Category Archives: Structural causes of 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’.







Bourdieu’s secret admirer in the Caucasus: a world-system biography, by Georgi M. Derlugian


Chechnya is one of these places that are commonly only known through their TV or internet mediated pictures of destruction and violent emptiness. Personally, the name Grozny makes me think of images in which little elderly women with colourful headscarfs and grey coats hurriedly run inbetween rubble and ruins, with half a loaf dark bread and maybe some tomatoes in a basket under their arm. It is, that is for sure, not a place where I would expect someone even knowing the name of Pierre Bourdieu or having read him. Shame on me for my lack of awareness.

Georgi M. Derlugian’s book is an immensly refreshing reminder of the stifling ignorance we have of exactly those parts of the world that are most often in the news. It is furthermore an excellent exercise in dismantling received ideas, prejudices and stereotypes of civil wars and of uncivilized so-called islamists or warlords. The most exciting aspect of Derlugian’s book is, indeed, that he resists simplifications; on the contrary, he masterly delves into the entire complexity of the end of Soviet socialism, the fates of peripheral developmental states in the great neoliberal age of the 1980s and 1990s and the complexities of shifting elite and popular systems and cultures in these marginalising world regions.

Derlugian centres his intelligent analysis of change and violence in the Northern Caucasus around the figure of Musa Shanib (or Yuri Shanibov in the russianised version). The admirer of Bourdieu, that’s him. Shanib also happened to be a prominent figure in the  independence movement of the region, first assisting Dudayev in his bid for Chechen independence, then leading a volunteer force into Abkhazia in their secessionist struggle against Georgia. Shanib’s personal history comes to stand for the political and social history of the former Soviet Union and its republics, most notably of Chechnya.His trajectory, bizarre as it seems, is representative of the Soviet nomenklature, its tribulations in the post-Stalin era and their disillusionment.

Derlugian draws on a large number of illustruous examples for his analysis: Charles Tilly, Rendall Collins, Immanuel Wallerstein and Pierre Bourdieu, himself, of course have inspired his approach of socio-political archeology. Yet, unfortunately, the theoretically inspired discussion of sociological paradigms is the weakest part of the book. The author frankly admits not being at ease with the often parochial chapel fights of the discipline; nevertheless, a more systematic comparison of these authors and a more thorough exploration of the synergies their work might offer would have been much appreciated, if not already for the fact that there is still very little written on the matter. Apart from some occasional, hardly discussed and even more sparingly referenced uses of the concepts these authors have coined, there is relatively little of Charles Tilly’s thorough historical and archive-based puzzleworking, Wallerstein’s lengthy theoretical comparisons of economic paradigms and national economic histories, Rendall Collins’ experimental sociology, or Pierre Bourdieu’s extensive empirical research in Derlugian’s book. There is also, contrary to what the title makes the reader expect, very little of Shanib’s view and understanding of Bourdieu. From this point of view Derlugian’s book is disappointing.

However, he compensates for this theoretical weakness through his own, original field research. Although not as systematic and detailled as Bourdieu’s work, Derlugian bases his research on Bourdieu’s claim that all politics are, essentially, struggles over social positions and power. Derlugian carves out which social classes contributed in which way to the disasters of the Soviet breakdown. He argues that three classes played a central role throughout the existence of the Soviet Union and that their interactions in each subnational region, most notably in each Republic, predicated whether the disintegration of the Soviet Union would result in collective violence or not.

The nomenklatura was, according to Derlugian, primarily responsible first for fractionalizing the Soviet state and second, for carving it up during privatization and to the benefits of their private bank accounts. This thesis is anything but new and has been discussed in various forms before. What is new, however, is how Derlugian interweaves this narrative with the particular story of the nomenklatura’s fate in those Republics, which were the furthest away from the political centre such as Chechnya.

