Category Archives: Social order

Empathetic reflexivity as data collection method


Winter holiday is time to read the books that do not fit easily into the research and teaching agenda yet promise some new insights. This year’s reading was no exception: Pierre Bourdieu’s “Esquisse pour une auto-analyse”  which made me think through a number of questions about data collection for conflict analysis. This autobiographic non-autobiography is another tentative of the French sociologist to explain his approach to social sciences, this time by referring to his intellectual and academic trajectory. He notably explains in length his early (intellectual) struggle as young “normalien” (graduate of France’s prestigious grande école Ecole Normale Supérieure) against the grand authorities of the time, and particularly his ambiguous relationship to Claude Lévi-Strauss’ works which he admires for their pioneering character but also sharply criticizes for their epistemological and, hence, methodological premises.

Commonly, Bourdieu’s criticism is understood to have been directed against Lévi-Strauss’ scientistic naturalism for its rigid structuralist thought…and, yes, in this sense Bourdieu can certainly be called a “post-structuralist”. Yet, it is less the naturalism of Lévi-Strauss that is at stake but the ahistorical and unreflective take on societies against which Bourdieu argues. Bourdieu most certainly does not share any so-called post-modern arguments about the utter contigency of society which leaves us with pure phenomenologist thunder and aw. He does argue that social behaviour follows patterns and rules, yet these are historically specific and need to be analysed empirically. He upholds this epistemological position for two reasons: one, because he ascertains that any social situation is fundamentally shaped by power and the particularity of power is exactly that it shapes, determines, limits and enables human behaviour — the sociologist’s task is to analyse these shapes, determinations, limits and abilities and to do so we need to know also the subjective side of power, how power is perceived (or not), used (or not), expanded (or not), diminished (or not) and the effects these power games have on body and mind of individuals, groups adn entire societies.

Second, assuming in a positivist manner fundamental laws of society poses a major epistemological problem, namely the question how we, as researchers and observers, can know, understand, think and talk about these laws to which we would be, logically, also subject. We would have to be able to step through the looking glass and make us as observer disappear in another world (which we know from Alice is a paradox by itself) OR we assume that WE are fundamentally different from THEM. Bourdieu argues that Lévi-Strauss had chosen the latter option, hence, “a vision of the social world based on the denial of the social” as Bourdieu puts it (Esquisse pour une auto-analyse, p. 62) by representing his objects of analysis as preserved in a historical, social, political and cultural vacuum, unconscious of the world around them and ready-made aesthetic, museal objects. The counter argument Bourdieu makes is that the world is not stuck in an eternal variation of the same theme (like we would be running up and down Esher’s staircase) but evolving, changing and moving because individuals, groups and societies do, subjectively, deal with those objective structures of which they are part. Once we admit this, we also have to admit that we, the observers, are part of this “game”. Instead of denying our integration into the subjective living of objective structures, we should rather use this awareness as source of understanding of and knowledge about the social world.

If Bourdieu’s argument would be taken for granted on this very basic level of thought, one could misread him as pleading for an empiricist sociology. Yet, Bourdieu draws on a huge philosophical fund when he negotiates the relationship between the empirical and theoretical, the subjective and objective, his main reference being the French philosopher Pascal (Méditations pascaliennes) and the German “idealist” Emmanuel Kant. Put in a nutshell, he refuses to accept the distinction between the empirical and ideational world and challenges the common argument that one cannot analyse both at the same time (Loic Wacquant has nicely written about the ways Bourdieu bridges the empirical/theoretical and objective/subjective divide here). For the analysis of armed and violent conflict this throws up a row of interesting challenges, and it does so first of all for the questions what exactly should be empirically observed and this question does not only concern the problem whether large or small phenomena should be observed (already discussed in this post) but also what about the conflict needs to be observed.

Taking Bourdieu’s critique seriously one will stumble and fall when trying to identify “causal mechanisms”. Whatever the mutual constitution and influence of agent and structure is, it will hardly be a linear one of an independent variable A having an effect on a dependent variable B, maybe (or not) transformed by intervening variable Z. Not only does the idea of linear causal mechanisms exclude any possibility of reflexive “loops”, it also ignores the idea of mutual constitution (so the acceptance of the fact that one cannot know whether the hen or the egg were first), it denies the freedom of subjective alteration and transformation, it disregards the historicity of structures and it denies the freedom of subjective alteration and transformation of these. Yet, much of the current conflict analysis is still preoccupied with “causal mechanisms” despite the fact that research of the past ten years has shown that there are too many, that they are too unspecified and that there are barely “provable”.

