Category Archives: Ethnic Conflict

Finally a full stop to the (in)famous greed vs. grievance debate: Lars-Erik Cederman, Kristian Skrede Gleditsch and Halvard Buhaug (2013) Inequality, Grievances, and Civil War, New York: Cambridge UP.


This book will hopefully set an end to the deeply fatigued and flawed debate about Paul Collier’s  and Anke Hoeffler’s claim that grievances do not matter for the outbreak of violent conflicts. Its epistemology is the same as Collier and Hoeffler’s, that is the book is situated in the behaviouralist research paradigm. It therefore can hardly be brushed away as ‘non-scientific’ as it uses exactly those scientising tools that are now so popular in the Journal of Peace Research. We have categories, variables (dependent and independent, of course), causal mechanisms and datasets with a lot of numbers, a nicely constructed research design and pretty proofs of hypotheses (including some francy graphs which are most useful for teaching) . And grievances matter. Full stop. Yeah.

Yet… this book also has everything that makes behaviouralist research so boring: a  lack of critical and reflexive discussion of categories, terms and notions; a superficial, opportunistic and partial reading of sociological, historical and anthropological literature; a couple of sweeping claims which would be almost funny if they weren’t so ideologized western-centric — for instance the claim: “In the new era of national self-determination and popular sovereignty that followed after the American and French revolutions in the late eighteenth century, it become increasingly difficult and costly to conquer territory, let alone to control it against the will of the local population” (pos. 986 in my kindle version) – to say the least, this is a very unusual way of describing the century of empire and colonialism….

And of course the study suffers from the greatest weakness of behaviouralist research, namely findings which are absolutely unsurprising for everyone who knows from zillions of case studies and historical literature that ‘civil wars are not a stupid thing’ as Cramer said so nicely in his book.

What do we learn from this study? If there are objective inequalities in a society and if there are ethno-national cleavages along which these inequalities run, if these inequalities are aptly exploited by the state, for instance by consistently maintaining discriminating and excluding policies, and if the groups can be mobilised through discoursive frames that pitch ethnic groups against each other or against the state, we have a situation with salient grievances. In such a situation there is an increased likelihood of armed and violent conflict. Bam!  What a truly revolutionary insight.

Now, to be fair, within the paradigm of behaviouralist research this book reformulats these insights most astutely and takes refreshingly new approaches to number crunching. It is, hence,  able to set an end to the (in)famous debate over greed vs. grievances by showing that economic fortunes of populations are closely interrelated with their political standing and that this in turn shapes their preparedness for violent politics. It allows for a multi-layered and hence somewhat more complex reconstruction of pathways to rebellion than those that this kind of research had produced before where mountains or oil where identified as causing violent politics. It reintroduces politics into the equation and it tries at least to account for processual developments and change. The latter tentative is inherently limited and restricted by the rigidity of quantitative models – there is simply a point where a category has to be fixed and a time span has to be defined consistently across many cases.

The research also has a take on a couple of questions, which this type of research had, up to now, rarely asked. It formulates ideas and hypotheses about the role of emotions, hence departing from the debilitating rigidity of the rational actor model. Indeed, the authors identify emotions as being the essential ‘jigsaw puzzle piece’ that connects objective grievances with the mobilisation of groups through discursive frames.

It also, and this is really something quite unusual for this kind of research, attempts to conceptualize conflicts as relational process. The authors conceptualize conflict process as conditioned by social relations first by taking into account group dynamics. This goes together with their emphasis on emotions and the consecutive departure from methodological individualism. Here, individuals and potential rebels behave in certain ways because they are members of groups, because others are important: their sympathy, their gaze and their feelings, good or bad.

Second, they conceptualize conflict processes as relational as they formulate a ping-pong of action and reaction between the adversary groups, or between the adversary group and the state or what the authors call “the interactive logic of claims and counterclaims issued by challengers and incumbents” (pos. 1352). The study makes extremely good use of social movements literature and this section in particular relies heavily on Jeff Goodwin’s “No other way out”. Yet, their relational thinking also finds its inherent limitation through the behaviouralist research design in which processes have to be linear and progressive to be measurable in order to avoid endogeity problems or reverse causation.

And so in the end, the study’s analysis does not go much beyond the already existing qualitative literature on grievances and violent conflict. Its central piece, the new data set of ‘Ethnic Power Relations’ offers a tool for bringing about the behaviouralist, measured proofs of what much of the qualitative case studies have already argued before (notably those quoted by the authors like Wood’s case study of El Salvador or Jeff Goodwin’s comparative case studies) and it is, surely, an achievement in itself. The dataset is certainly helpful for studies on power-sharing mechanisms and can serve well for practitioners interested in conflict prevention. It is a fine example of applied science in social science and conflict research.

Yet, in terms of understanding the how and why of conflicts the study still leaves many more questions open than it answers. First, the conflicts identified by the authors are only a small section of all armed conflicts the world has witnessed in the past decades. Notably, a large number of those conflicts which have shocked the world public most like the war in Sierra Leone or Liberia, the conflict in Somalia, large parts of the conflicts in the Congo are not considered. They obviously fit the overall framework as the authors’ focus on ethno-national groups is determined by the fact that they only have data for these groups but not by their framework.