The two other social classes emerged from the split of the Soviet Union’s principle class, the proletarians. Whereas the job security and boring predictability of a state-guided life led one part of the proletarians, in the 1970s notably, to embrace intellectualism, another larger part sank down to a sub-proletarian status as state-sponsoring ceded in the 1980s before it completely broke down after 1989. Derlugian goes to some lengths to explain why the emergence of a large class of intelligentsia, which in their intellectual expressions reflected a broad range of democratic orientations, did not lead to a broader democracy movement like it did in Poland, Hungary or the Germand Democratic Republic. In his view, a peculiar mixture of proletarianization of the intelligentsia, of state repression and surveillance but also lack of organisational opportunities – for instance the lack of unionization due to state-paternalistic undermining of professional groups – hampered the transformation of the Soviet intellegentsia into a broader social movement. The Soviet state’s reach into all professional categories, whether doctors or drillers, stiffled any autonomous organisational capacity, and it did the more so in the provincial republics of the Caucasus where the state’s grip was doubled by the more traditional social structures of clan and family networks. The intelligentsia resented the Soviet system less for its politically authoritarian character than for its central government tendency to tamper with those networks which commonly provided extra income from gift making (otherwise called corruption), smuggling, insider deals or outer-institutional work (e.g. doctors doing private visits for private money). Derlugian concludes that this class’ democratic orientation would better be called a consumerist orientation: “In sum, the university-educated proletarian specialist did not merely seek an opporutnity to earn extra money and gain access to scarce goods. They sought to translate certain kinds of occupational capital into the consumption and symbolic display associated with the prestigious imagery of the Western middle class.” (p. 146) A Potemkin democracy struggle so to say.

The subproletarian class, finally, is one that official Soviet ideology denied to exist yet whose reality not only preceded the Soviet breakdown but which also has been constantly growing since the economic downturn started in the late 1970s. Derlugian admits that this class is the most difficult to characterize as income opportunities, local hierarchical positions and even education might vary enormously across the category. He offers a phenomenological characterization (you recognize a subproletarian if you see one) and one based on the dialectics of formal and informal income sources. Subproletarians, notably in rural regions, will, according to Derlugian, draw their income from a large variety of sources of which state employment would be one but not the main source; others would be any kind of agricultural production, side businesses like shops or little workshops, migration to construction sites in more labour affluent areas or any kind of illegal income. The inclination to diversify business has made this class a fertile recruiting ground for illict trafficking and violence entrepreneurs.

The latter’s habitus fits particularly well to what Derlugian calls the brutality of the subproletarians’ lives: “A great deal of aggressiveness is displayed in the dress and demeanor of males and in the ‘marketplace scandalousness’ of many women. Domestic violence serves to reaffirm the fledging patriarchy; street gangs become the default mode of socialization among adolescents; violent sports like boxing and wrestling serve to uphold the virtues of masculinity; vandalism against the symbols of the dominant order (be it a defenseless park bench or a toilet seat in a public restroom), seemingly unmotivated hooliganism, and occasional rioting all help to vent social frustrations. Sub-proletarian social beliefs are precariously suspended somewhere between the ritualistic religiosity of peasants and the secular confidence of urbanites. Hence the responsiveness of sub-proletarian masses to secular populist or religious fundamentalist cults” (p. 153).

Such sweeping generalizations are not uncommon in Derlugian’s book and they make the reader feel uncomfortable at times: not a single footnote, not a single systematic comparison of any empirical data upholds this assertation that the certainly more visible violence of sub-proletarians would be, indeed, more brutal than the often better hidden violence of the middle class or of elites (referring to examples of other societies it might even be doubted that hooliganism or boxing are good indicators of sub-proletarian classes). This is one passage where Derlugian dreadfully fails to achieve one of his declared goals of the book, namely to displace prejudice as he reproduces his own appreciations of sub-proletarian culture. It sometimes sounds that Derlugian is rather cladding his own intelligentsia prejudice towards the subproletariat in academic terms.

The empirical weakness is in those parts particularly evident where his theoretical approach is equally weak. From describing the historical emergence of these three main classes of Soviet society, Derlugian is faced with the task of explaining how social class translates into collective politics. He is certainly not the first who has failed to convincingly explain how individual dispositions turn into collective movements. Yet, his slight tendency of stereotyping makes some of these passages sound strikingly superficial given that his field research otherwise is brilliantly detailled, fine grained and differentiated.It is Bourdieu’s “habitus” which he (wrongly but that is not the matter here) likens to Tilly’s routine scripts that receives the honour of becoming the keystone in the bridge that Derlugian builds from his purely social to the political analysis.