This is particularly evident in the behaviouralist approaches to the influence of economic conditions on war which has been particularly prone to arguing in terms of “causal mechanisms”. Yet, it is the proliferation of hypothetical causal mechanisms that has made this research area one of the most frustrating in civil war analysis. Despite increasing efforts of collecting data, the major neglect of context and complex causalities has produced an erratic variety of “maybe” explanations. Ross for instance identifies five causal mechanisms which could explain the relationship between resource wealth and onset of war ; Humphreys indentifies six “families” of causal mechanisms how natural resources set off civil wars, and another seven families for causal mechanisms how natural resources impact on the duration of conflicts. None of these bundles of causal mechanisms has ever been systematically tested, probably because they are much too complex for linear regression models; particularly if more than two variables have to be assumed of influencing each other dynamically.

Unsurprisingly, this strand of research has not produced any conclusive insights about how economic structures shape the likelihood of collective violence, rebellion or war. Michael Ross’ work is examplary for this: In his early works, swimming in the streamline of Collier and Hoeffler’s greed model, he found a significant relationship between resources that can easily be looted  so which excluded for instance oil. Two years later, he finds that oil wealth is correlated with a risk of war as is wealth in diamonds and gas if a different regression model and different data is used. He then, in his most recent book, again belittles the risk of oil as triggering factor for civil wars alltogether, stating “When oil-producing states fall prey to civil war, oil is never the only factor; it is sometimes not even the most important factor” (145). In this strand of research, whether oil is important for the onset or the duration of conflicts does not depend on what people make out (or don’t make out) of oil wealth but on the data rows the researcher uses.

Yet, asking these questions is, again, not enough as I have argued in my post on Weinstein’s and Humphreys’ ill conceived survey of former combattants in Sierra Leone. It is how you ask questions. Peters summarizes this very concisely in his study of young fighters in Sierra Leone when he asserts the necessity for an empathetic encounter which takes the subjective understandings, thoughts and feelings of the object of analysis seriously. However, Peters’ book also epitomizes the practical and methodological difficulties of such research: it requires extremely good knowledge of the society under investigation, including language skills, and access to the population that is observed over a longer period and based on trust and, at least in parts, intimate knowledge of what Charles Tilly called “local scripts”. Most of the literature that provides deep insights into civil wars like Elliotts “Vietnamese War”, Wood’s “Insurgent collective action” or Mats Utas’ “Sweet Battlefields” are the result of years if not decades of work within the communities. Of course these difficulties exist for all deep sociological work, but in cases of collective violence they are aggravated by the sheer brutality of conflicts, the strain their observation puts on the observer who might become witness to extreme cases of violence and who, in any case, will have to take note of the devastation of wars.

Instances of collective violence are furthermore particularly difficult to define and delimit (see my post on Syria) as these rarely take place in all the territory and covering the totality of the population. As Charles Tilly already noted in 1969, collective violence is a particularly ill-bounded social phenomenon, and all tentatives to establish clear definitional boundaries to the categories of violent events observed necessarily allows the influx of normative theorizing about political authority, its legitimacy and the legitimacy of contesting and protesting against it. The risk of being thwarted by the phenomenon observed is clearly recognizable in Carolyn Nordstrom’s work which presents masses of empirical materials, asks extremely well formulated and challenging questions but gives only very little answers or conclusions.

Furthermore, going into the field cannot and must not be the only way to collect data as this would make all historical research futile. Bourdieu himself was, indeed, very critical of history as science (although one might say that this has been ascerbated by the French media/academic context and that most of these debates are rather personal feuds). When dealing with the reported experience and sources, reflexivitiy becomes not only an ethical requirement but an epistemological necessity. There is no language, no experience and no concept that is not shaped by social domination and none has a meaning per se. Only if we ask ourselves what we understand by the words we use and how we understand how others use them, are we able to decipher those social structures of meaning that “make” the world. Empathy is essential but not sufficient; reflexive empathy is necessary if we want to grasp the full meaning of people’s thoughts, motivations, actions and words.

This said, the idea of “authentic” voices, sources or, more generally, data becomes critical. In fact, such “authentic” data does not exist per se; it is interpreted as such by the observer (and then, of course, not “authentic” anymore). In order to show the own meaning that subjects concede to their world, the observer has to render their words “authentically” (e.g. verbatim, as Bourdieu chose to do in La misère du monde) yet these same words also need contextualisation, analysis, dissection and critical examination (in the Kantian sense of “critique” as proof, test, check etc.). Writing about these experiences, rendering subjective thoughts and critically discussing them in the light of objective regularities becomes a challenge of scientific inquiry in its own right.