Second, the framework is too general and unspecific to provide insights into the concrete why and how. Where do those elites come from who frame inequalities as grievances? How are these frames transmitted? How does the interaction with other groups interfere with these framing processes? Are framers, mobilizers and fighters a homogenous group or do internal divisions exist and what effect does this have, for instance on radicalization or, on the contrary, pacification? What is the role of layered and clustered identities and how do they affect mobilisation processes? These are just a couple of questions that remain unanswered by this book.

Third, the book suffers like most of this literature from its definitory focus on government-rebel group conflicts. In many social conflicts, the target of the rebellious group is not forcibly the state or the government (the RUF being a case in point as their interest in capturing the state seems to have been relatively low, see Peters).  Nation-state borders and official governments might also be simply irrelevant (blatant cases of non-existing governments like in Somalia for instance) or their involvement might be hardly recognisable in conflicts. Indeed, as Duffield pointed out some time ago in his book “Global Governance and New Wars”, many current conflicts might be better understood as conflicts over different forms of political organisation and community than those traditionally understandable with the nation-state goggles on.

In sum, the book makes an important contribution to the debate within the behaviouralist paradigm as it uses behaviouralist tools to demonstrate some of the conflict processes that have already been well analysed in the qualitative literature. It does not go beyond this as the behaviouralist paradigm does not allow delving into deep with the messy, contradictory, spiralling and irremediably non-linear social processes of conflict. Yet, as hopefully final word on the question whether the importance of grievances can be measured and therefore ‘count’, it has a brilliant place to take. It also reveals a long row of questions that still seek answers but which are unlikely to find them in this kind of quantitative analysis.

Oh, and it certainly desserves a brownie point for being one of the rare studies of this kind which locates the causes of the Croatian war, among others, in the discriminatory policies of the Tudjman regime and the Kraijna Serbs’ reaction to these, and not firstly in Serbian ‘barbarism’.







Counting ethnic groups…


… seems in many respects an unhelpful way to start thinking about ethnic conflict and, yet, if we want to gain some clarity about the conditions of ethnic escalations a large cross-country comparison still seems a necessary step. Indeed, there are some, although very few intelligent analyses of ethnic conflict that use quantitative data. Yet, the main problem remains that in order to count ethnic groups we have to assume that these groups exist with clear boundaries, a thick homogeneity within and clear distinctions without. We also assume that in multi-ethnic societies, the ethnic cleavages are the most important cleavages, for whatever reason, and that they, per se, generating conflict. In short, we reify ethnic groups and conflicts — which is, to say it again, a risky and epistemologically dubious enterprise.

However, much of the quantitative research on ethnic conflict cannot avoid assuming reified groups in order to have individual, distinct datapoints. Such analysis can make sense if a conflict already exists and the works of Nils B. Weidmann, Jan Ketil Rød and Lars-Erik Cederman or Andreas Wimmer, Lars-Erik Cederman and Brian Min shows how to make intelligent use of such datasets on the background of careful relational, sociological analyses of ethnicity and ethnification processes (see particularly Andreas Wimmer‘s work).  A number of data projects have developed the dataset on the basis of the Atlas Narodov Mira, an ethnographic atlas, picturing ethnic boundaries across the world. The atlas was established by Soviet geographers and ethnologists in the 1960s. On which grounds, with which sources, with which criteria … all this remains obscure. These methodological problems have often been noted, however, this has not kept researchers from using the Atlas as source for databases on ethnic groups (quite often by the same who have criticized the lack of methodology). This weakness is quite striking and even to some point ludicrulous given the claim of statistic analysis to provide objective analyses with a high certainty. The common aura of statistics is that what is countable is “true”….even if the apples that are counted might be the pure invention of a hungry mind.

This obscurity of the original data source was all the more annoying for the academic community as the Atlas Narodov Mira is difficult to come by. But now, the worldmap project of the University of Harvard, provides a digital map of the Atlas Narodov. Even though the access to the map is not really what one could call user-friendly, it allows having a closer look at the ethnic divisions the Atlas notes and to compare these with other data on ethnicity. And here the trouble starts: the project has decided to render the maps without legend. So it remains entirely unclear which groups are counted as what. For instance, the Southern China border with Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar shows the miniscule patchwork structure that anyone who knows the region would expect. But then, it is totally unclear whether for instance the Mao (in China) and Mhong (in Vietnam) are counted as one and the same group (as some claim them to be) or as different groups, and if so as how many and different in which respect? If one wants to do comparative quantitative analyses of ethnicity and conflict…for instance in order to introduce a dynamic view of ethnic constructions….then this person would be ill served by the digital map and, most probably, its source the Atlas Narodov Mira. But probably that is the merit of this project: it shows the poverty of the data source and draws attention to the necessity of a much more serious, honest and critical discussion on the methods of conflict analysis.