The three classes initially shared the same habitus in the streamlined Soviet society, hence, they respectively responded to the same discourses and ideas for change that circulated in the revolutionary moment since Brezhnev. Nationalism notably became the central idea that allowed coalitions of regional nomenklatura and intelligentsia to say good-bye to Moscow all the time populistically mobilising the support of the sub-proletarian classes. So far, he argues, the same happened in all republics. Yet, why some republics tumbled into violence and civil war, and others not, depended not on ancient hatreds or other arguments that have been made about ethnic violence. Rather, the reasons why the transition succeeded without violence in some republics but not in others have to be saught in the “mundane details of administrative relations, social networks, class and group attributes, and various conflicting efforts to reshape the networks and reframe the goals that taken together produced the vector of nationalist mobilizing and violence” (p. 174)

It is with this programme that Derlugian’s departure from conventional wisdom becomes most pleasant to read and think about. Derlugian makes three arguments against the common statement that nationalism brought the Soviet Union down. He first points out that chronologically nationalist discourses appeared only long after perestroika had set off other ideological and social movements. Nationalist mass movements in form of demostrations etc. only appeared at a later moment in Gorbachev’s era; before that social manifestations had been held over environmental issues (Chernobyl), social issues (like youth) or health issues (alcoholism). Nationalist discourses and nationalist events (ralleys) etc. hardly attracted any interest in those early times.

Derlugian further argues that those nationalist movements which then, with a time lag of several years, gained in strength, drew mainly on two of the three dominant social classes: the local and regional nomenklatura that had become extremely disgruntled with Gorbachev’s “de-bureaucratization” policies and the sub-proletarian underclasses which grew in size and which slowly became aware of the end of state-sponsored employment and social welfare. Violence resulted, in his view, if the two established direct relationships, the former addressing directly the latter for support, thereby marginalizing the intellectuals. Had his book ended here he would not have added anything to the well-known argument of ethnic entrepreneurs populistically manipulating the masses. Yet, Derlugian asks further where the intellectuals disappeared to, and it is here where his account originally interweaves the personal story of Musa Shanibov with the history of the Soviet disintegration and Chechnya’s wars. Comparing the Armenian-Aserbedjan conflict, the Georgian conflict and the events in Chechnya, Derlugian describes how the intelligentsia class was crushed by the unhealthy coalition of nomenklatura and sub-proletarian crowds. The nomenklature itself is described as a victim of the contradictory and, in the end, substanceless politics from Moscow that left the bureaucrats rely on their own networks for survival, hence, engaging in a nationalist competition to rally support from the masses. Derlugian singles out the lack of a “bureaucratic” ethos, which preceded Gorbachev’s reforms and had translated into an extensive system of patronage on the central governments costs. Notably in Georgia, the breaking away of Moscow’s suppport accelerated the nomenklatura’s fall and the nationalist turn.

On the other hand, Gorbachev’s increasingly obvious incapacity to manage the breakdowns of regional party structures, and his unwilligness to combat nationalist movements gave the latter even greater momentum. Turning to Shanibov, Derlugian describes in detail how the intellectuals in these republics were confronted with the dilemma of either being ran over by the historical situation or to rally with nationalism. In Derlugian’s account, nationalism became essential for political survival. Independence of the republics, before and in the wake of August 1991, precipated the nationalist movement even further as now popular unrest catalyzed dissatisfaction of the crumbling Soviet system against local and regional elites. The breakdown of the Soviet Union and the unleashing of nationalist and ethnic violence in these republics followed several interlooping spirals of escalation in which each social group aimed at surviving by betting on the nationalist card: “As the Soviet state was breaking apart, the scramble for fragments of its political and economic assets became increasingly turbulent. The course of events could turn on such small contingencies as timing, personal acquaintance, contemporary social ‘mood’, or one lucky move. The broaken and chaotic system of relations nonetheless formed a maze that allowed only certain pathways.” (p. 219) Short-termism was endemic to the system’s breakdown.