For conflict analysis this means that we do not forcibly need “more” and “new” data and the tendency, that can be observed particularly in US research, to accumulate more and more interview hours, surveys, datasets etc. is actually detracting the observer’s critical sense from a deep analysis of meaning. Yet, for meaning we need a deep understanding of contexts and this is rather often lacking. We can find for instance dozens and dozens of surveys on about any aspect of the life of Bosnians during and after the war, but we have very little critical, contextual and reflexive-empathetical literature on the lives of Yugoslavs before the war. The same can be said for other societies up to the point that a colleague who is a specialist on Algeria had the one 2013 new year’s resolution of “breaking the 1962 barrier” (i.e. wanting to write a history of Algeria AFTER 1962).

A critical and reflexive-empathetic treatment of data also opens another way of data collection as much more than the politically spoken and written word can become a source once it is reasonably interpretable as expression of meaning. Even the observer’s own experiences may become a source of understanding if they are systematically, critically and empathetically reflected in the context of the analysis. Participant observation hence obtains an epistemological importance that positivist approaches cannot grant.




War and the Crisis of Youth in Sierra Leone, by Krijn Peters


With his book “War and the Crisis of Youth in Sierra Leone”, Krijn Peters presents an analysis that is exceptional by the materials it presents, intelligent by the way it uses the material and full of marvelous insights about the motivations and reasons why young people would not only take up arms but also commit horrendous atrocities as RUF fighters and others did in the Sierra Leonean war. For this reason alone, Peters’ book is precious and rare in the literature on civil wars, a diamond one would be tempted to say if this book would not make so brutally clear what a curse diamonds and its economy have been for Sierre Leone.

The book is a major contribution to research on armed conflict and most particularly on child soldiering as Peters manages to carve out the motivations of the combatants for joining and staying with the RUF. He reconstructs the internal organisation of this movement which has remained rather obscure and been subject to quite some phantasms, and he has found sensible explanations for the atrocities committed by RUF rebels, mainly in the second half of the 1990s. With this work that builds on former publications (some with Paul Richards) Peters successfully debunks the myth of a disemparaged youth run wild. He replaces it with a differentiated, fine grained and sensitive portrait of the mainly rural underclass of Sierra Leonean society that was surely out to take its revenge for the injustice and (violent) exploitation it had experienced before but which also pursued a project of a better society as any respectable revolutionary movement. Such a perceptive analysis is rare in war studies and particularly when it comes to organisations like the RUF which have made headlines for their brutal violence. Peters painstakingly pieces together interviews on a large range of topics.

The analysts of wars in Africa who actually go and talk to those who fought the war are few. There are a number of reasons for this: ongoing wars are particularly unpleasant fields of research, not only for the dangers they represent but also for the logistic and communicative difficulties of these environments: people engaged in armed combat are likely to have other things on their mind than talking to academics; the discussions one can have in war will most probably be fully subjected to the emotional and intellectual exceptionality of wars and might therefore not give further insights into the larger picture.

Krijn Peters is well aware of all these difficulties and the materials he collected as well as his presentation reflect the tremendous care he has taken to deal with the fallacies of doing research in these situations. Just like Mats Utas argues in his marvelous “Sweet Battlefields“, he contends that standard interviews or polls will not lead very far with these young people (Mats Utas admits that his method was “deep hanging out” with the ex-fighters and that this was a much better, complete and honest information source than the over 100 hours of formal interviews he did with youngsters in a demobilisation programme). The former combattants are far too experienced in delivering standard narratives to curious folks whether from NGOs, state agencies, media or academia. They also might have personal, psychological and reputational interests in not presenting their own story but what they assume others want to hear; Peters and Utas make this point particularly clear for the question of abduction. Although abducted, many young people might have, or actually, have chosen to stay with the armed groups they fell prey to. Whether this is the effect of brainwashing, of the Stockholm syndrome or the not unlikely discovery that, in the end, the abductees found something genuine positive in their new roles is something only careful interviewing over a long period of time can tell. Representativity of the the interview sample is, in this case, less important than getting into deep with the former combattants and just like Utas, Peters chose to follow “his” informants over a longer period of time in order to peel off the upper superficial layers of standard narratives and discourses. He nevertheless keeps his critical distance, true to his initial statement that “empathy does not mean sympathy”.

