinformation helps to create the social myths necessary to justify the killing of others, but it also can create erroneous beliefs about the opponent’s actions or motives.  Initiatives such as the Sentinel Project’s proposed text messaging service in the Tana Delta that would verify the truthfulness of rumors can help stop the spread of false information that leads to violence.

Two other locally-focused strategies that hold promise for mass atrocities violence mitigation are locally-led advanced mobile aid (LLAMA) and localized conflict early warning systems (LCEWS). LLAMA provides, quick, mobile humanitarian aid to communities at risk that are beyond the political, geographic, or temporal reach of traditional aid agencies.  It can also be adapted forcivilian protection in conflict situations.  It can improve information flow to isolated, at-risk communities and provide them with the information and the means to move to lower-risk areas when physical escape is the best option.  LCEWS are another important strategy.  Currently, early warning systems mostly exist at the level of national or international organizations, which according to Barrs, creates the problem that “alerts, bulletins, and reports are sent around the world in real time. Yet they rarely touch ground where the killing happens. They fly through cyberspace, high over the victims’ heads. People at risk on the ground might never learn that the ‘demarches’ we write on their behalf even exist.”  Therefore, localized early warning, especially ones with advanced vertical integration, could greatly improve the flow of information to at-risk communities, allowing them to better assess their options.

Ultimately, there are plenty of strategies out there for nonviolent, local mass atrocities mitigation, but the growing abundance of such studies has been largely ignored by policy makers.  So while policy makers would do well to accept less bureaucratic, nonviolent, and local methods for preventing and responding to mass atrocities, scholars also need to expand this idea theoretically, rather than the conceptually and geographically limited studies that populate the majority of the relevant literature.  A key question still remains: how do perpetrators and victims actually interact?  The dearth of scholarship that addresses this question on the theoretical level is a real shame, and better analysis could seriously improve our understanding of how civilians can protect themselves during mass atrocities.  It’s a question I’d love to see answered as work in this field progresses.

The Gaping Hole in Genocide Scholarship

19 Jul

My thesis topic, nonviolent responses to mass atrocities and genocide, is not the most straight forward.  Few scholars have written about it in depth, and, if I do say so myself, it’s very conceptually difficult.   The idea does pop up frequently in related literature, but it’s almost always dismissed within a paragraph.  Luckily for me, these claims don’t hold much water.

When authors do address nonviolence in response to genocide (as opposed to mass atrocities or civil war violence, which gets more nuanced attention), the standard line is that nonviolence is powerless against an enemy committed to killing a certain group.  In the face of this type of single-minded hate, violence is the only defense.  At first glance, these conclusions make sense, but authors often contradict themselves later in the works where they make these claims.  Two examples here are political scientist Oliver Kaplan’s dissertation on civilian autonomy in Colombia and Chirot and McCauley’s Why Not Kill Them All?  I pick on these two works not because they’re problematic; both works, and Kaplan’s in particular, are great works of scholarship, but they both make the mistake of dismissing nonviolence as a response to genocide.

Kaplan cites Valentino on why civilian resistance to genocide is futile.  He contradicts this, however, by proposing that creating community processes for conflict resolution reduces the chances residents will use armed actors to settle local grudges.  This happened, for example, during the Armenian genocide, when Kurdish tribes allied themselves with the Ottoman Empire to eliminate Armenians.  The same thing happened with Banyamulenge, the Rwandan army, and Congolese Hutu.  Community conflict resolutions processes aren’t a silver bullet for stopping genocide, but they could potentially contribute to a decrease in violence by eliminating community divisions that can be exploited by armed groups with genocidal intentions.  Perhaps an even better example is in Why Not Kill Them All?, where Chirot and McCauley make a similar argument as Valentino.  They examine how “contact programs” and a strong civil society can provide a bulwark against the rise of genocidal ideologies and a fear of the “other” that lead to mass killing.  Both works outline nonviolent strategies that can prevent or mitigate genocide despite their claims to the contrary.