Reproducing the structural differentiation of peripheries and semi-peripheries in the world-system, socio-political changse without supporting economic changes escalated into violence. The violence and its causes pushed these regions further into the periphery. If Derlugian’s explanation of the unholy alliance between a nomenklatura that is squeezed by the dilemmas of ungovernability and sub-proletarian masses is correct, the prospect of the region’s further descent into deindustrialization and poverty is anything but cheerful. Middle classes shrink and hardly reproduce themselves, notably with those gaining valuable professional qualifications emigrating; proletarian classes are further pushed into the sub-proletariat due to the increased de-industrialization of these regions; intellectuals like Shabinov emigrate or remain marginalized and forced to subdue to radicalizing ideologies, which confer them a position in the infernal system; bureaucrats and politicians keep their grip to power through authoritarian violence and patron-client networks.

This pattern is not exclusive to the Caucasus and this is why Derlugian’s analysis is highly relevant for the analysis of other conflict cases. Although his analysis could have been in parts formulated in a more straightforward and systematic way, his insights in the mechanisms by which those parts of the population will rebell who have been for a long time excluded from any chances of social mobility and participation through socio-economic status, are highly valuable for further research.

Yet, just as Bourdieu himself and many who used his sociology, Derlugian stops short before answering one crucial question. If classes are constituted by varying configurations of capital (social, economic, cultural etc.) and if politics is nothing else than the struggle of these classes over social positions how can we know at which point such a struggle will be violent? This is less an empirical than a systematic question. Bourdieu observed empirically for the middle classes an almot unsatiable desire to emulate and imitate higher social classes; he also testified empirically that those classes, which traditionally have been seen as potential radical elements in a society, i.e. the working class and other subordinate classes (petty clerks, small shop owners etc.), find a common ground in a cultural, moral, and ethical attitudes which favour authoritarian morality and discipline. In the mid-1990s Bourdieu saw a glimmer of hope that new social movements of the time, i.e. the unemployed movement or the students’ movement of 1995/6, could be this confictual and radical force just to see them vanish quickly and being absorbed in the “pensée unique” of neoliberalism.

Yet, there seems a point when subordinate social classes choose to use armed force against a dominant class. The question is why and when. That the subordinate class wants its share of the cake is not a sufficient answer as exactly Bourdieu’s studies have shown the huge weight of symbolic power that keeps the subordinate classes accept and even justify their subordinate status (see for instance Bourdieu’s work on real estate and home buying in France). That timing and luck contingently play a role is not a helpful answer either. Yet, the procedure of looking at coalitions and alliances between different groups and how their respective positioning forces the various social classes to choose their arms (literally) is a promising approach for the analysis of social conflicts that turn into war.


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.




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.




It’s not the weather, it’s politics! Mike Davis’ “Late Victorian Holocausts” revisited.


Hsiang’s, Meng’s and Cane’s pompous chatter about El Niño and conflict made me want to read again one of those books they would certainly count among the “anecdotical” accounts: Mike Davis’ “Late Victorian Holocausts”. Far from being anecdotical this is an excellent, extremely well researched and documented historical study of the mismanagement of major droughts and floods in the 19th century India and China, colonies of the British Empire, and in Brazil, equally dependent on Great-Britain at that time, and the complex reasons that led to the probably biggest humanitarian disaster in the 19th century. The droughts and floods were caused by El Niño, all right, but the ensuing famines and hecatombs (Davis speaks of estimates between 12.2 and 29.3 Million for the two Indian famines of 1876-1879 and 1896-1902 alone) were caused by something rather different, much more complex and far more political than the weather: racist mismanagement, imperial arrogance, liberal free market ideologies, colonial interferences in local property rights, agriculture and rural production structures, administrative incompetence, “modernization” and its destruction of traditional patterns of solidarity and inter-communal help, abolishment of the state capacity in India and China where famines had been successfully prevented before…

It well takes the book’s 464 pages to expose the complex path from meteorological misfortunes to widespread famine and death. Yet, the core argument remains simple enough: Climatic vulnerability had always existed in those lands where the famines appeared in the late 19th century; however, it is only when weather hazards combine with the complete remodelling of the political and economic structures of these countries in the wake of their forced and violent “integration” into the world (or more precisely European and American) market that disastruous famines like these wiped out millions of people.