The care he has taken to choose his interview partners, to follow them over a longer period and especially to come back in well paced intervalls shows in the wealth of insights he produces from these sources. He is thus able to correct a number of received ideas about rebels and child soldiers in general and the fighters of the Sierra Leonean Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in particular. With respect to recruitment, he makes a plausible case that the RUF mainly recruited from rural poor, and here from the lowest social stratum, namely young men (mainly) who lacked patronage networks to protect them from exploitation in villages or mining areas: orphans, “foreigners”, descendants from former house slaves and similar social groups. He explains internal cohesion of the movement partly with this common origin and the replacement of a hierarchical, class-based and gerontocratic social structure of the Sierra Leonean countryside by a meritocratic one in the rebel movement. In the RUF recruits could gain position and respect through their fighting; even if not spellt out in sophisticated and intellectual-theoretical terms such a “base socialism” provided important ideological ferment for the RUF. Ideology also translated into praxis with the creation of communal farms and the communal organisation of mining. Peters thus amasses evidence against a common thesis that movements like the RUF was void of political vision, just as he makes plainly clear that material incentives played overall a minor role in the motivation of the fighters, in the origins of the rebellion and in its internal organisation. For those used to the standard narrative of a “lumpen youth” (as Abdullah calls them) run wild, Peters conclusion will come as a surprise that “the movement had a set of rules and regulations and a guiding ideology which it sought to instil in its fighters during their training period”.

In the fifth chapter Peters actually provides a deep analysis of the causes for the atrocious violence deployed by, and this is an important qualification of his study, some RUF fighters and some points in time during the 12-year war and in some places. In previous chapters, Peters had explained at length the decentralized “cell” character of the movement which made consistent organisational training, monitoring and control extremely difficult, particularly during the “bush” years. This may account for the lack of discipline within the RUF but does not yet explain the actrocities committed (note that any war is brutal, the particularity here being the “specialisation” in certain types of violence like the amputation for which the RUF had gained its image as new barbarians in the onwatching world). Peters advances two sets of reasons and causes for the violence of the RUF: external influences and internal organisational dysfunctions. Among the external influences he notes that many of the atrocities committed in the early stage of war were so by Liberian fighters. This early stage settled the reputation of the RUF and the brutal repression of the rebellion by the army  (although ineffective) seem to have distanced the RUF from its natural constituency, hence, making violent antagonism between the RUF and villages escalate. Peters argues that this led to a strong paranoia among the RUF which was carried on into later phases of war and became particularly virulent in the phase after 1997 when the RUF took the bushes again. Internally, two organisational features supported the development of such paranoia and reinforced the key role particularly violent individuals could play. The RUF was organised in cells with flat hierarchies; in the beginnings, there were ony two military ranks and platoons were small. In this jungle guerilla warfare, paranoic suspicion towards civilians was actually an assett as it contributed to the group’s safety. With the rise and success of self-defense militias which would hunt down the RUF in the jungle, this paranoia became reinforced and was not mediated by a larger command or organisational movement. The second effect of this guerrilla organisation was that particularly “wicked”, i.e. violent individuals were not only difficult to control and punish for their behaviour, their aggressiveness might even be useful for the protection of the individual RUF platoons and therefore go unpunished despite the movement having a set of rules that prohibit unnecessary violence, rape and looting.

It is a pity that Peters does not engage with any of the theories of violence currently en vogue. Weinstein’s binomic and path-dependent distinction between low resource movements, who would engage in ideological training rather than loot and indiscriminate violence, from high resource organisations which will maintain adherence of fighters through lucrative material booty, does not fit at all to Peters’ descriptions. Kalyvas’ argument that indiscriminate violence will increase if territorial control, information and the loyalty of the population are contested fits Peters’ account much better. Yet, just as Elliott’s study of the Vietcong/Vietminh shows neither the material nor strategic or ideological position of these groups can fully explain how and which form of violence they employed. It appears from these two studies rather that the dynamics of violence in civil wars is also strongly determined by inner-organisational developments. For further research this is probably the most important conclusion from Peters book.

With respect to child or young soldiers, Peters book introduces also an important observation that is all too often missing from other accounts on child soldiering, namely that child soldiering is more frequent and more likely to happen if the youth that is recruited into the rebel movement had been already widely marginalised before; and that these young men take mature and responsible decisions despite their age. The latter leads us to having to rethink our understanding of childhood and youth as times of irresponsibility and immaturity. Rather, these young people have to be considered and their actions have to be analyzed within the social tissue of which they are part.



Child soldiering as cheap option? Bernd Beber and Chris Blattman on child soldiering.


Carl von Clausewitz was 13 years old when he served as Lance Corporal in the Prussian Army. Napoleon was 10 years old when he was admitted to the Military Academy at Brienne-le-Chateau.  Childsoldiers, both. But certainly not the kind of child soldiers Bernd Beber and Chris Blattman are thinking of with their model of child soldier recruitment. The data they  use to construct their model is, in fact, derived from a survey of former child soldiers of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army and is preoccupied with explaining child soldier recruitment in Africa. As true economists they propose a model to explain child soldiering in which child soldiering is the cheap option…sounds simple but, as so often, it is not really and it is, additionally, not entirely convincing.