There are two central causes for this inconsistency in works on genocide.  The first is an overly simplistic conception of what stopping genocide entails.  Doing that is a long process that doesn’t commence in the middle of atrocities.  Basically, the authors have forgotten about genocide prevention, most of which is done nonviolently.  Secondly, these dismissals are based on a mistaken interpretation of nonviolence.  Nonviolence in response to genocide is so much more than unarmed civilians physically confronting their would be murderers, because we all agree that wouldn’t be very effective.  Conflict resolution programs, anti-hate education, finding employment for young men, the dissemination of truthful news, and humanizing portrayals of a potential victim group can all be used to prevent genocide (and it’s important to remember that all these strategies can be used after violence has started, because genocide develops gradually, meaning there is no point before which it’s “prevention” and after which it’s “response”).

So yes, it’s very much possible to prevent and respond nonviolently to civil war violence, mass atrocities, and even genocide.  Genocide is not a unique phenomenon, as compared to other types of violence, that only responds to force and not to “reason”.  It’s time modern scholarship accepted that.

Slightly Misdirected in the Complexity

13 Jun

A week ago, Jay Ulfelder came out with a ridiculously insightful column about, of all things, microbiology.  He writes that new interpretive frameworks in microbiology mirror similar advances in the social sciences and quotes a book by Michael Polland:

“But it turns out that the overwhelming majority of bacteria residing in the gut simply refuse to grow on a petri dish—a phenomenon known among researchers as “the great plate anomaly.” Without realizing it, they were practicing what is sometimes called parking-lot science—named for the human tendency to search for lost keys under the streetlights not because that’s where we lost them but because that is where we can best see. The petri dish was a streetlight. But when, in the early 2000s, researchers developed genetic “batch” sequencing techniques allowing them to catalog all the DNA in a sample of soil, say, or seawater or feces, science suddenly acquired a broad and powerful beam light that could illuminate the entire parking lot. When it did, we discovered hundreds of new species in the human gut doing all sorts of unexpected things…To their surprise, microbiologists discovered that nine of every ten cells in our bodies do not belong to us, but to these microbial species (most of them residents of our gut), and that 99 percent of the DNA we’re carrying around belongs to those microbes. Some scientists, trained in evolutionary biology, began looking at the human individual in a humbling new light: as a kind of superorganism, a community of several hundred coevolved and interdependent species. War metaphors no longer made sense.”

He then contextualizes it with what Adam Elkus calls “an extended competitive politics freestyle”:

“I’d say a comparable gestalt shift is occurring in some corners of social science, with similarly dramatic implications. For decades, we’ve cranked out snapshots and diagrams and typologies of objects—states, parties, militaries, ethnic groups—that we’ve assumed to be more or less static and distinct and told just-so stories about how one thing changes into another. Now, we’re shedding those functionalist assumptions and getting better at seeing those objects as permeable superorganisms embedded in ecosystems, all of them continually coevolving in ways that may elude our capacity to narrate, or even to understand at all. The implications are simultaneously thrilling and overwhelming.”

Yesterday, I read Wendy Pearlman’s chapter “Composite-Actor Approach to Conflict Behavior” in the book Rethinking Violence: States and Non-State Actors in Conflict, which provides a good qualitative example of what Ulfelder’s talking about.  Pearlman basically argues that the way we think about political decision making is entirely wrong.  She uses the example of Palestinian resistance to the formation of Israel as a way to sketch-out the composite-actor approach as an alternative.  This interpretive strategy sees political and social groups as non-cohesive, diverse entities.  She argues that placing political movements within the framework of “rational or strategic choice” steamrolls complex internal differences and that the logic of individual rational choice cannot be expanded to groups.  Finally, she writes that because of this fundamental structure of organizations, social scientists shouldn’t be asking what factors cause groups to make certain decisions, but who has the power within organizations to make those decisions, providing a better casual explanation.

This sort of thinking (political systems, patterns of interaction etc.), and perhaps Pearlman’s chapter, will likely form the theoretical basis for my thesis.  I will need to find writing that complicates the mainstream understanding that violence only works in situations with respect for human life, which may not exist in a mass atrocity situation.  While I’m only in the beginning stages of research, it seems to me that the way to accomplish this is to understand how power works on a person-to-person level during conflict.  How can civilians leverage power against armed groups?  Who has power over armed groups that can be leveraged by civilians?  What splits, a la Pearlman, within armed groups, can be identified and exploited by civilians?