Three major effects of imperialism account for the heavy toll El Niño took in those years, as Davis painstakingly sets out in the third section of his book. “First, the forcible incorporation of smallholder production into commodity and financial circuits controlled from overseas tended to undermine traditional food security” (p. 289), “Second, the integration of millions of tropical cultivators into the world market during the late nineteenth century was accompanied by a dramatic deterioration in their terms of trade” (p. 290); “Third, formal and informal Victorian imperialism, backed up by the supernational automatism of the Gold Standard, confiscated local fiscal autonomy and impeded state-level developmental responses – especially investments in water conservancy and irrigation – that might have reduced vulnerability to climate shocks.” (p. 290).

Through a combination of military force and financial pressures agricultural production in these countries was redirected towards exports at the cost of local food security. Local governments (whether the provinces were under direct or indirect rule) were severed from own resources and capacities to undertake relief measures when disaster stroke. Davis tellingly compares the lack of response to the late 19th century famines with the relief campaign of the Qing Dynasty Governor-General Fang Guanchang who had established graneries all over the province of Zhili in Northern China and successfully combated a threatening famine after severe droughts in 1743-1744, shattering by the way common assumptions about the incapable and passive Chinese Qing state (see for more on Fang Guanchang and famine relief in imperial China, Liliane M. Li “Fighting Famine in North China”). Furthermore, as Davis points out in the gruesome first chapter of his book (which can be read online here:, a hideous melange of free market ideology (no state intervention!) and colonial racism offered convenient excuses for the colonial masters to do as little as possible for relief and to do the little they did as cynically and brutally as only those can do who do not consider people of other skin as humans. Nowhere is the obscenity of British imperial contempt more palpable than in Davis’ comparison of daily calorie rations distributed by the British in Indian “work-for-food” camps (where the starving were forced to heavy coolie labour) with the higher caloric value of food rations in Buchenwald (p. 39).

Davis is first of all interested in analysing the complex interworking of the three factors mentioned above but he does mention again and again how all these features that led to these enormous famines had already before created hardship and provoked armed rebellions such as the Taiping Rebellion, the Great Mutiny or the Boxer rebellion. In the context of analysing causes and reason for political violence, Davis’ comprehensive outline of the destruction the “world market” (which, again, was actually the British or other colonial motherland’s market) brought to India’s, China’s and Brazil’s economy and states points to three major issues that need consideration.

First, rather than poverty as such conflict analysis needs to consider the income land can generate for rural poor. This depends not solely on the productivity of land but also, and particularly in times of crisis, on external circumstances such as tax regimes, world food prices, food security capacities (e.g. irrigation and graneries) and rural finances, notably in terms of cash liquidity to come through times of failing harvests. Long before droughts or floods ruin harvests and income, peasants had fallen victim to vicicous circles of debt, forcing them out of the land or into cash crop production that seriously endangered their subsistence. Similarily, taxes need to be analysed whether they serve to support poor underclasses in times of crisis or, on the contrary, squeeze them to death.

Second, intimately linked but analytically an issue of its own, property rights and usage rights have to be carefully analysed to understand how, in the long term, poverty and exploitation are produced (or abolished). The greatest “innovation” brought by colonialism in the 19th century was the introduction of private property and the transformation of communal, shared land and other property forms into private property claims with the often accompanying dispossession of those who had before born the fruit of land usage. Far from being always the product of explicit violence or laws, dispossession has indeed taken a large variety of financial, economic and political forms.

Third, Davis’ fine analysis of market liberal discourses and “modernization” points to the urgent need of self-reflexive caution when it comes to analysing political and social conflict and struggle in strange societies. The currently so fashionable homo oeconomicus paradigm of conflict analysis (the famous rational utility-maximizing individual), a borrowing from liberal economics, often sprinkled with good doses of neo-Malthusianism, is entirely inappropriate in the light of the complex structural and relational dynamics through which 19th century imperialism has created those Victorian genocides. All the features of the 19th century liberalism are still well alive in global mainstream development politics, from the aversion against state intervention to the unbelievably efficient remodeling, through development assistance, peacebuilding and so-called statebuilding, of local economies to magically fit the business interests of Western and Northern economies rather than local needs.