Their model is, indeed, a bit slopsided: they assume that child soldiers are not as effective as adult soldiers. For a rational, utility-maximizing leader it is therefore, normally, not sensible to recruit child soldiers. However, if the difficulties of retaining rebels in the group are taken into account it is, in the end, cheaper and easier to forcibly recruit children  because the use of indoctrination as well as the impunity with which they can coerce children to stay with them makes it easier to retain them than adult soldiers. This is the case if children have few or no alternatives, i.e. they cannot run away and there is no prospect of being protected by the state. So far so good. What remains quite murky is their argument that children are less effective soldiers than adults and that therefore their recruitment is puzzling. Hinging upon this argument is their argument about the use of violence and the ensuing policy recommendations…it is therefore worthwhile to discuss this assumption a bit more.

Why should child soldiers be less effective than adults? Beber and Blattman suggest that they are physically not strong enough to make good soldiers  if compared to a 21-year old. But.. it is actually questionable that a 21-old is so much stronger than a 14-year old if we consider the physical lives people have in these countries. Of course, a 21-year old is strong, and probably still stronger than a 14-year old…yet, what is interesting about 14-year old  boys in these countries is that they are strong, too, that they are enduring, used to hard physical labour and certainly in the physical shape to do all what a soldier needs to do, yet, on top of that, they are malleable, easily compliant and, hence, easier to control.  All this together makes them actually a much more attractive recruit than a 21-year old!

Whereas in the US it is certainly true that a wimpy kid cannot outperform a college freshman, this is can be mainly explained by the long lifespan in industrialized countries where physical labour has largely disappeared and physical force is built up mainly during adolescence through leisure sports. But this is not how physical capabilities develop in rural societies in Africa. In Uganda (and other countries with high incidence of child soldiering and child labour like Sierra Leone or Liberia) life expectancy oscillates around 50 years, in Sierra Leone and Liberia, two other countries where child soldiering was rampant, life expectancy before the wars was even lower: 43.1 (1980) and  43.8 (1980)  respectively. If we apply a simple development model of let’s say 30% of a life being childhood, 60% being a parent and 10% being old, we can see that childhood is over at the age of 10 in most of these countries. The short life expectancy also shifts the normal curb of peak performance capacities. If these are between the age of 24-28 in olympic sports among sportsmen of industrialized countries with an average life expectancy of 76 years, they are more likely to be around the age of 14-17 with a life expectancy of 50 years.

Such estimates are rather plausible if we consider additionally that rural children start working in household and farming at a very early age. If a Liberian, Sierra Leonean or Ugandan man of rural origin reaches the age of 21, he is likely to have physically worked for 15 years, hence, rather have the physcial strength and healthiness of a 35-year old in an industrialized country, or even older given the hardship of the labour he did (and malnutrition and diseases). All this considered, a 21-year old might still be stronger than a 14-year old, yet, the 14-year old is of such physical strength and endurance that it makes perfect sense to “engage” child soldiers, particularly adolescent boys  — as the authors’ own survey confirms, stating that 14-year olds were three times as likely to be abducted by the LRA than 9-year olds!

This holds particularly true if we consider that adolescents in most rural areas are already holding crucial roles in pastoring or farming, hence, that they constitute already an important part of the workforce. If we assume that children are exactly attractive because they are strong enough to be enduring  soldiers then they cannot be cheap…everyone, the farmer and the rebel leader, are in fact competing over the resource of strong and healthy boys. As a central pillar of rural labour, boys and young men would not be released into the army or a rebel group unless the family or patron would be appropriately compensated. For rebel groups it makes therefore perfect sense to abduct these children rather than having to pay for them. Abduction happens because strong and healthy children are a valuable resource in rural areas of these countries.

But what about the retainment argument of Beber and Blattman? Even abducted, or especially when abducted, the retainment of child soldiers remains problematic. In Beber’s and Blattman’s model, violence mainly serves the purpose of penalizing “bad” behaviour of the recruits and it is cheaper to use violence than to propose positive incentives… as long as the children have no or very few outside options (like running away or alternatives outside the rebel group). This argument fits well also if we assume that child soldiers have been abducted because they are better fighters than adults. Actually, it fits even better as it can explain also very specific types of violence which are characteristic for situations in which child soldiers are involved,  like attacks against the village and family of the child soldier, forcing them to kill their kin or committing taboo violations like “desecrat(ing) bodies” as described by Beber and Blattman. This violence barrs the children’s return to their village and family, hence, increases the retainment with the rebel group.