In a response to Ulfelder’s post, Adam Elkus slightly complicates the ever-increasing analytic intricacy, supplemented by bigger data, that Ulfelder says is the future, “Ulfelder talks (and I agree) about the problems of binning into binary categories  and reductionist analysis. But binning is an inevitable effect of limited cognitive resources. We face a problem of infinite regress without binning, since—without buying into hippy-dippy Gaia hypothesis nonsense—the entire planet can be considered a system. And so and so on. So we have to bin more wisely.”

Even Pearlman runs into this problem.  While she does a fantastic job of describing the complexities of the Palestinian movement, her discussion of Jewish and British responses to Palestinian actions is decidedly non-complex.  She doesn’t identify the different actors within either, and Palestinians simply react to general actions of the two parties, rather than forming a political system with the other inhabitants of Palestine.  This critique is not meant to discredit Pearlman, however.  Her chapter was more on the composite-actor theory rather than Palestine in 1947, and therefore her analytic approach makes sense.  It does however, point to the issue Elkus highlights.  Had Pearlman attempted to treat Palestine as the complex political system it was, and identify all the actors within each general group, the chapter would have lost much of its theoretical clarity.  However, the “binning” that Pearlman did led to a less rigorous analysis of pre-Israel Palestine.  This is inevitably something I will face as I begin the writing process.  I need to understand local-level violence manifestations and power relations, but when will that analysis distract from the geopolitics I also need to understand.  In other words, how complex is too complex?  How can I successfully “jump levels”, as George Lakey termed in, from the local to the national to the global, and propose solutions that work on all three?

Hopefully I can answer my own rhetoricals at the end of the summer.

*As with any posts that relate to my thesis, readers should feel free to leave any suggestions in the comments.  Any help is sincerely appreciated.

Challenges of Studying Nonviolence and Conflict

12 Jun

I started my internship with the Sentinel Project Monday.  This means two things: 1) I’ve started doing research for my thesis which will also produce a set of policy recommendations for SP and 2) I have more time to blog regularly.  I knew my thesis topic, which will attempt to address the question “Is it possible to respond nonviolently to mass atrocities, and if so, how?”, would be challenging, simply because there is so little written on the topic.  And when I say “so little”, I mean basically nothing.  Therefore, I’ve quickly realized that much of my thesis will be aggregation and synthesis, rather than critiquing existing works on the subject and proposing slightly different theories (read some great, tangentially related, articles though).  Of course there’s plenty of work on nonviolence, civil wars, mass atrocities, and political conflict, but, perhaps because peace studies is a new field of study, few academic works link nonviolence, civilian protection, and political violence.  Most nonviolence literature deals with civilian attempts to overthrow governments, but fails to see civilians as active actors unless they participate in a social movement with a specific, macropolitical goal.  In his article on civilian nonviolent self-protection in Colombia, political scientist Oliver Kaplan underlines this problem nicely:

“Despite anecdotes of effectiveness and the buoyancy of activists, this literature on civilian movements remains under-theorized, without specifying causal mechanisms, or processes by which organized civilian resistance might affect substantively interesting outcomes. The causal ‘force’ of civilians has not been made falsifiable or comparatively evaluated against the positivist, macropolitical explanations of violence. As a result we have been unable to discern whether the effects of civilian social cohesion and organization in wartime are epiphenomenal to – derivative of – armed groups’ interests (as Kalyvas suggests they are). It is for good reason then that in Kalyvas’s (2006: 110) passing discussion of local committees in conflict zones he observes, ‘We know little about how they actually operate.’” ”

This theoretical gap means that the next step in nonviolence literature should be to understand how civilians interact with armed actors during conflict to protect themselves, but unfortunately, a theoretical study isn’t out there yet (or at least I haven’t found it).  Oliver Kaplan’s article (linked to above) is a good start, but even then, his work focuses on civil wars, where civilians are not the primary target.  In the community he studied in Colombia, civilians experienced violence when they participate, or are believed to have participated, on one side or the other of the civil war.  While even that distinction did little to protect civilians before a community association was formed, that thin buffer does not exist in situations where civilians are the target of large-scale violence.  Understanding how individuals can nonviolently protect themselves in these situations is the gap I need to fill with my thesis.

*If any readers have any suggestions on reading or approaches I could take, please feel free to leave them in the comments.