But if the family or village  is not killed, why don’t they always and by all means try to get their children back? Here, again, Beber’s and Blattman’s assumption about the outside options appear not to be thought through thoroughly and considering what we know from ethnographic research about rural African societies. Beber and Blattman argue that outside options would be the possibility that the rebel leader will be penalized by an external actor for abducting and violating the children and that, given the absence of the state or international powerful actors in these wars, this outside option is more or less nil. What Beber and Blattman do not consider is the outside option of society: the extremely strong stigma on the children (especially girls) and the fact that most of these children have been already on the lowest scale of the village’s social hierarchy — despite (or because) their value in rural work.

The low social status of children in African rural society can, indeed, be functionally explained by their crucial role as work force. As the strongest elements of the rural society their potential power has to be in check. Elder-based social hierarchies with clearly defined strata and positions (usually sanctioned by corresponding communitarian rituals, ceremonies, initiation rites etc.)  and refined patron-client structures within families (mind that most of the child soldiers were actually foster children) are excellent social means to keep the young, strong and potentially rebellious in their place. Physical punishment, and rather brutal physical punishment, of children has therefore often been explained by the disciplinary necessity to keep children and particularly young men in exactly their social position.  It might therefore very well be that for these children it does not matter whether they are being physically punished and having to work heavy duties for some family member or some rebel leader — at least this is what studies like Norma Kriger’s study on Zimbabwe, Mats Utas’s study on Liberia and Paul Richards’ study on Sierra Leone have found. And it explains why families, from their side, are not always keen getting those children back. Outside options are not (only) reduced by the absence of the state but by the particular social hierarchies of rural African societies and the stigma of childsoldiering in these societies.

What does that change in Beber’s and Blattman’s model? Well, it does not change much in the explanation of violence for retainment purposes but it changes a lot when it comes to policy recommendations…

Beber and Blattman argue that “raising the cost of child recruitment is crucial”, whereby they are thinking of penalizing child recruitment more effectively and severely through state or international institutions of justice. However, if the violence of abduction is the result of the already high costs of child soldier recruitment and if the violence internal to a rebel group serves the purpose of destroying social links then this policy could have exactly the reverse effect. The incentive to rapt children and to “turn them over” becomes higher as does the necessity to “wean” them from their home through violent acts becomes even more urgent.Violence might be increase even if the risks for the rebel group which are associated with the child’s escape or persecution require absolutising the soldiers’ loyalties.

The second recommendation is to raise “real opportunities”, i.e. educational and income, for adolescents to increase the outside options…yet, this makes only sense if these children and youngsters are not seen as being bound into social hierarchies and family networks but as the liberal, atomized, rational decision-making actor whose only impediment to chose freely between fighting, farming, schooling and becoming an accountant, are the rebel leader’s violence…this might work if demobilized former child soldiers find themselves atomized in cities and refugee centres and to avoid that they return into rebel groups or criminal gangs…but it is less likely to work as preventive measure where these kind of decisions are not those of the children in the first place. At least not if children remain in the double position of being essential for the rural economy and being on the lowest level of social hierarchies.


Violence and Social Orders, a conceptual framework for interpreting recorded human history, by Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis and Barry R. Weingast, CUP, 2009


Is this again another book that promotes the ideology “The West is the Best!”? Yes. Do the authors really account for recorded human history as they say they do? Of course not. Do the authors prove convincingly that democracies are less violent? Again, no. Is it still worth a read? Yes, it is.

The authors do develop some interesting ideas about the relationship between violence and the inclusiveness and exclusiveness of social, economic and political institutions, even though the book is a, at times comic, tentative to rewrite Eurocentric modernization theory without writing Eurocentric modernization theory. Indeed, the book’s subtitle is a misnomer as the cases cited are mainly and predominantly those of the US, England and France, and what is discussed of the “rest” (the Atzek Empire for instance) is quite rushed, vague and superficial.

It is also full of omissions and superficial readings of other scholars who have already tempted before them (and more successfully) to decipher why modernity in the West has created very different political, economic and social systems in which most people (but by far not all as the authors imply!!) live in relative physical security, economic comfort and political stability. It is for instance stunning to see that North, Wallis and Weingast (NWW furtheron) take up all three of S.N. Eisenstadt’s core topics (civilization, modernity, patrimonialism) without citing him even once. The rendering of Max Weber is also disturbingly superficial and weak, particularly the claim that Weber would not have accounted for varieties of what the authors call “natural states” ignoring Weber’s painstaking analysis of Hinduism, the Chinese Empire and other works. And of Tilly, they seem to have read not more than his “Capital, coercion, states” so that they couldn’t notice that they talk about exactly the “opportunity hoarding” and “exploitation” mechanisms Tilly identifies at the origin of most social orders. Indeed, both concepts resemble a lot, a lot the limited access definition of NWW!

And, indisputably, there remain serious problems with the categories the authors develop. As Jean Bethke Elshtain observed in her review of the book, using economists’ (one needs to add: liberal economists) language does not really help. Yet, the bone that is the most hard to swallow is the author’s arbitrary and extremely limited definition of the problem of social and political violence.

But let’s start at the beginning. The authors’ core argument postulates that “limited-access orders” are more likely to produce inter-social violence than “open-access orders”. The reason is that open access orders have monopolized violent means under one central institution of which the control is, in principal, open to all; there is, consequently, no need for different groups to employ violence to rule over, fend off or compete with other groups. This central institution is commonly the state but the authors argue that other institutions are imaginable. Open access orders have importantly institutionalized the principle that all members of the society can become members of the ruling elite – “elite” hence changes its meaning from a group whose members are there because of their personal status (like the nobility) to a group whose members are there because they worked their way into the group, independently from their personal status. NWW call this depersonalization of the elite. As means of violence are now subject to a depersonalized institution (the state) to which access is universally open, all members of the society will compete peacefully to either become members of the ruling group or they will, out of their choice, accept not being member of the ruling group, always keeping the option that they could in mind.

In limited-access orders such peaceful competition is not possible because different groups in society, which are based on exclusive membership, have not given up their means of violence  in order to be able to forcefully compete over access to rulership. This is what the authors call “the natural state”, a rather confusing term in political science as they certainly do not mean the natural state of political philosophy. Natural states can be peaceful but if they are so it is because the ruling elite is in a balance: „The natural state reduces the problem of endemic violence through the formation of a dominant coalition whose members possess special privileges. The logic of the natural state follows from how it solves the problem of violence. Elites – members of the dominant coalition – agree to respect each other’s privileges, including property rights and access to resources and activities. By limiting access to these privilege members of the dominant coalition, elites create credible incentives to cooperate rather than fight among themselves. Because elites know that violence will reduce their own rents, they have incentive not to fight. Furthermore, each elite understands that other elites face similar incentives. In this way, the political system of a natural state manipulates the economic system to produce rents that then secure political order.” (p. 18)

Contrary to that, open access orders are peaceful because they are structurally organized in a way that the use of violence for competition is impossible (given that there is a state monopoly of violence),  unnecessary (given that individuals or groups can participate in the ruling elite by peaceful means), and unproductive (given that violence can destroy the advantages all groups have, so there will be no interest in using violence).

Now, the authors contend that all recorded human history has been the history of natural states apart from the past 150 years in North America and parts of Europe. They go to some lengths to show that the United States, England and France have successfully muted from natural states to open-access orders in the 19th century and they contrast this with a couple other cases of “fragile”, “basic” and “mature” natural states. It is in this discussion where modernization theory and “the West is Best” creeps in again and readers who are more sensitive than the authors to other historical periods and cultures will be shocked by the cavalier way they treat complex civilizations like the Aztecs and how they happily, unreflectively jumble them around with others like the Carolingians.

These comparisons throw up a major methodological problem and an essential ontological question. The question is very simple but sheds fundamental doubt on the entire enterprise: how can the authors compare the past 150 years of the US, England and France with let’s say, to take their own example, 2700 years of Aztec Empire, or, to take other examples, 5000 years of Chinese Empire, a couple of hundred years of Ashanti kindom, more than a thousand years of Byzantine/ Ottoman Empire, or simply and more recently 300 years of Japan’s Tokugawa rule? Maybe those open access orders have simply not been around long enough to have their share of major intersocial violence?

Of course, this question only makes sense if we are to accept the ontological claim that these countries were peaceful. The fundamental problem is that we can only accept this claim if we are willing to see American, English or French society as being restricted to white, Christian, adult, middle-class, straight men. Women, homosexuals, native American Indians, slaves and former slaves, underclasses of all colours and colonial subjects would certainly have another story to tell about the peacefulness and the open access of US-American, English or French political and social institutions. While the US are, according to NWW, consolidating their open-access regime in the second half of the 19th century they are also committing what can be safely called a genocide on the Native American Indians and violently abusing thousands and thousands of black slaves. While England is building its open-access regime it is also starving millions to death in Ireland, India and China (see Mike Davis “Victorian Holocaust”). And what to say of France, where as late as the 1960s hundreds of Algerians could be massacred in the middle of Paris without anyone caring?

It is a shame that the authors do not confront this violence up-front. It would have forced them to think a bit more in detail about the relationship between impersonal rule (rule by law), economic free market institutions and social inclusion. As it stands, the authors simply posit that open access orders are those where all three go hand-in-hand and the limited access orders are nothing else than coalitions of violence entrepreneurs who carve up the cake of economic opportunities among themselves, violently fending off any competitors. Yet, there are a number of historical cases where impersonal rule and economic free market have gone along with violent exclusion of parts of the population. The above cited cases belong to those but of course there are more, from minor violent incidents to full-blown genocide like in Nazi Germany (indeed, if we follow Hannah Arendt’s Eichman study, then the Holocaust was only possible because of the impersonality of the bureaucracy). The argument that open access orders are less violent actually hinges on the postulate that impersonal rule, monopoly of violence and free market allow social inclusion. This goes counter to some arguments, mostly of Marxist following, that the free markets of today were only possible on the grounds of violent exclusions. The authors do not offer any argument to solve this debate, actually by not addressing the violence cited above they simply avoid it.

And yet, they do make an interesting argument about the self-sustainability of peaceful competition once the “open access order” is established. According to the authors, states that can offer markets with many opportunities for all (or most) actors in society to gain their live, make a living and/ or become rich are more likely to be stable. They also tend to create and reproduce equalising and stabilising political institutions as any actor trying to diminish these opportunities will, over the short or long term, encounter political resistance. If this resistance can be formulated peacefully and successfully, e.g. in elections, then the economic openess and political openess stabilize and reinforce each other.

Two points are particulraly interesting in this argument. For one, the emphasis is on opportunities and institutions that make an economy offer such opportunities and not on the individuals. In this view, people are neither greedy or lazy if they choose between rebellion and let’s say exploitative diamond mining (Sierra Leone) or precarious coffee planting (Columbia) but they simply lack other opportunities to gain a living. In the current neoliberal paradigm of rebellions the usual story says that rebellions offer greater incentives and awards than “normal” activities. Consequently, people rebell for material motives. However, the Fearons, Colliers and Hirshleifers of conflict analysis and their ideological heirs never analyse why an economy is structured the way that risking one’s live can be a better way to gain one’s living than growing coffee. In NWW’s account of the economy, it is obvious that rebellion is only then a viable alternative if there are no alternatives; and there are no alternatives because the institutions of the economy are not open to create such opportunities. The authors make a Schumpeterian argument that open access economies allow for “creative destruction” competition which allows turning over ideas, projects and people without violence in order to find appropriate solutions for social problems. Unfortunately, their analysis stops here as they do not go further into detail of the relationship between for instance property rights, dispossesion and economic opportunities (which could, actually, have led them back to the American Natives in the 18th and 19th century…).

Second, NWW contextualize economic structures and choices. Although society does not exist in their account, at least not as analytical category, their institutionalist vision contends that free markets never exist as “free” markets, which would be only directed by magic forces like invisible hands. They nicely explain how economic and political institutions go hand-in-hand (with an interesting and and, nowadays, rare defense of the welfare state), pointing by the way to the risks of violence contained in much of the current statebuilding practices and development policies. The authors contend that free markets can only work if they are combined with impersonal institutions (institutions that decide by the law and not the person) and institutionalized accountability and pluralism through which discontent can be voiced and the government’s critiques can become the ruling class themselves. Separating these three elements and installing only one, let’s say elections without free markets with many opportunities, will commonly lead to disaster and a revival of patron-client politics based on personalized rent-seeking.

NWW make therefore also an interesting argument about what they call “natural states”, i.e. states in which access to political and economic institutions is restricted. Arguing over the interconnectedness of economic opportunities and political institutions, they assert that “Natural states are not sick. Natural states have their own logic; they are not dysfunctional” (269). For readers of Joel Migdal’s or S.N. Eisenstadt’s work, this does not really come as a surprise but it is, nevertheless, nice to see that an institutionalist analysis can lead to the same conclusion as a sociological analysis.

For conflict analysis, NWW make a major contribution in contextualizing the use of violence and the (non)monopolization of the means of violence in a larger analytical framework of the institutions in society, state and market. This can redirect research in the political science mainstream to look at the importance of inclusiveness in political, economic and social arrangements, and to shift the attention from the indivdualist “greed” interpretation of most research in the past. However, NWW leaves a lot to wish for, not at least a clarification of the concrete relationship between institutions and violence: which institutions lead to which types of violence? The distinction between natural states and open-access orders becomes much less convincing, once this is considered even with the historical narratives in the book. And as Elshtain points out in her review, the utter neglect of politics from below, of social movements and non-elite actors is not only startling but a major methodological weakness as it clouds the relationship between “access” and violence.